Thursday, March 28, 2013

Spring Broke: The Perks of Kurt

At right; my gal Sal. The photographer, Emily is reflected.
Everybody said I was crazy to agree to take 5 teenage girls (my daughter and 4 of her friends) on spring break to Panama City Beach last year. I assumed there’d be some headaches, but I was trying to be a good dad.

We left Indiana at 1:30 a.m. Friday morning and arrived in Panama City Beach mid-afternoon. The condo high-rise was nice; security guards at the entrance, clean elevators and hallways, lots of tile floors and granite countertops. The five 17-year-olds and I settled into a pretty amiable routine; they ran off to the beach and I cleaned up after them.

My Saturday, 3/31/12 Facebook Post: "Lesson #1 – When you're the lone adult on vacation with 5 teenagers: Your main job is closing open bags of chips and throwing away abandoned cans of half-consumed soda.”

My friend Shannon Plumer comments on FB, “If that’s your only problem, count yourself lucky.”

It would not be my only problem.

My Sunday, 4/1/12 Facebook Post: “Lesson #2 - When you're the lone adult on vacation with 5 teenagers: You discover awesome junk food. Abigail Fisher introduced me to JalapeƱo Cheet-os. I now have a new guilty pleasure. You'll know me by my orange fingertips and the pollen-like orange flakes in my mustache.”

My Monday, 4/2/13 Facebook Post: “Lesson #3 - When you're the lone adult on vacation with 5 teenagers: I go for an early morning walk on the beach. The sites and sounds are beautiful . . . mostly. But I quickly discover that college kids have shitty taste in beer and are serial-litterers. Here and there, along the beach, time and again I see three things suspiciously clustered in the sand together: empty beer cans + discarded underwear + empty packs of cigarettes = I don't' wanna know the details - and I HOPE it's the college kids!”

At 11:40 my cell phone chirped: “Are you in Panama City Beach?” It was my old college buddy, Scott Brown.

I reply, “Yes Sir. Trapped with 5 teenage girls and 2 boys just showed up! Could use some adult conversation. You around?”

We arrange to get together the next day.

Our beach strip was crawling with Noblesville kids. I let the girls throw a party and sequestered myself in my room, watched TV and worked on my computer. After a couple hours the music got a little loud. I waded into the mass of kids and turned the music down, discovered a bottle of vodka on the counter and promptly told the girls, "It’s time for everyone to leave." As kids were gathering their stuff there was a knock on the door. It was condo security asking that we turn down the music. "Thanks. Sorry. It’s already turned off."

Tending these girls was like walking 5 oversized dogs all at once. Useless
leash in hand, I got drug down to the sidewalk time and again. I'll not
name them in full, for the sake of their futures . . . and to protect
myself from neglect charges. From left: KT, Sally, Josie, Emily, Abi.
My Tuesday, 4/3/12 Facebook Post: “Lesson #4 - Teens and college-age folks like to scream. They will stand at the edge of their balcony and scream to the great beyond, at any time day or night for almost any reason - or more precisely, for no reason whatsoever. Those on the beach below, moved by this expression will scream back. Reminds me of when I lived in southern Indiana. I could hear the coyotes howling to one another in the night. I feared the coyotes less.”

The girls had a fight of some sort and one of them wanted to go home. Her mother sent a plane ticket. I drive Emily to the airport.

We’re now down to 4 girls.

This screaming was taking its toll, along with going into the bathroom and finding the floor covered with water because someone took a shower without the shower curtain in place. And there’s dirty underwear and trash in the water.

In case you don’t know, high school girls live in absolute squalor.

My Wednesday, 4/4/12 Facebook Post: “Lesson #5 - Sadly, many teens struggle to understand the simple operation of the zip lock bag. The package of hot dogs? That fresh $8 bundle of shaved ham? While it may look enticing, the complicated function of zip lock technology puts it just beyond the reach of many teens. That's why you'll find the hot dogs and deli meats drying out in the refrigerator because the teen had no choice but to crudely rip the package open in the middle, and then, having done so, had no means of re-closing the bag. We teach them chemistry and advanced calculus. Why can't we teach them to open (and then perchance, re-close) a zip lock bag?”

