Manhattan Inc., - March 1989
BORN TO SERVE
By: Ellen Rapp
On a warm Friday evening, Irving Botwinick, founder and president of Serving by Irving, Inc., a Manhattan process-serving outfit, is taking his “Servingmobile” (a red Toyota Celica with SERVING license plates) on a special call. He is dressed for the occasion in a cream wool jacket and one of his favorite ties—part of a novelty-neckwear collection that includes a tie festooned with medical symbols (“for serving doctors”) and another with dollar signs (“for the big money cases”). He’s wearing tonight’s—a woman’s profile on a pastel background—to serve Burt Bacharach.
The songwriter is being subpoenaed as a witness to an accident. Clipped to the document is a crisp ten-dollar bill. “You have to give $2 with a subpoena so the person can get to and from court,” Irving explains. “But I’m being generous--I’m giving him ten.” Irving doesn’t really expect to find Bacharach home, but he has to attempt service anyway so he can testify on Monday that Bacharach still maintains a New York residence.
Irving’s destination, a luxury building on the Upper East Side, prompts him to, flash back to the time he served a model nearby. He says he arrived with flowers impersonating a delivery boy. After cajoling the security guards (I’ve got to give here these in person—I want a big tip”), he took the elevator up to the models floor. She was waiting for him in the hallway.
“I gave her the subpoena, and she freaked out—started cursing at me,” says Irving. “I said, ‘Don’t you want the flowers?’ She said, ‘Stick it up your ass!’ “
Waiting downstairs were several guards who had seen the whole thing on security camera. “You lied.” They chorused. “That’s right, gentlemen.” He replied. “And I’m about to leave this building. If you try to stop me, I’ll have you all fired and arrested. I got the FBI and the CIA right outside….”
Tonight’s mission, it turns out, isn’t nearly so dramatic. Irving strides across the marble lobby and tells the concierge in confident tones, “I’m Mr. Harper form Columbia—here to see Mr. Bacharach.” “Oh, is he back in town?” The concierge picks up the phone and dials. Bacharach is indeed out. Would Mr. Harper care to leave a message?
“Sure,” Irving says. He scrawls a phone number on a piece of notepaper and signs it “Mr. H.” He has left Burt Bacharach the number of the Purple Phone. Serving’s version of a hot line, the Purple Phone lets Botwinick pick up calls at eh office when he’s pretending to be someone else and doesn’t want to blow his cover.
Back in the car, Irving explains that it’s frowned upon in process serving to use the name of a real company when spinning a tale. “But I did nothing wrong by saying I was from Columbia. Who said anything about Columbia Records? I could have meant the university, I could have meant the country!”
Process servers make their living as harbingers of bad news, bringing legal papers to people who, at best, are not glad to see them and, at worst, may put them through a wall. As the heaf of one Manhattan process-serving company puts it, “It’s what you do when you’re desperate.”
But according to Botwinick, Serving by Irving is “not the usual process-serving company.” Self-promotion, yes; but his lawyer-clients happen to agree. And they don’t mind paying his rate of $50 an hour, for an average of $150 a serve, three times other agencies’ $45 flat fee. “He’s very expensive but worth every nickel,” says Max Toberoff, a senior partner at Toberoff & Tessler. Last year Irving’s income was in “the six figures” (as specific as he’ll get)—not bad for a career on the fringe.
“We specialized in people who avoid service,” says Irving. For anyone willing to live on the run, there re obvious advantages to ducking the service of subpoenas and summonses, the legal papers that bring people and documents to court and start lawsuits: if you’re not served, you never have to go to trial. On the other hand, once you’re served, there’s no way out—you must go to court.
Contrary to popular belief, court papers don’t have to be handed to their target—in most cases its perfectly legal to give the document to anyone who lives or works with the person being served or to attach the papers to his or her door and then mail a copy. Personal service costs more, but many of Irving’s lawyers request it, even when it’s not necessary. “They want to know that you physically gave to document to the person who’s being sued,” says Irving. “And some attorneys get off on this.”
Many lawyers would also pay just about anything to avoid “sewer service,” in which a server claims to have served papers he’s actually thrown away. The result is that a person has a court date he’s never heard about, fails to show up—and loses the case. A 1986 report by the Department of Consumer Affairs, Attorney General’s Office, and Department of Investigation described sewer service as “rampant” in New York City. According to the report, an undercover investigation of thirty-seven process-serving firms revealed that 95 percent had engaged in sewer service to some extent.
But several lawyers who complain of losing cases to sewer service vouch for Irving’s reliability. “If Irving can’t serve ‘em,” says one appreciative lawyer, “he wont sewer serve ‘em.”
“You can’t make a lot of money in this business,” says Irving, whose all-around “top guy,” Bob Gulinello (who once served a man on a nude beach—he recognized his target by the snake tattoo on his thigh, a tip off provided by the sunbather’s wife) pulled in $60,000 in 1987. “Why not do it correctly and get paid well—instead of lying?” Irving claims that only one of his employees in twelve years ever threw away a document. Irving found out within the server’s first two weeks on the job (“something didn’t smell right”), and the “sewer-service Charlie” was out.
