Elena was a hotheaded Italian woman in her late 30s. She dressed in breezy skirts, high heels and several layers of makeup darker than her neck, giving her the appearance of a mismatched mannequin. Elena was my boss. We specialized in “expert negotiation and arbitration of credit problems.” I was 21 and this was my first real job.
I worked in the office alone for two weeks while Elena was on vacation. Before she left, we reviewed several credit reports left over from the previous Director, who took cocaine lunches and quit without notice. He used Wite-Out over the bad stuff and faxed the changes to his clients. While Elena was in Florida, I contacted 150 clients to convince each one that we would service their files without the use of Wite-Out. Naturally, I was quite relieved when Elena returned.
We were a two-girl office under the umbrella of New England Financial Corporation, a company based in Riverside, California. NEFC was a fly-by-night that sprung up in response to the mortgage crisis in the mid-1990s. The small brick building lined with purple pansies was like a Norman Rockwell painting, a pretty front to hide reality. The economy was in the dumps and consumers were under water with their mortgages. NEFC offered a solution – for $2,000 they would short sell your home and guarantee no impact on your credit.
The atmosphere in the office was fairly casual. One day I walked into the storage room to retrieve a file. The Executive Accountant suggested we close the door so we could be alone, exploding in giggles. Earlier that week, he brought his newborn son and glowing wife into the office for show-and-tell.
It was worse when he was around the General Manager. They tossed out sexual innuendos, convulsing like Beavis and Butt-head until Elena would curl her lip and displace their comments with a sarcastic punch. Luckily, for us – our office was relocated.
The new office was on the 2nd floor of an attractive business suite in Grand Terrace. I loved my job. I wrote business letters, mailed dispute forms and kept the office organized. Every 20 minutes Elena would go outside to smoke, combing through the pages of credit reports, leaving behind red-kissed cigarette butts like dead soldiers on a battlefield.
Within five months, we made good progress on our client’s files and received few negative calls. The company partners offered to put me through paralegal school.
Then, one day in early April, Elena received a phone call from NEFC. They fired their secretary, a bulbous breasted young woman who would talk about Endometriosis while dropping salad in her cleavage on our lunch break. I was called in to take her place. Elena was pissed. We had a ton of work come in – all failed clients of NEFC – no charge. She was pissed about that, too.
“Why don’t you buy yourself a bottle of Wite-Out, Mike? I can’t remove your mistakes,” said Elena, slamming the phone in its carriage.
Reluctantly, I drove to the Riverside office. The last time I remembered being there, employees would stroll by on their way to the copy machine, shoot the breeze and watch the O.J. Simpson trial on the TV next to the coffee machine. No one was around upon my arrival. The constant ringing of phone calls from desperate customers infiltrated the building. The General Manager told me to take messages. I was the only person answering the phones. One client received a 1099 from the IRS moments after waking from a stroke in the hospital. He owed $42,000. Others had similar stories.
“Sir, I’m so sorry,” I told the man, “Unfortunately, there is no one here that wants to talk to you. I recommend that you do whatever you think is necessary to take care of your situation.”
On April 13th, 1996, the day was warm and sunny when I pulled into the entrance to NEFC. Several white, unmarked cars were sporadically parked in front of the building. I parked and walked down the pathway to the door. Two men with bulletproof vests greeted me. One tall, stone-faced man was from the California District Attorney’s Office and the other, from the Employment Development Department.
“Do you work here?” the DA guy inquired.
“Yes. I answer the phones,” I said.
A suited man with a clipboard took my name and instructed me to go into the conference room. We were kept for 5 hours, interviewed by the DA and EDD personnel as a group and individually. By the end of the day, four locations in Riverside County were raided and over 100 files confiscated.
I was escorted to a chair in the conference room and sat back to watch the show like a cat on a limb with coffee in hand. Two NEFC partners and the General Manager were sitting at the long conference table. They looked like prisoners facing a firing squad; their impending doom was palpable. Dark, wet circles formed under their arms and the ceiling lights reflected the sheen on their creased faces.
After the interviews, I was released. I was dying to talk to Elena and drove to the other office. When I walked up the stairs, Elena was walking out carrying a computer monitor.
“Get out of here,” she growled. They were raiding our office, too. Not wanting to go through a second interrogation, I walked past the broad window of our office and down the other stairwell. That night, Elena came back to the office and stole some furniture, a phone and a fax machine. She asked if I wanted to go with her and take some items as compensation for the paychecks we likely wouldn’t receive. I declined.
I never acquired my last paycheck. During the months that followed, I returned to my previous job as a part-time cashier at a gas station. I had to move out of my apartment. I stayed with several friends, sometimes sleeping in my car before my shift. Two years after, I left Southern California and moved to Oregon.
I learned a lot during those 8 turbulent months at New England Financial: always keep your nose clean, if a co-worker asks you to sit on his lap – it’s called sexual harassment, you can live on bananas and Top Ramon, beware of businessmen wearing tropical shirts and never mess with an Italian woman who has a twin sister.
Company Profile for New England Financial Corporation. Updated 17 Jun 2014. Wysk.com Web. Accessed 19 Jun 2014.
Harney, Kenneth. Washington Post Writers Group. Title Transfer To Avoid Debt May Bring Tax, Credit Woes. The Seattle Times, 12 Nov 1995. Seattletimes.com Web. Accessed 19 Jun 2014.
Mulligan, Thomas S. ‘Credit-Repair’ Firms Raided in Riverside. Los Angeles Times, 13 Apr 1996. Articles.latimes.com Web. Accessed 19 Jun 2014.