“Better out than in, I say.”
My buddy is inclined to randomly belch as he finishes a drink or a meal. Loudly. None of his family bats an eye and, like clockwork he says it, then looks around and says “that’s from Shrek.”
I’m the only one in the room who needs the pop culture disclaimer and, after a week at their house, I caught myself saying it when he belched. He’s large. And loud. It makes me laugh.
It’s been two weeks since I came down for a few days, my truck loaded with art supplies to spend part of Spring Break with my friends and their daughters and knock out a bunch of homework assignments.
“Better out than in, I say.” It’s taken on a different meaning in my mind, as I struggle with the logistics and shame of an unexpected setback. Relax—it’s not COVID-19. My allergies popped off and we all shared some sort of chest cold for a week, but we’re social distancing pretty effectively for a family of six and a house guest.
Shame. That’s a loaded word. I unpacked it some in therapy today. Shame. Last week my attorney said, “Don’t be ashamed. It’s shady.”
A week later and I’m sitting down to finish writing this blog in the hopes the shame and frustration of the situation stops sitting on my chest like a crushing weight and waking me up at night.
My clutch tapped out about 40 miles before I got to my friends house three weeks ago.
Called for a ride, had it towed the next morning, a couple of days in the shop, a misfit piece ordered, it was ready to pick up on Monday. A friend joked about “Toyota crapping out” but that clutch had 154,400 miles on it—154k of them mine. Seems like a solid performance for a stock clutch.
When I went to pick my truck up Monday, relieved it was a $2,000 clutch job and not a $5,000-$6,000 transmission job, the dude at the counter looked stressed when I walked in.
“Ma’am, they just came and repo’d your truck.”
Say what now?
“They came and got it like 30 minutes ago. Loaded it up in a hurry and left. I’m real sorry. I checked with the sheriff and he said it was legitimate.”
At this point I looked around for a hidden camera, sure this was an elaborate prank he’d been suckered into by some of my local friends.
“He said he had an order dating back to 2015 and—”
I stopped him, trying not to hyperventilate or vomit. 2015. My mind flashed.
How much do I owe you for the clutch?
“Nothin, ma’am. He peeled off hundred dollar bills and settled it in cash.”
He handed me the invoice with a zero balance and a big red COMPLETED stamp on it and REPO written across the top in sharpie.
I stood there trying to process. 2015. 2015. 2015…
I apologized profusely while he pointed out where he’d scrawled the name and number of the company who picked it up.
I apologized to him after he told me my truck had been repossessed. Tuck that away.
Step back with me for a minute. On Dec 26, 2013 I was riding a razor scooter in Oxnard, California. Without a helmet. I won’t retell that story [please wear a helmet, people, adult skulls break too] but it includes a lot of time in the hospital, a lot of time in a dark bedroom, the support and care of some of my best friends, resigning from a job I’d only taken to stay occupied while I was in California to be close to my Pop as he died, a neurologist who released me as a patient with “refuses to take opiates as prescribed,” and then a sudden offer to work on a project at the United Nations in Manhattan.
Mid February 2014, I packed my truck up and drove myself to New York City. Like ya do.
A Marine Corps friend was there and needed a roommate, so I had a place to live as I started a new job.
I put that Bronx address in my GPS and headed East without a real understanding of all of the changes my brain injury presented. I wasn’t “aware of the extent of my deficits” as they say.
I knew I couldn’t taste or smell anything. I knew I still had massive headaches.
I remember being lost a lot in NYC. Trekking from the Bronx to Manhattan and back every day was exhausting emotionally and physically. I took the wrong busses, missed trains. Hell, I got lost inside the United Nations headquarters and I worked there. We had an offsite office in Long Island City, too. That’s in Queens, if you’re curious—not Long Island. Did I mention New York City stressed me out? The office assignment of the day was subject to the whims of the boss.
NYC was loud—louder than I’d imagined, louder than I could deal with on a lot of days. I’d always had misophonia but it’s a thousand times worse after my head injury, and damn, New York City is loud. I wasn’t in therapy, wasn’t in physiotherapy. Hell, I didn’t even know what physiotherapy was. Wasn’t being treated by a neurologist. Didn’t have a poly trauma team. I had a demanding job at a global organization, a roommate in college who’d just recently been diagnosed with Aspergers who was navigating an ugly custody battle.
Those things pop out at me when I sit and think of 2014 in NYC. I scroll through my Instagram and realize there was a lot of great stuff, too. Having a truck in the Bronx meant I could go anywhere I wanted each weekend. More often than not, I headed Upstate. Somewhere away from the noise and chaos of the Boroughs. Having a brilliant roommate who studied history and architecture and social justice meant I was constantly being educated about the city I lived in. I’m exhausted just thinking through that year.
