In our family, I am the one who writes the checks for household bills and copes with most official mail. I used to do this around the 25th of the month. It took about an hour, and left me with a crisp, caught-up smugness.
Gradually the bill-paying began to slip to the very end of the month or the first of the next, and became more burdensome.
The other night (the sixth day of the "next" month) as I opened our WSSC bill and was confronted with the warning: For safety's sake YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT BACKFLOW (when pressure drops, the water from the customer's property begins to flow backward from the household plumbing to the public water system in a "soda-straw" action), it hit me.
Now I know why I'm putting off bill-paying until (or past) the last minute -- and why it takes twice as long as it used to.
It's not just the chilling amount due. It's the leaflets. How grand it would be to get a bill that was only a bill!
In that recent roundup, for instance, came a stack of pamphlets measuring, conservatively, a half-inch thick. The most unsettling one concerned the previously mentioned "backflow action," described in four illustrated pages which I fully intend to study when I get the chance.
A sampling of others:
* From Washington Gas Light, a common stock offering (probably not a bad idea, but we're so timid about investments) and a rousing exhortation to Join the Level Payment Plan Today!
A more thorny issue is raised by another Washington Gas enclosure: Should you turn off your furnace pilot light?
The Choice is Yours the gas company affirms in bold letters, but later down the page they back off: Please don't count on us to relight next fall. (Obviously they have read books on parenting. They come down on the side of not turning off the pilot, but they are too cagey to come right out and say so.)
On simple furnace maintenance: Oil the fan and motor bearings.
(Have we ever oiled our fan and motor bearings? Where are they? What kind of oil?)
* A haunting question from the Internal Revenue Service: Are you having the correct amount of Federal Income Tax withheld?
(Probably not, but you have to weigh psychological factors, too.)
* PEPCO's "Lines," a publication I admire. The only problem is, it's hard to throw away. But this time Lines is mercifully brief and expendable, a bright spot in my evening.
* A tightly packed communication from the Motor Vehicle Administration, arriving with the title for a car we purchased. This compact slip of paper acquaints me with other services offered by the MVA, which licenses and regulates "Vehicle Dealers, Professional Driving Schools, Title Services, Auto Wreckers, Scrap Processors and Manufacturers of Passenger Cars, Station Wagons and Motor Homes." It describes the MVA's Bicycle Registration Program (3 years for $2!) and tells how to obtain personalized registration plates ($25).
Then it asks: Have you ever desired to do something really nice for your fellow man? and outlines the procedure for indicating on your driver's license that upon death you wish to donate vital body organs . . . .
The prize for the most time-consuming pack of paper goes to our State Farm automobile insurance bill, which also contains the prize puzzler. Following the amount of our gross premium is the message: plus MAIF/UCJ* -- which, if I understand correctly, costs us 84 cents. Eagerly I search out the explanation beside another asterisk at the bottom of the bill. It reads: Company Option-Combined MAIF/UCJ, not previously separately identified.
This bill also announces: Current Semiannual premium $208.20. Premium for this policy period $244.06. Balance due $223.97. Do not pay the amount shown on the declarations page of your policy.
Of the five enclosed leaflets, one begins: State Farm has rewritten its Automobile Policy using language that is easier to read and understand . . . .
Then we have an Important Notice about the broadening of Uninsured Motor Vehicle and No-Fault Coverages; a fascinating notice about car models with decreased premiums (Ford LTD, Toyota Cressida, etc.) and with increased premiums (a whole string of foreign cars and some American models), none of which we own; and an explanation of why our premium is going up (you can imagine) and what we can do to hold it down (drive less, among other things).
Not only in their enclosures do these organizations talk to me; on the back of their envelopes they exhort me to enclose upper portion, write account number on check, not send cash, correct my name and address -- and put on a stamp.
I read and obey.
But WSSC has the last word. Inside the flap, just as you are about to lick it, they announce: County Governments Handle Refuse Matters.
Mary Aladj works for WETA and lives in Silver Spring.