The unhappiness born of the argument the girls had the previous day lingers, claiming another victim. A mom called to say a family friend was nearby and will drive her girl back to Indiana.

And then there were three.

My shopping and clean-up skills earned me a reputation. Josie tagged it, "The perks of Kurt."

That evening I left the girls to God-only-knows-what. I went out to dinner with my college buddy’s family. Ahh, adult conversation, how I’d missed you.

My Thursday, 4/5/12 Facebook Post: “Lesson #6 - Shhhh! Enjoy your coffee and walk on the beach whilst they slumber. The primitive local inhabitants were up late last night in their jungle of condo high-rises. The females painted their faces. The males beat their chests and howled. They all ingested trance-inducing concoctions and took part in crude mating rituals. For now, let these uncivilized beasts doze upon their futons and hide-a-beds, around their boom-box campfires, for they will soon wake and mass to worship the sun god. All ye over the age of 25, beware! The hip-hop & alt-rock drum circles will soon resume. Should you be deemed old and useless to the tribe, you may be thrown upon the funeral pyre. Tonight is the full moon. Heaven help us all!”

That afternoon while I was carrying in groceries and cleaning up messes, there was a knock on the door. It was security. “Sir, there’s someone on your balcony throwing things in the pool below.” I promised to take care of it. I walked quickly to the balcony and found two of the girls and a couple of boys sitting in lawn chairs, eating sandwiches and potato chips. They smiled at me innocently.

I began spending more and more time alone in my room or hanging at a different beach with my college buddy’s family.

My Friday, 4/6/13 Facebook Post: “Lesson #7 - Friends make all the difference. Just when I thought I couldn’t fall asleep one more night to the sound of police sirens, couldn’t take one more ride in an elevator that reeked of urine and stale beer, couldn’t take another walk on a beach strewn with beer cans, Jager bottles, and discarded underwear, and just when I couldn’t take one more air-brushed tee-shirt, the Brown-Richardson-Vendrely families found me. This near-normal family, who have only rarely needed redirection from law enforcement, nursed me back to health with charbroiled oysters, alligator meat, and the restorative powers of the Chicken Trio. My soul was repeatedly anointed with gin & tonic (Tanqueray and lemon, please!). Thanks to my old college buddy, Scott Brown for hearing my distress signal and inviting me down to the civilized end of the beach.”

Our plan was to pack the car at 8:00 that night and drive straight through to Indiana. At 3:30 in the afternoon there was a knock on the door: condo security. “Sir we have a complaint that there’s a couple having sex on your balcony.” I bolt down the hall in a rage expecting to strangle two naked teenagers. At the balcony I find one of the girls and her boyfriend standing, fully clothed at the railing kissing gently. I sigh, smile, and head back to the door to explain the misunderstanding.

“Sir, I don’t care what the truth is,” the security guard says. “A family having lunch on an adjoining balcony was offended. This is our third visit here to speak with you.” He holds up a contract with my apparent signature on it. “If you’ll read right here,” he goes on, pointing at the contract with an ink pen, “you agreed that if we had to visit your unit three times, upon that third visit you would be evicted. You now have 45 minutes to pack your bags and vacate!”

I thanked the kind man, closed the door, and let out a loud, “Whoooo-hooo! We’re going home!” And four hours ahead of schedule!

I drove the entire way, fueled by Monster and Redbull drinks, arriving, mercifully in my driveway at sun-up.

My Saturday, 4/7/12 Facebook Post: “Lesson #8 - The final lesson: Happiness is really all about perspective. Cruising north through southern Alabama on the way home last night, I was thinking, "I'm so glad this shitty week is over." At the exact same moment my 17 year old daughter looked to her two girlfriends in the back seat and said, ‘This was the funnest week of my entire life!’ The other girls all agreed.”

Buy Kurt's novel The Salvage Man

“A broken man, an abandoned house, and a lonely woman—all the makings for a beautiful, haunting tale of loss, forgiveness, and redemption. The Salvage Man is a lovely, bitter sweet story you won’t soon forget. I loved it!”

