Compulsion to Create
Gregory S. Shaffer
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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 job.

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 bail?"

"I'm in jail. They arrested me on this totally bogus charge of…."

"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…"


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 door.)

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 proof window

"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 falling down.

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. Questions?"

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.

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