Sunday, March 30, 2008

Sunday Reading

Service Without a Smile: Process serving is a booming business in South Florida.

Whether it’s on the gritty streets of Bunche Park or in the marbled lobbies of condos on Brickell Avenue, everyone seems to know Seth Gissen — or at least his kind.

Grim and focused, he is known by the stack of papers under his arm, the way he peers in windows, jots down tag numbers, and queries neighbors or the concierge. When he knocks on the door, it is loud, brisk and authoritative.

He is a process server, a sworn court officer called upon to deliver official notices to homeowners that their lenders have filed foreclosure. As the mortgage meltdown hits a critical mass in South Florida, it seems that his presence in neighborhoods throughout the region is becoming almost as common as that of the mail carrier or meter reader.

”Foreclosure?” asks a young man, watching from the street as Gissen knocks on the door of a duplex in Liberty City one recent evening. In the neighborhood surrounding the property in the 700 block of 75th Street, more than 28 homes are either owned by the bank or in the foreclosure process.

”Yeah,” Gissen responds curtly. He says it is best to tell the neighbors what he’s doing. That way, he says, they are less likely to blurt out to homeowners that a process server came around, since that would mean delivering the embarrassing news themselves. Also, Gissen needs their help in tracing the owner’s whereabouts.

Does the young man know if owner Gamalyah Israelion lives in the duplex? At that moment, the tenant from the upstairs unit emerges on the lawn. Michael Ruffin is also served, as the law dictates. He has a cellphone number for Israelion, too, which puts Gissen a step closer to finding his man.

Attempts to reach Israelion by phone are unsuccessful.

As Gissen jumps into his car en route to his next stop, a $1.4 million condo in the Jade building near Brickell Avenue, the young spectator asks about his neighbor’s home: ”Is there a sale date on it?”

Gissen, 40, has been a process server since he opened his own company 17 years ago. A decade ago, he partnered with a college friend, Sean Zawyer, to open Gissen & Zawyer. The firm has steadily become one of the largest process-service firms among several hundred in Florida, delivering notices in civil cases, including divorce and personal injury.

About a year ago, business from foreclosures started to pick up. In the last two or three months, it has become a deluge.

Last month, 7,499 foreclosure actions were filed in Miami-Dade and Broward counties alone.

Last June, Gissen and his partner added a new division dedicated to serving foreclosure papers — to about 5,000 people a month, including tenants, spouses, and homeowner and condo associations, in addition to property owners. All of them, by law, must be notified when a home is headed for the auction block.

While county sheriff’s offices have their own staff of servers, law firms hire private companies such as Gissen & Zawyer for the same reasons that people go with FedEx or UPS over the U.S. Postal Service — it’s faster.

In Miami-Dade County, 122 people were newly certified as process servers in January, up from an average of 30 or 40 in entire years previously, said Walter Cordle, coordinator for the county’s certified civil process server program. He attributes the bigger number to the glut of foreclosure cases.

As the workload grows, the Gissen & Zawyer firm must hire. Since last year, it has doubled the number of employees to 25 in the office and 30 process servers who work throughout Florida. Most of them are private contractors. That makes the firm huge, according to a competitor. Most private firms have one or two employees.

Revenue at the firm has doubled in the last year, Zawyer said, without giving figures. ”It’s a dream…. Unfortunately, it comes at the expense of people being foreclosed on, which is not the greatest,” Zawyer said.

On Their Feet: Cherry Lane Theater in New York helps move new plays beyond the staged reading stage.

Playwrights who bemoan those long periods of readings and revisions that rarely lead to a production must have been intrigued last fall when the Roundabout Theater Company announced Roundabout Underground, an initiative to help usher plays by lesser-known writers to the stage. Just a few weeks ago Lincoln Center Theater declared that this fall it would present the inaugural production of its new play enterprise, LCT3. And the Public Theater, already a venerable theatrical incubator, recently started an Emerging Writers Group, which, while not providing early career playwrights with productions, will offer other resources.

Certainly New York is teeming with companies that aim to present original works, but this season’s new programs, coming as they do from established theaters with real budgets, suggest a heightened interest in cultivating nascent talent. In this landscape the Cherry Lane Theater’s Mentor Project, now in its 10th year, is trying to remain both singular and solvent.

“In the last decade we were the pioneers, and now everyone is doing it,” said Angelina Fiordellisi, the artistic director of the Cherry Lane, which has sponsored its Mentor Project matching up-and-coming writers with professionals since 1999.

“Everybody’s copying, and they’re taking all the funding too,” she said. But if she seemed frustrated, she was pleased as well: a sharpened focus on young playwrights is a good thing. “I think what’s become more and more important to people is the idea that in order for the theater to last, especially when we lose so many to film and television, we have to nurture these writers and give them hope,” she said.

Ms. Fiordellisi started her program, which annually matches three playwrights and mentors, to fill a void. “There was this black hole for playwrights between those who were students and those who had been produced in New York,” she said. “That was a niche I thought we could fill.” She found a kindred spirit in the playwright Michael Weller, who helped start the project and has been a mentor every year.

