The Cage Of Associations

So I chose today to be the day to go down to City Hall (by bike of course since it’s L.A.’s annual Bike To Work Day) and take care of the business license/tax money I owed because the city somehow couldn’t find me to collect so they shipped my account off to a collection agency in the great state of Wisconsin that was able to locate me (I wrote all about it here).

visitor.jpgI don’t know what it is about civil servants, but they just seem to be about the grumpiest and most easily displeased people on the planet, and the lady I had the pleasure to interact with was no exception to that rule. So after entering City Hall for the very first time in my life and having my backpack scanned through the machine and having to demonstrate my Alphasmart was a functioning text-input device and then stepping to a counter to wait in line to get the sticker you see at right I then walked about 50 feet to my left to the Office of Finance where I took a number from the Take-A-Number machine (48) and as they were presently serving the holder of No. 38 I grabbed a chair and pulled out Chuck Pahalaniuk’s Choke, which I’m about halfway through and frankly wondering while I’m still reading it… it just ain’t all that compelling to me.

Then, as if in answer after one of the clerks calls for No. 42, Chucky gets my attention with:

That mountain, for example,” she said. She took the boy’s stupid chin between her thumb and forefinger and made him look with her. “That big glorious mountain. For one transitory moment, I think I may have actually seen it.”

Another car slowed down, something brown and four-door, something too late-model, so the Mommy waved it away.

For one flash, the Mommy had seen the mountain without thinking of logging and ski resorts and avalanches, managed wildlife, plate tectonic geology, microclimates, rain shadow, or yin-yang locations. She’d seen the mountain without the framework of language. Without the cage of associations. She’d seen it without looking through the lens of everything she knew was true about the mountain.

What she’d seen in that flash wasn’t even a “mountain.” It wasn’t a natural resource. It had no name.

“That’s the big goal,” she said. “To find a cure for knowledge.”

For education. For living in our heads.

And right there in that waiting area of the Office of Finance on the first floor of the City Hall I’m nodding my head with a half grin on it and I’m sold on seeing Choke the rest of the way through. Even if that’s the only nugget in the whole strange damn novel, that’s enough.

Number 48.” Oh shit, that’s me! I tuck Chuck back in the pack and scramble up to the window where I explain to the grumpy lady on the other side of some silly metal bars about receiving the collection notice and speaking with someone from the office who said it would be best to come into the office if I wished to request a waiver of the penalty —.

“Well you have to put that in writing!”

“Yes, I did that in this letter,” I tell her, sliding it across the counter. She snatches it up and barely looks at it, prefering to meticulously scan the collection notice from the company in cheesehead country. Then she launches into some condescending mumbly grumply speech about needing to provide documentation of my earnings corresponding with the tax year in question, but it’s all blahblahblah to me and now I’m thinking I didn’t even get a chance to piss this woman off and it’s already sounding as she’s going to to make me go home and get some verification of my wages as an independent contractor for 2004 and 2005, come back and put my backpack through the scanner, turn my laptop on and get another sticker so I can take another number and wait some more? At this point I’m ready to eat the penalty and pay the amount on the collection notice and be done with it.

Instead she asks me what type of work I do. I tell her it’s freelance writing and design work. She asks me how much I made in 2004. I tell her: $3,000. And in 2005? I tell her: $0. She gives me a look like what kind of lousy writer/designer are you and I squelch the urge to explain that I just wasn’t seeking work a whole lot during that period and all.

She wants my social security number. I tell her and for the next five surly hours minutes she’s mutely punching her keyboard and pulling up screens that I can’t see. For all I know she’s ordering From Grumpier To Grumpiest In Ten Unpleasant Days on Amazon. Or maybe stealing my identity.

Then without so much as a perfunctory grin or frown or any sort of explanation or reprimand, she punches her calculator and just says “$104.99.”

I slide my ATM card across the counter, a touch perplexed. See the $104.99 is what I was told on the phone that I owed for 2005, but there was also a matter of $114.93 for 2004. Before I can ask the woman’s walked away from me. A couple minutes later she returns with a temporary copy of my business license and a debit card slip in the amount of $104.99 for me to sign.

“But I was told I owed two amounts. Will you be charging that separately?” She ignores me as she makes a note in a ledger of my case with the Wisconsin agency being closed.

“What about the $114.93 I was told on the phone I owed?” And for the first time she makes eye contact with me and says in as ungrumpy a tone as she can muster: “Sir, it’s all taken care of.” I spit out a “But” but quickly stop myself from continuing on a fruitless course toward an explanation that would no doubt mire me in what I’m sure could be one be-yoot of a bureaucratic morass.

Instead I see the light and say “Then I’m just going to shut up and say thank you and good day.” I swear she almost chuckled. And I grabbed up my updated license and receipt and papers and got the hell out of there.

Now I’m not sure what happened that made her excuse the $114.93. I don’t think it was any sort of kindness on her part. Maybe it was bogus to begin with or maybe I was eating into her lunchbreak or she had to pee or both — who knows and who cares! All I know is that I went in expecting to be dinged for $219.92 and I got out of there having to part only with well less than half that.