Small Claims is a War of Attrition

by

04/06/2008

111 Centre Street, 10002

Neighborhood: Lower East Side

It is a cool, dry August evening and I am in a windowless room at 111 Centre Street. I leave New York, the city of my birth, in less than a week. Yet, through a series of escalating events, I choose to be here, stubbornly clinging to the dream of winning back a minor sum of money with the help of the New York City justice system.

This is my sixth visit to the small claims court building and I am beginning to feel like a regular. There are the friendly cops downstairs who scan my purse for weapons and ask if I know where I’m going, always more cheerful than I ever am–because yes, by this point I know all too well I am headed. Once I get upstairs, I can tune out while the clerk reads the script about the rules of the courtroom, as I’ve nearly got it memorized. And after much trial and error, I now know the quickest route to my new favorite Chinese restaurant on East Broadway, which serves delicate little dumplings that are the perfect comfort food after several hours on a hard courtroom bench.

Small claims is the ugly stepchild of the Manhattan court system. The main room, besides the lack of windows, is shabby and overcrowded. It smells like stale body odor. The fluorescent lighting makes even the healthiest people look like they are recovering from a nasty case of food poisoning. Since damages are limited to $5000, the demographic tends to lean toward the mid- to low-income and the paranoid. Almost no one dresses up–not even the judges, who by the end of the day cannot help but look like rumpled civil servants.

Small claims court has neither glamour nor grandeur of purpose. This is where people come to complain of a botched kitchen renovation or auto body damage from a routine fender-bender. But, if you look up from your book long enough to eavesdrop on the other cases, a narrative begins to emerge. Between the lines of trial testimony are stories of broken friendships and lives eked out on the margins–of life in a city that defies you to stay here in spite of all its everyday injustices.

One night I listened, rapt, as a woman tearfully told the judge one of those New York horror stories involving a shady roommate service, a surprise eviction, and an inconvenient cat. Occasionally, the drone of the air conditioning is punctuated by moments of excitement when, for example, a witness who cannot contain himself speaks out of turn and the judge has to reprimand him–just like it happens on television.

Sometimes it feels as if the city itself is on display in rawest form. Drama, banality, joy, pathos–it’s all there. Or perhaps I have just spent too much time here.

The first time I appeared in court, way back in March, I was fresh-faced and hopeful, like a passionate rookie defense attorney on my first big case. There was no way, I thought, that any honest judge could possibly side with my opponent, the venal management company that was trying to deprive me of my $1100 security deposit. File folder in hand, I wore a blazer and freshly pressed trousers, only to discover that the dress code was more along the lines of “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service,” and that justice can be elusive in the face of bureaucracy. It can take several court appearances to actually see a judge, and even if you win it is up to you to retrieve your money. Now I am like that young attorney’s older, hard-drinking coworker, embittered and world-weary from years of disappointment. Cynicism is my best friend.

My lawsuit, which began as an intimidation tactic to get my deposit back, has devolved into a war of attrition, or, more accurately, a game of chicken. One of the last times I was here, the woman representing the management company, whom I had mistakenly dismissed as an amateur, outsmarted me. We had finally sat down for a trial when she announced to the judge that she had only just now realized that all along I should have been suing the landlord, which was technically, if not practically, a separate entity. The judge looked at me sympathetically, told me that this was a common stalling technique used to wear people down, and gave me another date in time to add a new party to the suit.

Later that evening, my mother–who, bless her, has faithfully come as my witness to each appearance–became emotional over dim sum: “These people,” she said, referring to the management company, despair creeping into her voice, “are capable of anything.” She shook her head at her dumplings. “Anything!” This is what small claims court does to you–it saps you of your innocence even as it fills you with righteous indignation.

This being New York, however, there are people who treat small claims court as an opportunity. On one of my visits to 111 Centre Street, I got asked out on a date by a man using that tired line, “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” I considered it for a moment, if only because it would make a great story–You may not believe this, I’d tell people, We actually met at small claims court–but the guy kind of creeped me out and I decided that no story is worth ending up with a potential stalker. I made up a lie, told him I couldn’t give him my number, and watched my back all the way to the subway.

As I wait for my name to be called on what I hope will be my last court date, I begin to long for Chicago, where I have lived for most of the last year and where I will soon return after spending the summer in New York. In Chicago you can find an apartment in an afternoon, no brokers or roommate services needed. Public transit workers smile at you when you pay your fare. Life there is, well, easier. And it even has a great, hulking skyline that from certain angles almost rivals the view from the Brooklyn promenade.

Chicagoans like to put on their most jaded smirk and tell you that the reason their city runs more efficiently is because of all the corruption. Restaurants may have to bribe someone at City Hall for a liquor license, but the streets are indeed cleaner. Going to the DMV is like visiting a warm, chatty aunt. And, though I’ve never been, I have a feeling you wouldn’t have to show up to Chicago small claims court more than three times to get a resolution.

Chicago is lighter on the nerves. But it is the thrill of frustration that makes me pine for New York–with all its maddening, addictive aggravation.

 

Sarah Miller-Davenport is a writer living in Chicago.

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