Every weekday, in a small room on the sixth floor of the Wyndham San Diego Hotel at Emerald Plaza, dozens of people come to close the book on their personal bankruptcies. Today eight debtors have shown up in suite 630 well before their 8:00 a.m. appointment to file for either Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 with an attorney present and in front of a United States trustee. The sit apart from one another in rubber-upholstered chairs and stare at notices on the wall. One notice tells them to read the pink form and fill out the white form; both forms are prominently displayed in plastic racks. Most cast their eyes over the notice but don't seem to read it. They look lost or anxious, thumbing wrinkled manila envelopes brimming with paperwork. A few finger the purses or wallets that once bulged with too many credit cards. Awaiting attorneys, most of them are wondering what a debt-free tomorrow will look like.
There's an African-American man with a thousand-yard stare. There's an older woman who every ten seconds shakes like a nervous poodle. Another woman is massaging arthritic hands; she's wearing a black pullover with red spangled lettering: JUST BE HAPPY I'M NOT YOUR KID. There's a young woman with sleekly thin eyeglasses and cakey makeup who suddenly awakens. She asks a man nearby for his pen. The white form. Fill out the white form. The room begins to buzz: fill out the white form. An elderly couple in blue jeans and T-shirts ask to use the ballpoint pen next. Here is a day-of-reckoning unity: almost everyone has forgotten to bring a pen. A woman sporting a bubbled hairdo (did she sleep in a chair?) enters at 7:50 and says to no one in particular, "You mean, there's no receptionist?" Even this final gauntlet must be faced alone -- until the attorney arrives, which he presently does. A very expensive suit, a stiff white collar: the knot of his tie arcs like a water fountain over a gold pin. The attorney calls names and discovers that he's representing seven of the nine cases. His clients cluster around him. "Sally McCormick?" She responds and he jokes, "This is too easy."
The pall of indifference hanging over this room suggests that long-term debt has in fact been exhausting. But the 341(a) hearing promises an end to debt. A simple end, too, with debtor, attorney, and trustee huddling together in a brief public proceeding. The proceeding is as perfunctory as it is unwatched: no one is here because they care that a debt is being erased. Though the 341(a) hearing is called "Meeting the Creditors," the creditors rarely show up; there are rarely any assets to go after. While Chapter 13 bankruptcies reorganize debts for people with assets they wish to protect, Chapter 7 bankruptcies -- which account for 99 percent of personal bankruptcies -- are "no assets" cases. These debtors have no home to foreclose (they rent); no fully owned car to sell (they'll be dissolved of what's due on their car loans but face future payments); no camera or dishwasher to give up (under the state's "wild card exemption," debtors can keep $18,350 worth of their possessions). They have nothing to let go of but unsecured debt on up to 15 credit cards, whether it's $10,000, $45,000, or $115,000.
These people will soon know a tranquility they've been missing for years; free from yellow past-due notices, free from collection agencies hounding them by phone. After today, the flag of zero-percent interest will fly. But tomorrow -- literally -- Capital One and Providian, MBNA and Avanta will begin sending applications for credit cards with $300 limits and 29.99 percent interest rates. Bankruptcy law in America has been designed to give people a fresh start; one of its consequences, though, is that the debtor is soon bound up in cycles of consumption once again. Which may well be the credit industry's intent.
At 8:00, the door to the hearing room swings open and the United States Trustee appears. The trustee, who is an officer of the Justice Department, calls in the nine debtors, who rise and enter accompanied by their attorneys. How had these people found themselves here? How innocently or unremarkably had their spiraling descent into debt begun? For most of them -- and for the 1.6 million people in the United States who file for personal bankruptcy every year -- it began with a medical emergency, a lost job, a divorce. It began with a belief that money would always be available -- received, earned, or borrowed -- and that it would buy anything. The irony is it does buy anything, even freedom from debt.
Willie's bankruptcy woes began with those credit-card come-ons that arrive by mail. "My credit was good," he says. "I got one, two, paid them off; one, two, paid them off." Things were fine for a while -- "My girlfriend was working, I was working." Willie knew that his girlfriend suffered from diabetes when they moved in together, but he didn't realize she had unpaid medical bills. He suggested she apply for credit cards just as he had, but she was repeatedly turned down: bad credit. To help defray her costs, Willie got more credit cards himself and added her name to the account. (The names of those who shared their stories for this article have been changed, as have the names of relatives, friends, and workplaces.)
Debt began accumulating, and then Willie's girlfriend lost her job. "It set us back because I couldn't pay [both] what she owed and what I owed. We had it figured out, and we didn't have it figured out. A job is not always guaranteed to be there." Her worsening diabetes prevented his girlfriend from seeking new work. Payments for medications and doctor visits mounted. I hazard a guess that his girlfriend had no health insurance. "There it is there," he confirms. All at once, the debt in Willie's name mushroomed to $30,000.