By Lynn Arditi
Published June 15, 2008
Mike Caires trudges up to a Riverside duplex, where daffodils bloom in the garden, prepared to break in.
He could drill the lock until the doorknob pops off, but it might take three, four, even five tries – bearing down on the drill until his hands hurt.
He reaches the front door and notices light seeping from behind the closed window blinds.
He knocks. The door clicks open. A man, bare-chested and groggy, stands in the entryway.
“Morning. State constable. Are you Frank?”
The man stammers that he was planning to move out today and starts to close the door, but Caires presses it open.
“OK, you’re gonna have to open up,” he says, stepping inside. “I gotta put you out.”
Michael A. Caires, a licensed state constable for the District Court of Rhode Island, plants himself at the kitchen entrance and waits.
His uniform is a pair of wrinkled khakis, a polo shirt and a plastic badge: License No. 6007, “like James Bond.”
He shows up on strangers’ doorsteps – usually before their morning coffee – clipboard in hand, delivering notices for debt collection, divorce, child support. Now, increasingly, he serves eviction orders from banks repossessing foreclosed houses.
The job is unpleasant and it can be dangerous; some constables refuse to do evictions. But serving papers can be hit or miss; if Caires can’t find the person, he doesn’t get paid. Evictions, on the other hand, pay $200 each, people or no people.
Three years ago, his constable business was slow and he and his wife fell behind on their bills. They filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection and, a year later, refinanced their house. Now, their mortgage payments are over $1,900 a month. The way Caires sees it, his choice is either evict other people from their houses, or become one of them.
More than 400 eviction orders were filed in District Court, Providence, during the first three months of this year. By the time those orders are served, the owners or tenants more often than not have moved out, their mail and newspapers piling in the doorways.
Those are the easy jobs. No people, no hard feelings.
Each morning, Caires leaves the two-story house in Coventry that he shares with his wife, their 6-year-old daughter, and his 20-year-old son, and drags his net through the murky waters of other peoples’ lives.
He buys $6 a week in lottery tickets and drives an eight-year-old Chrysler Grand Voyager with 175,000 miles. He works off a laptop loaded with GPS software, though the neighborhoods have become familiar. He stocks his van with file boxes, handcuffs (which he has only used three times in 10 years), cordless drills, screwdrivers and dog biscuits. People who lose their homes often leave pets behind, and the only thing more dangerous than an angry homeowner is an angry dog.
Day after day, he crisscrosses the state, banging, drilling and prying his way into peeling triple-deckers that stink of garbage and feces; suburban split-levels littered with half-empty liquor bottles and refrigerators that reek of rotting food.
One day he noticed a child’s crayon drawing taped to one of those refrigerators, and the reality startled him, like a slap.
“What am I doing to these people?” he thought.
Another morning, he showed up to evict residents of a dilapidated triple-decker in Providence’s West End and found the door open and tenants darting in and out, grabbing furniture and clothing. One tenant, Maria Beaufort, was trying to sooth her restless toddler while guarding furniture and other belongings in the back yard. She stared at the constable.
“Do you like your job?” she asked.
The question stopped him. “No,” he replied, flatly. “No, I don’t.”
Caires has tried other lines of work. He used to drive tractor-trailers, but the vibrations damaged the bones in his neck. Before that, he helped manage a drugstore and worked on a factory assembly line.
As a constable, he has learned to distance himself. He tries to forget faces. His raucous laugh at times can make him seem callous. Humor, he explains, is his defense.
People become street names. The tow-truck driver who lost his Providence triple-decker: Manton Avenue. The mother and toddler who lost their rental apartment: Moore Street. And the man standing, bare-chested, in his kitchen: Knowlton Street.
WHILE CAIRES waits for Frank L. Tavares III to get dressed, he looks around. Couch. Desk. Cabinet. Wooden chairs. A box of old records. Mostly junk, he thinks. Maybe this guy will want to pitch the stuff and save the cost of a move.
Tavares used to live here with his wife and their three children.
That was before he lost his $34-an-hour job as a lineman for the electric company; before his marriage broke up, before he fell behind on his child-support and mortgage payments.
Now, at 48, just two years older than Caires, he looks worn out, with glassy blue eyes and sunken cheeks. This man whose knit cap reads “Life is Good” now rummages through Dumpsters for collectibles he can sell on eBay.
As Tavares lights up a cigarette, Caires suggests calling off the movers. That way, he explains, Tavares can take whatever he can fit in his truck, and they’ll pitch the rest. Otherwise, the movers charge a minimum of three months’ storage, in addition to the cost of the move, if Tavares wants to reclaim his stuff.
