Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Easy Money

The Sotos were painters whom my dad often employed as subcontractors on construction jobs. By an odd twist of fate, Dad once owned the house in which the four Soto brothers and their families lived. Understand now, the Soto brothers were not simple immigrant Mexican peasants. They were third generation Americans. Nonetheless though not immigrants, in important ways they remained simple Mexican peasants. The governmental corruption in Mexico leaves deep cultural scars that even decades on the American side of the border won't heal, and thus, it was that the Sotos had a strong aversion to all things official. When their grandfather's house (in which they all lived) was about to be put up for sale on the steps of the El Paso County courthouse for payment of back taxes, Enrique Soto came to Dad and asked if he could help assure that the Soto family didn't get evicted from their homestead.

You see, Grandfather Soto had died over a decade before, and of course, he'd made no provision for the disbursement of his meager estate. Grandfather Soto's "house" was an ant hill of interconnected dwellings that lay in the morning shadow of the El Paso County Coliseum - each of the brothers having contributed his own compartments to that communal edifice with no thought of ever subdividing the property. So in just about every way you can reckon it, Grandfather Soto's house had no single person who could actually claim to own it.

When their grandfather died, the four Soto brothers who lived in the house mutually agreed that each brother would be responsible for the ad valorem taxes in successive years. Enrique (as the oldest) took responsibility for the first year. Monche was to have the second year, Chato the third, Miguel the fourth. When year two rolled around, as a courtesy to Monche (who was having financial problems), Enrique again paid the taxes. On year three neither Monche nor Chato could scrape together the funds, so Enrique (as the oldest) again bore the burden of paying the family's debts. The fourth year caught all three bothers (Monche, Chato and Miguel) a bit short. This pattern continued until finally Enrique declared he'd had enough of their freeloading and he wasn't paying any more taxes until one of them coughed up. They were remarkably unexpectorant.

Several years into this financial gridlock (when the notice came that Grandfather's house would be auctioned at the courthouse), the taxes and penalties amounted to a back-breaking $1500, which made it quite a tempting bargain for any enterprising dealer in used cinder block. Thus came Enrique's proposition to Dad, "I have the money to buy my gramfather's houz, but could jou go weeth me to do the beeding?"

I was privy to this proposal because, although Enrique had enough money to cover the back taxes, this was (after all) an auction, and the sale went to the highest bidder. Enrique was asking Dad to back him financially if the bidding escalated beyond his pocket money. Dad (knowing Enrique to be honest) was willing, but he was a little short on cash himself, so he brought Enrique to me. I, fresh out of high school and flush with three years of minimum-wage ($1.25 to $1.40 per hour back then) earnings, had accumulated about $1800 in savings. Enrique offered to pay me $1100 for the use of $1000 of my money. If he needed to tap into my funds on the courthouse steps, he'd pay me back within two weeks. If not, he'd pay me that $100 bonus on the spot.

So on the appointed afternoon of August 1970, Dad, Enrique and I all crammed into Dad's powder-green (or more precisely, "his powdery green") 64 Chevy pickup with the duct-tape upholstery and drove downtown. I jumped out at the State National Bank and my chauffeur proceeded with Enrique to the county courthouse. After withdrawing the $1000 I walked the three blocks to the courthouse, where I found Dad and Enrique waiting for the auctioneer to begin the sale.

When Grandfather Soto's house went on the block, Dad offered the minimum bid. No one else spoke up, so we proceeded to the tax assessor's office to complete the transaction. After Enrique had rendered his tribute to Caesar, he pealed off one more C-note and handed it to me, and I then escorted all eleven Ben Franklins back to the State National. Right after I left, (as I hear it) the clerk slid the paperwork across the table for SeƱor Soto to sign, but Enrique insisted that it would be best if my dad actually owned the house. He reasoned he could just tell his brothers, "Eef jou don' like eet, go talk to El Jefe - but be careful, he might just trow jou out of hees houz!" (Just to put your mind at ease, at some point shortly thereafter, Dad actually deeded the house back to Enrique. I'm guessing Dad was even more averse to paying the property taxes on the Soto brothers' house than they were.)

And thus it was that Enrique Soto, with a single legal maneuver - brilliant in its conception, economical in its execution, and satisfactory in its conclusion - cut right through this intractable legal tangle (a Gordian knot which neither Texas State Law nor even the wisdom of Solomon was equipped to handle). From Enrique's deep artesian well of ignorance and procrastination, he drew the only pure, sweet cup that the entire Soto family could swallow.

1 comment:

Christina said...

That's awesome!

I could not have come up with a better solution.

; )