“For a process server,” says Max Toberoff. “Irving is a very honorable guy.”
From his new gold Jaguar (He recently traded in the old servingmobile) to his unrestrained ads in The New York Law Journal (“If they’re alive, we’ll serve them—if they’re dead, we’ll tell you where they’re buried”), Irving Botwinick flaunts his pride in a profession few would brag about. “I changed the image of the whole process-serving business,” he says. “Nobody does it like I do.”
A tall, skinny, bearded guy with a headful of salt-and-pepper frizz and the face of a mournful giraffe, Irving, forty-two doesn’t look like a professional gatecrasher. But he’s an effective chameleon—which is, after all, essential in this business. He and his staff have served people at frightfully expensive uptown restaurants, in crack buildings in the scariest parts of Harlem and Bed-stuy, on airplanes and beaches, in gyms and theatres, and operating rooms. Irving claims he once served a doctor by scrubbing up next to him in the OR. “I got a white jacket and a stethoscope, and I was in,” he says. “It’s very easy when you act as if you belong.”
That’s what Irving enjoys most about the job; pretending to be someone he’s not. “I like the fact that you can legally lie,” he says, adding with characteristic immodesty that he considers himself the best liar in the business.
“I could have become a lawyer,” he says, “but I saw great potential in serving. I wanted to be on top. If I became a lawyer, it would have taken me twenty year to do as well as I’m doing now. I’m known throughout the country.”
Well, not exactly—but it could happen. Last year Irving was approached by an independent producer to be a subject of a TV pilot about what he calls the “true-life adventures” of Serving by
Irving. Nothing is definite yet, but irving is optimistic. “This show can run for years—like M.A.S.H!”
Pilot or no pilot, his firm has already developed a reputation among New York lawyers for being particularly audacious—and effective. “Irving performs miracles,” says Max Toberoff, whose firm specializes in medical-malpractice cases. “It’s very difficult to subpoena doctors; before I found Irving I went through hell. The man brings process serving to a high art.”
“Irving can serve anybody,” says Peter Sherman of Migdal Tenney Glass & Pollack, a firm that has been using Serving for the past ten years. "He also takes more of a personal approach than other process servers. He'll call in or drop a note and tell you how a case is going. What he offers is boutique service,"
For any process-serving company—even a "boutique" one—most cases are fairly routine; in fact, Irving's people often call their targets and announce that they will be stopping by with some legal papers. But the Serving crew didn't make its name doing the easy serves: they're known for going after the difficult, slippery minority who are skilled in avoiding service.
In pursuit of their most elusive prey, Irving and his gang of sixteen have climbed fire escapes, engaged in cab chases, and, of course, played roles. Servers John Dicanio and Jimmy Nicoletti once disguised themselves as Hasidic Jews to serve papers in Rockland County's Hasidic community; Heidi Schweizer one of the company’s few female servers—even masqueraded as a patient, disrobing for a gynecological exam shortly before serving the astonished doctor.
“Irving will camp for days in front of someone's house," says lawyer Harold Suckenick; who recalls the time Irving and a colleague spent a night parked in front of developer Sam Lefrak's Long Island mansion. When Lefrak's car finally pulled up at 3 a.m., the hard-to-get mogul got out to open the front gate, and Irving jumped out and served him.
In more than a decade of serving, Irving's people have a track record that one lawyer calls "a tribute to their tact": none has ever been hit. Heidi, who has a reputation as the wild woman of the Serving crew, has been kicked and, on another occasion, had a glass of champagne thrown in her face while serving someone at a party. But even for her, incidents like these are rare. “Usually people are nice and accept it," she says.
Some are nice beyond belief. Heidi once spent three hours with the parents of a man she had to serve, pretending to be the son's friend from out of town, while she waited for him to return, she watched Wheel of Fortune with his parents. When the youth finally came home—and Heidi slapped the papers on him—his mother and father weren't angry at her. "You were just doing your job." they said.
Generally, the Serving gang never confronts anything worse than curses or a door slammed in the face, although they’re much more likely to get perfunctory “Thank you.” Yet every so often there’s a close call, a reminder that serving is riskier than, say, delivering Chinese takeout.
One of Irving’s guys was chased by a man with a butcher knife his first day on the job. Another received death threats from an enraged doctor he had served; instead of killing him, the physician jumped up and down on the hood of the server’s car. Irving himself claims to have narrowly escaped death when he served a divorce summons in Westchester and found himself surrounded by the man’s friends—“nine, big, hulking guys.”
And there are some failures. “We serve about 98 percent of the people we go after,” says Irving. And the other 2 percent? “Those were cases where the lawyers didn’t want to keep paying us.” One who got away was Sinatra author Kitty Kelley, who was being sued by the singer in an attempt to prevent her from writing his “unauthorized” biography. Irving and two cohorts tried for days to serve Kelley the summons. “My sources informed me of where she’d be every minute, but she gave us the slip,” he says, with grudging admiration. After all, it’s not everyone who can outsmart him.