Caires hands him a piece of paper. It’s an agreement that states anything not claimed by the owner is “disposable.”
“It’s up to you,” says Caires.
Tavares takes the paper, glances at it, and passes it back to the constable.
“I’m not going to sign it!”
FOUR MONTHS earlier, Caires stood in another man’s kitchen, facing down an angry landlord.
It was the week before Christmas. The first-floor apartment on Manton Avenue in Providence was so cold that Caires could see his breath. The gas and water had been shut off. Empty Poland Spring bottles were stashed in the bathtub.
“Are you Gerald?”
Bleary-eyed, hands stuffed in the pockets of his hooded sweatshirt, a man who went by “Gerry” said that he was supposed to have a few more days; he needed to get a truck. He was taller than Caires and more powerfully built.
This was the third house in the city that Gerald Desir, a 44-year-old tow-truck driver, was losing to foreclosure. A real-estate agent for the bank had paid him $500 to move out of the last triple decker – a “cash-for-keys” deal that banks use to avoid the cost of evicting people. The same agent had offered him $1,000 to leave Manton Avenue, but Desir didn’t get out by the deadline so the deal was off.
Desir was familiar with evictions. A year earlier, he’d evicted his tenant upstairs for not paying rent.
“I’ve got to take possession of the apartment,” the constable told Desir. “Get as much stuff out as you can now.”
Desir began stuffing clothes into a garbage bag, cell phone wedged against his ear.
He hung up, turned to Caires and threatened to call the police if the constable didn’t give him more time to move out.
Ten years as a state constable has honed Caires’ instincts about people. He can sense when he’s being played. It’s like a bad smell.
“OK,” Caires said. “Call them.”
It sounded like a dare. “You gotta know when they come,” he added, “you’re out of here.”
“At least you could have given me . . .”
Caires cut him off. “By law, I gotta give you five minutes!”
Then, in a softer tone, “That’s why I came early. I’m trying to be nice.”
It was Caires who called the police. The officer looked younger and smaller than Desir, but he carried a gun. Caires had wondered what it would be like to work in a state like Texas, where constables carry guns. Maybe they get more respect.
The officer put on his glasses to read the eviction notice.
“He’s just trying to do his job,” the officer said, looking at Desir.
“I could get a U-Haul . . .”
“How long would it take to do that?”
The movers were scheduled to arrive any minute.
How much will the movers charge, the officer asked. How much money did Desir have? Did he have a place to store his stuff?
“It’s Christmas,” said the officer, hopefully. “Maybe they’ll move you for free.”
Listening to the two go back and forth, Caires wanted to shout No! No! No! But he didn’t. Getting angry would only prove that he was the bad guy.
When the movers arrived, it was clear. This was business. Desir had to get out.
“All right buddy,” the officer said to Desir. “I tried.”
Desir and his girlfriend, who had arrived to help, loaded up his tow truck with everything they could fit; the movers would take the rest. Each time Desir stepped into the kitchen, he reflexively wiped his snow-covered boots on a rag by the door, but soon even that last shred of domesticity was abandoned.
Caires was on his cell phone as Desir and his girlfriend shoved the rest of their belongings into a sports car, with Oklahoma plates, hitched to the tow truck and headed for a storage facility in Johnston.
DURING THE holidays, Caires’ eviction work came to a virtual standstill. The winter was slow, too. But in April, it picked up.
There was the triple-decker on Sumpter Street where everyone had already moved out.
“Boy,” he said, grinning, “this is gonna be a nice six hundred bucks!”
That’s $600 for three evictions, plus four lock changes at $100 each, minus the $30 he pays for each lock. He would clear $880.
“Hell,” he said, climbing into his van, to drive home. “I made a good week already.”
He needed more good weeks. After the housing market tanked, he was stuck with two mortgages that he couldn’t refinance. He thought about trying to sell his house, but with real-estate values so low, it would not make sense. So, he’s working as much as he can. Two years ago, he earned about $52,000. Last year, he said, he cleared $70,000.
Still, no matter how he looks at it, he is “living on peoples’ failures”- divorce, lawsuits, foreclosures.
For Caires, the satisfaction of a “good day” is tempered by the reality of how he earns his living. He headed home to his small white house with a gravel driveway.
He climbed out of the van, tucked a plastic file box under one arm and his laptop under the other, and crossed the muddy lawn. The storm door squeaked. Princess and Cody ran out to greet him, tails wagging.
Princess, a golden retriever-Chow mix, and Cody, a miniature Shiatsu, were abandoned by their owners after evictions. They’re his eviction dogs; the only lives that he’d managed to rescue.