Sherri Wood Emmons, author of The Seventh Mother

“Meyer turns the pages of history with gentle care and a warm heart, creating a story I’ll remember forever. Thank you Kurt Meyer for opening a door to my beloved town’s past and allowing me to travel the streets and meet the people of Noblesville 1893.”
Susan Crandall, Author of Whistling Past the Graveyard

Thursday, March 21, 2013

In Search of Child Support

This is a piece I wrote for NUVO Newsweekly a decade ago. Came across it and thought it was worth another read. I changed the names to respect the privacy of the subject's family.

Jenny sits in a chair against the wall in blue jeans and casual leather shoes, clutching a file folder against her chest. She is slender and in her late thirties. She's nervous. Her brown eyes are red at the edges, perhaps near tears. They dart from the door to the receptionist's window. 

This basement waiting room is half filled. It's a joyless, windowless place, lit by stark fluorescent lights. A name is called out. Someone gets up and disappears into the courtroom, also half filled with people. There is a somber, tense atmosphere, kinda like a funeral. Some people, like Jenny, are here to force collection of child support; others are behind in their payments.

Jenny watches the door uneasily, wondering if this is the day she'll come face to face with her ex-husband, the father of her daughters, a man she and her children haven't seen in nearly ten years. She hopes that today is the end, the resolution of all those years of searching and doing without. Either he begins paying support again or he goes to jail. She'd be satisfied with either outcome.

Jenny is in the waiting room of the 19th Circuit, IVD Court in the City County Building in Indianapolis, drawn back into the events of an earlier life. She sits against the wall with her legs crossed tightly, her elbow on her knee and her chin in her hand.

What led to the end of her first marriage is at once unremarkable and startling. Husbands who stay out all night drinking are nothing new. But on one of those late nights Jenny got a devastating call revealing that her husband, Jim, had fathered a child with another woman. That was the end.

Jenny looks about the waiting room at the other hapless women, "It's humiliating to sit here and think of all the stupid mistakes you made that led to this moment."

Jenny and Jim divorced at the opening of 1991 after four years of marriage. They had two children; one daughter, two and a half and another, just fifteen months old. As it turns out the end of the marriage was just the beginning of a downward spiral of struggle for Jenny.

"After we divorced, he came to see the girls a couple times," she says matter of fact, "but he hasn't seen them or willingly paid a dime since. That was '91. I guess I never really believed from the start I'd ever see any support."

Jim didn't pay child support nor buy the health insurance the divorce settlement required he keep for his daughters. Jenny hadn't worked in four years, but got a job in a doctor's office at $9.00 an hour. Jim disappeared.

The folder Jenny holds in her lap is filled with ten years of desperate letters to prosecutors, legalistic letters of response from them and newspaper clippings about child support cheaters. The folder tells a heartbreaking, maddening tale of an irresponsible father, an overwhelmed child support system and disorganized prosecutor's offices grown callous and careless from the routine of dealing with desperate women.

In the early days after the divorce, the Hamilton County Prosecutor's office was little or no help in tracking down Jim or the child support Jenny needed. She shakes her head in exasperation, "At that time the person in charge of child support was rude and useless. They wanted me to do all the legwork - find out where Jim lived, where he worked. I tried, but couldn't find him. And while I looked I was working full time and coming home to two little girls, laundry, housework and bills. Wasn't looking for him also their job?"

Her back against the wall, Jenny sold her house to make ends meet. Soon afterwards, this woman who had once lived in a comfortable, middle class home in a Noblesville subdivision was signing her children up for Medicaid. She moved to Indianapolis and transferred her child support case to Marion County.

Seemingly, Jim Phillips had fallen off the face of the earth. He didn't file tax returns or communicate with his ex-wife. In 1992 the Marion County prosecutor's office issued a warrant for his arrest, but nothing came of it. There's no evidence that Phillips was particularly good at hiding from authorities or that any serious effort was made to find and arrest him.

Back in the court's waiting room Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Michael McGuire II hurriedly comes through a side door and motions Jenny into a conference room. He looks harried and overworked. Jenny disappears into the small room with him to find out what will happen today.

