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The Order and the Towel
By Jim Potter
When I was a young teen growing up in Skokie, Illinois, I had a friend, Jim Heinsimer, who had a paper route. I was curious what it was like. One day after school, at his house, I helped him roll up the newspapers, secure each one with a rubber band, and then I accompanied him on his home deliveries. While we bicycled around the residential neighborhood, we visited, but I was impressed that my friend had his long route memorized. He tossed each paper without checking a map or a customer list and occasionally got off his bike to carefully place a newspaper on a particular porch. I asked him, “How do you remember each house?” He laughed and said, “I’ve been doing it a long time.”
I’m retired now, but during the last four years of my 33-year career as a Reno County, Kansas, deputy sheriff, I served civil papers.
Every morning our unit of civil process servers divided up papers that had arrived the previous day. Those legal papers, prepared by attorneys, arrived at our office by mail and hand delivery. We rarely had a slow day unless there was a severe ice or snowstorm. The incoming documents never stopped. We were always trying to keep current on the papers because they were time sensitive and we wanted to be proactive, expecting that at any moment we might receive an avalanche of subpoenas, writs, and orders.
Our team divided the papers by their addresses or location in the county. Once we had our personal stack, we would examine them for details and place them in the order of our intended delivery on our route. Patrol officers worked a beat; we worked a route. Most of the papers were about debt. Those could be attached to a front door without talking to anyone. Others, like divorce papers, required personal service where we handed the paper to the defendant. On a rare occasion, if someone refused to accept them, we could drop the papers at their feet and say those infamous words from police novels, “You’ve been served.”
If the person we were looking for wasn’t home, we’d tape our business card—with our office phone number—to the door.
Unlike a newspaper route, our paper route was never, ever, the same. However, it wasn’t long before I started recognizing the same names and addresses. I also became better prepared for surprises, anticipating the location of lurking dogs ready to bark and bite, and dangerous dilapidated wooden porches with rotten boards and handrails.
I worked a lot of interesting cases, some dangerous, some humorous, during my four years, when I didn’t have a bicycle, but I had a paper route. I refer to one episode as, “The Order and the Towel.”
The Order and Writ of Execution, signed by a judge, arrived in our office on a Friday afternoon with instructions to accompany the petitioner to the respondent’s address so he could retrieve his personal property. It was set for Saturday. This was highly unusual as our normal work week was Monday through Friday.
I was familiar with the address. The renter-respondent would never answer her door to accept our papers, yet the documents always disappeared by the time we arrived with our next delivery. Neighbors confirmed this routine. When the defendant’s car was parked in front of the house, the woman and her boyfriend were home.
On my way home I contacted the petitioner, the respondent’s estranged husband, to get some background on his wife. He assured me she would not cooperate, that she had changed the locks on the doors, and that she kept a loaded gun in the house.
On Saturday, I parked my marked patrol car directly in front of the house and met the petitioner. As always, while on duty, I was wearing my sheriff’s uniform, with badge, handgun, police radio, body armor (so-called “bullet-proof vest”), and a small video body camera that was recording.
I decided not to knock on the door because that strategy hadn’t worked in the past. Instead, the petitioner and I entered the garage with his key. It still worked.
When we eventually walked outside, his wife pounded on her kitchen window and yelled from inside the house, “Get off my property!” I responded, “I’m with the sheriff’s office!” She returned a yell, but I couldn’t understand what she said. I pointed toward the front of the house, started walking, replying, “I’ll meet you at the front door.”
This was my opportunity to get in the house, but it was also an opportunity for her to shoot me if she was so inclined. When she opened the door a few inches, I was focused to immediately observe her hands. I said, “I have a judge’s order permitting your husband to pick up some listed property.” As I showed her the order, I put one big foot inside the door to prevent it from closing.
It was then she swung the door wide open. She didn’t have a weapon. Instead, she was holding a hot pink towel wrapped around her body!
Now, there are big women who wear little towels and little women who wear big towels. She was the latter.
She started screaming, “Get out of my house! I’m only wearing a towel!”