He knows he can’t save people; the best he can do is to make someone else’s lousy day a little easier.
On this April morning, that means listening to Tavares, who was losing his duplex in Riverside, rant about government corruption, the job market, and his refusal to accept help from the state.
Tavares’ anger turns to shame.
“It’s my own fault,” he says, carrying out a box of his belongings. “I should have done this sooner.”
A constable friend of Caires’, who is training to do evictions, offers to make a coffee run to Honey Dew Donuts. His friend has already driven off when Caires shouts over to Tavares, who is loading his white Astro Chevy van.
“Wanna cup of coffee?”
Caires calls in Tavares’ order: large, dark for $1.89.
Tavares shoves the last few boxes into his van as Caires sips his coffee and tells his friend about the eviction last winter at the triple-decker in Providence, when he had to call the cops.
“You all set?” he says, turning to Tavares.
“I hope it works out for you, Frank. I really do.”
Tavares climbs into the driver’s seat and starts the engine, but then jumps out.
“I forgot my coffee!” he says, running inside.
Back in the van, he waves to Caires and the other constable as if they were old buddies. Pulling out of the driveway, Tavares pauses in front of the house as if he were the visitor, and not the other way around, and honks.
Caires turns to see Tavares waving, nods his way, and resumes his story.
The white van gets smaller and smaller until it disappears.
* * *
Foreclosures by community
A comparison of foreclosure initiations for the first quarter of last year and this year.
Providence 135 609
Cranston 40 155
Johnston 14 74
East Providence 4 49
North Providence 7 26
Burrillville 4 21
Warwick 26 21
Glocester 1 18
Bristol 5 13
Coventry 9 11
Scituate 0 9
Warren 1 7
Barrington 0 6
North Kingstown 2 5
South Kingstown 1 5
Charlestown 1 4
Foster 0 4
Richmond 0 4
Hopkinton 0 3
Central Falls 3 2
Exeter 2 2
Narragansett 0 2
Smithfield 1 2
Cumberland 2 1
East Greenwich 3 1
Lincoln 0 1
Newport 1 1
Pawtucket 5 1
West Greenwich 1 1
West Warwick 2 1
Woonsocket 3 1
Tiverton 0 0
Little Compton 1 0
Middletown 0 0
New Shoreham 0 0
Portsmouth 2 0
Jamestown 0 0
Westerly 2 0
North Smithfield 2 0
TOTAL 278 1060
Source: RI Housing AuthorityTHE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL
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* * *
Caires, center, speaks with building owner Carmen Rodriguez, right, and her nephew and tenant Alberto Nevarez during an eviction at 67 Moore St., in Providence, in April. Caires is upset, because he claims Rodriguez did not earlier identify herself correctly as the owner. He also informs them that they must not go back inside the home and the police will be notified if they do.
Constable Mike Caires carries out two evictions in Providence – on Manton Avenue, above, and on Cumerford Street, top, where Joe Gonzalez and his mother, Carol Napolitano, decide what to take from their apartment. Often, residents will not answer until Caires physically starts to break in. More than 400 eviction orders were filed in District Court, Providence, during the first three months of this year.
The Providence Journal / John Freidah
Constable Mike Caires begins work at 5 a.m., in order to catch people before they leave their homes. He crisscrosses the state in his eight-year-old Chrysler Grand Voyager, working off a laptop loaded with Global Positioning System software.
Caires has to evict three families from a triple-decker at 67 Moore St. in Providence. When asked by a tenant whether he enjoys his work, Caires is emphatic. No, he tells them, but it’s his job. Later, he takes a moment to rest.
Constable Mike Caires, above left, evicts Gerald Desir and his girlfriend, Mandy Durfee, from their home on Manton Avenue in Providence. When Desir, right, learns of his eviction, he becomes contentious. Providence police Officer Freddy Rocha keeps the peace, before the two agree to remove their belongings.
Carol Napolitano, left, moves from an apartment on Cumerford Street in Providence where she lived with her son, Joe Gonzalez. The two don’t resist the eviction, knowing the date was imminent. They use shopping carts to move their belongings and hope to find space at a homeless shelter.
When Caires returns to his Coventry home at the end of the day, he’s met by the family dogs, Princess, left, and Cody, which he adopted after they were abandoned during an eviction. He decompresses by watching old episodes of The Rifleman.
Maria Beaufort changes the diaper of her 14-month-old son, Oscar Cole, during the eviction from her home at 67 Moore St. in Providence. The two will stay with a friend’s relative until they can find new housing.
* * *
Promo Web: Extra: Follow Constable Mike Caires as he evicts tenant after tenant, on projo.com