Wednesday, January 13, 2010

In over my head

I have a friend.

After living in New Jersey friendless for about ten years, I finally found one. She's deceptively quiet, keenly aware, brutally clever, and sharply witted.

Sorely missing the one friend and social outlets we'd had in Omaha for so long, I was elated when Jen invited me to a candle party. It's just like a Tupperware (tm) party, except instead of poring over the merits of colorful plastic food storage containers, you look at catalogs and samples of candles of every shape, color, and fragrance, each with a corresponding candle holder while the candle lady hostess describes the moods and atmosphere to create in your home with them. Not one item costing less than $25.00 I genuinely couldn't have cared less, but being desperately needy and painfully lonely I drove full speed to the party and was the first to arrive.

Upon my arrival, the perfect hostess, Jen offered to take my coat. That's when I knew she needed me. Her coat closet was so crammed full of clutter and debris, most of which didn't even belong in a coat closet, that I wanted to cancel the party and right then and there get it organized for her.

As we became better acquainted (see Pregnant Woman with Lemon in The Cheese Stands alone blog)), I forced my hyper-obsessive organizing skills upon her and on several occasions, we met at her house for a day of sorting, categorizing, eliminating, and cleaning the overwhelming piles and overstuffed drawers and cabinets that had accumulated in a house full of four young children, a menagerie of pets, and two working parents. For both of us, it was a win-win situation. My own four children were grown and out of the house, and I had no outlet for such a wealth of unspent skills. Jen had no such skills, and seemed to politely tolerate my pushy, aggressive, and sometimes insensitive demands to get her surroundings up to the standards of a boot-camp sergeant. No doubt, she was relieved when I left at the end of these days, but as I drove away, my endorphins soaring after the release of compulsive organizing, I thoughtfully planned for the next opportunity and which Rubbermaid (tm) products to utilize for it.

It was in the basement when things went awry. We were doing it all--sorting, cleaning, organizing, and making minor household repairs in the usual way one afternoon, and went to the fuse box to kill the power so we could safely replace a light switch. Finding a blank box panel that should have a notation for the location of each power supply, I remarked that Jen's husband, Jim, should be aware of this, and take the time to identify each one and clearly mark the corresponding boxes. She came over to see, and we both noted the single word POOL on a switch that we couldn't map to any of the house circuits. None others were identified.

Jen exclaimed that it would explain the mystery cement slab they'd always wondered about in the back yard, along with a few other unexplained archeological discoveries in the 8 years they'd lived there. There must've been an above-ground pool! When she brought this new knowledge to Jim, he quickly, flatly, and dismissively denied there'd ever been a pool in their back yard. But that just didn't make sense to me, and I certainly didn't appreciate:

A. The fact that his fuse box labels were blank--what man of the house doesn't mark his fuses?
B. His notion that since HE didn't discover the POOL notation, then the pool never existed.
C. How he dismissed our discovery and Jen's offer of significant household historical information.

After our work was done and I drove the hour long drive back home, I concocted my plan of attack. "I'll show him." and while stuck in rush-hour New Jersey traffic, formulated an elaborate scheme that would require both Stephen and Jen's cooperation.

I described the situation to Stephen and asked for his computer skills to cut and paste official seals and logos from the McHarg's township website to be the letterhead for a sternly worded letter from the tax assessor's office regarding the recent discovery of eight years of unpaid taxes on an unauthorized residential swimming pool. Of course, the discovery revealed from an inquiry to the office to PROVE that there was, indeed, a pool there at one time. "I'll show him."

I required Jen's help to provide the surveyor's map and lot numbers to include with the letter. And for someone who has absolutely no organizational skills, what-so-ever, I was impressed by the immediate presentation and fax transmittal of these documents! This is REALLY going so show Jim.