Since she was holding her towel, I figured handing her the order would be a bad idea. Instead, I tossed it to the floor. She told me, “If you don’t let me get dressed, then this is sexual harassment!” I simply replied, “Then go get dressed.” She responded, “I’m not getting dressed as long as you’re in my house.”
Even though the scene was chaotic, I was happy for three things: 1) she wasn’t brandishing her gun, 2) her husband, the plaintiff, was a witness, and 3) my video camera was documenting the event. I understood that I might need it later if she made bogus accusations. However, I was regretting that I didn’t have my customary female back-up officer with me.
The plaintiff, standing behind me, said to his estranged wife, “I only want the property on the list.”
She replied that there was no clothing left in the house that belonged to their son (who was in the father’s custody). Then the towel lady blamed her husband “for all of this.”
I told the resident I needed to secure her firearm, and she responded: “If I wanted to shoot you, I would have already done it.” Towel Lady was correct. She could have blasted me through her kitchen window or when she opened the door.
I retrieved her weapon from the kitchen table and unloaded the small semi-automatic, telling her I’d return it before I left. Then I told her again, “Go put on your clothes!”
As the plaintiff walked around the house, searching for items listed on the order, his wife kept up a chatter of threats, insults, and denials. At one point she began videotaping the event with her phone, telling us that she was going to show it to her attorney. I marveled at her dexterity. She kept filming while holding her towel. Every few minutes, like a soundtrack, I repeated, “Go put on your clothes.” I knew she wouldn’t comply, but I said it for the benefit of her recording and mine.
At one point she asked me, “What’s so funny?” She had caught me considering how absurd we were. It was crazy. She was videotaping us, I was videotaping them, and she was wearing a hot pink towel. The plaintiff and defendant might decline marriage counseling, but I was ready for a therapy session.
Gradually, the husband collected his property, periodically taking it out to his truck. I remained a doorman, keeping one eye on Towel Lady.
Just before departure, I returned the pistol to the defendant. I placed it, unloaded, on the kitchen table. Next to it, I put a clip of bullets and a single bullet that had been in the chamber.
As I left the house, following the plaintiff, Towel Lady made a veiled threat to me. She said, “I’ll be seeing you around when you’re not with my husband.” At the curb, the petitioner thanked me for my assistance and then remarked about his unpredictable and violence-prone wife. He said, “Since I knew she had her loaded gun in the house, and since I have a concealed carry license, I’m packin’.” As he said the words, “I’m packin’,” he patted his sweatshirt at the hip.
I was stunned. My god, I thought. He believed he needed a gun to protect himself from his wife! Even though he had been calm and cooperative, I now realized that during the potentially dangerous domestic dispute all three of us had had easy access to loaded weapons. Indeed, things could have gone from absurd to deadly in the drop of a towel. I didn’t want to imagine the bloody gun fight that could have occurred.
As I left the area in my patrol car, I considered the couple’s future. Was their impending divorce just one step in a life of bitter confrontation? Was their child going to be caught in countless chaotic cross fires? Hopefully, their son would weather the domestic drama without scars of trauma. I’d just met his parents and I felt like I needed counseling. I wanted to escape from them, to go home, but first I needed to document the Order and Writ of Execution in case the petite lady in the hot pink towel decided to pursue a complaint against me.
At the office, I downloaded my camera and began writing the narrative: “. . . I showed her the Order. Since she was holding a towel around her, I tossed it to the floor.”
Later, rereading my report, I shouted, “Oh, no! That’s not what I meant!” I quickly corrected the sentence to read: “Since she was holding a towel around her, I tossed the Order to the floor.”
Until next time, happy writing and reading!
This essay, originally titled, I Didn’t Have a Bicycle, but I Had a Paper Route: Serving Civil Papers, was first published in 105 Meadowlark Reader: A Kansas Journal of Creative Nonfiction, Issue 3: Spring 2022-“Bicycles.” Editor, Cheryl Unruh, Quincy Press. Copyright © of the journal by 105 Meadowlark Reader, 2022. Copyright © of the essay by Jim Potter, 2022.
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