SMOKE: Defending Against Lawyers

Originally published: 28 February 2005

You know, I don't hate lawyers. I should - but I don't.

That's what happens to you when you've needed one of 'em to spring you free from Cape Town Central late on a Friday night, the alternative being a trip to Pollsmoor for the weekend and some quality time with Bubba and Friends.

But I can't say I'm first in line to get my cap signed at a lawyer convention, and you won't catch me looking lawyers up and sending them fan mail.

Them and I have been through some tough times together and I think the feeling is mutual - lawyers don't want to know about me, and I sure as hell don't want to hear from them.

The number on our postbox should read: 6A, but the "A" has fallen off which means we are now getting our neighbour's mail. Tashi found some registered mail slips in our postbox yesterday which were intended for the neighbours and took them over in the evening.

The neighbour wasn't particularly thrilled to receive them, staring at them glumly and saying it wasn't good news. Tashi - ever the slightly naive optimist - laughed gaily and said: "No, don't worry - I'm sure it will be something nice - a fun surprise".

Sometimes I just don't know where she gets her information.

The neighbour knew better, though, and repeated her earlier assertion - those slips represented trouble.

Had they been intended for me I would have felt exactly the same way as she did, because I've yet - to this day - to receive a pleasant surprise that arrives via registered mail. It's always something official instead, and if you pick it up it proves you are in possession of it.

Lawyer's letters, no doubt. I feel her pain.

When I went to university as a fresh-faced youngster with bare feet, torn jeans and a nipple fetish, I was granted a bursary loan to help pay for my living expenses (I had to live in the city, close to the drama school campus).

I spoke to the head of the drama school at the time about my financial affairs, which were pretty non-existent, and she recommended that I take that bursary loan in my second year.

The conditions were simple - pass with 60 percent or more at the end of the year and you keep the cash; get any less than that and you have to pay every cent back.

That seemed easy enough, but I wasn't counting on a complete mental meltdown in my second year which eventually led to my expulsion from university for not handing in a required essay.

They were looking for an excuse to get rid of me anyway - somebody stole the transcripts of staff meetings which were held to discuss the matter and I received those transcripts via the underground. The gist of them was that none of the staff wanted me to stay as I was a disruptive influence, and fair enough - I was.

That's all by the by, though - the point is that I was kicked out of varsity, which meant I didn't get 60 percent. Which meant I owed thousands to the university - thousands which I just didn't have and couldn't raise.

Thus began my journey into lawyer hell. I made the fatal mistake of actually engaging with the first lawyer who called and stupidly agreed to pay the amount off over a certain time period. I even made one payment of a few hundred bucks, which was also a big mistake.

It meant that there was documentation in the world - with my signature on it - in which I confirmed that I owed money, and that piece of paper was the cornerstone of the investigation into me for years and years to come.

I tried to explain to them: I was an actor. A freelance actor. I asked if that meant anything to them and they shook their collective greying pates with a detached professionalism that was frightening in its finality.

I explained that being a freelance actor meant hitting the garbage cans for old scraps occasionally and drinking water the rest of the time. Whatever work came my way would only be for a few months, after which it was back to the breadline.

There's no way you can commit to paying back large sums of money with any sort of regularity when you don't have a regular job and a reasonably decent income.

They didn't care, of course - they just wanted their client's money. Can't hate them for that - they were simply doing what they get paid very silly salaries to do.

So I had to start avoiding them. I had no other option.

I found out early on in the piece that you couldn't go to jail for student debt. I don't know if that is true or not but I believed it, which made my task a little easier.

If the worst came to the worst all they could do was attach some of my possessions, and since I had none (except my guitar) I wasn't too concerned about that either.

The only problem was that I had two different lots of family who had signed surety for me when I took the loan (I was under the age of 21 at the time), and the lawyers started getting onto them.

Technicalities prevented them from actually getting money out of my insurers, one of those technicalities being a phone call from me one day.

My ageing grandmother was one of those who signed surety but by the time they came a-callin' she was not in a financial position to pay the amount. They told her they were going to take everything that she still had away from her - this to an 80-something old woman.

So I got on the horn in a fit of rage and phoned the latest offices (the company of lawyers kept changing over the years) and told them if they ever phoned her again I would personally hunt them down and kill every last one of them. I meant it, they believed me, and she was troubled no more.

All the while interest on the loan started compounding, and compound interest over a long time on a large amount of money tends to escalate very nastily, very quickly.

It soon reached dizzying heights which I was clearly never going to be able to pay back, so all I could do was run and hide.

Which I did.

They caught up with me from time to time over the years, mainly through the cunning strategy of phoning family members listed in the phone book and pretending to be long lost school friends.

It got to the point where if I got a call from someone who sounded even faintly official I would put the phone down, call Telkom and have the number changed within 10 minutes.

I couldn't do anything else.

And it killed me, because there's nothing I would have liked to have done more than pay that money back, and even though I would get stroppy with lawyers I knew I was in the wrong. But I simply couldn't raise the money so all I could do was just keep running and hope that it would go away.

There were a couple of Incidents with sheriffs along the way, including one instance when they arrived when there was nobody but the char at home (and it wasn't even my home - I was just staying there) and they told her they were going to return with a locksmith because she wouldn't allow them in.

When I got home and found out I got in the car and drove all the way to the sheriffs department for a showdown with the lawman, but the high street was dusty and quiet and the sheriff had gone home for the day.

Just as well - I was in such a rage I would have got myself in a mite of trouble, yes sirree.

I was always holding out that after seven years the debt would be written off (I heard that from someone and lived in hope), but after a decade they were still stoically calling and being sworn at by me. Every time I heard their voices something in me would snap and I would go berserk.

Eventually I made a fair sum from a commercial I did, negotiated to have the interest on the loan waivered and paid the damn thing.

I never took out another loan again.

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
Spending time online does bad things to a person, but I'm OK.

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Copyright © Luke Tagg. All rights reserved. A few lefts as well.

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