By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Illustration by Geoffrey Grahn|
THE CEILING FAN SPINS SLOWLY in this bright white office and the clock with roman numerals announces 1:37 on a rainy Friday afternoon with not much happening.
From the palm-lined parking lot in front of his office Bert Potter looks directly across the street at the bright new prison with its creepy slit windows, its air of stony modern-medieval menace. Sometimes when business is slow and the phones aren't ringing, which is often enough, Potter wanders outside and, gazing at his enigmatic neighbor, wonders what is up over there. A couple of times a week there'll be sirens and a swarm of ambulances and later he'll hear reports of another riot, but he really doesn't know. Then he'll see a limo leaving the reception gate down the block, surrounded by other cars that seem to be operating like bodyguards. What is that -- some VIP sleazoid and his pals, or something else? Much that goes on over there is not known, remains in the province of rumor and speculation, though the two young guys in suits like Mormon missionaries he sees working the sidewalk in front of the visitors' center are not mysterious at all. (Mormon missionaries wouldn't wear the $200 Bally shoes, wouldn't have the French cuffs.) Bert Potter knows exactly what these dandies are up to -- smiling, handing out fliers like politicians, like Harold Hill selling trombones in River City -- and Bert Potter doesn't like it. "It's like the Clintons and what they did to the presidency," he says with mild, thoughtful indignation. "You know, some things should remain sacred. Those guys over there are pushing things to the edge . . . and it will come back on the rest of us."
The "us" he refers to are his fellow bail bondsmen, or "bail agents" as many prefer to be called, practitioners of a trade to which the word sacred is not often attached. NO BAIL SOLICITATION ON PREMISES, warn posters on the walls of courthouses and jails, as if bondsmen were some particularly pesky form of panhandler. At 60, after 30 years at the same stand, Bert Potter is something of an elder statesman of the profession, and he doesn't like the idea of some kids (the suits are both in their mid-20s) stirring things up. Even their company name is provocative: BAD BOYS BAIL BONDS, say their cards, and with it their cheerfully empathetic motto, BECAUSE YOUR MOMMA WANTS YOU HOME.
Cuffed, booked and behind bars, and when they've been sooo bad that bail is the only way back outside, most people go directly to the Yellow Pages for help, where "Chickie" offers freedom for sale (call Chickie and she comes to you anywhere, anytime), along with "Aladdin Andy" and "Deep Water" ("Don't go to bed with a price on your head"). And even good old Bert Potter, whose Central Jail Bail Bonds ad is quietly straightforward, anticipating the sort of trouble you might be in (spousal abuse, narcotics, misdemeanors and felonies). Those dapper Bad Boys meanwhile are out there offering information and advice to people who often don't really understand what bail is or how it works. EXERCISE YOUR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT, their flier says on one side, and on the other, No se exigen fianzas en exceso, ni tampoco multas impuestos en exesos. Tampoco un cruel y inusual castigo contra usted (Enmienda III, Constitution de los Estados Unidos America).
And sometimes it actually works, as with the young Cuban lady visiting her brother, already two weeks behind bars on a narcotics beef -- she took the flier home, showed it to her mother, who called the Bad Boys. Out they went to her home in East L.A., judged her of sufficient stability and means, and wrote the $40,000 bond. Like they had said, the son got cut loose because his momma wanted him home.
Bert Potter is not amused.
THE BUG ZAPPER AWAITS A FLY, a bit like the tow-truck guy out in the parking lot poised to jack up his latest victim. The ceiling fan spins slowly in this bright white office and the clock with Roman numerals announces 1:37 on a rainy Friday afternoon with not much happening. When last seen by this reporter two months before, Bert Potter was leaving for Colombia the next day to pick up a bail jumper.
"You want to come?" he had asked his visitor, who did not for a minute believe he was serious, though it is sometimes hard to tell with Potter. "Sure," the visitor said, not giving it another thought. Now the visitor asks, "So how was Colombia?" And Potter says:
"And why was that?"
"Suicide," says Potter, who then pauses and adds in his usual careful fashion, ever alert not to say more than he needs to say, "Apparently he'd been dead four days." Another thoughtful pause. "They said he had deteriorated quite a bit."
"Do you believe that . . . suicide . . . really?" Bert Potter is asked.
"I accepted it," he says after yet another pause.
He is at command central, behind his desk in his office, which is within a larger office. There are two windows here so he can keep his eye on things (the glass is mirrored so he can see out but no one can see in), and as he talks he watches the exchange between one of his associates and a small Asian woman. His expression is in its usual poker-face lock-down position, yet there is the slightest flicker in his eyes, a minuscule twitch in the corner of his mouth that suggests some mild degree of amusement when he says "I accepted it." Asked who one would deal with in such a case -- let's be real here, it is Colombia after all -- as vaguely as possible he says something about a lawyer-middleman he knows, and, as a carefully ambiguous afterthought, "Sometimes the army . . . Sometimes the police."