Tuesday, August 23, 2011

My Life As A Deadbeat

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published Aug. 25, 2011]  © 2011

As a Social Security-collecting 63-year-old, I really thought it was not too much to hope for that I could finish my life without ever being classified as a deadbeat.  

But that dream was crushed on July 5 when the City of San Diego Water Department changed to a new billing service incongruously called Customer Care Solutions.  Cleverly employing a no-cost non-tech system of Do-It-Yourself Data Conversion, they required customers paying on-line to re-enter all of their billing information (including bank account data) and be assigned new account numbers. 

I feared there could be problems when after some three hours over as many days, I was only able to create my new account by ignoring their instructions.  I’ve paid all my bills on-line for years and paid my first water bill on the new system on July 14, printing a confirmation.  Much to my dismay, some  two weeks later I received a non-payment notice in the mail adding that my water service was about to be histoire.  This was especially disconcerting given that it was now August.  We may not be much on hygiene, but we do care about landscaping.

Checking my new water services account on-line, I couldn’t immediately ascertain the problem as it only shows the last four digits of my checking account, all of which were correct.   My bank account had twenty times the amount needed to pay the bill plus overdraft protection.  I could only assume I had somehow, for the first time ever, dropped a digit in the account number.  But then, I am old.

When I dialed the customer service number the next morning at the precise time they opened, wait time was already thirty minutes.  But eventually I was connected to a customer service rep whom I’ll call Cranky Troll (not her real name) who confirmed that not only had I been charged a $25 penalty but as with all water scofflaws, only payment in cash or money order would now be accepted at one of their regional payment centers; no over-the-phone credit card payments allowed.  I even appealed to Cranky Troll’s supervisor, saying that surely thirty-eight years of meticulously on-time payments from the same address should count for something?

In a word:  no. 

In fact, she warned, should I ever “bounce another check” to them, I’ll need to post a significant deposit to continue to get water services.  I now have Official Deadbeat Status.

In that case, I said, since I have no idea why this payment didn’t go through, I’d like to revert to paper bills.  Sorry, she says, she’s not authorized to do that.  She is only authorized to annoy the bejesus out of customers.  OK, that second line is mine.

A wad of cash in hand, I headed to my regional payment center, a Payday Loan place, only to find a sign on the door saying, “Back in 30 minutes.”  But this allowed me to visit with the person ahead of me in line, a fellow  water reprobate clutching the same blue slip and having an identical story: account was a bear to set up, couldn’t figure out why payment didn’t go through.  She had tried calling  at noon only to get a recording saying “don’t even bother holding.” 

Now one might think that once one had handed over money at the authorized payment center, the water gods would be appeased.  But one would be wrong.  You have not paid until you call them back and tell them you have paid.  No call, no payment.  One marvels at the sheer brilliance of such exquisite inefficiency.  However by the time I got home, the (Anti)Customer (Un)Caring (Non)Solutions line only rang busy – for the rest of the day.  And the next.  Ultimately, I got through to a report-your-payment recording, but while I was waiting on my land line, I entertained myself on my cell phone repeat-dialing their Customer Service Survey number (619-515-3515) cheerfully giving the customer service reps the lowest grade of  1 (minus ten wasn’t available).  I’m hoping they won’t realize that 240 of their rock bottom ratings are mine.

Meanwhile, the Payday Loan lady, while happy to see so many new faces and for the boon to her business (she charged me to pay the bill beside the $25 fine) commented that if it were her water bill, she’d revert to paper bills and pay by check.  That so sounds like a plan. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Hoarding The Desire to Hold On To Stuff

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published August 11, 2011]  © 2011

Every once in a while, I channel surf into one of the hoarder shows.  My first response is always to wonder how people can ever let this happen.  Until I remember that not only have I seen this in person, but that the hoarder gene is alive and well in me.

As I’ve visited various relatives over the years, it’s become clear to me that the tendency to accumulate what could politely be referred to as an excessive number of possessions – particularly  books and National Geographics - clearly runs in the family.  Books I understand but what is it about National Geographics that make people hang on to them forever?   I know people even outside my family who have moved twelve times and while the dining room set or even the kids don’t always make the cut, the National Geographics invariably end up on the truck.  I know sets of National Geographics that have seen more of the U.S. than most campaign buses. 

Although it has some serious competition, the most egregious example of mass accumulation in my own genetic network is the ancestral home in Hard-To-Get-There, Ohio, which has been continuously in the family since 1865.  Let me just say that you can acquire a lot of stuff in 140 years.  The last surviving occupant, my favorite aunt, died five years ago.  My aunt encompassed the Hoarder Big 3:  child of the Depression, ardent conservationist, and OCD packrat (maybe that’s four).  It was a hoarder perfect storm.  The place was an absolute treasure trove of wonderful old stuff – Ladies Home Journals from the 1880s, gorgeous oil lamps, ornate ewers - intermixed, alas, with multiple cases of 40 year old Jell-O, cartons of ratty underwear preserved in 1962 newspaper, and a huge freezer that was a veritable biohazard. Then there were the 10,000+ books, three deep in the bookcases.   Every letter I ever received from my aunt was written on the back of a piece of recycled junk mail.

I have to confess that when I went to visit her, the first thing I did was to check the latch on the upstairs bedroom window to make sure I could get out onto the roof and jump in case of fire.  Because with the piles of old newspapers (which she intended to use for mulch for her gardens) and magazines (you can guess which kind) stacked up in every hallway, I figured I’d have approximately seven seconds to hurl myself out the window.  I simply refused to have my Cause of Death be listed as “National Geographics.”

Little did I know what a fire trap the place really was.  After my aunt died, we ordered up several 35 foot dumpsters and started dumping all the flattened cardboard boxes that had been on the back veranda in ever-increasing piles for as long as anyone could remember.  I suddenly saw the color drain out of my husband’s face.  Underneath it all was coal.  Eight hundred pounds of coal.  The old coal burning stove, unused for decades, was still in the living room.  I suddenly realized that the seven seconds of escape time I always thought I’d had was actually two.

My tiny garage-less cottage could fit in the living rooms of a lot of La Jolla homes so I try to keep it as uncluttered as possible.  Recently, I did a major clean-out and packed up twelve big bags of stuff for Goodwill.  Loading them into the car, I suddenly broke out in a cold sweat.  Maybe something valuable had gotten in there by mistake.  I unpacked it all and rechecked it.  And then a third time.  “You don’t need any of this stuff,” I repeated over and over all the way over to Goodwill.  As the attendant helped me unload, my hands shook with a paralyzing anxiety.  “You okay?” he asked.  After I drove off, I had an overwhelming urge to loop back, throw myself on their unloading dock dumpster and scream, “Give me back my stuff!”  I didn’t, but all the way home, I thought I’d throw up.

A few nights later I channel surfed into a hoarder show.  I was just about to shake my head in wonder at how they let the place get so bad when I had to admit:  I know.  I really know.