A New Urbanist Fable: If You Can Discern the Moral, Please Advise

Years ago I discovered the easiest way to dull the pain of paying bills is by paying them in person. Most of my creditors had some downtown entity, and paying bills became a briskly sociable monthly walk, with lots of short, pleasant conversations with tellers and clerks. The people I wrote checks to mostly seemed like nice folks and greeted me graciously, as befits one who's helping pay your salary. Some gave me cookies or suckers. It was more pleasant than most cocktail parties, and I saved on stamps.

It wasn't to last. First, my phone company moved away from downtown, so I had to quit that. Then my insurance agents moved westward. So no more dropping in, and no more kindly phone-call reminder from Mildred, the woman I'd gotten to know ("Jack, did you forget again?"). Since they moved, I no longer know the staffers; when I'm late, it's an instant cancellation.

Then, as an unexpected result of a mortgage financing, I was told I could no longer pay my biggest monthly bill, the mortgage, downtown, at the office at which I commenced the refinancing process, the office of the bank to which I write those checks. Though my bank still has Tennessee in its name, I can no longer pay my bills in Tennessee. Now I'm told I must mail it to nameless strangers in Illinois. O Brave New World.

At least there's still KUB. The only bill I can still pay in person is maybe the most important one. When the Miller's building was so extravagantly rehabbed, a decade ago, by devoted architect Duane Grieve, KUB became its primary tenant. Knoxville's not a city known for architecturally impressive interiors, but the Miller's Building lobby is more elegant than that of most Manhattan hotels. Its soaring neo-beaux arts lines are almost ennobling. Inside, people speak in hushed, reverent tones. KUB didn't need such a swank palace for the gritty business of water, gas, and electric, but I appreciated the building and its grand atrium. I expressed my appreciation by entering once a month to pay my bill, feeling, for that moment, princely.

By carrying my bill to KUB in person, I also knew I was saving a few dollars a year in postage. Not much, but enough for a decent lunch, once a year.

A few weeks ago, I wrote checks for several bills, including KUB, and set out with a handful of stamped envelopes for the majority I can no longer pay in person. I dropped them into the big blue mailbox on the corner. I looked down for the KUB bill I intended to walk to the headquarters. It was not there. I'd left my office with it. I must have dropped it into the mailbox with my stamped bills. And it was due today.

I knew the postman wouldn't deliver a letter without postage. I figured either I'd find it in my home mailbox, returned to sender, or it would just end up lonesome in the Dead Letter Office. Regardless, I just needed to pay my KUB bill, pronto, lest I get a $9 fine, 5 percent of my bill. With two kids in college, one can't go around wasting nine bucks. That's a pretty posh luncheon, by my standards, or a movie, or a night at the pub.

So I got my checkbook and walked down the sidewalk to KUB, to explain the situation and clear it up. For the first time ever, when I'd gone there on a weekday, their lobby door was closed and locked. A sign noted they'd started closing on Mondays and Fridays. KUB has the grandest headquarters of any utility company in the South, and they've chosen to keep it open only three days a week.

I assume there's a declining customer demand to visit the downtown location. Though KUB may have more residential customers downtown than it has in half a century, those customers may not feel obliged to come by and visit, like I do. Damn credit cards and e-pay. In a world of instant credit and debit, maybe we don't need architecture anymore.

A sign in the empty lobby directed me to an ATM-style electronic teller in a hallway. I found it and tried to make sense of it, but it seemed to require my account number. That number was on my bill, and duly copied on my check—the check that was sealed inside the stampless envelope in the big blue mailbox. I was counting on the clerk to look that up for me.

Back in my office, I found an old bill in a cluttered drawer, and enough information to write a check and just slip it into the sidewalk overnight slot and hope they'd credit me for paying it on time, so I could avoid the $9 fine.

Well, they did credit me on time. I didn't have to pay the fine.

Somehow they also received that stampless letter accidentally left in the mailbox down the street, with a check with the identical amount. Ever obliging, KUB cashed that, too. If you want to pay KUB twice for the same month, it turns out, that's just fine.

I didn't learn that until a few days later, when I got a bill from my bank for a bounced check. My bank, the one that won't let me pay my mortgage in person anymore, fined me $35. It was almost four times KUB's late fee that I'd taken such pains to avoid.

An irony worthy of Mr. O. Henry. Should I be annoyed at the kindly postman who delivered my bill without a stamp? Or KUB for cutting back on their hours? Or my bank for what seems like a gotcha fee? Knoxville's still a combination of Mayberry and Orwell's Oceania.

Add a murder or two, and it might be a great plot for a twisty thriller. As is, it's barely a column.