So we sent this:

Re: Lot 38 & ½ of lot #39 (Lot 4, block 703)

To: Mr. James McHarg

A recent inquiry was made to this office regarding the presence of a residential /single-family dwelling swimming pool on your property. Based on this inquiry, and in accordance with New Jersey guidelines mandating strict discovery procedures, our office conducted a detailed tax history investigation. This analysis uncovered your failure to pay taxes on the residential improvements on the property since the 2000 tax year.
Records for 1987 show that the borough issued a permit to the homeowner for installation and erection of the following: Residential family above-ground swimming pool: 18’X33’ oval galvanized
Gravel foundation

Cement decking

Wooden easement

Chain link safety fencing
Electrical pumping/sieving unit

Water evacuation trough

A follow-up building inspection and compliance review confirmed the work was completed according to the permit.
These improvements upgraded the property to a higher tax base. We are notifying you that current unpaid taxes amount to $14,867.33 (fourteen thousand, eight hundred, sixty-seven dollars and thirty-three cents) including 8 (eight) annual late fees and penalties incurred for failure to pay.

This total amount is now due and payable by May 31, 2009. The amount due for the tax year of 2008 is $1,213.85 (one thousand, two hundred, thirteen dollars and eighty-five cents). Payments postmarked or received by this due date will avoid any further late fees and penalties.

Please include your lot number and property address in all correspondence when contacting our office regarding this matter. We accept cashier’s checks, certified bank checks, and U.S. Postal money orders for payment by mail or in person at 1 Kings Highway, Middletown, NJ 07748, or by VISA/MasterCard at 973-943-7403.

Bill Schrettir
Township Assessor’s Office
Township of Middletown

Vishnu Peyup

Commercial/Residential Taxation

Township of Middletown

That looked daunting enough. So it was sent in March to Jen. She then, in turn, would send it in its official looking township envelope from their post office with the correct postmark. She did, and we waited.

And waited.

And waited.

By August, hearing nothing, Jen sent e-mail that Jim's birthday was upcoming, and hoped I had clever ideas for a silly gift? I immediately responded that I would offer nothing until we got results from "the letter".

She wrote one line back:

I hoped you'd forgotten about that.

Uh, oh. What? Why? So I picked up the phone and called her. Fearful that Jim had gone ballistic upon reading "after a recent inquiry to our office" figuring it was a result of my meddling and he flew off the handle, I asked what had happened.

It was bad. Real bad.
Since Jim often travels about four days a week for his job, he'd tossed the letter in a pile and intended to get to in in the near future. In the aforementioned chaos of that household the letter was promptly mislaid or lost, and Jim put it in the back of his mind with every intention to 'get to it'.

Jen casually reminded him one day about it-- eager for the ensuing hilarity when he called the fake number and the prank revealed-- but again, he dismissed her and went on another business trip. Once back home, while Jen was at work, having lost the letter with our fake names and numbers Jim called the Tax Assessor's office directly--the phone number on our letter was Stephen's cell phone number and Stephen was well prepared with his role once he identified Jim with caller ID.

The clerk at the assessor's office explained that their "regular guy" who sends out those letters was currently on medical leave and she had no record of anything regarding the pool matter.

Wanting to resolve this entire issue as soon as possible, and before another business trip caused another delay and distraction, Jim insisted that the temporary assessor come to their house to visually inspect and report that there is no pool, never has been a pool, and thereby eliminate any taxes, penalties, fees, and other financial burdens involved.

So the tax man arrives clip board in hand, and sees no pool, still having no record of an inquiry, history of construction, or unpaid tax assessments. There, that was easy. However, the construction debris from Jim's current work on a bathroom remodeling project which is sitting in a pile in the driveway causes some concern and the assessor notes no building permit on record. This is a serious violation, and cause for a fine and fees. He starts writing things down on his clipboard.

And while he's noting that, he spies that the originally detailed and surveyed gravel driveway is now asphalt, but does not meet the street properly for drainage and street plowing. Also having filed no permit, this incurs substantial additional fines and fees.

