I Broke Legs for a Living
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
There was a wicked economy to Les’ job: People who didn’t screw up never saw him so he only saw screwups, and who cared what happened to them?
By Eugene S. Robinson
In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”
Les C., Collector
Queens, New York
It wasn’t really a question of “liking” what I did. I mean, do accountants really like what they do? It’s what I did and what I’ve done, and like other stuff you do for a long time, if you keep doing it, you get better at it. Look, my dream day was I get up, I go to the gym, shower and then after my workout, I’d make a few phone calls. On a really good day, these calls paid out right away.
What that meant is that if I’m calling a guy who owes money, the best thing is that he’s heard about me, he knows who I work for, and he also knows that the phone call is going to be as good as it gets. Make them do the footwork. So the best case? If by the time I get to the end of the list the guy at the top had paid, then I could go and eat in peace.
It’s when people tried to get cute that things went badly. Now a lot of people I used to collect from were degenerate gamblers. I know it’s a sickness and I know if they could stop they would, but they couldn’t and so they didn’t. Now the people I worked for were not stupid people. Putting $60,000 on the cuff for a guy who maybe doesn’t even make that in a year was just asking for trouble. This was really just another type of financing, and no bank would do that. But we did front them money on bets within reason because most of the time, even over time, most people paid.
We catch him and beat the holy living hell out of him, but even with that, there’s an art.
The least amount I’d been sent out to collect was $400. I used to get a percentage of what I collected. The most? Around $60,000. For the $400 one, I just brought a hammer and put it on the table between us where the guy worked. He paid on the spot. The $60,000 was a little harder. No one wants to part with that kind of money. He had lots of excuses — what he called reasons. I told him it was simple and that if he didn’t pay, I didn’t get paid.
Anyway, he got tough and so I had to go out there. Now I was pissed. My day’s in the shitter, my schedule is shot to hell. We catch him and beat the holy living hell out of him, but even with that, there’s an art. I mean, if you beat him so much the guy can’t get home to his family and they have to get involved somehow, well, then it automatically gets twice as difficult since everybody has an idea of the right thing to do in this case. And, of course, the right thing is never “just pay him.”
But if you don’t beat him enough, he’s going to clown you and this is very bad for business since if people, especially degenerate gamblers, know you’re not serious, they’ll play you down to your last nickel. Also, and this is important for you to know: That was all I did. So my gym membership, my car note, protein powder, all of that came out of what I got out of you, so usually, you HAD to pay.
My girlfriend was getting her Ph.D. She knew what I did in general, but even if I was doing legal collections, for most people it’s boring enough that, you know, who cares? So she never really asked. But I’m 6’2”, 255 pounds, and I wore nothing but gym clothes, so you know …
The worse I hurt somebody? I was tuning some guy up and he started to run, and I guess he fell in a weird way as I was trying to hit him and he broke his leg. But this was toward the end since I remember thinking: “For $2,000?” So despite people maybe wanting to think that strong-arm guys are sadists, this was not the case. I wanted the money more than I wanted to hurt you for the money. But I would hurt you for the money if I had to.
I grew up poor and so at first, it felt funny to get paid what my father, a sometimes factory worker, got paid in a week just for scaring some guy over the phone. But toward the end, and maybe this went hand in hand with more amounts of money, it felt like work. Not because of the possibility of going to jail, which I never considered — I used to say, “If you hadn’t already fucked up, you wouldn’t be seeing me at all” — but because it’s hard to feel much sympathy for adult men who make mistakes and then make the same mistakes again and again. It really fucking darkens your whole take on the human race.
This was not at all like the movies. No witty dialogue. No surf tunes. It was just me and maybe another guy hurting a guy for money that he could not really have afforded to pay or gamble or lose in the first place. And then watching him do it all again after the next Super Bowl or World Series. So after a few of the people I worked for got arrested for other stuff, I made my move. Now I’m a personal trainer. I make much less money, but at least the people I’m dealing with are trying to improve themselves.