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My worst job was as a debt collector

A job selling tea ended up puncturing my illusions about the pleasures of city living.

One summer Friday several years ago, I entered a deli on Broadway and 68th Street in Manhattan. As soon as the owner saw me, he attempted to hide. A similar version of events had happened every Friday, in this exact deli, for the last eight weeks. Sometimes the owner locked himself in the back office or simply ran out into the street. Once he pretended to retch and heave as if about to vomit. Today he scuttled down a ladder into the humid, labyrinthine basement. The ladder was behind the counter, and the delivery man he had been speaking to merely smiled and stood to the side, so that I could follow in pursuit.

I was there to collect a debt. The debt was not owed to me personally, but to the Japanese green tea company at which I worked. I was a sales associate, not a job I had wanted — just one I could get, though it offered the compensatory benefits of being easy, unsupervised, and full of opportunities to wander around the city pretending I was on the way to better things. Each day, I had a certain number of accounts to service: bodegas, restaurants, newsstands, supermarkets, food trucks, and private offices. Servicing an account entailed visiting their location, showing them the products that were currently available, cajoling them into trying whatever new products we were offering, taking their order, and scheduling delivery, though most of my time was spent between accounts, on thronged sidewalks and subway platforms, the parenthetical spaces of urban life.

I was happy to exist within these parentheses. I wanted to see myself as a kind of flaneur, a passionate spectator, aloof but omnivorously alert to the sights and characters that I would later transform into a brilliant (and sellable) work of art. The aspects of my job that I hated were those that did not square with this vision of myself. Particularly, I hated having to collect outstanding balances. Most of my accounts paid Cash on Delivery (COD), but there were a select few sufficiently large enough to pay Net, which meant they had 30 days to pay the full balance on a specific invoice. If one of my Net accounts were behind on their invoices, then I would stop by and try to coax them into cutting a check or, even better, handing me cash. I did not like debt collection because there was room for irony, but not detachment. The character I had to play was rigid and humorless, single-minded, sometimes even a little bullying.

My Net accounts each responded to this routine differently. Some paid happily. Some complained or offered elaborate excuses. Some told me to go fuck myself. To many of these exchanges, even the most hostile ones, there was an element of theatre. An account might tell me to go fuck myself three or four times — just to test my resolve — before finally settling up. That’s what I’d assumed about this account — that the owner, whom I’ll call Mr. Lee, was testing me. After all, this was one of the more prosperous delis on my route. Construction workers came in the early morning, Fordham students in the afternoon. Mr. Lee’s wife and daughters — who would sometimes wave, but never speak to me — continually brought fresh trays of food from the kitchen to the buffet. I knew from the stack of sales catalogs behind the counter, from beer and candy and other beverage companies, that there were plenty of other vendors who wanted their business.

When I came back to collect, his wife told me that he was unavailable. He was killing a family of possums that had established themselves above the deli’s speckled drop ceiling.

The trouble started as the weather turned warmer and sales increased. At the end of April, he requested that his account be switched from COD to Net, to which I immediately agreed. Every week I took larger and larger orders, and neither of us gave any sign of worry at the increasing size of his outstanding balance. When I visited, he would circle all the items he wanted on the sales brochure. Then he would repeat his order to me as I wrote it down and disappear again into his office. Sometimes he would nod or wink at me as if we shared a secret joke, but that was the extent of our familiarity.

By the end of May, he owed more than $1,000. His stock of our product was beginning to run out, but he was so late on payment that my managers had barred me from taking any further orders until the balance was paid in full. When I told Mr. Lee this, he said that he would have the money next week. When I came back to collect, his wife told me that he was unavailable. He was killing a family of possums that had established themselves above the deli’s speckled drop ceiling. Next week, Mr. Lee used the same excuse. His attempt to kill the possums had only intensified their resolve. At that very moment, they were in the deli’s various runnels and crannies, squeaking, feeding, breeding. Did I expect him to do nothing? He needed the money to pay for the exterminator. Perhaps if I came next week.

The truth was I didn’t necessarily mind being tested in this way, as understanding that my entreaties and idle threats were largely ceremonial made it easier to issue them. But Mr. Lee was verging on dangerous territory. As the weeks went on, and his endless feints and bluffs and dodges grew more ridiculous, my manager’s patience wore perilously thin. Now, they wanted to take Mr. Lee to Small Claims court. Theoretically this was standard protocol for accounts deep in arrears, but during my time at the company it had only happened twice, once for a cafe destroyed during Hurricane Sandy, and once for a ramen place in the East Village whose owner was later convicted of insurance fraud.

