My ex-con neighbor owes me money

This guy is violent and unpredictable; how can I get him to pay?

By Cary Tennis

Published December 11, 2007 11:49AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I'm a 29-year-old student and automotive repair technician living in a small oceanside town in California.

My fiancée is a local of this town, and we live in a dilapidated bungalow that is tattered but affordable.

For all the problems with my residence, I have acclimated to its condition, and am pleased with the trade-off considering the extremely affordable rent. About a year and a half ago one of the neighboring bungalows was rented to a man and his 13-year-old son. At first the relationship was a cordial one, and I was on good terms with both father and son. One day my neighbor's Oldsmobile Bravada broke down and, knowing what I did for a living, he requested my help. After assessing the damage, I quoted him my repair fee (which is roughly half that of automotive repair shops in our area), and he agreed to have me perform the repair. When I was finished, he paid almost immediately (within one day). Our cordial relationship continued as before.

Six months later, his son, along with several other kids his age, vandalized my toolbox, my car, my fiancée's vehicle and our residence. When I told his father about this incident, he said only that he would "take care of it," and refused to discuss the matter further. However, the next day, the boy was out riding bikes with the same group of friends who had helped him vandalize my property the night before. This leads me to believe there was nothing done regarding discipline. Displeased as I felt, I didn't feel it was my place to tell my neighbor how to discipline his son, and made no further mention of the incident. Not wanting to stir up any trouble, I did not pursue compensation for the damages incurred (which admittedly were of a minor sort).

Three months after this episode occurred, my neighbor's vehicle broke down yet again, this time in the middle of a busy city street. He called me immediately from his cell, urgently requesting my assistance. Without reservation I agreed to help, though the repair was of a much more serious (i.e., expensive) nature this time around. I helped him tow the vehicle back to our street, and then stored it in my garage while I performed the necessary repairs, which after five days added up to $300 worth of parts and an additional $500 in labor (which incidentally is less that half of what a shop would have charged him for the same repairs). When I returned his vehicle, I assumed (perhaps stupidly) that he would greet me with payment in hand, as he had done before.

Instead I got the brushoff, my neighbor lamely asserting that he would have to make a couple of payments to me for the labor, since the parts had been so expensive. Though I was hesitant to agree, I also knew that he was paid weekly (and far more than I per hour), and agreed, assuming he would pay promptly. After the first two weeks of payments (which were both far less than he had indicated they would be), he demanded that I give him an extra week before the next payment. Not knowing what else to do (march him down to the ATM with a gun to his head?), I reluctantly relented. Now, two months later, he has dragged this thing into a total debacle, and still owes me a sizable chunk of the money. A week ago I went over to his house in an attempt to collect and was met with threats of physical violence, culminating in my neighbor's zooming in to within an inch of my face, snarling that he would have little problem "kicking my ass." Knowing his ex-con status, I've little doubt.

How should I deal with this? I desperately need the money, as my fledgling business is sapping my financial resources dry, not to mention my other bills and the approaching holidays. And aside from the money issue, I no longer feel comfortable living next to someone who is willing to resort to physical violence to avoid his obligation to pay a legitimate debt. I want to stay where I live, but I am increasingly worried that he will use vandalism, coercion or worse to threaten me or my fiancée. I don't think I have much legal footing, as I repair cars on an independent basis, and therefore don't have the options that other businesses have as far as debt collection. I've considered small claims court but am hesitant to turn to litigation, as it could quickly become a his-word-against-mine situation, which has the potential to make living next to him even worse. And (petty and morally reprehensible as this may be) I've even considered making a concerted effort to simply get him to move somewhere else -- I'm definitely not the only one in the neighborhood who is not a fan of this man and his son. He has drunken screaming fights on the phone with his girlfriend in the middle of the street at all hours. He loathes neighborhood pets (particularly his immediate neighbor's) and has vowed -- in all seriousness -- to back up over them in his van if ever the opportunity presents itself. His son (aside from his accomplishments as a vandal) is also a menace to neighborhood animals (mine included), and has terrorized (and injured) more than a few cats and birds with his BB gun.

My fiancée tells me to just "let it go," that there's nothing I can do but just take it and pretend as if nothing ever happened. But I can't not do anything; I worked my ass off to earn that money, damn it, and it's rightfully mine. But how can I possibly get this man to pay me without violence, threats or the legal system?

Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Euro-car Guy

Dear Euro-car Guy,

I don't think there is any way you can get this man to pay you all the money he owes you without resort to, as you say, violence, threats or the legal system.

So I'll just say it: I have a strong bias toward the peaceful resolution of conflict. So what I would like to see you do is go to your neighbor in a spirit of reconciliation.

As a practical matter, do not go to his front door without calling first. He may think you are there to collect the bill, and he may attack you before you have a chance to put forth your proposition.

Instead, try to see him on neutral ground, perhaps taking advantage of an opportunity when he is on the sidewalk or out in front of your place. Or call him on the phone and ask him if you can come talk with him face to face.

Tell him that it's very simple: For you, the most important thing is that you remain good neighbors and on friendly terms. Ask him what he thinks would be a fair price to settle this matter. Tell him that you are willing, in the spirit of brotherhood, to abide by what he thinks is a fair price, even if it is zero. Put no preconditions on it except that whatever he wishes to pay must be paid within a week.

Just present yourself to him as a man who wants to conclude this thing amicably and who places good relations with others above monetary considerations.

And then abide by what he decides. Perhaps he will take advantage of you. But perhaps not. Perhaps he will surprise you.

My reasons for suggesting this are simple. Yes, this man may be a terrible man in many ways. But how is it going to help you to be in constant conflict with him? How is that going to help anyone?

I just wonder how life in this country might be changed if uppermost in our minds when we approach matters of business were not the idea that we must get a fair dollar for our services and that we must bend others to our will if they do not pay promptly, but instead the idea that we are entering into sacred transactions with remarkable human beings in a spirit of brotherhood, that what we want to give them is more rather than less, that what we have is an opportunity for service, that what we are doing we would do for free if we could, that what each transaction is, really, is a chance to try to be our highest selves, our best selves.

In living with neighbors, as in doing business with strangers, I often wonder how the world would be if we approached each interaction, especially each difficult and conflict-ridden interaction, as an opportunity to practice a spirit of brotherhood, even to the point of personal sacrifice. In doing so I imagine that we could bring little pockets of peace into the world. I think about these little pockets of peace. I wonder if they could grow. I think about how it might be if thousands and thousands of these little pockets of peace eventually grew so that most of our society reached the consensus that peaceful interaction and peaceful resolution were the norm, to the point that it would seem exceedingly odd, almost insane, for anyone to suggest that the payment of a debt must be coerced.

Such a world would bring great stresses and uncertainties, of course. Living in such a world would require a radical faith in humanity. It would not be easy. It would be like anarchy!

But I would like to see us try to develop that radical faith in humanity. Sometimes it looks like that's the only thing that will eventually save us from killing one another.

So why not start in your own neighborhood, in the spirit of the holidays?

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