a douche, a baseball bat and judge judy: renting my house to a delinquent tenant

by caitlin meredith

In April of 2008 I quit my job at the local health department in Austin and flew to Nigeria to help track and treat a meningitis epidemic with my on again, off again employer Doctors Without Borders. It all happened so quickly that I was barely able to pack my bag for the summer, much less rent out my house. Fortunately I had a couple of pro bono property managers willing to take the case: my parents. From their home in Northern California, they tried to allure a summer tenant through Craigslist. After several flakes and false alarms, they finally found a renter that seemed perfect.

Penny needed a place for her and her college-aged son to stay for the summer while the house she had just bought got work done. She happily agreed to pay the rent, the security deposit and the utilities. Over the course of the summer she and my mom exchanged countless e-mails all with some small business purpose but that more often than not drifted into more personal terrain. She sent a photo when a large branch fell off of one of the pecan trees and broke part of the fence and told of the condo they had found for her son where he would live during his third year at college in Flagstaff. My mom asked her about the rent deposit and sent her detailed instructions about how to retrieve your voicemail when you don’t have your cell phone with you after Penny told her she lost hers. Reading through them you see two empty-nesters sharing tips and observations about this chapter in their lives. There’s a real warmth there – both expressed the desire to meet in person one day. Something about this relationship confirmed all of our best feelings about Austin, reminding us of the kind of kind hippies that used to live in Marin. When it got closer to my return from Africa, Penny even offered to pick me up from the airport. That’s good people.

A few weeks after my return, however, the touchy feelies turned to touch and go. I started to try to piece together the fragmented finances of the summer to find out if I owed my parents money or vice versa. As I sorted through e-mails, bank statements and scribbled notes the math didn’t come out right. A whole month’s rent was missing and the utility payments for the whole summer. My parents had known there was some confusion about which bank account information Penny had been given to make her deposits – they were property managers by default not profession, remember – and had been in touch with her to try to track it down. Was it my Bank of America checking account or Credit Union savings account? Or maybe it had been my dad’s checking account? Or…it might be possible that it was my mom’s B of A account. Never once suspecting she hadn’t actually made the payments, my mom cautiously asked her over e-mail if by any chance she remembered which account she had deposited the money into. She was careful to assure Penny that not for a minute did they think she hadn’t paid it, they were just trying to get “ducks in a row” before I came home. Penny responded with assurances, saying that she was traveling but when she got back to Austin she would let them know. They were in touch about several things over this time so it was just part of an ongoing conversation.

But when I got home and tried to contact her about the missing funds,  all of a sudden the conversation ended. She didn’t answer my e-mails. When my mom heard this she was convinced that there was an e-mail problem so she called Penny on her cell. Penny said she was traveling so hadn’t been reading her e-mails but would call me first thing when she got back to Austin so we could sort the money out. No call. I started to get nervous. I needed this money. I had just started graduate school and my aid worker summer salary had been meager at best. Another thing going on at this point in my “relationship” with Penny, was the house clean up. The state of the house wasn’t terrible, but it left a certain, less than wholesome impression. I wasn’t thrilled with the long blonde hairs jamming up my vacuum, or the smell of smoke clinging to my curtains (a violation of the lease) but the point of no return in my evaluation of the situation was the Massengill douche I found underneath my bed. OK, granted it was unopened, but that makes it only incrementally better. Who uses a douche in this day and age? The only reason I even know about them is from the full page ads in Seventeen magazine in the eighties. And why, why, wouldn’t you keep better track of them if you did use them??

Further coloring the picture was the neighbor report. My across the street neighbors gave me the full run down. Visitors at all hours. Delivery trucks coming and going. Smoking. Painting. Painting? Yes, apparently Penny painted a picnic table on my front lawn with a State of Texas flag motif. The tone and eyebrow raises of my grandmotherly neighbor suggested activities akin to drug dealing and prostitution. It sounded like a really active eBay seller to me.

Even though Penny turned out to be a freer spirit than we had imagined, it was still impossible to connect the dots between this caring, warm e-mail personality with the deadbeat debtor tenant. It took a few more weeks for the denial and disbelief to transform to anger and outrage in the Meredith family. Once it got firmly lodged, I started researching small claims court.

