Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2008 | Andre Garrett parks his white Volvo sedan at a meter outside the Nassco shipyard on Harbor Boulevard on a hot, late summer morning. He shuffles through some papers in his black canvas briefcase and plucks out a stack, reading aloud the name written at the top. He repeats the name again and again, as if committing it to memory, as if it might disappear by the next time he looks down.

The name on the paper belongs to someone Garrett needs to find. The shipyard was the only address his client had for the man. This is the most daunting place Garrett’s ever come to do his work, he says.

“I have no idea how to get in, where to go,” he mutters to himself, sizing up the colossal fortress of shipbuilding and machinery.

He tries to enter the yard at one gate and is turned away. The same thing happens a little further up the street. Finally he finds the door for an office and walks in.

He proclaims the name of the man on his mind to a receptionist and some empty chairs.

“I’m here to serve him,” he says, holding up a stack of legal documents signed by a woman who no longer wants to be the man’s wife.

Garrett is a process server, a document filer, an interviewer, a compiler of birthdates and children’s names and assets and other tidbits of information needed to file legal documents like divorce papers. He also helps people file for child support, immigration status changes and other ubiquitous court processes very commonly misunderstood. He’s an “intake specialist” for a legal document preparation franchise.

Garrett meets with clients and puts together packets of names, bank statements, addresses and other answers to the questions on legal forms and sends it to a corporate office where attorneys fill in the official papers. Garrett’s company charges a few hundred dollars’ fee for services for which attorneys themselves might charge three or four times as much.

He hand-delivers documents to the courts a few times a week. And then, with a copy of the papers in hand, Garrett serves. He walks up to the door of someone’s house or work and says the name at the top of the paper. To the person who looks up, Garrett hands a stack of papers and announces, “You’ve been served.” Sometimes that’s enough to make the person recoil, shoving hands into pockets or folding arms behind backs.

“Sometimes I just drop it on the floor,” Garrett says. “Whether you choose to pick it up or not, you’ve been served.”

Service of process is the legal name for giving notice to someone that he’s being sued or being ordered to appear in court for some reason. It’s usually completed in person: somebody like Garrett hand-carries a copy of the documents announcing a court date or containing the complaint against the person. Then he has to find the person, using an address given by the person filing the suit or the divorce papers.

Sometimes that means waiting for the person to come home. Sometimes it means waiting outside of an office, saying the person’s name to everyone who leaves, waiting for the right people to identify themselves. Then he hands them the papers. If they won’t take them, but Garrett’s sure he’s found his target, he feels comfortable dropping the stack of paper at their feet.

Garrett’s, then, is the first face someone sees when he learns he’s being taken to small claims court. His hands carry the notice to a different someone that her ex-husband is suing her for custody of their children. His canvas bag contains the details of broken relationships, the picky pieces of split-up lives and assets and cars, the story behind the pursuit of a green card.

On this summer morning, Garrett wears a blue dress shirt, tan slacks and brown tasseled leather shoes. Most of the time, he hangs his glasses from his ears so that they resemble a beard. He chatters pleasantly with clerks and people around him, saying hello to custodians and attorneys, acknowledging a man in a wheelchair on the sidewalk and nodding to a police officer. He talks to himself, muttering, “Houston, we got a problem,” when he misplaces his keys.

He takes calls on his cell phone from friends filling out their own legal paperwork. Garrett’s expertise is a coveted resource. He offers good-naturedly to race a motor escort who pulls up next to him at a stoplight. He dabbles in stand-up comedy, he says.

But Garrett’s livelihood is wrapped up these days in the legal system, a complicated network of paper and dates and a language that is all its own. Making it function are people like Garrett — spokes in a wheel that have been allowing it to turn for centuries. Human clerks in the court offices, bailiffs in a courtroom, process servers in the streets. Garrett loves it.

“Yeah, this is a day in my life,” Garrett tells a visitor. “Filing papers, serving people…”

Garrett hasn’t always been on this side of the law. He spent a stretch of last summer in jail, serving time.

He was living on the streets. A year-and-a-half earlier, he’d moved to San Diego after he grew sick of Los Angeles, where he worked for seven years as a paralegal. In San Diego, he couldn’t find a job in the legal community. He got a couple of odd jobs painting and roofing houses, but wound up living on the streets. Eventually, feeling desperate, Garrett acted.

He went for a walk in the Gaslamp Quarter last July. At the end of the street, a vehicle was unlocked, and two laptop computers sat inside. As Garrett spotted them and reached inside to pull them out, the owners of the car came back and found him there.

There was no question what he was doing. He knew he was busted. He handed over his identification, stayed there until the police came.

“I waited ’til 50 years old to get in trouble,” he says. “The people caught me; I didn’t run. I stayed there. The amazing thing is I didn’t run. This is the creator just saying ‘Dre, it’s your time.’”

He went to jail. Forty-two days he spent there, a shorter sentence than he was supposed to serve for charges of grand theft. He was offered sheriff’s parole — an agreement to check in with a monitor regularly and stay clean and sober — in order to be released more than 30 days early. Garrett took the option and emerged from jail.

“It’s not rocket science,” he remembers explaining to a fellow inmate questioning his decision to voluntarily enroll in parole. “I mean, I want to get out of here.”

