“Everybody I know is dead. All the big shots that hung around the Grant Grill; they’re all dead now.” The liver-spotted hands of Kent Parker clench, relax. “San Diego was a much tougher town then too.” At age 87, he’s been “serving process” — subpoenas, complaints, temporary restraining orders, divorce notices — to San Diegans since “then” — 1937.
It’s 8:00 a.m. on a Thursday. Parker’s day started three hours earlier, when he arrived at the Hillcrest offices of Lemmo Attorney Service. He smiles broadly. “Five in the morning till five in the afternoon; we get here early to serve process on some folks before they leave for work.” His suit is freshly pressed; a Shriner’s pin in the lapel sparkles. But life isn’t quite as tidy as he’d prefer.
Like that time over on El Cajon Boulevard, in the late ’70s. Parker rubs a thin, white scar over his upper lip. “Went to serve a colored fella a divorce action. I was being nice to him, ’cause that’s my natural personality. It didn’t matter to him, though. He just reached out and swiped me with a razor blade. Opened up my lip.”
After that, Parker started carrying Mace. He pulls back his suit jacket to show the can in its leather holster. “I keep it right here, where it’s easy to get to. Certain neighborhoods, I’ll have it out ready in my hand. I also carry a gun at night. Twenty-two caliber revolver.” Parker admits the firearm is more for show than anything. “I haven’t had to shoot at anyone yet…don’t know if I could. I’ve Maced a few guys getting ready to hit me, though.” His preferred method? “Spray ’em in the eyes. Spray ’em in the eyes, drop the notice at their feet, and leave.”
He leans forward and stage whispers. “My wife worries about me, wants me to give it up. But I got nervous energy! And there’s lots of money in it, and I like money!” He explodes into high-pitched giggles, eyes shimmering behind bifocals.
According to Parker’s 29-year-old boss, Mike Lemmo, a good process server can make up to $1000 a week, receiving 50 percent of the amount a client is charged per delivery. “Kent’s probably my best server. He’s well known in this town, and yeah, that’s good for my business. Plus, I consider him my mentor. You know, he was the first private process server in San Diego.”
True, admits Parker. “It was before the war. San Diego had a grand population of 180,000 people. I was an investigator for a lawyer, and Judge Ed Luce — ’course, he wasn’t a judge anymore, but they called him ‘Judge’ anyways — Judge Luce calls me up and says, ‘Kent, I got a toughie.’ This fella had been ducking the sheriffs for days; they used to serve all the process in San Diego. Well, I got it served right away, and Luce asked me how I’d like the job permanent. Pretty soon I was in bidness!”
Parker employed various methods to track people who didn’t want to be found. “You’ve gotta have your ‘gags.’ your ‘ins.’ I had an in with the social security people, the police department, the Department of Motor Vehicles…heck, a cop can find and arrest you if he knows where you are, but he couldn’t find a bale of hay if it fell on him! The cops used to call me for help!
“Why, once I skip-traced a gal that hung around a bar down on Fifth. I knew she liked the Navy guys, you know…liked to do things with ’em, so I called her at the bar and said, ‘I’m Ken Scott.’ She said, ‘Do I know you?’ ‘Sure,’ I said. ‘I’m with the U.S.S.…” He interrupts himself, his voice leaping into falsetto. “‘I remember you!’ she says. ’Course, she had never laid eyes on me, till I served her.” Not all of Parker’s targets were common lowlifes. He delivered a subpoena to then-President Richard M. Nixon (“very pleasant”) up at San Clemente and served California Governor Ronald Reagan (“He wanted me to stay and talk a while”) twice. San Diego businessman and Nixon crony C. Arnholt Smith, under indictment in 1973 for alleged illegal campaign contributions to the president, received Parker-delivered summonses numerous times. Parker banked at Smith’s United States National Bank, and both men saw the same physician. “I’d say, ‘Arnie, this is killin’ me, and he’d say, ‘I understand, Kent, I understand.’” Of the San Diego luminaries he’s served over the years, Parker wryly observes, “It don’t take too long to get into trouble when you’re in the public eye.”
Meanwhile, Parker was having some trouble of his own. In 1968, he was shot in the collarbone while attempting to deliver a divorce notice on Imperial Avenue. “Used to be, I could walk down Imperial at midnight. Now, I wouldn’t want to walk down it in the middle of the day!” Divorce papers were always the toughest, no matter what part of town he was in. “You never knew what a fella might do. If I saw ’em getting worked up, I’d tell ’em a little white lie. Say, ‘I just got divorced myself three days ago.’ It softened ’em up.” He doesn’t serve many divorce actions these days. “People aren’t getting married anymore; everybody’s living in sin!” proclaims the devout Methodist.
Several years after the shooting, Parker was injured again, reading a notice of bill collection. “I’m standing there with my head bent down — you had to read these things out loud in those days — and the fella picked up a coffee table and hit me in the head with it. I never saw it coming.” He pats his temple. “Fractured my skull; I sued him and won $1000 dollars.”
Wiser now and better armed, the octogenarian is still vulnerable to those who regard an elderly man as easy prey. Last year, at a Southeast San Diego location he still visits, he walked around the back of an apartment complex to serve an eviction notice. “These three kids, 16, 17, come up behind me. I never thought for a second…they moved in on me, surrounded me. They took my Mace, cut away my pants to get at my wallet.” He shakes his head at the memory. “I told ’em, ‘No use taking those credit cards in there; I’m just going to call them in stolen.’ They didn’t care. A colored fella on the porch watched the whole thing.” His voice rises in indignation. “I said, ‘Hey! Why didn’t you call the police?’ He just laughed at me. Those guys over there never tell on each other.” Now Parker just carries a few dollars, “just to keep the crooks satisfied. Some of ’em get mad if you don’t have any money at all.”