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This piece was originally published
in 2003 in Susurrus, the Sacramento City College Literary Journal,
Vol. 9, 2003.
When the guy comes out of jail, don't say shit. Just
listen. That's a key lesson I learned as a bail bondsmen. Why? Because
they all have a story to tell, the same story, and each one aches
to exorcise the horror by telling it. And until they do, my questions
will simply go unanswered.
Tom was no different: "There's some weird stuff in
that place, I mean guys puking and screaming, the cops don't give
a crap, one guy's on the phone telling his wife he'll kill her if
she don't get his ass out."
But, wait, I'm getting ahead of myself.
Some make fun of me, some harass me, but I pay no
attention. Ten, even thirty years from now they'll still be bail
bondsmen, hangin' out in the halls trying to screw each other like
tired vultures picking at road kill. They chain smoke generic cigarettes,
and photograph ugly naked chicks in lieu of bail payments. I'm as
out of place here as a pressed shirt and tie at a rock concert,
earning my way through grad school with this sometimes lucrative
They'll be up all night, but each night about 10 --
midnight if Letterman had a good guest - I close out the ignorance
and pathetic inflated egos as I lock the thick, dented office door.
Two steps left -- turn the rod on the vertical blinds, closing out
the sick yellow light from the hallway, yet leaving the blinds open
enough so I can see figures moving outside in the hallway. Tonight
it's 10:20 p.m. when I go into the back room of this two-room office.
The nightly ritual repeats itself like tucking a child
into bed. The lower middle cupboard of the built-in combo cupboard/bookcase
in the back room houses my sleeping bag and pillow, I pull them
both out (I should wash the pillowcase more often) place them neatly
on the floor. Phone, two pens and a tablet poised for easy mid-night
reach near my head.
Pants and shirt off, tossed on the desk, I shimmy
into the bag on the thinly carpeted floor. When money is tight,
my last thought as I tumble towards sleep is, "Ring, phone, ring."
On nights when I've written a big bond recently it's more like,
"God, I hope the next thing I see is daylight."
Ringgggggg. Ringggggg. I press the button to light
my watch -- 3:18 a.m. "Bail bonds" I long ago dropped the "How may
I help you?" And, why add the name, Liberty Bail Bonds, they don't
know or care who they're calling I'm a number on a wall and they
just want out of hell. The sound from the jail "tank" just down
the street is unmistakable - a sick din of slurred voices and cries
of rage and drunkenness, a right hook to my psyche delivered by
violent beasts. I swear I can smell the booze and stupidity - a
potent destructive cocktail -- coming through the phone.
"Uh, is this bail bonds?" the lazy-minded voice too
often asks, the bail bondsmen's ads a foot from his face, the Yellow
Pages placed behind a thick piece of Plexiglas.
"Yea, bail bonds," I say again. "How much is your
"I'm in jail. They arrested me on this totally bogus
"How much is your bail?" I ask again, pissed off and
not caring if it shows.
"I got a job, and my old lady is coming down…"
"HOW MUCH IS YOUR BAIL?!"
If the next thing I hear isn't a answer to this question
I just hang up. I mean, if they can't even pause to answer a single
basic question, the chances of us making it through the bail dance
of a detailed two-sided application, identifying a co-signer, and
getting the co-signer to come out in the middle of the night is
less than diddly-squat. Besides, I often play tennis in the mornings
I need my shut eye.
Tonight the caller isn't stupid and provides the words
I long to hear "My bail's $15,000.
" I'm in luck. My boss charges ten percent of the
bond value, and I get twenty percent of that. So for this $15,000
bond we'll collect $1,500, and I'll put $300 in my pants pocket.
(I put my pants back on long before the co-signer shows up at my
Worst case, I hear, "Man, they got me in here on a
bunch of traffic tickets."
I send them off with my usual line. "Sorry, my boss
don't allow me to write traffic tickets. Hey, ask around, anyone
else in there need bail?" They all do.
Best case, that's tonight. I hear his voice again
- I'd drifted back towards sleep "My bail's fifteen thou. I got
caught with like less than a half-gram of coke." Music to my ears.
It takes money to buy cocaine, and a smart coke user knows that
less than half a gram is virtually always reduced to a misdemeanor.
I know this, too. Bingo!
It gets even better "My name's Tom Lawrence I work
at Safeway, and I'm sure my buddy Jeff Wilson will co-sign. We've
both worked there like seven years. We're butchers, in the union."
Sweet. My God, I'm awake now, the best kind of bail
dance has begun, and I have a partner worth waking up for.
Next -- settle em down "Look this is a piece of cake,
here's all we need to do. I'll ask you a few questions now, then
I'll patch us through to Jeff, and get him headed down here, then
I'll call the jail and get your bail and charges. Hang tight --
you'll be out before you know it. And, my advice, keep to yourself."
I don't need him getting advice about how waiting
to be interviewed by goody-two-shoes law students from McGeorge
the next morning might result in him being sprung without paying
a dime. Besides, I can tell from his voice, he wants out now.
