I spent the final afternoon of 2017 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 author of “Sidewalking: Coming to Terms With Los Angeles,” shortlisted for the Pen/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the art of the essay.