The New Year started with a fellow banging on my backdoor.
I was in my office, huddled around the first coffee of the day, still in my flannel pjs, just signing into the university course page.
The fellow was angry. He’d been trying to reach me for days.
I’ve been coming here everyday, he says. You don’t even check your mail. There are still boxes there. I left a note for you. I was starting to wonder whether you were even alive!
His fervor took me by surprise and I hastily matched his volume to explain that I sell on eBay and leave packages out everyday. Me in my pjs with coffee in hand, messed up hair, looking at this guy wondering what the hell is his problem and why is he yelling at me.
He was the messenger, and turned out to be a good guy. I few hours later, I called him an “angel,” which is not a term often found in my vocabulary.
Chris, the angel, took me outside and showed the lake of water covering the driveway next door. It had spread from somewhere under my home across the thin grass divider and onto the concrete drive. Water was lapping at the brick foundation of my house, laying like a flat prairie under my home and soaking the grass on the far side. I took off my shoes and waded around.
In another hour, I filled my bathtub and every kitchen pot and receptacle with water. I made a second pot of coffee, and just before Chris turns off the water valve, I visit the restroom.
Dan the plumber arrives. Dan is a friend of Chris. Like most of us confronted with an unnecessary emergency, cost is on my mind. “How much,” I ask. Dan charges $50 and hour plus $10 for his assistant. I calculate time. I count the days before the next deposit, rush online to check the bank account, transfer funds from Paypal and wait.
The tally: $200. I look at the bill Chris hands me and see he has whited out his initial total. He’s been under and around and inside my home for over four hours, visited the local Home Depot for parts, installed a new outside faucet, and checked all my water outlets. He’s given me a deal. Maybe it was the coffee I brought him from Dunkin Donuts. More than likely, it was simple goodness.
The next business day, I begin the telephone calls to the local utility. One week later, it notifies me of “unusually high consumption,” and in another few days, I receive the water bill. The tally: $727.11 of water/sewage consumption plus $200 to Dan the plumber.
If you check your bank account at least once a week, you know this feeling. If you buy only what is on that narrow grocery list, you know the feeling. If you space out bill payments to coincide with the next paycheck, you know the feeling. If a monthly extravagance is coffee and donuts, you know the feeling.
The color is a murky brown. The feeling is like a noose around your neck. It is a blindfold across the eyes. It is a storm on the horizon. The feeling is a dark tunnel with no exit.
Working with a city utility company is akin to bargaining with a hostage taker. You are glad to be alive. There is a tiny sound of empathy and the loud clamor of warning. Your choices fall between a line of purple despair and pastel denial. You are trapped in a debtor’s prison of living that is no less confining than a jail cell. The only route for release is a kind of parole. Give them what they want, and they grant a trivial retrieve. Rob your bank account, your savings, hock your valuables and you survive for another week. The essentials of civilized living – water and power – are gifted by the utility company. You can flush the toilet, wash dishes, bathe, make coffee, connect to the internet, power the heat, read under light, clean your clothes, watch a little TV and pray existentially for no surprises.
This is ransomed living. You know the feeling.