Part 1, 2, 3, 4

There's a black glass skyscraper in the heart of downtown Memphis locals call the bankruptcy building. On the 11th floor, in what looks like a clean bus terminal waiting room, hundreds of walk-on characters play their brief parts in the bankruptcy drama. There are rows of grey plastic chairs. Lawyers huddle with bankrupt clients. They're here to negotiate deals with federal trustees to pay off as much of their debt as they can.

Some people say bankruptcy is part of the culture in Memphis.

"Memphis is known for the blues, Beale Street, barbecue and bankruptcy!" jokes one of the lawyers.

U.S. Bankruptcy Trustee George Stevenson (left) handles one of the busiest bankruptcy courts in the country with 30,000 active cases.
Photo by Chris Farrell

Trustee George Stevenson sits in front of a computer and pulls up one of 30,000 current cases. At his elbow are a middle aged woman and her lawyer.

"Ah, this is a motion to surrender. Is this the house you've been living in?" asks Stevenson.

"Yes sir," answers the woman.

"And you're going to let that go. Tell us why," Stevenson prompts.

She answers, "My husband's on drugs. He abandoned me, so I left the house and now I've been paying garnishment, which is $700, plus rent, because I had to move. The house is vacant. Here are the keys! I can't afford to maintain a house, so I'd rather give the house back."

Without a mortgage payment, she can catch up on her other bills. The meeting takes a little over a minute. A young woman in a sweat suit and her lawyer are next.

Stevenson starts off, "You've been having trouble making your plan payments?"

"Yes, I was laid off from my job in November," responds the young woman.

Stevenson asks whether it would help if she had some extra time to make the payments.

"There is a point at which we can't give you any more time," he warns, "but hopefully another four weeks?"

The woman nods.

Stevenson listens to story after story. There's a father whose drug- addicted daughter drained him of money. A woman with a failing drapery business. A mechanic behind on his house payments. In each case, Stevenson makes suggestions and offers encouragement.

"Maybe in the mornings you could go out and try to find a better job, before you go to work," Stevenson suggests to one man.

"I'm trying," responds the man.

Stevenson remains encouraging, "Just keep trying. Do the best you can. Okay?"

Continue to part 2

©2018 American Public Media