As Jen calmly and quietly explains all of this over the phone, I have gone from laughing nervously, to gasping, to becoming physically unwell, and nearly dizzy. It was like an I Love Lucy episode; Jen couldn't stop it, and yet, couldn't explain it away as all being a silly prank that had gone completely haywire.

As kind as she is, she immediately insisted that we could never-EVER mention this situation. If Jim found out the truth, he WOULD go ballistic! They plan to just pay the fines:

I interrupted, "How much are the fines?" thinking we should probably offer to pay at least half. Jen diplomatically and quietly replied, "Enough to hurt. A lot."

I am beside myself. My sweaty left thigh (it's a condition) is saturated and I am completely at a loss. How could this have happened?

Jen, again, trying to relieve my obvious and extreme discomfort, says, "I don't want this to ruin our friendship, so I'm just going to go now." And we hang up.

I am genuinely sick to my stomach, and immediately call Stephen to tell him how horribly, horribly wrong this prank went and let him know that under Jen's strict advice that in the future, should we ever get together again, can never let it slip, "Yuk, Yuk, Yuk!! Hey, remember that time we played that prank on you about that phantom swimming pool in your back yard?" No, we must never forget, and never mention it....EVER.

Meanwhile, Jen was my only friend. Jim is great company at parties. Did I ruin this? What will I do? Should I call her back and offer to pay the stupid fines? But what if they're too much even for us? Can I find out somehow and pay it without them knowing? My head is reeling. I don't know what to do with myself, so I go to the basement and white wash the walls until midnight while my mind replays the conversations, re-reads the letter, the dollar signs whizzing by in my mind's eye, imagining Jim's wrath, Jen's helplessness to admit anything and the angst she must have dealt with. Oh God, Oh dear, this is THE WORST.

As the paint dries, it's the wee hours of the morning. I know I won't be able go to sleep. My mind abuzz. I'll have a stiff drink (or two) and check my e-mail. Maybe Stephen came up with a diplomatic response to this debacle.

An e-mail from Jen is in my inbox. She apologizes for having told me the negative outcome. She never wanted us to know.

Oh, Jen; dear sweet Jen. Trying to assuage my own horrific guilt by taking the blame (well, she was in on it from the beginning.) She knows I'm suffering, yet even with the financial blow they're taking from it all, she wants to ease my mind and relieve me of responsibility.

This won't ruin our friendship, she promises. She writes:

I feel bad about this whole thing. It's JIM'S fault he tried to pull one over and not pull a permit on a renovation that's taken far too long, which honestly deserves some sort of punishment.

It's JIM'S fault he hired a fly-by-night paving company who showed up at our door UNBIDDEN and required payment by check, in full, made out to a third party and when that didn't work out, cash, before completion of repairs.

It's JIM's fault he has left the bathtub out there for so long, waiting, he says, until the completion of renovation because, why have someone come out twice?

It's JIM's flawed character that doesn't allow him to let anything go. All correspondence in the form of mortgage refinance offers, credit balance transfers, Nigerian sweepstakes schemes and, yes, threatening letters from municipalities, must be followed up on.

It is JIM's problem that he has created an atmosphere within our friendship that would promote the execution of this hoax, and it is JIM's great fortune to have married someone well-humored enough to turn the hoax around on her very good friends.

Genius, sheer genius. Best of all, I've still got a friend.


  1. even though i knew the ending, reading this still gave me raging indigestion!

  2. Touche! You have met your match :)

  3. That closet really bothered Jane. She showed up shortly afterward with handfuls of wooden hangers, ejected from the Chrysostom household because they didn't match the other wooden hangers, saying, "Wood hangers just give a person a new outlook on life, you know?"

    I have no idea what she means, but we remain good friends in spite of it.

  4. i think >MY< left thigh started to sweat when i heard this the first time O.o

  5. Jane was in full-on panic mode after that first email from Jen. What fun ... now, that is. Not then.