Volume 35, Number 2

A Notary Public

Jonathan B. Ferrini

Editor’s Note: To the best of my knowledge this is one of only two stories I know of that feature notary publics, the other being the film-noir classic DOA.

My grandmother Mildred was an independent woman and an entrepreneur.

As Southern California was growing by leaps and bounds in the fifties, Mildred decided to supplement her husband’s salary as a cross-country trucker with jobs as a part-time waitress, taking in laundry, sewing and cleaning houses. In addition to raising three boys, she would provide daycare service to working women who had lost their husbands in the war.

Mildred was an astute observer of the economic trends around her and decided to enter of one of the fastest-growing segments of the economy, real estate.

Mildred obtained a real estate salesman’s license, which was what it was called. She teamed up with a go-getter single woman named Ness who ran her own real estate agency. Ness taught Mildred the business of representing buyers and sellers of homes.

Ness ran a real estate office, which included mortgage brokerage, property management and her own notary public service so as to provide efficiencies in the closing of sales through escrow companies. Ness encouraged Mildred to obtain a Notary Public commission issued by the State of California.

“A notary public is a person authorized by law to administer oaths, certify documents and signatures and perform other official commercial duties. Notaries are frequently employed to witness and verify signatures on a range of legal documents.”

Mildred would often take me as a young man to and from her notary appointments, which provided me the opportunity to meet a variety of persons including home buyers, sellers, attorneys and bankers.

Ness retired and sold the real estate office to Mildred, who built it into a successful real estate agency with over fifty agents. Mildred sold the business to a national real estate company and retired. She used the generous proceeds to embark on a long-deserved vacation including a trip around the world. She provided trust fund accounts to pay for her children and grandchildren’s college tuition.

Mildred wasn’t comfortable in retirement and maintained her notary public commission, performing these duties until she passed away in her sleep.

The attorney instructed me that I was the new owner of “Mildred’s Notary Public Service,” as specified within her will.

I was teaching social studies in a private school. I didn’t have a clue how to run Mildred’s business, but I was burned out, teaching from a staid old textbook to the children of the privileged living inside posh homes behind gates, which created a bubble insulating them from the harsh realities of life.

Mildred’s attorney suggested I complete a “total immersion” course within the notary public business to determine if I liked it; otherwise, he’d arrange a sale to a competing firm interested in Mildred’s clientele. It might be time for a career change, so I agreed.

I met the owner of “Stu’s Notary Public Service, 24/7/365, anywhere, anyplace accommodation” on a Friday afternoon after school at a beat-up 24/7 coffee shop called “Sam’s Stop,” conveniently located at the offramp from the Interstate 5 freeway in Los Angeles and a few blocks away from the Los Angeles County Central Jail.

What I believed would be “total immersion” as a notary public became a graduate school education in life.

Stu was a gruff old man with a crew-cut hair style, fat fingers resembling claws and a pinky ring depicting the scales of justice. Stu wore a shirt, tie and a suit in need of a steam and press. His shirt pocket had a neatly arranged assortment of black, blue and red pens in addition to a mechanical pencil.
His briefcase, black and “attorney style,” looked like it had seen better days. Just as he was closing it, I caught a glimpse of an embossed “Certificate of Completion” for a notary public course Mildred had taught, along with a photo, which appeared to be my grandmother as a younger woman presenting the certificate to a young man resembling Stu.

Everything Stu needed to complete his work was inside that briefcase and ready. It reminded me of a movie assassin opening the case carrying a rifle to be assembled before an assassination.

Mildred’s attorney told me, “Stu isn’t not the kind of guy who wears his life story on his sleeve. If he wants you to know something, he’ll tell you. Although he may present himself as gruff, he’s a professional and a straight-shooter you can trust and learn from.”