The process is actually quite straightforward. The only sticking point for me was that I needed a street address to serve her with legal papers. As I looked through the rental application and all other info my parents had on her I realized we only had a P.O.Box (Lesson #17: Always get a street address from someone who might one day owe you money!)

But fortunately, Penny had failed to cover her tracks. During the summer she asked my carpenter (who showed the house initially and fixed a few things during the summer) to give an estimate for building a fence around her new house. When I asked him what her address was he didn’t remember, but said he’d recognize it if we drove around the neighborhood. So one afternoon I picked him up and we drove up and down the streets in the neighborhood. At one dead end he pointed his finger. He needn’t have bothered. Right in front of the house was the famed painted flag of Texas picnic table. I scribbled down her address and noted the vintage Land Cruiser in the carport and old Mercedes parked out front. I fantasized a scene where the Travis County Sheriff staggered out of the front door holding her TV set.

That evening I called my mom with the good news: I could finally sue her. With a concrete street address at her disposal my mom was less concerned about due process. Baseball bat is what came to her mind. “Mom,” I explained to her, “Judge Judy would disapprove. Even when one party is clearly in the wrong that does not excuse the other party from excessive retaliation. In Judge Judy’s courtroom, Mom, being wronged does not make you right.” My mom backed down, but I knew her revenge fantasies had just begun.

The next week I drove out to the Travis County Court and filed my small claims petition. All you have to do is fill out the form with who you’re suing, what their address is, the amount of money you are suing for, and what it represents. I itemized the missing rent, unpaid utilities and a few miscellaneous household items that had been broken or gone missing. We are not talking big ticket items here. Most would argue that the things I listed weren’t even medium ticket items. But can I just say, for the record, that it took me weeks to find a kitchen rubbish bin with the perfect dimensions and that they were no longer carrying it at the store I finally found it at? How do you put a price tag on that?

Anyway, I filed the paperwork. Fast forward a week or so and my mom came to visit for a few days. Top on her agenda was a drive by of Penny’s house. I don’t know if she was secretly accumulating toilet paper, bottle rockets and shaving cream in the guest bedroom, but I wouldn’t put it past her. I reminded her of Judge Judy’s scathing disapprobation.

Before we got a chance to go on the drive by, however, I got a phone call. It was about five o’clock in the evening. My cell phone rang showing a California number. “Hello?” “Hi. This is Rachel from the television show Judge Judy. I understand that you’re suing one Penny Britton for not paying rent and stealing stuff from your house. We would like to know if you would like to argue your case in front of Judge Judy. If so, we will fly you and one witness to Hollywood, California!” I nervously giggled, sure that at some point the Candid Camera (phone version) would reveal itself, but it didn’t. Instead, Rachel from Hollywood wanted more details about the stolen items. “Well, it was just some household things, um…” “Like what?” “Umm, like the lid of the kitchen trash and a few skirt hangers, a tape measure, a hammer…” But instead of boring her, the ridiculous list only seemed to excite her. While I was going through the items, my mom walked into the kitchen where I was talking on the phone. “Who is it?” she mouthed. “Judge Judy!!!!!” I stage whispered, with my hand over the mouthpiece, with my best try at “can you believe it?” eyebrows. My mom barely paused on her way out of the kitchen. She waved her hand at me the way she does when she wants everyone to stop teasing her. “Ha ha,” she said as she went back into the living room.

“So would you be willing to come argue your case in front of Judge Judy?” There was such vim and vigor in Rachel from Hollywood’s voice. I already felt like Judge Judy was on my side. But, when it came to answering her, I was paralyzed. I had just started journalism school and the previous day’s class had been about the fatality of journalistic involvement – journalists were supposed to report the stories, not be the stories. At the time, when I had the ridiculous notion that I actually might get a job as a journalist one day (ah ha ha ha!!), I worried that an appearance on Judge Judy might jeopardize my illustrious journalism career. One rarely thinks, as one watches daytime TV reality courtroom shows, Wow, that plaintiff sure has integrity. The other part of me, however, knew that if I turned down an opportunity to be on Judge Judy my friends would never forgive me. I decided to stall Rachel. “If you get Penny to agree to be on the show, which I very much doubt, call me back.” Rachel agreed.