Jenny's personal transformation from victim to fighter came in the spring and summer of 1993 when the downward spiral hit bottom. On May 20 of that year, her then four-year-old daughter was diagnosed with diabetes. Without child support or health insurance she now had a daughter who would need repeated blood sugar tests, regulated food intake and two insulin shots a day.  A month later, Jenny came down with pneumonia but continued to work and care for her children, knowing she had no other option. There wasn't time to hunt for Jim Phillips or the money he withheld, she was just trying to stay alive. Jenny emerged from this dark period to discover that the Marion County prosecutor's office had made no progress in tracking down Jim Phillips, or the child support she needed now more than ever.
Later that year she wrote to then Marion County Prosecutor, Jeffery Modisett. "We've spent the last three years trying to rebuild our lives. Always listening to what you people are doing to help us single mothers who receive no support."

Jenny herself had been raised by a single mother who struggled to make ends meet. Her father apparently only occasionally paid support. In another letter from 1993 Jenny wrote, "Growing up in a single parent home, I swore I would never end up that way. Is it hereditary?"

No longer willing to be swept along by events, she began fighting back. She gained control of her life, but lived the often frantic existence of a single mother; at times, up all night tending to a sick child, who then went to work with her the next day because day care wouldn't accept ill children and Jenny couldn't afford a day long hole in her paycheck. She lived and breathed work and childcare, getting up in the morning with her daughters and falling exhausted into bed after she put them to sleep at night. It was a time of more Medicaid and free school lunches for the kids.

In those days the prosecutor's office would arrange a telephone conference only to put Jenny on the phone with an employee who couldn't find her file. During other calls employees were rude or treated her like a nuisance. As Modisett readied for reelection in late 1994, she wrote again, "I have received not one ounce of help, let along support. I wouldn't even try again except your office is launching such a large campaign for reelection. Every day is another article in the paper or another commercial as to what you are doing to help parents collect back support." At that point, Jim Phillips owed Jenny Williams nearly $40,000 in child support.

In late '94, the Marion County prosecutor's office notified Jenny that they'd asked federal authorities to help them track down Jim Phillips.  A year later, Phillips surfaced in interstate computers when he renewed his driver's license in Tennessee. Nothing ever came of it.

In August of 1996, Jenny remarried, and the long lonely struggle of single parenting ended.

Jenny emerges from the conference room. "They're sick of me," she says. "Why? Because when they don't return my repeated calls, I call their bosses. In nearly 10 years of trying to get the support he owes my girls, this is only the second time I've gotten far enough to get to court." The first time was a month ago. "And still we're getting nowhere."

In her folder is a clipping from the Indianapolis Star dated March 30th, 1998, highlighting Marion County Prosecutor Scott Newman's "Most Wanted Child Support Offenders." The worst of the ten offenders owed $51,700 in back support. But Jim Phillips was not on the list. This, even though the prosecutor's office had tallied his unpaid child support by then at nearly $86,000. Jenny says, "You see something like that and in some ways it stops being, 'He owes my daughters money,' and it starts being about justice."

A month later, as Jenny and her new husband, Bob Williams, neared completion of an adoption process that would legally name Bob the father of her daughters, Jenny made a final attempt to find Jim Phillips. She wrote a letter to Marion County Prosecutor, Scott Newman. Finally, after eight years, there was progress.

Soon thereafter, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney, Michael McGuire II, found Jim Phillips in the little town of Locust, North Carolina, working in a manufacturing facility. Ironically, just as Jim Phillips's daughters were legally no longer his and he was no longer financially responsible for them, his wages began to be garnished, forcing him to start paying the $85,897.58 in support arrears he owed. After eight years of waiting, the $230.00 a week Jim Phillips was supposed to pay began arriving. With it, Jenny started a college savings account for her daughters. It felt like a small measure of vindication after years of struggle.

But Jim Phillips did not pay willingly. First his employer protested the garnishing. Then Phillips threatened to sue his employer if it didn't stop. In March of this year the payments ended. Jim Phillips had apparently been fired from his job.

A voice calls through the door of the courtroom, "Jenny Williams." Once inside she moves toward a long, high, wood grained counter with Deputy Prosecutor Michael McGuire. The ceiling is low in this claustrophobic courtroom. Rows of seats are half filled with those waiting their turn before the judge. Jenny and McGuire stand to the right of presiding Master Commissioner, Carol Terzo. An attorney approaches the counter and stands to the left.

