As a student of history, I’ve always enjoyed reading old letters.
And it doesn’t matter whose letters either. The rich and famous, the poor and unknown — all of them said something. And that’s the essence of letters: No one takes the time and effort to write a letter unless they do it with a bunch of thought. Then as the words hit the paper, the thought hits the the light of day.
In that respect, they’re the opposite of texts and emails, which are basically verbal tics coming from the fingertips rather than the head or heart.
I was a constant, if not compulsive, letter writer for most of my life, starting in my early teens. At my letter-writing peak I wrote at least one letter a day, and received a letter a day.
Alas, no more. Due to the “wonders” of email, texts and social media, now I’m lucky if I get a letter every other month.
This not to say I don’t get mail. I do, almost daily, but none of it is personal. Instead it’s one of three kinds.
One is from smarmy politicians (pardon the redundancy) promising me Glorious New Days Ahead, if only I vote for them.
Another is advertisements for products so crappy they’re not sold in stores anywhere. Among them are cheapo hearing aids, “genuine” Amish stoves, and in case I ever decide to do some gender-bending, steeply discounted designer dresses from China.
The third, of course, is bills.
I accept bills as one more ugly fact of life I have to endure. They’re like diehard sports fans, pyramid sales hustlers, and religious nuts – those wild-eyed lunatics who never realize I couldn’t give a flying fig about their MVP, their product or their god.
Fight the power!
So I get a bill and I pay it and that’s that. It’s nothing I think about, much less examine. At least it never was till last week when I opened up my latest National Grid bill.
At first, I thought it was weird I’d gotten a bill at all, since I thought I’d just paid one a week or so before. I shrugged that off, though. I mean, let’s get real — I’m lucky if I can remember if I flossed 10 minutes after I do. But once I saw the bill, things got even weirder.
It was a bill for 90 cents. Yep, that’s right – 90 cents. 90 pennies. One slim dime less than a dollar.
But for what? Ninety cents of National Grid’s finest couldn’t power an audible fart.
A few times I forgot to pay my National Grid bill and it was no big deal: My next bill included both months, and after giving myself some imaginary kicks in the prat for my stupidity, I wrote out my check and sent it off, grateful for their enlightened billing practices.
But that was then…and this is now. And it raises two big questions.
Question 1: How enlightened could a 90 cent bill be?
And Question 2: What in the name of the good god Bes was it even for?
I check out the bill.
The answer to Question 1 is, It wasn’t.
The answer to Question 2 is Underpayment.
My previous bill had been for the grand total of $33.34. Due to myopia, momentary madness, or mal de mer, I wrote a check for $32.44. And thus the Strange Case of the Nonsensical Ninety was solved!
But what wasn’t solved was what I’d do about it.
Oh sure, I could just pay the bill and let that be that. But I had other options.
In place of a check, I could send a letter asking them what, if anything, their billing department was thinking, making each of us spend 98 cents in postage alone to satisfy a 90 cent bill.
Or I could ignore that bill altogether and wait a month, when it’d probably be incorporated in the next bill.
Or if I was feeling especially snarky, I could write a letter pointing out their deficiencies. Break it down for them, asking all sorts of specifics. Like is this bill the result of an automated service? If so, how much did it cost in software and all that, to roust me for a miserable ninety cents? Or if the bill isn’t automated, then does that mean they’re paying someone, a Billing Wallah, to do this stuff by hand? So assuming the BW makes a lordly $15 per hour and it takes him 10 minutes to send that bill, it’s now costing them $2.50 in labor alone to score 90 cents in return? And snarkily on and on, and on.
Dopes just wanna have fun
But those choices, while perhaps satisfying an outstanding debt or a sense of outrage, would lack one thing — fun. And at this point in my dotage, fun is my highest priority. The way I see it, I was serious long enough, and from here on out if I can make something fun, I’m gonna do it.
So how to have fun with this bill?
It took some serious time and effort to figure it out, but I finally did it.
I didn’t write a letter asking or stating anything; in fact, I didn’t write any letter at all.
Instead, I just wrote out and sent them a check – for eighty cents.
Now the ball’s in their court. And what’ll they do next? Add the dime to next month’s bill? Send me another bill, this time for ten cents? Or maybe a bill for 10 cents, plus a penalty for being overdue? Or send me no bill at all, a dime difference not registering on their computer? Or if the Billing Wallah handles it, he’ll send me a scathing snottygram about what a jackass I am.
Of course, I’ve no idea what Nat’l Grid will do.
But I do know if I don’t get a laugh out of whatever they do, it’ll be my fault, not theirs.