November 19, 2006

Ten Bucks

The handyman was under the kitchen sink, looking with all his might for a leak that simply wasn’t there. I’d told him as much, but he needed to see for himself. As he was searching, I sat at the kitchen table and opened the envelope from the insurance company.

      My insurance had run out several weeks earlier. After firing me, my former employer had agreed to extend it a little while, but that grace period had come and gone. Since then I’d received all sorts of mailings from the insurance company, mostly informing me (as if I hadn’t noticed) that my insurance had been canceled, and that I needed to do something about it.

      I slid the pages out of the envelope and began scrutinizing them under the magnifier. This mailing was different. This one had numbers on it. Or more specifically, amounts. Thousands of dollars.

      “Aww, christ—I owe them $4700 for some reason?” I thought as my guts went cold. I didn’t have $4700.

      The handyman finally concluded that there was no leak to be found, told me he’d be back the next day to look again, and let himself out. I returned to the insurance form to find out what the fuck this was all about.

      Upon more careful examination a little lower on the page, I saw what seemed to be a more reasonable number: $10. I owed somebody $10, not several thousand. I calmed down a little.

      Still, though, I wondered why I owed anybody $10 at this point.

      According to the form, I owed my old primary care physician $10 for something that happened on October 23rd. Problem is, I hadn’t seen him on October 23rd. In fact, I hadn’t seen him in about six months.

      He wasn’t my favorite doctor. He looked and sounded too much like Adam Sandler. I mean, sure, it was kind of funny (in a stupid way) for a little while. But how was I supposed to take anything he said seriously? I’d sit there in the examination room, waiting for him to break into his “Opera Man” shtick as he told me about my high blood pressure.

      In any case, this thing from the insurance company was clearly a mistake, so the next morning while I was waiting for the handyman to return, I picked up the phone and called the toll-free number printed at the top of the form.

      “Hi! and thanks for calling!” the overly-enthusiastic computer-modulated voice said. “We’re happy to be able to help you, but before we begin, I’m going to have to ask you a few questions. First, are you calling on behalf of yourself or a family member?”

      I couldn’t tell if there was a comma in there, so I didn’t know if they wanted me to simply say yes or specify which of the two. In my confusion I said nothing.

      “Please answer ‘yes’ or ‘no.’“ the computerized voice said.


      “Now I need you to say or enter your ID number.” Luckily, I’d written the number down before calling, expecting something like this.

      “” I said, trying to enunciate each number as clearly as I could.

      “I’m sorry. but I didn’t get that. Please enter the number on your telephone key pad.”

      With a sigh, I wondered who they could understand, and punched the numbers in.

      “All right. Now if you could give me your date of birth.”

      “Six...two...sixty-five,” I enunciated again.

      “Thank you! I heard that as “January fourth, 1974. Is that correct?”


      “I’m sorry. My mistake.”

      Maybe I was reading things into it, but the recording sounded kind of irked.

      “Now I’m going to put you through to an operator who might be able to better help you.”

      “Might?” I asked.

      But before the machine had a chance to respond, I was listening to three different voices telling me what an important customer I was, and how important it was to keep me happy, and that they’d be with me in just a minute, because it was real important to them. Behind the voices, a Muzak version of the Thompson Twins’ “Hold My Heart” kept playing in a loop.

      “What an odd choice for an insurance company,” I thought.

      About ten minutes later, just as I was kind of getting hooked on the song, the operator broke in. She was a very pleasant woman, who, after pulling up my file, explained that the doctor had filed the claim, but that they hadn’t paid it yet. I told her that I hadn’t seen the doctor in quite some time, so I wasn’t sure what was going on.

      “Did you have blood work or something done?” she asked.


      “Well, you’ll need to call them and find out what it’s all about. There might have been a mistake of some kind.”

      “Okay,” I said. “Not a problem. I know his office can get a little crazy sometimes.” Then, for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, I added, “Things can get...confused out there...Power, ideals, new morality. Practical military necessity.”

      “Excuse me?”

      “Nothing. Thanks for your help. I’ll call the doctor.”

      I looked up the doctor’s number and dialed it, only to find out that the number I had listed had been changed. So I called the new number, and was told that I needed to call yet a third number in order to reach the billing department.

      This was getting far too involved for $10.

      The woman who answered the phone in the billing department looked up my account and found the bill in question.

      “You got blood work done on Oct. 23rd,” she said.

      “No I didn’t.”

      “Well it says here you did.”

      “Then what it says is mistaken. I didn’t. I haven’t seen the doctor in five or six months. Haven’t gotten blood work. Nothing.” I was, in spite of everything, maintaining a pleasant demeanor, having learned a long time ago that in situations like this, it usually helped.

      “Maybe you were up there that week sometime, if not that exact day?”

      “No, I wasn’t. I lost my job in June, I lost my insurance. I haven’t seen the doctor since.”

      ‘That month sometime maybe? This was at his office on 7th Ave.”

      “Right. I figured. I mean, I may have walked past the office that day, but I didn’t stop in.”

      “Well, we wouldn’t bill you for just walking past the building.”

      “That’s good to know.”

      “You’re sure you haven’t seen him?”

      “Yeah, I’m uhhh...positive about that.”

      “Hmmm,” she said. Then she took my phone number.

      “In order to create a file,” she told me, “there has to be some paperwork. So I’m going to do a little investigating and see if I can track it down. I’ll call you back.”

      “Okay. That’s super.”

      This was already way beyond “too complicated for ten goddamn bucks.” I started wondering how far I’d be willing to take it in the end. Given my circumstances, ten bucks was ten bucks—I’d drop it on a round of beers happily, but wasn’t about to give it to some quack who was making up fanciful tales and using me as his patsy.

      I was amazed four hours later when the woman from the billing department called me back, and told me that she’d found the mistake. It was all taken care of, and I could ignore that bill.

      That was a pleasant surprise.

      I was much less surprised, however, to realize after I hung up the phone that I was still waiting for that handyman to show up again, to search for his elusive imaginary leak.


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