Jenny scans the room for Jim Phillips, but he's not there. Turns out, Phillips had hired an attorney via the Internet. This even though at a hearing a month earlier the court insisted that he, personally must come to Indiana today to answer for the unpaid support or face arrest. No matter, Commissioner Terzo proceeds, ignoring her own order from a month earlier.           

Deputy Prosecutor McGuire wants to establish a new benchmark of arrears to submit to North Carolina. When he reads off the figure, in excess of $66,000, the gallery of spectators gasps. A few women laugh nervously, perhaps comparing their own unpaid support with Jenny's ridiculously huge amount. McGuire and Commissioner Terzo rapidly argue the incomprehensible legal details of Jenny's case as if she isn't there. Phillips's attorney interrupts from time to time, explaining that he knows nothing about the case. At one point he waves a cashier's check in the air, prepayment he received from Phillips for his legal services.

Jenny is asked no questions and isn't allowed to speak. Quickly, it's over. They've established a set amount that Phillips owes and his attorney, without even really trying, gets him another month's reprieve. Commissioner Terzo showed no surprise, anger or exasperation at Phillips's ten years of hiding, stalling or avoidance of court orders. On this assembly line of court cases they rapidly move on to the next case.

When she passed through the metal detectors in the hall outside before the hearing, Jenny had seemed anxious about seeing Jim Phillips again. Was she afraid of her ex-husband? "No," she insists. "I was afraid that he'd ask me something like, 'How are the girls?' and that would have sent me right over the edge." The tension of anticipation is gone now, and the gentle edge to Jenny's personality returns. She's relaxed.

Driving home, Jenny thinks of her own father. "After he died, my brother and I went to his apartment and cleaned out all his stuff. When I was going through his papers, I found an old receipt for a child support payment he made for me and my brother when we were small." She stares ahead, over the steering wheel and shakes her head at the heartache of it all.

Jenny's second marriage has answered her earlier, painful question. No, single motherhood need not be hereditary. But some qualities are passed down. Even though she's always tried to shelter them from her personal struggles with single parenthood, Jenny's daughters display the same will and drive that got her through the hard times. The oldest got a paper route because she dreamed of buying her own computer. After nearly a year of work, she'd saved enough. And Jenny’s younger daughter aggressively participates in countless sports and other activities with an insulin pump attached to her waist. But both girls know little about their mother's pursuit of the child support their biological father has avoided all these years.

Jenny Williams harbors remarkably little personal bitterness about the money she did without during the difficult years when her girls were younger. "It's not my money," she insists, "it's theirs. He owes it to them. And it's not right that the system should just let him get away without paying it."

But for most of an entire decade the system has carelessly done exactly that. Yet, that may change. Finally, on November 22nd, the court made good on it's threat of two months earlier, issuing a warrant for Jim Phillips's arrest. It's now up to North Carolina authorities to act on the warrant and decide if the father of Jenny Williams' children will get away without paying.

A footnote: I have had sporadic contact with Jenny Williams over the years, but I have no idea whether she ever got another penny from her ex-husband. Yet, I do see her daughters on Facebook. They have both graduated from college and are healthy and happy young women.


Thursday, March 7, 2013

Childhood Cruelty;-)

It all looks innocent enough: Me & my siblings back in the day. From left: Cindy, Tom, Jama, The Contrarian

It’s a legendary story in the Meyer family folklore of childhood cruelty.  And though I’m a grown-up and ought to know better, I’m still not sorry for what I did. 

Not one bit.

My big sister Jama would wrestle me to the ground on a regular basis. Me — 5, 6, 7 or 8 years old, and Jama — 4 years older. She liked to sit on my chest and drive her knees into my shoulders until I’d agree to make some bullshit declaration like, “Yes, you’re the smartest person ever,” or “I’m a big doodoo-head.”

But one day when I was a little older I got the upper hand and actually found myself sitting on her stomach and driving my knees into her shoulders. I was really kind of amazed. Couldn’t believe I’d done it. She was in shock, too, and lay their screaming, her mouth wide open.

And it was in that moment that the idea seized me. You know, one of those ideas that once you think it, you can’t not do it.

So I did it. I spit in her mouth.

