I Remember Bartleby

I’ve long believed I was at least part idiot savant. I excel at useless difficult tasks like completing the New York Times crossword and rapid haiku composition. I can name all the U.S. presidents in order and match up 99.9 percent of area codes to their corresponding cities. Yet simple things like tip calculation, Boggle games and the reality television phenomenon leave me stymied. But no matter how sure of my idiot savant-hood I may be, there are times at which I am absolutely astounded by my own mental density.

Earlier this week I received a letter from a collection agency, telling me I owed the New York Times almost $70 for the subscription I had at my old apartment. (Note: the fact that I’m able to demolish the crossword puzzle within said publication is merely a coincidence in this story). Now, I don’t make a habit of avoiding bill payment until collection agencies come calling. But in this case, an aggravating combination of lost passwords, ridiculously labyrinthine customer service at the New York Times, early onset Alzheimer’s and an insane workload left me with an outstanding balance.

I rang the agency’s phone number, which, I couldn’t help but notice, had a 216 area code and thus, a location somewhere in Cleveland. The following outgoing message met my ears:

You have reached the small balance department at Company X.  Please leave your name, a phone number where you can be reached during business hours and the reference number provided at the top of the letter you received. This message is from a dead collector.”

Holy crap. This message was from a dead collector. Was I responsible?! Had someone lost his or her life because I neglected to pay for two months of newspaper delivery?! Did that message mean another Company X employee, already putting in 12-hour days at the depressing Cleveland office, been forced to take on the outstanding files of his late co-worker? Could that person also be on the verge of suicide or death because of my negligance? The thought was horrifying.  Furthermore, for some reason, the whole thing reminded me of  the great Herman Melville character “Bartleby the Scrivener,” an enigmatic man who “preferred not” and who had, it was implied out after he passed away, suffered some sort of a mental breakdown after working in the Dead Letter Office.

I visited the Company X web site and sent an email to the general inbox.  I explained very warmly and honestly why I’d let the bill slip through the cracks. I apologized and expressed my condolences on the loss of a staff member. Perhaps a very plain, lonely customer service representative had pined for the dead collector from afar. Perhaps she’d sensed some interest and, at the time of his death, been expecting and desperately hoping for an after-work drink invitation — a trip to Appleby’s or the Olive Garden. Perhaps the dead collector lived with his elderly mother in an old Victorian house. Perhaps he wore short-sleeved polyester suits. Perhaps he was the type of man who drank Coke every morning instead of coffee and who wore all-white sneakers.


The email didn’t assuage my guilt, so I found an alternate phone number for the company — also a 216 — and dialed it. I was transferred to several people before finally reaching someone in Small Balances.  I began to speak what I’d written in the email. I paused every few sentences in case the representative wanted to thank me for my words of support at such a painful juncture.  And then, it hit me.  I could practically hear Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man, along with Jim Carey’s in Dumb and Dumber and of course, Forest Gump himself, making fun of me in a superior manner.

Big fat DUH!

There was no dead collector. There was, however, a DEBT collector.

I Remember Bartleby