When I got off the phone my mom asked again, “So who was that?” “It was a producer from Judge Judy,” I repeated. When I finally convinced her, we were both in shock. Had all of my Judge Judy references somehow cosmically summoned her? How else could they have possibly known about my suit? We finally figured out that they must pay scouts all over the country to pick through the tawdry petitions in small claims court sifting for daytime TV gold. I didn’t know whether to be flattered or offended by Rachel’s enthusiasm for my case. Had I come off on the phone as someone that would give good TV, snarling and snorting like a race day greyhound?

I told my mom about the deal sweetener Rachel had thrown out there. “Mom, she told me that they will fly me and one witness out to Hollywood, California!” We both laughed. Rachel talked to me like I was some hick from a rice farm in Texas, to whom Hollywood might seem the height of glamour and sophistication. In reality my mom is from Hollywood – she went to Hollywood High School – and we both know the gritty reality of its faded glory. Ah well, let’s see what happens.

The next morning a DHL truck pulled up in front of the house and delivered an overnighted letter. It was from Rachel, on Judge Judy stationary. It was a pre-agreement, outlining the details of our phone conversation with a hand-written message that she’d be in touch. More laughing, more “this is crazy” agreements between my mom and me.

Five o’clock that afternoon, my phone rings again with another California number. “Hello?” “Hello, is this Caitlin Meredith?” “Yes…” “ Hi, this is Alan from the television show Judge Joe Brown, I understand….” Before he could finish his sentence I was laughing so hard he could hear it. “Um, ma’am, can I ask why you’re laughing?” I had to interrupt my mouthing to my mother “Judge Joe Brown” to tell him that Judge Judy had called the evening before. Wow did that kick start him into action. “Do you remember which producer called you? Did you sign an agreement? Do you have any preferences between the two shows? If so, why?” Sadly for Alan his rapid fire questions were lost on me. I wanted to tell him to hang up because I was holding out for the People’s Court. I admired the way Judge Milian had taken over for Judge Wapner on that storied bench. Instead I gave him the same spiel I gave to Rachel. “If you can get in touch with Penny and she agrees, call me back.”

The next morning at 8AM the DHL truck (heretofore unknown at my house) showed up again with another special delivery. This time a letter from Alan on Judge Joe Brown stationary with the same deal as Rachel’s.

Needless to say, I never heard back from Rachel or Alan. Penny, or “The Grifter” as my mom started to call her, either couldn’t be found or didn’t agree. If they did reach her it’s funny to think we both were probably dining out on that story for a couple of weeks.

I won my suit in small claims court – it was a default judgment since she didn’t show up. I won every item, even the replacement for the kitchen trash can and skirt hangers. She now owes me $1,872.04, which has been accruing interest at 5% since the judgment day in 2009. It’s very unlikely I’ll ever see the money –Texas laws favor debtors – so I’ll never get to live out the fantasy of watching the sheriff trundle out of her house with the TV, but I did get to put a lien on her property so she’ll have trouble moving or refinancing until she pays me.

My mom was so bent out of shape about this whole Penny business – understandably so – that the more I thought about it, the more I could imagine her being one of those disruptive witnesses that are thrown out for “contempt” of court. The mama bear in her might not have been so contained if Penny lied or was accusatory. I had a whole new appreciation for the characters on those reality shows. They used to seem like they were straight out of Central Casting (just down the street from the studios in Hollywood.) But all of that snarling and evil eying might just be the expression of the months they’ve spent stewing in their rage, that special rage we have for those who harm the ones we love. For my mom it wasn’t the long blonde hairs stuck in her vacuum or the missing trash can lid, or even the abandoned douche underneath the bed. Someone had taken advantage of her daughter. For her, it was personal.

Penny lives on in our family life. Every six months or so there will be a Penny event. One time Facebook suggested Penny for friendship with my mom. Another, I Googled her and found out that she owns or works at a used furniture place in town. She got rave reviews for her personal service on Yelp. My mom said she wanted to go to the store on her next visit to Austin, but I still don’t trust her. The image of the baseball bat dies hard.