"I'll be right back" I put him on hold, jump up, get
dressed, leaving my pillow and sleeping bag as they are - hoping
for more sleep later. It's 3:34 a.m. I make my way to the outer
room, get the TV going, unlocked the front door. Hell, if I'm going
to be up, I might as well hope a nice "walk in" just happens to
come down the hall. Finally, at my desk, feet up, I call the jail,
once the ringing starts, it's back to Tom on hold in the tank -
we rigged the phones by taking out some small pieces of plastic
behind the line buttons so we could join lines without paying for
conference calling. "Everything's cool. Let's call Jeff."
Thirty-five minutes later the door leading into the
hallway outside my office opens. I jump up, and lurch toward the
door. There are three bail bondsmen in the hallway waiting to snipe
my bail. "Shaffer's on break. Come with me," I hear one of them
lie. Tonight, like most nights, I'm too fast for them. No dirty
look -- not any more, not worth the energy.
"Jeff? Gregory Shaffer, Liberty Bail bonds," I say
surprising Jeff as I pop out of my office door and into the hall.
I stick out my hand. "Come on in. Can I get you a cup of really
shitty coffee?" I ask, breaking the ice, as I escort him past the
hallway goons who treat stealing a bond like they do shoplifting.
What's it matter if you don't get caught?
The important question: "Jeff, did you bring your
pay stub?" I want to add, "Like I reminded you three times on our
call," but I don't. I notice the buttons on Jeff's shirt are cockeyed.
Jeff pulls out the stub -- good boy! When they forget the pay stub
I have a problem -- trust them or send them on their way. If no
stub, I take down the details and verify the info in the phone book,
or call their work phone, hoping for a recording to confirm the
facts. It comes down to gut instinct. Some stay; most with no stub
get let go. I don't feel bad. Fact is, there's always some bondsmen
who will write just about any bond in hopes of money down the road.
They're fired the next day for screwing their bosses in the process.
They go from company to company, coming back a few years later to
the one they screwed.
I make a copy of Jeff's pay stub. Lots more info from
Jeff. He notices his shirt and re-buttons it. I fill out the bond.
It has to be perfect, and I mean perfect. The deputy at the jail
will go over every line like a headmaster just aching to screw a
cocky student -- anything wrong, and you void it and start over.
The lobby of a jail is the most fascinating place
in the world. Bus stations, airports, luxury hotel lobbies don't
hold a candle to a jail lobby. A sick dull gray. Half awake, barely
alive people sitting on the chairs haphazardly scattered about the
place. A garbage can overflowing with empty soda cans and the wrappers
and bags from a few nearby fast-food places, a few French fries
lie squished like worms on the floor. I walk up to the thick, bullet
"Name?" the deputy barks, his way of saying, "Why
- bail bondsman who is only trying to make a living like I am --
how might I be of assistance?" I don't blame him, he's stuck in
a hot, ugly, foul smelling job. It's like working in a urinal while
most sheriffs are out driving around in the cool night air.
I lay out the bond, he grabs it through the slot at
the bottom of the window and disappears. I'm fairly certain he leaves
the building, goes for a meal and comes back before processing my
bond. I'm lucky Jeff, the co-signer, has some interesting stories
to tell. I make mental notes of anything that could come in handy
if Tom skips: a bar he mentions, the name of a women they both used
to date. I do this more to stay awake than out of concern. With
dull co-signers I lean against the wall and try to fall asleep without
And this brings us back to where this story started
- Tom walking out of the jail and telling his tale as we walk up
the street and back to my office. At the office Jeff lights a cigarette,
takes a long drag, and passes it to Tom, then lights one for himself.
I look at Tom I see him start to understand; most do about this
point. He's really been arrested and booked, he really spent over
four hours in a tank with a bunch of men right out of "Cops." He
really is going to court. I give him a form with his court date.
The climax of Tom's experience -- that ecstasy of walking out of
the jail -- is long over. "Never again," they all say, though too
many of them will end up arrested again, and in many cases right
back here in my office.
Tom's desire now is to leave my office, but first
my speech. "You must make all court dates. If you miss court for
any reason call…"
Tom has tuned me out. He's playing with his car keys.
"If we can't find you, Jeff owes us fifteen thou.
They have none. Without asking I pull out a Polaroid
camera and say, "Smile for the birdie." No one ever does. Tom doesn't.
If I think the guy hangs with low-lifes, I reach under
the counter and give them two boxes of Liberty Bail Bonds matches,
100 books per box, the bail bondsmen's best friend. I don't think
Tom does, but to dull the sting of the unexpected photo I offer
him a box anyway. He thinks a second, and says no thanks. He just
wants to forget all about tonight.
Tom and Jeff leave. I hear something about "those
fucking cops" as they walk down the hall. My watch reads 5:22 a.m.
It's light out I roll up my sleeping bag and put away the pillow
and pull out a Communication Studies textbook from my singular summer
school class, and start reading.
Around eight-thirty Kenny-Babe, the boss, shows up.
I brief him on the night, give him the cash and the VISA slip from
Jeff. I smile as Kenny-Babe good naturedly kids me by apologizing,
"Hey, sorry you actually had to work for a change.
" Driving to play tennis, I have a familiar yet always
uncomfortable sensation: glad I've made some money, and glad it
wasn't me in jail. Also, I'm curious about how I ended up where
I did, and how the Toms and Jeffs of the world ended up where they
did. Chance or wise choices -- I'm not sure.