Saturday Single No. 254

As the 1990s were drawing to an end, in what now seems like another life, I spent about a year working for a collection agency, first in a Minneapolis suburb and then in a suburb north of St. Paul.

My work, done under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education, was relatively simple: I found people. I’d get an electronic file showing the original information – Social Security number, address, phone number and so on – of a person who had defaulted on a student loan guaranteed by the U.S. government. I’d get a current credit report. My job was to take that information and figure out a current address and telephone number for the borrower and pass that information on to our collectors.

Sometimes, I didn’t have to pass the information along. If the borrower owned property and I could prove it – usually through property assessment records – I could fill out some forms and pass them to another section of our office, and litigation would follow. And a relatively new program allowed us to begin litigation if we could simply prove that the borrower lived in one of five U.S. cities: Brooklyn, Chicago, Detroit, Houston and Los Angeles.

So I spent a lot of time on the phone, talking to folks in those cities and others throughout the U.S. One of our primary sources of information was county offices – either the registrar of deeds office or the voter registration office – and we thirty or so skip-tracers each developed sources across the country, helpful people we’d talked to by chance the first time we called an office and who, after that, didn’t mind helping regularly. I had a legal pad where I scrawled the names of counties and contacts and their direct phone numbers. I never found a good source in either Chicago or Detroit. I did know people in Los Angeles and in Houston and in maybe a hundred other county seats across the country. And I knew someone who could help with Brooklyn.

His name, I think, was Arthur. (It’s been twelve years, and I’m not certain, but “Arthur” is close enough). I never knew his last name, and from the tone of his voice, I’d guess he was in his fifties. Our first conversation would have started something like this:

Arthur: Voter registration, Arthur here.

Me: Voter registration for Brooklyn?

Arthur: Yes, that’s right.

Me: Good. I need some help, Arthur. I’m Greg calling from Blah-de-blah Resources, and I’m trying to find a person I think lives in Brooklyn, so I was wondering if you could confirm a few details for me. Voter registration records are public there, aren’t they?

(At that time, voter registration records across the country were public; I think they still are, but I don’t know for certain.)

Arthur: Yes, they’re public, but people are supposed to come down to the county offices to look at them. We’re not supposed to give that information over the phone.

Me: Well, I’d come down there if I could, Arthur, but I’m in Minnesota, and you’re a little too far away for me to get to during my lunch hour.

(That was usually good for a chuckle, and by this time Arthur – like everyone else I ever talked to in a county office – knew why I was calling. Companies with the word “resources” in their names generally called to verify addresses for only one reason.)

Arthur: This person you’re trying to find, she’s got some bad loans or debts, then, I guess.

Me: Well, I can’t tell you why I need to get this information, Arthur, and I think you know that.

(Federal privacy laws forbade me from revealing the borrower’s status as a loan defaulter to anyone except the borrower’s spouse. Arthur understood that, and I’d just told him what he needed to know.)

From there, Arthur would have gone into his computer files and I’d have given him a name and a Social Security number, and when his computer brought up something, I’d ask him to verify that the borrower in question lived on Flatbush Avenue or wherever. And at the end of that first conversation, as I thanked Arthur for his help – whether I got the information I needed or not – I’d ask for a direct phone number for the next time I was stumped. And Arthur, like several other folks around the country, gave that to me.

So Arthur became my door into Brooklyn, and I suppose I talked to him two or three times a week. We’d chat idly while his computer searched for a file: He’d ask how the Minnesota weather was, and I might talk about the blizzard from last week or how the days were getting warmer and this weekend was the fishing opener. I’d ask what was new his way, and he’d tell me about a movie or a play or maybe the boats he saw when he took his lunch outside, down at Battery Park.

We were friends of a very odd sort, Arthur and I, with the kind of connection that sometimes sprouts between folks in distant offices. Talking to Arthur was always pleasant, and it could provide a moment of ease during a day when I was running into barriers elsewhere. And I’d like to think that Arthur enjoyed talking to me, too.

Then, after I’d been at the agency for about a year, I ran into some health problems and left work. Not long after that, I met the Texas Gal and I eventually left the Twin Cities. And those days of tracing student loans are long behind me now. I don’t remember the names of more than two or three of my co-workers. I don’t even remember the name of the company I worked for.

But I do remember Arthur. And I think about him when September rolls around. Why?

Because the offices of the Board of Elections in New York City are located at 32 Broadway, near the tip of Manhattan. That’s about six blocks from the skyscrapers of the World Trade Center that came down in flames and dust ten years ago tomorrow. It’s possible that debris from the two explosions fell on the election offices, and it’s a certainty that those offices were enveloped by the massive clouds of dust created when the two towers collapsed.

And when I remember Arthur in September, I wonder what happened, what he saw, what he thought and felt. Does he still eat lunch down at Battery Park, at the very tip of Manhattan? Maybe he’s retired and eats his lunch in another park. He might have passed on, either on that horrible sunny day or on another day since then. I wonder about all of that, but I’ll likely never know what happened.

All I can do is hope that Arthur survived and that good things are his, always. And maybe that’s enough.

So here’s “Hope” by Mason Proffit from the 1971 album Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream. And it’s today’s Saturday Single.

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2 Responses to “Saturday Single No. 254”

  1. Paco Malo says:

    Great post, whiteray.

    I was all set to note something from my lawyer days — that the court clerk’s office was the best place to go for help — and then you shifted gears. That’s a beautiful remembrance of “Arthur”. Your story places us right down the street from Ground Zero.

    Well done, my friend, well done.

  2. Yah Shure says:

    One of your best, whiteray. Many thanks.

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