She immediately fell silent and glared at me in stupefied shock. A spasm of horror washed across her face, which triggered my awareness that I was in suddenly in very deep shit. I jumped up and ran for my life. Spent the rest of the day as far away from her as possible.

Some 40-odd years later I’m not sorry because she truly deserved it. It’s amazing she’s grown up to be such a kind, loving and reasonable adult with no criminal record, because she was borderline sadistic in our childhood. Her specialty was cruelty with a twist. Sure, she could haul off and just slug me, but no, that would be too easy. So instead she would innocently pass me as I was going about some mundane activity, minding my own business, and then sucker-punch me really hard, then in that fleeting moment when I clutched my arm and looked to her in disbelief, she’s scream, “Mom! Kurt just hit me! Kurt! Stop it!” wailing as if I was abusing her.

That’s not your typical garden-variety cruelty, that’s Nazi-in-training cruelty.

When my other sister Cindy was in her early teens, she started getting bizarre, disturbing notes in the mail. The notes were spelled out with letters cut from magazines and newspapers — a big red “K” would be followed by a small black “i” that was followed by blue, medium-sized “ll.”

The messages were sometimes threats and other times just something sinister like, “I saw you brushing your hair this morning in your bedroom. You better watch out because I’m going to get you!” The messages often contained information you could only know if you were peeking through a window or were already in the house.

Upsetting to say the least. Cindy had a stalker!

Then one day as I sat in our living room, through the front window sheers I saw the shadow of a figure climb the porch steps to the mailbox then disappear around the front lawn. I watched the shadow pass by the side window along the driveway, then heard our backdoor open. I went to the kitchen to find Jama closing the backdoor. When we checked the mailbox we found another threatening note for Cindy. You guessed it. It had been our sister Jama, all along, composing these messages and taking silent pleasure as Cindy came unglued.

Children like that grow up to be adults who end up in one of two places: prison or corporate America. Jama is now a highly successful business manager in southern California.

And she is the one I blame for the Christmas incident, though Cindy took part. When I was 6 or 7 years old, I came down on Christmas morning, thinking I was the first awake. I looked for my stocking and saw it was filled with sticks. My other 3 siblings’ stockings were filled with candy and gifts. As I sat down and began to cry, trying to imagine what I’d done to deserve this, I heard my sisters giggling in the adjoining bedroom they shared. Turns out they had dumped out my goodies and filled the stocking with sticks.

I'm leaving out a lot here. There's just not enough room to detail all the horrible things we did to one another. I won't even go into the details of the infamous "Kool-Aid" affair which resulted in my sisters and me chasing our brother Tom around with kitchen knives. He was way bigger than us, but three little kids with knives are a surprising power-balance to one kid of superior size and strength. I was probably only armed with a steak knife, but a little kid doing the windmill with a steak knife in one hand is good reason for caution, regardless.

This kinda shit could keep a psychologist busy.

A few years ago, as Jama’s 50th birthday party came along, all of this childhood cruelty was a distant memory. But as her friends gathered around the pool and across the lawn of her Pasadena home, an idea seized me that, yet again, once I’d thought it, I couldn’t unthink it.

I stepped up and introduced myself to an unfamiliar couple and added, “I’m so glad Jama has friends like you here in LA. This is going to be a really tough time for her and she’ll need people like you to lean on as this experience unfolds.”

They both looked at me quizzically, asking, “What do you mean?”

“What? She hasn’t told you? Well,” I explained, “Jama is adopted. She’s decided at this milestone of her 50th birthday to begin searching for her birth parents. And you just can’t know how such a thing will play out. They might not want to know her, or they might throw open their arms. So she’s really gonna need support from good friends like you.”

They both looked at me wide eyed. “She’s so brave,” one of them said. After they waked away, one of my own kids asked, “Dad, is that true about aunt Jama?”

“Of course not,” I smiled. I told that story another half a dozen times to the next half a dozen couples I met. 

Before long I heard Jama scream my name from across the yard. She was gripping someone’s arm in disbelief. Our eyes locked from 50 feet away, across a sea of people, most of whom were whispering about how my “adopted” sister was going to begin looking for her birth parents, (who incidentally, were already there at the party – our parents).

Oh revenge! Thy taste is so sweet, even when delayed by 3 or 4 decades.