“I’ve never seen any impropriety on the part of Irving or his people,” say Lawrence Pollack, a lawyer at Migdal Tenney. “They use tricks, but they’re tricks within the bounds of law.”
Well, maybe once or twice they’ve stretched those bounds. Irving admits to bribing doormen on occasion. Then there was the time he started the fire—although he insists there was no harm done. He just put a match to a pile of dry leaves to get the attention of someone he was trying to serve. “I stood outside the door and yelled to the lady that I’d burn the house down if she didn’t come out. When she saw the smoke, she knew I was serious.”
Moderation is not one of Irving’s strong points. This is a man who told his future wife he loved her the first night they met, a man whose standard battle cry as he sends his servers into the field is “Let’s get the son of a bitch!” When Heidi, also one of his “top guys,” failed in her attempts to serve an airline pilot, Irving said, “You should have lain down in the runway.” He wasn’t altogether kidding. And Heidi still regrets that she didn’t try it.
But the thrill of serving is largely vicarious for Irving these days. Business has picked up considerably this past year, and somebody has to mind the office. Every so often, Irving will step out on a serve, but mostly he sits behind his desk, smoking his pipe and working the phones; fielding assignments, soothing frantic lawyers, checking in with his servers, who are only a beeper away.
Doesn’t he miss the legal work, the action, the challenge of being out there on the firing line? “It’s not my cup of tea,” he says. “I never enjoyed it as much as my people do.” Somehow its hard to buy that.
“Well,” he says, “the truth is, I just don’t have the time for it. I’m afraid to leave the office.”
Sounding wistful, he acknowledges, “Yeah, I do like it. I should have been an actor. I could do a scene like that.” He snaps his fingers to demonstrate. And sighs. “Sometimes I amaze myself.”
Late afternoon in Irving’s office. He is talking to a woman who wants to become a process server. “Initially, when you come to work for me, I don’t trust you,” he says. “I’ll be checking on you every minute.” He then lists all of the reasons why she shouldn’t become a server: the hours of waiting around, the false leads, bad timing, wild-goose chases, working in the rain and heat and freezing cold.
He is interrupted by the arrival of a young woman in aqua pants, fake pearls, and a T-shirt that says HANG LOOSE—MAUI. Her blond hair is in a pony-tail. “Hey Irv, I’m here for cocktails,” she announces. It’s Heidi.
Over drinks, Irving continues to spiel to his candidate, reemphasizing the exceptional cunning and persistence he demands (“This isn’t the usual process-serving company”). Gradually, the talk turns to Heidi’s assignment. She has to serve a lawyer who lives on Long Island by midnight tonight, no later. By now it’s almost 8:30, but Heidi, a pro, is in to hurry. She lights her second cigarette and orders her third Long Island iced tea. (She eventually got there with time to spare, but the lawyer wasn’t home.)
“I want you to get the son of a bitch and burn his house down,” says Irving. “You can knock on his door, try the old ‘My car broke down’ ploy”
At the mention of cars, the would-be server reveals that she has no car, which instantly disqualifies her from the job. That’s fine for Manhattan, says Irving, but what if she’s needed on a case elsewhere? His people cover a lot of ground—not just the five boroughs but New York State and sometimes beyond.
“Besides,” he confides when Heidi leaves the table and goes to the women’s room, “I don’t think you’d be right for this job anyway. It’s a vibe I get.”
“Vibes” are a critical factor when he picks his staff. He recruited Heidi, then twenty-two, four years ago when he and some lawyer friend met her at a bar in the South Street Seaport. Another server, John Dicanio, entered his life eight years ago, when Botwinick was simultaneously managing a Bronx law firm and running serving—then a two-man operation. “A vision came to me at night: this guy is to bright to be a clerk. I hired him as a server, and he’s one of my top guys.”
The main thing Irving looks for, he says, is “honesty”—along with “the ability to lie well.” He also insists on brains, the necessary toughness of character, and what he calls “a certain kind of person.” You don’t have to be outgoing to make Irving’s crew. Much more important is the ability to blend in, to be devious when necessary, “to know how to talk to people”—and to click with Irving.
“I don’t need people for six months, a year,” says Irving. “I need people for life. I want people who are gonna join the family.” (His own son Andrew worked with him for about three years until, according to Irving, he fired him. “You know how it is,” says Irving. “It doesn’t always work out when family works together.”)
“The truth is, I started this business as a joke,” Irving confesses. Twelve years ago, when he was managing the law firm, “I was sending work to process-serving companies that couldn’t even serve anything.” (He claims they couldn’t even find the empire state building.) “So I thought, Why don’t I get a license and serve all these papers myself?”
Now he wants to start Serving by Irving franchises throughout the country. “It’ll be like McDonald’s” he raves. And, of course, he would get a percentage of all proceeds.
But what really galvanizes Irving isn’t money but ego. He claims he once went to the Department of Consumer Affairs for a routine check of records. “At first the guy there didn’t know me,” says Irving. “But when I gave him my name, he bowed down. He said, ‘You’re Irving from Serving by Irving? I don’t need to check up on you. Put your books away!”