Stu’s office was his smartphone, notary public stamp and a notebook where he recorded the signatures with thumbprints of those signing official documents. Stu’s “rolling office” was a beat-up original hybrid car and booth number thirteen inside the coffee shop, where he would hold court talking up the waitresses all hours of the day and knowing each by name. He spoke with what sounded like a New York accent, which had become less pronounced over the years.

“Hiya, Stu. Who’s ya’ handsome friend? Looks like a lawya’.”

“Introduce yourself, Max.”

“I’m Max S…”

“First name only, kid. He’s a teacher who might be takin’ over his grandmother’s notary public business. I’m gonna’ show him the ropes.”

“Ah, a teacha’. Ain’t that dandy. Watch ol’ Stuey, Maxie. He uses that pen like a sword and notary stamp like a mallet. You’ll learn the business from a guy who wrote the book on bein’ a notary. If you get him to open up about his past and wanna’ tell me, you’ll eat here for free anytime you come in, honey. Usual combo breakfast, Stuey?”

“Yeah, Letty, and the same for Max. Bring a pot of coffee so you’re not comin’ back and forth, although I enjoy watchin’ you swingin’ those hips.”

“If you weren’t married to your business, you’d take me on that date you’ve been promisin’ me for years, and you might learn a thing or two about this smart cookie, Stuey.”

His cellphone ran incessantly while he was scheduling appointments in between eating and chit chat about the business.

“Mildred was a fine notary public, but her clientele was ‘uptown’—dealin’ with sellers and buyers of homes with an occasional trust or will. I’m gonna show you the ‘downtown’ side of the biz. Brace yourself! Just watch, keep your mouth shut, and learn.”

Our first appointment was at the Central Jail.

The lobby was an assemblage of the heartbroken, disenfranchised, desperate and folks eager to free their loved ones from custody. It was poorly lit, smelled of perspiration and other malodorous fumes including toddlers running about and babies crying.

A bank of bulletproof teller-style windows included narrow slots where life savings, bail bonds, and documents were exchanged to secure release from jail.

We met an elderly aunt meeting a bail agent whose company was named “Bar Buster Bill Bail Bond Agency.” Bill was a brutish, no-nonsense, unempathetic former prize fighter who reveled in hunting down bail jumpers.

Her nephew was riding in a car whose occupants had been arrested for California Penal Code 246, which is shooting into a vehicle. Evidently, it was gang-related. Bail was set at two hundred and fifty thousand for the boy’s release. The fee for the bond was twenty-five thousand dollars, which was the customary ten percent fee to the bail agent.

The aunt agreed to have Bill place a lien on her home she owned free and clear, paid for by decades of cleaning floors in downtown office buildings. She’d have one year to pay Bill the twenty-five thousand dollars and six percent interest in cash, refinance or sell the home to remove Bill’s lien.

Her heartbreak, disappointment and anxiety of possibly losing her house if the nephew didn’t show up in court as promised were palpable. “My deceased sister tried to raise the boy alone but had no man at home. When she died, he found a home with a gang. I was too busy raising my own family to take in another to my home. I’m guilt-ridden and must help the young man in memory of my sister.”

I learned the notary protocol was designed to avoid unnecessary conversation, obtain the aunt’s identification, signature on the trust deed, and Stu’s notary stamp alongside her signature. The job was completed in less than fifteen minutes, and we were on our way to the next job.

As we were leaving, newly released inmates scampered from the lobby and into the streets, eager to meet friends, family and relatives or jump into waiting taxis which lined the sidewalk in front of the jail. Many were still wearing their jail identification wristbands.

“Why would a taxi want to pick up a guy just released from jail, Stu?”

“A guy just out of jail isn’t likely to stiff a cabby ’cause he don’t want to end up back in the pokey. Cabbies tell me these are the safest, longest and most quiet of their rides with business flowin’ out of that jail twenty-four hours a day, every day.”

