When I returned from Paris last May, I was a little stunned to come into a warm house. Not seeing the red digital light on the stove, I could only think: “oh, shoot, I neglected to pay my utility bill before departing.”
Before I could put down my purse, it was “off to the races,” and I immediately hopped in my car, and drove downtown to the Town Hall to check it out.
There was a line of people waiting. When it was my turn to be helped, I meekly explained that my electricity was off, that I had just gotten back from France the day before. “Are you certain that I didn’t pay? I could have sworn that I sent a check, before I left.” The person at the counter turned to check her records. “No, we didn’t receive anything. And you’ve have problems before. And you’ll need to pay a $300.00 deposit, due to your poor payment history.” This was said within earshot of other people in line, whom, I suspected, were “guilty” of the same thing. I looked sympathetically back at the line of people behind me.
“But you don’t understand. I was in FRANCE!” This didn’t seem to register with her. In fact, she seemed a little “hard-hearted.” Couldn’t she have taken me aside and quietly explained the situation? After being treated so wonderfully in France, I couldn’t believe that I was coming back to “my” sweet little town, to discover that my electricity had been turned off. Just like that.
Maybe she thought that if I could afford to go to Paris, I could certainly afford to pay my utilities bill. So I explained, “It was a FREE trip.” I hoped that would clear up any misunderstanding. I wasn’t a “bon vivant” who could travel the world anytime I felt like it, just an ordinary woman with a simple life in a small town.
“You have a poor history,” she said again. There it was. That word again. Poor. I took issue with that, thinking I’d always had air conditioning and heat, right? I wasn’t sure how many times a person had to miss a utility payment in order to be considered having a “poor history.” Just once, I decided.
But hey, in Rocky Mount, they just add a missed payment to your next bill. In Tarboro, however, they cut off your utilities, just like that. In a heartbeat.
Well, I sucked in my breath and went to the bank, withdrew the $300.00, and took it right back to the Town Hall. There! I’m in the clear! Paid in full and then some!
But the principle of the thing bothered me, so I wrote to Sam Noble. My son and his daughter went to high school together. I liked Sam. I thought he was a good guy. I emailed a summary of my situation, hoping he would be empathetic. I couldn’t get that word out of my head, after being in France. Couldn’t we negotiate on this? It seemed a bit heartless to just cut off people’s electricity. What if they were on oxygen. What then? (I found out that if a person is on oxygen, their electricity doesn’t get turned off. What a relief!)
Well, Sam wrote me back. A long email, outlining my “poor” payment history. In fact, he used the word “poor” three times. To say the least, I felt worse after hearing back from Sam. Having lived in Tarboro for 15 years, I hardly felt as if I had a “poor” history. I wanted to fire a letter back to him. Sam, how could you be so insensitive? What kind of legacy do you want to leave here? Where is the empathy? The understanding? I decided to go and see him, rather than firing back a letter.
The visit was pleasant. We chatted. He was nice. Engaging. Understanding. I mentioned my perception that his email to me was harsh. And his explanation was perfectly acceptable. It was just business, plain and simple. The policy on utilities payments had been in place for decades. It would probably never change. One thing’s for certain, I have not been late since then on my utilities payment. But, I still believe that people in public service should be more careful in their words, more discreet. Because you know what? It doesn’t cost anything to be nice, and it doesn’t take that long either.
Just before Christmas, there was an article in the Daily Southerner about how a number of people had had their electricity turned off. And how a “good Samaritan” had come forward to pay the bills of all these residents. The story warmed my heart.
Since then, I’ve found lots of empathy here. In car repair shops, at church, at work, in class, on the walking trail I use. Empathy is here. You just have to look for it.