Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

March 8, 2004. Shame and Fear.

Iíve had Ė am really still in the middle of Ė one of those experiences that happen to other people, but arenít supposed to happen to me. The kind of random event that makes you feel vulnerable to attacks from out of the blue, that you canít control, that threaten your comfort and security and sense of self.

I returned from five days out of town to find a formal letter from one Paul Kupferstein, a barrister in Canada, informing me that had an unpaid debt of $183.25, owed to a company called BFD Enterprises. I was instructed to pay it at once with a check made out to the barrister, or legal proceedings would be initiated against me. At first I figured it was a scam, and thought I would ignore it. A web search showed that Paul Kupferstein was indeed a lawyer in Markham Ontario, and that BFD Enterprises was a telecommunications company out west somewhere. Having found Paul Kupfersteinís email address, I sent him an email, copying several people at BFD, to ask in considerable indignation what this was all about Ė if, in fact, it wasnít a total scam.

The next morning, I thought perhaps Iíd better phone the office in Ontario. I got a young man who told me that the charges were for 900 calls made in August, 2002.

Slowly the light began to dawn. A year and a half ago, I was billed for $100 in 900 calls, which I hadnít made. I was about to write ďwhich of course I hadnít madeĒ Ė I suppose thatís the start of the horror of this tale. I have no idea what 900 numbers really are, but I imagine them to involve anonymous telephone sex, or something equally distasteful. Just the suggestion that I would have called such a number is offensive Ė it makes me feel tainted. And outraged.

When the calls showed up on my bill, I went through the appropriate channels to have them removed Ė called the phone company, filled out forms on the web, and so on. The next month my account was credited with the $100, and I never heard about them again Ė until I spoke to the person on the other end of the line at Paul Kupfersteinís office.

So I explained to him that I hadnít made the calls, that I had contested them in 2002 and been credited for them, and that I was not going to pay for them. He rattled off a rapid litany of dire consequences that would follow if I didnít pay Ė legal proceedings, court appearances, fines of $3000, ruination of my credit rating. I interrupted him to say that I would not consider myself to have been informed of the consequences of non-payment if he insisted on speaking like a 33 rpm record played at 78.

Well, okay, I didnít really think to use quite those words at the time. It's just as well, he was probably too young to understand them. But it didnít matter, whatever I did say didnít stop him. So I interrupted again to ask how they would serve me with these legal proceedings. At your residence, he said. Ah, said I, but I donít have a residence. At your employerís, then, said he. Ah, said I, I have no employer. To which he replied, ďI know you donít have an employer, why donít you get a job and pay your bills instead of being such a slack-off and not honoring your commitments?Ē

I was furious. Livid. I sorely wanted to hang up on him, but I thought that might not be wise. I donít even want to think back on how angry I was, because that anger brings with it such a sense of impotence. Here I was, going about my business, trying to organize my life in a somewhat unconventional way, and this bully who is totally irrelevant to my existence is suggesting that I have to modify my behavior because he might have the power to force me with threats of legal proceedings.

I didnít hang up on him. I asked to speak to his boss. He said no. I asked if he was a lawyer. He said no. I said I wasnít going to speak with him any more and asked him to put Paul Kupferstein on the line. He said no, that I had called and he had answered, and he was the only person I could talk to, and what exactly was my problem, anyway.

I couldnít come up with a snappy reply, so it was lucky that at that moment my phone beeped to signal another incoming call. I said Iíd have to put him on hold, but in fact I cut him off, as my cell doesnít have call waiting.

Later that day I phoned AT&T, and after a lot of explaining they asked me to fax them all of the relevant paperwork, which I did, along with a note explaining the whole situation and (at their request) detailing the rudeness of Mr. Kupfersteinís employee. All of which I also faxed to Kupferstein, with another cover note saying that this constituted written notification that I was contesting their claim that I owed them anything.

