Public Utility bills began coming to Seth Burnside at my address last November. At first I thought the bills had been mis-delivered as they sometimes are. But it was my address, and my house that I have owned for 15 years. I sent the bills back with “No such resident” written on the envelopes. A week later, and rather obstinately, there they were again. I opened them. There was my address and there was the name Seth Burnside.
Seattle Public Utilities told me, “Seth Burnside is listed as the owner of the house. He bought it in November.”
I swayed a little bit.
“I have owned this house for 15 years. I didn’t sell it in November.”
“But who is Seth Burnside?”
“I don’t know.”
“He doesn’t live there?”
“I don’t know anyone by that name.”
“Well, where does he live?”
“Look,” I said. “I have owned this house and lived here for 15 years. I don’t know anyone named Seth Burnside.”
“Are you sure you don’t live at 2622 29th Ave?”
Am I what? I sat down. An address on the other side of town. Oh. my. God. Twilight Zone, party of one.
It took some doing but the customer service person finally put my name back on my account. In the next billing cycle another bill came to Seth, as well as some “Welcome to the City” materials which I scanned for freebies before putting them in the recycle. (There were no freebies.) I checked my online bill pay. Evidently Seth’s bills were being paid.
I called Seattle Public Utilities and went through another disorienting conversation. “Are you getting any calls from Seth Burnside?” I asked.
No. Apparently Seth wasn’t concerned about his recent investment. The customer service person again corrected the name on my account, and said, unconvincingly, that it should be ok, now.
The third time I had to call the billing office I learned that Seth had been given my old account number when he bought my house. I had been assigned a different number by Customer Service Representative Number One. It would have been nice to not have to pry this information out of them. On-line bill pay likes you to have the correct account number when they credit your account with your money to pay utility bills for the house you have owned for 15 years.
Can anyone call the city, say they’ve bought a house and get their name put on the account? In my third conference with customer service I learned that no, it was not that easy. Evidently someone had sung through a rest or two. The billing office expects to first receive notice from the vacating owner. City planning and development must confirm the change of ownership. Then Billing closes out the old account and begins a new one.
There was a lull in the excitement for a month. Then I got a letter from the city with several forms to fill out, one for me and one for Seth. They wanted address, phone and bra size. And furthermore, each form was headed with an account number, leaving me to guess which one they were currently ascribing to me and which one to Seth.
I filled out one form. Then I wrote a sarcastic letter, sealed and stamped it and just missed the postal carrier for the day. And herein lays the reason for writing this story: I got up the next morning, saw the letter on my desk and thought of my friend Nancy.
In my circle of friends are a great many tactful people. This is a good thing because I tend not to be, though I do try. I’m my own boss and I don’t have a lot of people I have to get along with. I don’t pop off at people the way I used to and it has been a while since I wrote a sarcastic letter, but I can be blunt and impatient with everyone except my students and the friends I don’t want to lose. I learned that much from analysis.
I have often heard Nancy say when describing what sounds like an intractable situation at her work, “I try to treat people like I want to be treated. I don’t like to be yelled at.”
I looked at the letter scorching a patch on my desk, and thought of how civilized, kind and productive it sounds when Nancy says she tries to treat people the way she wants to be treated. I took a deep breath, weighed the pleasure of zinging someone with my wit, and tore the letter up, saving the stamp because my parents went through The Great Depression.
I wrote another letter. I politely explained the chronology of my association with Seth Burnside, episode by episode, ending with a mild joke about the learning curve of a computer. Then I sealed, stamped, and posted the letter.
If I behaved this reasonably more often I might not have been surprised by the tone of the letter I got in return. The representative of Seattle Public Utilities expressed appreciation for my taking the time to write to them and for being so patient in awaiting resolution. He went through the chronology of what happened on the bureaucratic end and stated quite convincingly that everything was now resolved. He gave me his email address and phone number should I have any lingering questions. Thinking about the letter even now just makes me smile. To have behaved civilly is so satisfying. Congress should consider it.
In a few months I hope to write happily about how the IRS resolved what they consider to be a $77,000 discrepancy in my taxes. This one has taxed–ha ha–every social and self-care skill I have. Stay tuned.