It would fall upon me to go to the court and complete the Statement of Claim, the Demand Letter, and all other paperwork necessary to file an action against Mr. Lee. Then an officer of the court would accompany me to his store to collect the debt. As the possibility of this became more real, I found myself becoming angrier with Mr. Lee and with myself for having trusted him. I wanted to be taken seriously, and I began to imagine the day when the officer and I would pay Mr. Lee a visit — his impassive face melting into an expression of helplessness, the collapse of his guile in the face of institutional power, and of course, the final exchange, an envelope of crisp bills and the welcome prospect of never having to deal with his bullshit again.

On the day he fled to the basement, I came to deliver Mr. Lee’s final warning. If he refused to pay again, then I would go to the courthouse on Centre Street, file all the paperwork, and set the whole mess of brutish inevitabilities into motion. I was determined to speak to him a final time. I wanted it to be said that I had done all that I could.

In the basement, it was much hotter than expected. Off to the side some box fans were whirring, but they only seemed to push the hot air around in endless eddies and swirls. It took my eyes some time to adjust to the dimness. When they did, I was surprised by the unfinished dirt floor, the plank shelves supported by paint cans and cinder blocks, the layer of soot-like dust covering every surface. The basements of delis and bodegas are not necessarily neat or even particularly sanitary places, but this was a cave. The shelves, such as they were, were crammed with expired packages of Ritz crackers and protein bars, Muscle Milk, cracked kombucha bottles, and cans of Chef Boyardee from a cold-war bomb shelter. A trickle of water — or at any rate, liquid — slid down one of the walls into a small puddle. Toward my left, a pile of ripped-up plastic bags rustled: mice. I wondered what kind of bribes they paid to pass health inspection.

“Mr. Lee?” I said.

There returned a faint noise from the other side of the basement. A light went on. Walking toward it, something crunched underfoot, but I didn’t stop to find out what it was. I could see now that the light was coming from a small room besides the boiler. There were shelves in this room as well, but they held only paint cans, boxes of nails, and electrical tape. Mr. Lee sat inside on a wheeled office chair, smoking and holding a stack of three-ring binders.

“Hey,” I said, but he did not respond.

I realized that we were not alone. Besides Mr. Lee sat an old woman in overstuffed chair, watching a small television. The only light in the room came from the TV, a dead light, so that the old woman’s face seemed to glow from within. With her hands she was tearing up a paper towel into smaller squares and then stacking those squares on the table in front of her. While I spoke she stared at me with an air of mute and powerful grievance.

I began to describe what was going to happen in the coming week. At no point did Mr. Lee or the woman try to interject or counter what I was saying. When I was finished, a silence followed. Mr. Lee put out his cigarette and lit another. He was a tall man, and lean. With his legs stretched out, I had to stand on the other side of the door.

“Do you understand what I’m telling you?” I asked. “You should pay the balance. Or at least pay something. I’m trying to do you a favor.”

He nodded and opened the top binder in his lap. It was full of papers. On top was an unpaid invoice from a beer distributor. Before I could see any more, he closed the binder and held it out to me. I reached out to take it, but before I could get a firm hold, he let it drop. The pipes that lined the ceiling seemed to reverberate from the smack it made against the floor.

For the last several weeks, I had pictured myself as a woebegone salesman, the victim in my and Mr. Lee’s encounters. But that wasn’t the case.

As it turned out, I would never collect what Mr. Lee owed. In fact, his deli would be out of business by the end of the year. I don’t know what precipitated the final denouement, though standing there, I realized that Mr. Lee and his family were at the mercy of a long list of people — his landlord, the health inspectors, the beer and cigarette vendors, the police. I also realized that even though I was on the skinny end of that list, all of my visits and warnings had served to remind them of how close to the edge they were, how easy it would be for someone like me — that is a large, white, male person, backed with the vast and arbitrary authority of the law — to pause and do them harm.

For the last several weeks, I had pictured myself as a woebegone salesman, the victim in my and Mr. Lee’s encounters. But that wasn’t the case. The truth is I was complicit in his misfortunes. I spent a portion of my life haranguing him for money that he did not have and that would not make any difference at all to the company I worked for. I was doing my job, but that didn’t matter now. I was filled with this new vision of myself: a white man looming over two people in a dank basement, my voice tinny with command, a look of disgust, or even worse, pity spread across my features.

Meanwhile Mr. Lee and the woman continued to stare. The television that was playing was old and boxy, and slowly I became conscious of its faint, hollow hum. The sound seemed to grow both louder and emptier until it throbbed in my ears like a second pulse. Suddenly I needed to get away. .

I could feel their eyes on my back and neck as I walked back toward the ladder. When I had my foot on the first rung, there was another rustle in the pile of plastic bags. A creature emerged from underneath. At first, I thought it was a rat because of its long, naked tail, but after second glance there could be no mistake. It was a possum: spiked gray fur, pointed snout, a row of tiny, serrated teeth, and beady eyes as black as oil. It stood for a moment on the floor below me, feral and prehistoric-looking. Then it released a long hiss and scurried back to where it came from.

Eric Sweder is a writer living in Brooklyn.