I spent the final afternoon of [the month] as I do the closing moments of most months: sitting at my dining room table, paying bills by check. AT&T, Gas Company, Department of Water and Power, all inscribed in block caps in my checkbook, envelopes stamped and return-addressed.
It’s not that I’m a Luddite, at least not exactly, although I don’t particularly trust technology. I do pay some bills (credit cards, school and housing fees for my children) by phone or internet, and I often receive payment via direct deposit, which is one of the great cultural innovations of our time.
The act of writing checks, however — it is if not exactly soothing then grounding in a very active sense. Partly, this has to do with the familiarity of the gesture; I have been paying bills in just this fashion for nearly 40 years now, since the first time I ever lived on my own.
Back then, I was paying $83.33 a month for my share of a walk-up on Haight Street in San Francisco, working part-time to make my small ends meet. Now, as the father of two college-aged children, my expenses are different, which may be one reason I like to deal with them in a way that feels comfortable to me.
To sit at the table with a checkbook and a pile of bills is reassuring, as old habits often are. For 20 minutes, half an hour, I work through the stack, creating order out of chaos, balancing what I have and what I owe.
For someone who spends, as I do, most of the working day trying out (and often disregarding) sentences, there is something powerful about measuring my progress through a task. When it is completed, I can see it, in the form of a neat pile of outgoing mail, which I then walk two blocks to the nearest postal box.
I know, I know: The argument against this is that it is a waste of time. Why write out checks and seal them into envelopes, why take the time to go to a mailbox, when I could click an icon on a screen and pay out instantly?
But here’s the thing — I don’t want to pay out instantly. I am fine with making my creditors wait. In some sense, that’s contrarianism, pure and simple; I resent how much it costs to maintain basic services and feel no obligation to make collection easier than it needs to be.
Even more, I don’t see the point of all that speed, that need for instant results. I don’t see what’s so bad about taking my time, especially now that everyone wants everything sooner, faster, better — at the expense of everything else.
Why do I need to be efficient, as long as I pay my bills on time? Why should I give corporations and utilities, who are not my friends and do not have my best interests at heart, access to my funds?
Once, a decade or so ago, a certain American telephone and telegraph company made a series of unauthorized withdrawals from my checking account. Each time this happened, I would complain and the money would be reinstated, but eventually I had to move to a different bank.
This doesn’t happen when I situate myself at the dining table — on a Sunday afternoon, say, with a cup of coffee and my checkbook and a pen. For however long it takes, I know where I am and what it is I’m doing, at a pace that, even after all these years, continues to make sense to me.
David L. Ulin is the former book critic and book editor of the Los Angeles Times. He wrote this for the Sacramento Bee.