LIELARD COHEN'S LATEST gas bill is $403.43 -- $408.97, if he's late with the payment. This may seem like a huge gas bill, but it's standard for Lielard. Month after month, he gets a bill in that range and, usually, pays it on time. Sometimes, though, he gets a discontinuance notice, and I think, "Oh, boy, this month it's going to happen." But it never does. By the next month, the bill is paid.
Who is Lielard Cohen? you may ask. Beats me. All I know is that I get his gas bill. It comes to me at my address, and since he and I have the same last name, I thought, silly me, that perchance District of Columbia Natural Gas (a division of Washington Gas Light Co.) had the two of us confused. Since the first of Lielard's bills I received had that cancellation notice, I called the gas company posthaste with two bills in hand -- my own (modest and already paid) and Lielard's (humongous and past due). Do not, I implored, terminate my service in the name of Lielard Cohen.
There then ensued a nightmare. There seemed to be no one at District of Columbia Natural Gas (a division of Washington Gas Light Co.) who could distinguish between Richard Cohen and Lielard Cohen. Even aside from that, I could not convince them that Lielard Cohen did not live in my building. There are but two apartments in my building. One is occupied by a woman whose name is not Cohen. It is something else. The other apartment belongs to me.
Two apartments, two people, I told District of Columbia Natural Gas (a division of . . . aw, the hell with it). No one else lives in the building. Can't be, I was told. There's this Lielard Cohen. We have his account number, 0478.022593. Yes, I said, looking at Lielard's bill, that's the number. But no such person lives in my building. I was assured that, should Lielard fail to pay his bill, his gas service, and not mine, would be terminated.
Nevertheless I worried. Since there are but two meters in the house, wouldn't the gas guy just decide to turn off one of them -- the one belonging to a Cohen and not to the very nice woman whose name is not Cohen but something else entirely? On bitter-cold days in the winter, I fretted, which is something I had never done before. I worry plenty and I have lots of anxiety, but fretting, I tell you, was something new for me.
Once, years ago and in a different city, I had my gas turned off. Also the electricity, in case you're interested. The month of this debacle was December, which meant, among other things, that I left the house in the dark, returned in the dark and cooked, at least once, over a can of Sterno. To live that way just once is to want to live that way never again. Little wonder I fretted.
The next month came yet another bill for Lielard Cohen. He was no longer in arrears. The bill, as I recall, was for something like $1.23. Good old Lielard, I thought. Pays his bills. A swell American. But hold on, said I. How could he pay a bill he never received? The bills come to me. I am the only Cohen in my building. The other apartment is occupied by the nice woman whose name is not Cohen. She has lived in the building for many years. In fact, she owns the building. She has never heard of Lielard Cohen.
This has been the pattern since around last October. A bill comes for Lielard. He does not pay. He gets a termination notice. He pays his bill, and the next bill is for some small amount. The gas company cannot tell me how Lielard Cohen pays a bill he does not get. Instead, it insists that he is living somewhere in my building. I have searched high and low. Sometimes at night I call out, "Lielard, O Lielard," and then wait for a response. Nothing.
Now, for those of you who think, based upon the evidence, that I just bang out these columns in no time, let me tell you that a month has passed since I started this one. I have now received yet another bill for Lielard Cohen. It is for $425.61, which is, as they say in the energy game, a hell of a lot of gas. I envision Lielard Cohen's apartment as having a blast furnace, where through the Bessemer process (a term I learned in school and which, until this moment, I have never used) he is single-handedly turning the District of Columbia into an industrial power, a latter-day Sandburgian city. I think sometimes that if I only look into the night sky, I will see a fiery glow, the sign that Lielard Cohen is, through the Bessemer process, turning iron into steel.
I have thought of using my "influence," calling the public relations people at the gas company and asking them what in God's name is going on. I have thought of it, but I do not have the time. Life is too short to go through that whole rigmarole about Richard Cohen and Lielard Cohen, both with the same address, one who used exactly $10.23 in gas last month, the other $425.61, doing it all in a single apartment, me heating the place when it's cool, him hauling in ingots (whatever they are) and turning them, through the Bessemer process, into railway tracks that he then sends, Federal Express, to South Korea. I have other things to do.
So I am sending this warning, publicly and for all the world to see: Gas company, if you turn off my gas because Lielard Cohen has not paid his bill, I will exact the most terrible revenge. I will write yet another column ridiculing District of Columbia Natural Gas, taking it to task for the terrible mistake that I fear, in a fretting sort of way, it will make. I make this vow not only in my own name, but in that of Lielard Cohen as well. Pay attention, District of Columbia Natural Gas. You may not fear me, but Lielard Cohen is one of your best customers.