I’ve been ruminating for over a month, now, adjusting to the first inklings of a new, harsh political order. And I have adjusted. This post is not about the election or its consequences. It’s a story about one of the many challenges of senior life; a reflection about struggle and strength.
It’s been a good enough holiday season, despite the (for me) dismal perspective of facing 2017. The decorations went up, most of them. There was supping with friends near and saluting friends and family dear, but not near. There was the singing of carols and the sipping of egg nog and the playing of dominoes and the sitting in front of the fireplace under the multicolored glow. There was the Episcopalian Christmas, which starts about Dec. 22 and lasts until the Epiphany of the Wise Guys on Jan. 6. And mainly, there was Stephen and I seriously reflecting on selling this big place and finding more appropriate senior lodging.
Saturday morning New Year’s Eve I got a notice from the Office of the Collector of Revenue, Gregory F. X. Daly, in the morning mail. At first, I though it was their usual tri-monthly bill, which I have regularly been paying over the decades when I have been a resident of the City of St. Louis. Then I saw in small red caps near the top DELINQUENT NOTICE. Reading further down the bill, again in caps, but black:
FINAL DISCONNECT NOTICE
PAY ONLY AT ROOM 109 CITY HALL OR 1640 S KINGSHIGHWAY
WATER SCHEDULED FOR DISCONNECT AT ONCE
Needless to say, I was mildly shocked, as would most people be. In the case of Stephen and me, though, this was even more concerning. We have spent years rigging up our bathroom and house to fit Stephen’s disabled needs, and the thought of living here for even hours without running water was just this side of terrifying.
I spent a good part of the rest of Saturday morning trying to reconstruct what had caused this breach in my usually responsible bill payment behavior:
- Checked the online banking records carefully; no record of payment,
- Looked for an earlier bill; did not find it,
- Called the Water Division; of course it was Saturday, and they were closed,
- Tried to resurrect memories of my November bill payment sessions; this was like listening to water dripping in a very large tomb.
Then even more possibilities began to haunt me. This was New Year’s Eve. New Year’s Day falls on a Sunday, but Monday will also be a holiday; I won’t be able to correct this until Tuesday morning at the latest. The prospect of facing 72 hours of uncertainty about our water supply was sobering.
But it was, after all, New Year’s Eve, and we are not without friends, resources or resilience, so we did keep our date with friends for an early dinner and a champagne toast afterwards at the home of a friend. Sunday and Monday came and went, but not without the specter of foul faucet smells and sounds every time a meal was prepared or the shower was turned on.
And frankly, by Monday, I had begun to have angry and resentful thoughts about this situation. After all, I had been a resident of St. Louis since 1980, and I had always paid my taxes and city bills faithfully—well, except for the fact that I didn’t realize there was a city income tax until I got a huge bill in 1982 after I established residence on Laclede Avenue in the Central West End in 1980. I began to feel sorry for myself, a good citizen, nearly an octogenarian at that, bravely slogging through the mucky ways of life, treated with such detestible coldness bordering on cruelty. WAIT <<slaps face>> Stop this, immediately. Just get up tomorrow morning and go down and pay the frigging bill, which you apparently forgot, didn’t you?!
The spectre of going down to City Hall then confronted me. I’ve lost personal property tax receipts and had to go there and get copies. I had to go downtown every two years for decades to be rejected for jury service. No, wait, I actually served on two juries. I have experienced the full weight of dealing with career civil servants in a large metropolitan office. Even a seasoned urbanite would not choose to go to City Hall if there were an offered alternative, and there it was: the Water Division on South Kingshighway, and it was even north of the bridge that has now remained torn out for over a year. That’s where I should go.
Monday night arrived. We turned in. I stared at the ceiling for a while, and went to sleep. I woke up at 6 a.m. promptly. A multitude of scenarios for getting to and proceeding through the impending bill paying ritual passed through my mind. I got up, washed up, suited up, and sipped my tea, waiting for my trek to the Water Division bill pay window, which opens at 8 a.m. As it turns out, that office is exactly 10 minutes from my front door.
I’m now parking at exactly 8 a.m. just outside the door to the Water Division building. Plenty of parking is available, and two or three people are already scurrying towards the entrance. I join the procession, and just on the inside, encounter the already formed line to the bill pay window. I take my place at the end of the line just back of the small black man (apparently just a few years younger than me). He looks right at me, smiles, and says “Good Morning.” I reply in kind. Way at the front, I discern a very big and tall Caucasian male, made even more looming by his lined jacket, which is flared open. The woman attending the window, as I shall soon discover, is a pleasant white woman with her hair done up in a bun, somewhere in her later career. She asks him for his address, he gives it. Business is proceeding that I can’t actually see. “Do you think $40 is enough now to keep the water on?” he anxiously asks. I can’t hear the reply. “And then I’ll come in in a few weeks and pay the rest of the bill …” said with a still semi-questioning tone.
The line moves up one to the black mom ready to pay with bill and written check in hand. I notice the sign near the window in big block letters.
PERSONAL CHECK ONLY
OR CREDIT CARD.
Too bad if you don’t have one of those. I also recall how the check is specified to be signed: “Make check out to Gregory F. X. Daly, Collector of Revenue.” That certainly is a magnificent name, I sarcastically reflect. And so the movement and suffle continues, a young white woman in her twenties, also prepared, an older black grandmotherly type, the gentleman with the cap directly in front of me, and then me.
I respectfully poke the bill through the smallish window opening and ask, “Is there any fine on this?”
After examining the bill, she assures, “No, no fine,” and pushes the bill partially back out the window.
I now complete filling out the check with the correct amount. As I’m reinserting the bill with check, I inquire, “So does this take care of things?” She looks at me quizzically. “I mean, it says that the water is scheduled for disconnect at once.” (I refrained from adding that it says that in all caps.)
“They’re not gonna turn your water off.” She didn’t say, but could have, “Are you kidding me?!”
Some explanation seems to be called for. “This is the first time I ever forgot to pay the bill.”
A lot has become much clearer to me. Every day, there are people who are struggling to pay their utility bills. Unlike me, some of these people really aren’t sure if they are going to be able to keep the water on. They pay the bill partially, and aren’t really sure when and if they can pay the rest of it. Some of these people, unlike me, do not have automatic online checking accounts which can be set up to automatically pay the bill. Even if they do have checking accounts, some of these people do not have enough of a balance in it to be confident to set up automatic billing, and perhaps some of them lack the computer skills to even contemplate doing so. Yes, and some of these people voted for Donald Trump. And they may be still standing occasionally in a utility bill pay line four years from now. But that’s not the main point here.
I am considerably sobered by all this. I was going to write a letter to the water division. And I could do that with some justice. For example, if a “final disconnect notice” is sent out in red letters, WHY ISN’T there some indication of an exact turn off date? If even that fact had been on the bill, I would have been spared a lot of anxiety and worry. I would have just made sure to pay the bill by the indicated date. On the other hand, my middle class privilege has insulated me from a realistic knowledge of such things. Maybe the crass bluntness of this bill, intruding into my world of relative comfort, had an unintended but beneficial effect.
So today, I give thanks for these blessings. I got to stand in line with good people trying to pay their bills at great inconvenience. Like the overweight, limping, middle-aged white guy who was just behind me in line, who practically threw himself into one of the two available waiting chairs. He was also dealing with health issues. I get to continue to live in relative comfort, and hopefully (but not completely confidently) to the end of this presidential term or the end of my life, whichever comes first. I get more time to appreciate my bleeding heart.