I connected with members of my family I’d never met that Fall and the first seeds of farming were planted, even if I didn’t know it at the time. The farm in Jersey was quiet and secluded.
I finished my year at the United Nations and didn’t renew the contract. It wasn’t a good fit for me and I sure wasn’t a good fit for them. I left with a markedly different understanding of their mission and how they spend money and treat people and a greater sense of some of my post TBI deficits. Namely, my filter filled up really quick and I spoke my mind a lot more readily.
In early 2015 I’d just started a new job when I walked out of my apartment near Arthur Avenue one morning to see my truck being hauled away. Conversation with the driver then a conversation with my lender revealed I’d missed most of the payments in 2014. I scrambled to rectify that, reconfigured automatic payments and carried on with my life.
The biggest issue my truck gave me for the rest of my time in NYC was remembering which sides of the street it was supposed to be parked on from day to day and reminding my roommate to let me know when he’d gotten parking tickets. Street sweeping is no joke and those tickets add up. I moved out of NYC at the end of that year but what a year it was.
I started a job at the Department of Veterans Affairs as the Director of Public Affairs for New York and New Jersey. I came face to face with PTSd in my own life. I started therapy. Started taking my own healthcare—and mental health—seriously. I processed some anger. Started to forgive myself for my fiance’s suicide. I made room for grief. I experienced my first round of shingles. I resigned from the VA because I couldn’t stomach the say do gap in patient care. I started working for a cool start-up in Manhattan managing a team of writers and graphic designers. When the company was gobbled up in a covert acquisition and we were all suddenly “working remotely,” I took the chance to leave NYC.
Moved to North Carolina and took delivery of my household goods for the first time since I’d left for Afghanistan a few years earlier. I smile as I type that—I actually took receipt of thousands of pounds of furniture and belongings I didn’t really recognize anymore. Thanks, TBI.
I planted a huge patio garden, worked remotely, traveled quite a bit, wrote a picture book and collaborated with an incredible illustrator, put thousands of miles on my truck between NC and NJ where my elderly aunt was in ill health. I drove all over the eastern seaboard volunteering with a disaster relief organization.
When my lease was up at the end of the year I sold 90% of what I owned, moved to Northern Virginia and started back to school. I had an undergrad to finally finish [May 2019, yay me] and enrolled in a sustainable farming program. One thing I knew for sure by then—my brain didn’t function in the “80 hours a week in an office” way anymore. Farming was therapeutic, challenging and rewarding.
Still here? It’s 2020 again in the middle of COVID-19 quarantine. I called the number on the invoice, asked if they could tell me who issued a fatwa for my truck. She said she was busy and could get that information later that day. I asked if I could come and get my personal things from my truck. She said yes and warned me I’d have to “come into the building alone because of the current situation.”
Ma’am, I’m not angry, I just—
“No. The virus. Please don’t come in with a bunch of people because of the virus.”
My friend and I drove to the address after grabbing a few storage totes from her garage. I explained the whole 2014 administrative debacle and said I’m sure it could be explained or linked back to that. It’s the only thing that made sense.
Reader, nothing made sense at this point.
I honestly don’t remember making back payments. I remember making all the payments after that, though. Hell. If asked, I’d tell you I own my truck outright. Pretty sure I do.
Don’t I? Reader…
When I grabbed all of my stuff she said the fatwa (my word) was from the original lender.
Ok, I’ll call them and have this sorted out.
I left, thinking I’d be back to grab my truck in a few days.
On the phone w/ the lender, my reality changed. I had an outstanding balance of the nine missed payments from 2014, the late fees and the interest fees. He wouldn’t tell me the amount. Said I’d get a legal rights letter in the mail. He seemed surprised and almost excited when he realized it’d been repo’d. He said they’d written off that debt. There’s a different word for that, but he said they’d dismissed it. Odd to think of a debt I didn’t know I had being dismissed.
I asked why it’d been repo’d in 2020 and he said “you’ve been really good at hiding it, I guess.”
My anxiety and shame took a back seat to anger for a minute and I asked WTF what that meant. My truck was registered, licensed and insured. I sure as hell hadn’t been hiding it. I’d been driving the hell out of it and living my life.
I explained I wasn’t at home and asked for a legal rights letter to be emailed to me instead. He asked for the email address and I said it’s the same one I’d just gotten a birthday email from the lender at and confirmed it. I asked when I could expect the email and he said it would take 72 hours or as long as a week. He asked for the address where I’m currently and I said no, I’m not dragging my friends into the middle of this mess. Just send the email. I asked if it could be expedited and he said, “It’s funny—now you’re in a hurry to talk about this debt after hiding from it for so long.”
