I had a claim similar a couple years ago. Not fun.
There have been a slew of recent storms here in the midwest. Rain and hail and wind along with it, a sortof 70mph-and-up courier service for all sorts of property and car damage. Which means my job just got busy. We staved off the onslaught for so long, I thought we might get away clean. No chance. Not only have there been just as many storms this year as last, they’ve all arrived together with a tidal wave of claims. With severe storms in certain areas, we’ve sent people to work them for weeks at a time, which means the rest of us pick up the slack here at home, and because of my schedule, that’s been my job. It has meant some long drive time, going out of my traditional territory and into some rural areas. Handling so many claims in the suburbs, I’d forgotten what to expect. Things are just different once you get far enough away, is the best way to put it. Don’t ever underestimate your job’s ability to give you fodder for writing.
I arrived at a wind claim for a customer last Wednesday, after over an hour in the car listening to podcasts. I was on site for about 4 hours (twice as long as a normal claim) and here is how it went. I pulled in the dirt driveway and had to navigate between sections of a massive, fallen tree (about 20 feet across), the middle of which had been excised so anyone could get in or out. Mr. Customer came outside. He was an oversized, pleasant fellow, and since he owned the surrounding 16 acres, and maybe since it was hot (but maybe not) he did not wear a shirt. Nor did he bother to put on a shirt at any point during my 4 hours with him. Not when we went inside, not when we passed his very bedroom to look at ceiling damage. Not when I went onto the roof by myself. He could have slipped on a tank top, would’ve taken 2 minutes. Not even when he and I drove the property looking for trees fallen on fencing. Never.
I’m from a small town in southwest MO, I’ve seen people driving with no shirt, it’s just usually not in a minivan. It’s an odd thing, being close to a foreign unclothed body, seat-belted in next to you. What if we’d got in a wreck and died. Wouldn’t people wonder why this man wasn’t wearing a shirt? Would they wonder why I didn’t ask him to put one on? I wondered that, too, several times. I could never work it in to the conversation. The name of the game, then, is called “Proximity + Line of Sight”. Also, he was a large man.
But maybe the oddest thing was that when we got back to the house, he put the car in park and kept on talking. Then he told me we should just hang out in the van, since it has AC and the house doesn’t. Have you ever talked to someone you don’t know while sitting in their car right in front of their house in the middle of the day when that person had also, coincidentally, decided to forego the societal courtesy of clothing and redraw all rules regarding body coverage? A few moments later, his wife ambled up with their dog, she barked a few words to her husband, and she got in the back seat of the van with their dog. She wore clothes. I managed to extract myself by saying I had to go write up the estimate and paperwork for the claim, which was true anyhow. A while passed, and I got out of my car and found him in the barn. I reached out the customer service packet, but he waved me off; he pointed down the driveway and said, “I’ll be right there. Go get my wife, and I’ll meet you all at the van!”
And so in the van we sat. His wife in back, me in front, the shirtless fellow next to me, looking through the multi-thousand dollar estimate I’d written. And to say it was strange thing to see and be part of would be an intense understatement, but so would saying I did not like them. They were funny and odd and certainly ripe for a bit of mockery, but it spawns from amusement not malice. I’m not trying to pass any sort of value judgements on them. They are interesting as people not just as punchlines. For instance, Mr. Customer told me all about his job while we drove the property. About the layoffs they were experiencing that he was fortunate enough to avoid. “For now,” he said, “but we’ll see.” It turns out Mrs. Customer’s mother is in the hospital, so on top of dealing with damage to their home, she has to split time at the hospital and handle all the legal matters for her mother. “She’s senile,” she told me more than once, matter-of-factly. Not sad, not forlorn, just the state of the union in the life of her mother. This was a couple in their mid-fifties, I’d guess. They live out here, away from everyone. It’s the way she prefers it. In my time talking with them, I learned this is the second marriage for both of them. She used to live in Springfield with her first husband, “but he got abusive,” Mr. Customer explained for her. He lived in the city for a long time, but Mrs. Customer wanted to be away from people, so here they are. No regret there, no feelings of missed opportunities. These people, more than most I’ve met doing this job, are the picture of content. They weren’t ignorant. They actually took time to look through the estimate (most don’t) and asked me reasonable questions about it. They don’t seem to view life as though it is hunting them, as though it is to be feared. She’s been laid off, her mother is sick, and she spoke plainly about how hard it was, but these things aren’t consuming them. They teased each other in front of me, and it was almost like a play. They were aware of me as their audience, and they were performing the play of their relationship so that I could see what they did all the time. I doubt they have many visitors.
People are interesting, and they’ll talk to you if you let them. These weren’t the only interesting people I met. I talked for over 15 minutes with an 87 yr old great grandmother with some lightning damage who explained to me how more than 20 people cram into her little house every Thanksgiving to eat her food. She detailed her preparations, she explained the cast of her family, and the notion that last year may have been her last hurrah because she has aches, and she’s not sure she’s up for preparing that much food again. How it takes its toll on her physically, even though it brings her such pleasure, having so much family around. She had intriguing Mexican art on the walls that her son got for her, and she explained the way she came up from living in shanty-houses as a child, not knowing that anything else existed. She told me about a boy in her school when she was a girl, and how she wondered what had become of him, since he acted up and got in trouble.
I usually time myself. A typical claim in about 90 minutes. But sometimes, I like to just stop the timer, take out my pen and start asking questions. I drop all the policy language and coverage analysis and Recoverable Depreciation explanations, and I become what I am: a writer. What they see as chit-chat I treat like an interview. I stop collecting data to put in the claims file, and I start hearing stories that make me see this life more clearly. You have no idea how many brilliant, touching, funny little things people have to say if you just ask them. I plan to use parts of these stories as a character traits. I’ll combine them and mangle them and make them thematic, and I’ll contort the details and rewrite them so I like them better and they fit into the universe I want to create. They are spare parts for the rebuilding. But all that comes later. Right now it’s just about talking to people. I think if you’re a writer, you are drawn to people like this, you love people like this. People you pass on the street or see in a restaurant and think, “What’s does today mean for them? What brought them here and where are they going after this?” As a writer, you get to wonder about people; sometimes, you talk with them. I know it’s the best part of my job, and it has the least to do with it anything they pay me to do.