We drove to a modest convalescent home where we were meeting the grieving family of an elderly woman who was conscious but dying. It was her desire to complete a last-minute will, to which Stu said, “Most people put off a will ’cause they don’t want to think about death or believe they’ll live forever. The Grim Reaper is always lurking not far behind all of us. It’s better to plan in advance for death with a will or trust, but I’m happy to provide this essential service, as it puts what might be the final smile on the clients face.”

The elderly woman was propped up in her bed and proudly proclaimed that she had saved nearly one million dollars cleaning the lavish homes of the wealthy while living frugally after her husband passed decades earlier.

She boasted that her life savings had been safely placed within U.S. Savings Bonds and her will would bequeath the savings to her grandchildren, including a medical doctor and pastor.

Our next stop was at a divorce attorney’s office.

“These are the worst jobs, Max. You’ll never see more hatred and vitriol than in a divorce settlement.”
The husband and wife were silent as they both signed the settlement and custody agreement. The attorneys appeared exhausted and happy to be rid of an “ugly case” as Stu called them.

I noticed a sublime regret, disappointment and uncertainty about the future in the faces of the husband and wife, as they would move through life sharing custody of six children.

Stu worked extra-quickly, moving like a trained surgeon, exacting the necessary identifications, signatures and stamping the settlement agreements. He nearly dragged me by the collar to get out of the office quickly.

“The fireworks and munitions volley often occurs after the settlement, Max! It’s better to get the hell out fast or become collateral damage.”

During our drives to these appointments, Stu was answering calls and booking appointments. I concluded each call was an opportunity for Stu to distance himself from the emotional traumas he’d otherwise carry around like PTSD.

We arrived at a hospice resembling a five-star hotel. We were escorted into a beautifully appointed bedroom with an ocean view from the top floor.

Stu’s client was a young woman who likely was approaching thirty years of age, but her body was ravaged by a fast-spreading cancer, which had eaten her to the bone. She spoke of her career as a prima ballerina, traveling the world.

As Stu was quickly readying his materials so as to make a hasty retreat, I engaged the dying woman in perhaps a final conversation as she was eager to speak of her life.

“I was always chasing the next performance.

“Too busy for romance.

“Dance was my only love.

“I have no family but only the conservatory to whom I’m leaving my estate.

“I want to thank you for speaking to me.

“I’ve noticed people are uncomfortable around the dying.

“Live each day as if it is your last!”

Her hand could barely hold the pen but she marshaled every ounce of strength left in her tired body to sign the documents.

“Alas, I have become ‘The Dying Swan.’”

The day had passed quickly but the emotional toll on me was burdensome.

“Hang in there, Max. Just one more appointment, which might pull you out of the doldrums.”

We met at the County Courthouse and proceeded to a judge’s chambers. We were greeted by the judge, social worker, young couple, and two beautiful children who appeared to be fraternal twins.

The atmosphere was warm, jovial, and loving. The same-sex couple were adopting the brother and sister who would otherwise been separated and were of a different race than the soon to be parents. The judge completed a customary review of the adoption papers and rooted about his desk for his box of candy treats for the kids to celebrate the occasion. The social worker had attached balloons throughout the office.

Although we were within the justice system, this experience was a far cry from my first appointment of the day at the jail. The melancholy of the day subsided.

Stu was quick to complete the notary assignment and told me outside the judge’s chambers, “I always beat a hasty retreat from happy scenes so as to permit the parties to revel in a precious moment of happiness without distraction.”

During our drive back to the coffeeshop, where Stu would relax, eat dinner, nap and complete paperwork, he asked, “You gonna take over Mildred’s company?”

“No, Stu. I’m going to bring my newfound life experiences of today to the classroom with the hope of enlightening my students beyond the textbook. Thank you for the opportunity to see another side of life, Stu.”

“I figured as much, Max. It’s time for this old notary to spend more time ‘uptown,’ and I’ll be in touch with Mildred’s attorney about a fair offer to purchase Mildred’s business, if you approve.”

“Mildred would be delighted, Stu.”