Then I started to worry, and fret, and stew over it. Maybe I should just pay the Canadian goons and not risk my credit rating or worse by contesting it. Maybe I should get a lawyer - but of course that would cost much more than the $183.25 they claimed I owed. Maybe I should find some county office or public service organization that helped people with credit disputes, and find out what the risks were or how to handle the situation. Maybe I should find some telecom techies and find out whether people really can hack into the phone lines and make calls that show up on someone elseís bill. Maybe I should call the New Brunswick police and report a suspected intruder between 6:29 and 7:09 on the evening of August 29 2002, who had made six calls to the same 900 number from my phone.

It felt like a dark gray cloud hanging over my head, threatening to take my money, drag me into legal proceedings, set up court dates that would keep me from traveling. For $183.25 I could make it go away at once Ė but that felt like blackmail, bribing the Canadian goon who had told me to get a job and stop slacking off. This threat over me, versus $183.25 and my pride. I could give in and be free, or take the gamble of fighting it off.

I felt sullied. This seemed like what happens to other people, people who donít hae their lives in order, Calamity Janes whose lives are one disaster after another. I felt shamed by this bully in Ontario trying to push me around, because he could perhaps have power over me even though I knew I didnít owe anything for those calls. He could try to turn it around and make it my fault Ė that perhaps I hadnít called the right number to contest them back in 2002, or I wasnít really allowed to live as a nomad with no address. Or he could use his power to keep me from living in my own way by summoning me to a court hearing at some arbitrary time and place in the future.

It made me wonder what itís like to really be powerless. To be a German Jew dragged off to a concentration camp or an Afghani Muslim imprisoned for two years in Cuba with no access to lawyers or family. Or to be in a war, where really terrible things could happen unexpectedly, much, much worse than a collection agency making threats over a matter of $183.25. Or to be the victim of a crime Ė raped, perhaps, by someone who enjoys being able to terrify you and violate your most intimate privacy.

So does this taste of random violence Ė albeit on a very modest scale Ė make me understand and empathize more with those who are really powerless? Or does it make me build the wall even higher so that I donítí have to feel anything that is any closer to their experience? It is certainly tempting to strengthen the wall. I want to feel that I have a way to prevent such things from happening to me Ė because Iím competent, or Iím more in control, or I know how to handle these things, or where to go for help. Maybe in this case itís true. But if Iíd been in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943, or a Rwandan Tutsi in 1994, or a Haitian in Port au Prince this week, Iíd be no more protected than anyone else, no matter how many degrees and lawyer-friends I have. Thatís what a random attack is Ė itís not predictable, it can strike anyone, we canít hide behind a wall and feel weíre exempt. Itís like the ad thatís been running in the New Yorker Ė photos of very staid and respectable people with outrageous of things that they had done Ė because the had been the victims of identity theft. Their point Ė it can happen to anyone.

Itís like death. When weíre young, death is something that happens to our grandparents, at least in my life it was. They were old, so they werenít like me, and I didnít have to worry about it. As an adult I found out that death could happen to my friends, too. They were sick, though, so they also werenít like me, and I didnít have to worry about it. Now Iím finding that parents can die Ė but theyíre also old, so itís expected, and I donít have to worry about it. Perhaps growing up is realizing that people who die arenít in a different category from us Ė realizing that weíre not invulnerable just because weíre younger or healthier. Itís realizing that weíre all on the same moving sidewalk, and eventually we all have to get off. If weíre lucky weíll get old first, but one way or the other weíll all get off.

Of course a dunning letter from a collection agency is a far cry from death! Today Ė six days after all the phone calls and faxes Ė I talked to the phone company again. They assured me that my fax went to the right place, that a week isnít enough time for them to have done anything, and that in 99% of cases like this one they simply send a directive to the collection agency saying that the charges have been resolved and they should drop it.

So Iíve decided to stop worrying about it. Thatís why I can write this all in the past tense Ė probably why I can write about it at all. The cloud of shame has lifted enough that I donít have to hide it from the rest of the world. I shouldnít feel shame because someone else threatened me. Yet women who are raped feel shame, people who are tortured feel shame, and they have been attacked with infinitely greater violence than I have.

It shouldnít be that way. No one should be attacked. But if they are, they should feel the power and pride to proclaim the injustice out loud and fight back, instead of hiding it as something shameful. The world doesnít work as it should Ė perhaps our minds donít, either.

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