He entered a job readiness program that promises inmates emerging from prison or jail a place to live for two months and some help getting acclimated to the ways of the job market — resume help, computer resources, evaluations of handshake strength. The program is the Prisoner Reentry Employment Program run by an Encanto non-profit organization, Second Chance. Garrett still pops in weekly to the Second Chance offices — graduates have wide access to those services for two years after they complete the initial three-week program.

He found his current job, moved to La Mesa, and makes weekly check-in calls to his parole officer. The group’s motto is “Life ain’t fair! It ain’t gonna be fair! Eat it! Swallow it! Accept it!” Garrett credits Second Chance — and class No. 112, of which he’s a proud alumnus — with a lot of his turnaround.

“It’s not how you fall; it’s how you get up,” he says. “If you don’t choose to get up, you’re going to stay down.”

‘There’s Always Another Way to Skin the Cat’ | Back at Nassco, Garrett holds the documents in his hand, waiting. The receptionist places a call to someone in “legal.” Garrett peers into a candy jar on the desk.

“May I? Is that Werther’s?” he asks.

He unwraps the bronze wrapper and pops the candy into his mouth just as a stern woman swings open the door to talk to him.

“I’m sorry; we don’t accept service on employees,” she states. It seems she’s faced people like Garrett a hundred times. “It’s company policy.”

“I cannot have him summoned to the front?” he says.

“No. It’s company policy not to accept papers,” she says. “We have a shipyard to run and we can’t call people out of the yard. It’s company policy.”

They continue to argue. Garrett looks unconvinced and tells her it’s legal to serve someone at work. She shrugs, repeating the company policy. As she leaves, Garrett folds his papers lengthwise and taps them against his hand. He mutters, “There’s another way to skin the cat. Trust me, there’s always another way to skin the cat.”

Back in his car, Vivian the Volvo, Garrett brainstorms. He could send the packet by registered mail, or try to find another address for the man. This is part of what he loves about his job — freedom to encounter a problem and try to think of ways around it. He furrows his brow a bit like a trial lawyer might when presented with a piece of evidence she’d forgotten existed. Garrett pulls away from Nassco and heads to his next appointment. These papers will find their target, somehow.

Garrett drives to the Second Chance building after the Nassco dead-end. He calls his parole officer on the way, calling him “boss” and reporting his clean-and-sober status.

The people behind Garrett’s program say its value is easy to calculate, and not just by seeing graduates like him move back into the work force. Second Chance’s founder and CEO, Scott Silverman, says San Diego absorbs about 10,000 parolees every year, a number he says puts San Diego in the top five cities in the nation for parolee population.

Silverman says the vast majority of the prisoners released in the state find themselves back in prison within a couple of years. He says 95 percent of the state’s more than 150,000 prisoners will be released in the next five years, and 80 percent of those will go back to prison within two years. A California State University San Marcos study found that in a three-year period, as many as 70 percent of the program’s graduates hadn’t gone back to prison after two years.

At the Second Chance office, Garrett offer his legalese understanding for graduates of the program needing help figuring out their child support paperwork. He hands one of the agency’s staff members his card, and writes his cell phone number on the back — he wants to give personal help to anyone who needs it, he says. She asks Garrett to be a speaker in the program’s financial literacy seminar series.

“If you need me here, I can come,” he says. “They need someone who’s going to hold their hand and tell ’em what to put on the line. … I can tell them, ‘I’m the same as you. I sat in these seats. I got out of jail.’”

Garrett says he’s sometimes amazed at how daunted people are by court forms.

“Remember when you first did algebra, how intimidating that was?” he says. “That’s like court forms. What do you mean, ‘What does that mean?’ It says, ‘What are the names of your children?’”

Earlier in the morning, Garrett stopped in to Family Courts to file divorce papers for a client. He stood in line next to women and men, kids and grandmothers, attorneys and deputies, who clutched papers and rifle through files as they wait for the doors to open at 8 a.m. Around him, beneath the shelves and shelves of files, conversation topics of family strife swirled, phrases that indicated marriages were ending and children were being fought over. But it doesn’t get to Garrett.

“I separate myself from it,” he says. “It’s not me.”

He doesn’t worry about getting in trouble again. The memory of jail is too fresh.

“It’s the most horrible experience that someone will ever have in their life,” he says.

Garrett says now his main goal is to be a good grandparent when his son’s girlfriend gives birth in the next few months.

Garrett was 17, living in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and seeking a scholarship to play basketball at a university, when he had a son. It changed his life, and he joined the Navy to be able to financially support his son. Though he provided financially for him, and saw him once or twice a year, Garrett regrets now the fact that he never lived in the same household as his son.

“He was always provided for,” he says. “But you can give kids all the money in the world but kids need love — they need to be able to reach out and touch someone.”

And so he may move east to be nearer to the next generation.

“I’m going to be a granddad,” he says. “I wasn’t the best dad, so I really want to make sure I’m a good granddad.”

His 33-year-old son is an accountant in Pennsylvania. Garrett also has a 16-year-old son living in Southern California, whom he sees every other weekend. He gets restless and has lived in Oregon, Jamaica, Ohio, D.C., and a handful of other states.

Right before Garrett got into trouble last summer, he was enrolled in a truck-driving class, education for what had been a lifetime dream. As a truck driver, he says, you’re a turtle; you’ve got your house with you. He thinks he might leave the legal business soon and embrace the freedom of the road.

“I like to move; I don’t like to be complacent,” he says.

But, he assures a visitor, he’ll find the guy who works at Nassco.

“I always get my man,” he says.

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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