Anger, again. Hey Pedro? I know the call is being recorded and I imagine you have a script. I resent you saying, again, I’ve been hiding my truck and when I hang up this call, I’m calling my attorney. [patting myself on the back here for not telling him to eat a dick]
I looked for old photos of my truck and tripped over this blog post. Holy shit, I was DONE with NYC. Also? Clearly not hiding my truck if I called the cops… I’d totally forgotten about this incident though. I’m glad I write things down and at the same time, my heart breaks a little bit that I forget whole memories like this.
I did call my attorney, but it took hours of me suffocating under my shame first. Had I done this? I made some enormous administrative mistake and now I’m paying for it. I’m a failure. What a poor excuse for an adult. This went on and on and on. I don’t remember if I resolved it in 2015. I hadn’t hidden my truck. How had I missed this? I make notes. I keep a calendar. I set alarms…
These are all things I do now, though. They’re sure as hell not things I did in 2014.
The call to my attorney was hard—he’s also a family friend. He assured me it was a mistake I’d made and I’m not a criminal or a failed adult. He did say North Carolina is a shit state to deal with debt collectors. Debt EATERS, I call them. He said it was going to come down to a few options. Prove I made the back payments from 2014 or wait to see what their settlement amount is.
And whether or not I want to pay it. He also said it’s likely going to be a lot more than what I need to spend to buy back my own truck and, if I’m certain I didn’t make the 2014 payments I should steel myself for the possibility of walking away from it. “Won’t be worth it to buy it back.”
It’s just a truck. It can’t hurt your credit anymore than it already has and you’re gonna have to walk away. Buy another car. Move on.
So. I waited for the email. For a week. Called the lender, held for actual hours, listened to recorded messages about staffing and Corona virus.
Called the Repo company to find out which Debt Eater had issued the fatwa, since my attorney suggested the original lender might not even own the debt anymore based on the phone call.
The Debt Eater rep answered their phones–nicest people I’ve talked to in this whole scenario. They had no record of my VIN, my SSN, my name. So it’s back to the original lender. Meanwhile, the truck was moved off the lot and sent to auction “across the state.”
Hours on hold. Spring arrived in Virginia, I’m [gratefully] quarantined with friends in NC but I need to make a decision. I spent hours on hold w/ the lender, to no avail. I unpacked the shame. I’ve been angry. I’ve circled back again and again to hone in on what I missed [besides nine monthly payments] and honestly. I’m done. My brain works better than it did then. I see my deficits and work around them. It’s a lot of note taking and alarm setting.
I’m not going to sit here trapped, waiting for the letter that has a dollar amount that includes “nine missed payments, late fees, claimed interest, tow fees, storage fees and the clutch job when the letter they send finally finds me” as my attorney said, for a truck I thought I owned. I’m not going to continue to kick my own ass. I’m not going to listen to the voices in my head, echoes of abusive people in my past, who say I’m worthless and a screw-up and a failure.
My attorney said not to sit on my hands waiting for a letter especially after refusing to give them the address I was calling from over the phone and demanding an expedient email. A friend talked about using social media to shame the lender for collecting on a debt five years later with no interim correspondence—but that’s shit, even in the middle of a pandemic. This isn’t a COVID-19 debt.
There are a few questions to be answered and when the world is right and people are at work and answering their phones. In 2014 I made a mistake. In 2020, it hit me square in the face. I’m glad I know it now, and didn’t come head to head with it next year when I’m getting finances lined up to buy a farm. I’m good at a lot of things, but damned if I didn’t kick this one right into the stands.
Why did I write it all down? What does it change? Saying it out loud is a relief.
I didn’t tell my friends for the first week—some of them still don’t know. “Tatonka was repo’d” isn’t a Facebook post and, if I’m honest, the shame and sense of failure was too powerful.
The ones I did tell all said some version of “Fcked that up, dude. Ok. what’s next? Move on.”
One friend laughed and said, “My truck got hauled away for unpaid parking tickets and sometimes I forget to pay the bills that aren’t done online—you don’t really think this somehow makes you a failure, right? My credit score isn’t awesome either. Tell me your ego isn’t tied to the idea of having a pick-up truck. People make mistakes. Figure it out and come home—you have a farm to run.”
I do have a farm to run, tiny though it is. I’m going to scale back the number of flowers I plant and step up the quantity of vegetables—I think this season will reveal plenty of opportunities to donate food in the communities around me. Don’t fret—I’ll still feed the pollinators and still fill my flower subscriptions. Part of the solution, not the problem. Headed home this weekend, and in the market for a used ride that fits into my “started a farm this year on a student’s budget,” budget.
I can. I will. I am.
“Better out than in,” as Shrek says.