Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The gas man

When the big black Audi pulled unannounced into the driveway, and the tall dark man who got out was wearing black shirt, black pants, black shoes, and black sunglasses, I knew I was in for an experience. When he announced - looking down at me from his higher vantage point and imaginary pedestal - that he is the regional manager of the gas company, I knew it wasn't going to be a particularly pleasurable experience.

You see, the gas company and us have something of a history - they screw up their bills to us, and we don't pay until they are sorted out. Franco had arrived to "sort it out" as clearly he (as regional manager) was capable of doing, and his bespectacled, subservient underling - who Franco treated as such - was not.

But first off, what made him believe that I would even be at home on a Tuesday afternoon? And even though I was, what made him think that I would drop everything and attend to him? Home-based as I am, and sucker to boot, Franco had guessd right on both counts, as people like him are apt to do and people like me are not.

His opening salvo was so clearly intended to soften me up that it almost had me openly chuckling: "I have good news for you. You know that long-outstanding bill for €678 you received and haven't paid yet?" Clearly a rhetorical question, I assumed. "Well, don't worry about it, it's taken care of." My deadpan reaction prompted a follow-up question: "Does this make you happy?" Naturally it did, although not from the perspective that he suspected - I was simply relieved that we would no longer be pestered for the money by the gas company for an error that their own field agents (now moved on) had clearly documented on multiple occasions.

But this wasn't the reason for him to come out all the way from wherever to share this news. It was for another unpaid bill, this one rather less, around €170. We had not paid it because it was so obviously another mistake that we wanted it sorted out first - a bill four times the normal, for a period that included a good chunk when we weren't even in Italy. Franco had come to "sort us out."

When I pointed out that such anomalous consumption levels could not be accurate, he claimed they were, and that we had clearly consumed the gas. When I pointed out that we only used gas for cooking, he didn't believe me, and told me that we must have used it for hot water. He even turned to his sidekick underling and asked him how much gas he used for cooking, aiming to demonstrate that our historic consumption levels - which I was able to demonstrate over a two-year period - were simply not possible. [As it turns out, they are, we are simply watchful and frugal.] When I showed him - physically - that there is simply no connection between the gas tank and the heating and hot water system, he said there was obviously another connection somewhere. Without dropping his bella figura for an isntant, he delivered his ultimatum (the details aren't important) and told me that customers like us were simply too much trouble for the gas company. [Naturally, this gave me pause - when a regional manager is spending his time trying to collect a €170 bill from its smallest customer, they must be in some kind of trouble.]

Once he'd done that, he did something that I couldn't believe he would think I'd take in, given the acrimonious atmosphere. He leaned forward conspiratorially, and in a lowered voice - we were in our house, alone, some 500m from the next house - told me that he was going to share something that he shouldn't, and in fact hadn't to anyone else. Uh-huh, no-one else, huh? But you'd open up to me, a guy you've just met who won't pay his bill, with an insider's secret.

He then proceeded to make such a ludicrous claim that it was almost as laughable as his opening gambit. He told me that water from solar panels are physically incapable of rising above 25°C from October to March in this area. This was early November. Amid the glorious sunshine we were having, the water from our soalr panels had reached 50°C the day before, and I'd had a long, luxurious, hot shower ... from the solar panels - other than ligthing a fire, we simply have no other source for hot water. I shared this with him. He told me it wasn't possible, and then proceeded to explain that the overflow tank for our solar panel water reservoir was actually an electric heater that warmed the water on its way to the house. This was so idiotic that I was simply silenced - how could such a man be a manager of anything? Worse still, how could the sidekick underling take him seriously, and treat him with such respect? I was dumbfounded.

From there he asked me what our electrical bills are - obviously hoping to demonstrate that the electrical water ehater was the cause of high monthly charges - and when I gave him the number, he couldn't believe that it was half of his and his sidekick's. Clearly, in his mind I was delusional - who could possibly live of so little electricity and so little gas? My tangible, healthy flesh and printed invoice evidence were clearly elements of a twisted, alternate world that he'd never encountered before.

When he left, insisting that he would follow through with his ultimatum, he blithely ignored my comment that it's such a shame that I, as a bona fide customer of his company's for over two years, did not appear to have a voice, and that he simply wouldn't listen to me. So when he left in his black clothes and black car, I was prompted into action, and did what I do well - an analysis.

I pulled all previous bills and consumption figures together, and was finally able to make a coherent and rock-solid case for my position - the company had screwed up the figures and the bills. I sent it to him in an email. He sent a reply saying that he would get back to me as soon as they had conducted their own analysis. That was two months ago, and I haven't heard from him since. No doubt he's still maintaining his bella figura, along with his clear conscience ...