The project is offering “The Woodpecker,” a dark comedy by Samuel Brett Williams, running through next Saturday. “The Young Left” by Greg Keller will follow in April and then Deirdre O’Connor’s “Jailbait” in May.

Since the program began at the Cherry Lane in Greenwich Village, 36 playwrights have taken part. Each gets a reading, a rewrite period with help from a mentor and a stipend of $5,000. Each play is also presented in the smaller of the Cherry Lane’s theaters. The production, Ms. Fiordellisi said, makes the program unusual since many theaters offer only readings to emerging artists.

“It’s important for you as a playwright to get your work up,” said Anne Washburn (“The Internationalist”), whose mentor in 2000 was Craig Lucas. Ms. Washburn is a member of the playwrights’ collective 13P, which has as its motto: “We don’t develop plays. We do them.”

The maxim is “saucy,” she said, but the point is valid: A writer can gain only so much from readings. “You just need it up, and you need it up quick and dirty, and you need it up for a couple of weeks,” Ms. Washburn said. “It’s exciting to see theater that’s done that way.”

Yes, it is.

Politics on Main Street: Anoka, Minnesota, provides a microcosm of what issues really matter in the presidential race.

When John Campisi and Ani Sorenson bought J.O. Donoghue Books in downtown Anoka 18 months ago, they understood the gamble of a new business. But neither foresaw an economy tumbling so quickly that it would become a major issue in the presidential campaign.

For Campisi, a conservative, and Sorenson, a liberal, the evidence is on their shelves: “We are selling fewer books and buying more” from customers trading books for cash, Campisi said.

Along Main Street in Anoka, a condo project and retail developments have stalled. Foreclosures in the northern suburb have soared from 349 during the year of the last presidential election to 1,680 in 2007.

“We’re the 50-yard-line on the economy,” said Tom Gorman, owner of G’s Cafe on Main Street.

Anoka, derived from a Dakota word meaning “on both sides of the river,” is geographically and politically divided. It is one of a dozen metro-area cities that split their vote nearly equally between George Bush and John Kerry in 2004. It’s also likely to be a key political battleground this year.

And how Anoka votes in 2008 could well pivot on what the candidates say on crucial Main Street issues: Jobs. Taxes. Foreclosures. Wages.

And perhaps most important, optimism.

You probably couldn’t get a better representation of Anoka, politically, than the group of guys who gather every morning at a restaurant. On a recent day, there were two Democrats, two Republicans and three independents.

Rather than staunch partisans, Anokans tend to be independent-thinking Minnesotans who are likely to vote for the candidate based on his or her character and ideas.

At least two were likely voting for John McCain. One of the Democrats, Kenneth Bruce Robinson, acknowledged he could probably vote for either Barack Obama or McCain, but leans toward Obama. And Ralph Talbot, a retired Anoka County sheriff, likes Hillary Rodham Clinton because “I’d just like to see a woman be president.”

Despite their political differences, they all agree on one thing: The economy is bad and getting worse, and they all give the current administration poor marks for managing it. They agree that spending for the war in Iraq has had a negative impact on America’s finances.

Yet, they are not hurting too much personally. Dennis Ward, an independent, said he has cut back on hunting and fishing trips because of gas prices, but it’s young people who are feeling the sting most.

For Charlie Sell, a Republican who will probably settle on McCain, taxes are the major difference between the candidates. “I would hope [McCain] would make more tax cuts, or at least keep the Bush tax cut,” he said. Though Sell worries about the impact of the war on the economy, “I haven’t heard any good alternative” to maintain national security.

Down the street at Avant Garden, a coffee shop, the city’s 29-year-old mayor is experiencing the worst times since he was elected at age 23.

“We’re closer to recession than I can remember, if we’re not in one,” said Mayor Bjorn Skogquist. “I hear a lot of business owners talking about how sales are down, there are more foreclosures. A lot of people have made mistakes. They’ve got brand new cars, brand new furniture and –whoa — all of a sudden, there’s not money there to pay for that stuff.

“I’ve never really lived through a time when housing has been really bad,” the mayor continued. “My generation has [been prosperous]. A lot of us don’t know anything different.

“Business people I’ve talked with about the economy say, ‘If we have nothing left to produce, what is left of America?’ I’d like somebody to talk about [whether] we can keep losing jobs to other parts of the world without losing a great quality of life that we’ve known.

“And what about this endless prosperity we’re always being told about and sold? It may be too realistic for a national leader to say, ‘You know what, sometimes you have to go through corrections, bite the bullet.’ I’d like for someone to give us a dose of reality.”

Uncertainty is painful.

It also shows how important issues like what a preacher said in a Chicago pulpit or whether or not there was sniper fire in Bosnia, or an of the other inside baseball stuff really matters.

Doonesbury: Nightlights.

Opus: where the real fakes are.