GUESTWORDS: Hello, National Grid

By Bruce Buschel

    “Welcome. You have reached the customer assistance center for National Grid. . . . The estimated wait time to speak to a representative is 10 minutes or less. . . . At the end of this call, your representative may ask you to provide the answers to two short questions about the service we provided you.”
    Seven minutes, 15 seconds later:
    “Can I have your account number?”
    “I don’t have my account number with me. I’m returning your call.”
    “Without your account number, I cannot talk to you about your account.”
    “You just called me, left a message, asked me to call you back.”
    “Without your account number . . .”
    “I know my name. I know my address. I know my mother’s maiden name.”
    “We have security issues.”
    “I know the name of my first teacher. And the first girl I kissed. They aren’t the same person, by the way.”
    “I’m glad to hear that, but that doesn’t get me into your account.”
    “Can I ask about payments in general? Not about my payment.”
    “How much does it cost to pay a bill with a credit card?”
    “The fee is $2.25 for first $600 or less. And an additional $2.25 for anything over $600.01.”
    “So a thousand-dollar bill — just hypothetically, not my bill — would cost an additional $4.50?”
    “Can I pay my bill now?”
    “You don’t have your account number.”
    “But I’m paying the bill, giving you money, giving you my credit card number. How can you lose? I’m taking all the chances.”
    “I cannot do that. Do you have any other questions?”
    “Yes. Why do you charge $4.50 for paying a bill on time?”
    “Because you are using a credit card.”
    “I just paid six other bills with a credit card and no one else charged a fee.”
    “If you pay by check, there’s no fee.”
    “Doesn’t it cost everybody more if I write a check and mail it to you and someone has to deliver it and you have to open the envelope and sort it and deposit the check into your account? Isn’t a credit card faster and cheaper and greener for all of us?”
    “We don’t make the rules. Western Union does.”
    “Western Union? They still in business?”
    “They are in the third-party business.”
    “Third party? I missed the first two.”
    “They take care of our credit card payments.”
    “Western Union?”
    “Yes, they handle all the credit card payments for National Grid.”
    “Why does a utility have a third-party payment system?”
    “National Grid is not a utility.”
    “It’s not?”
    “You are confusing us with LIPA.”
    “I am?”
    “We have the same phone number.”
    “You do?”
    “I could look up your LIPA account as well as your National Grid — if you had your account number.”
    “You could?”
    “Do you have your LIPA account number?”
    “Maybe. I just walked into the restaurant and I am looking through my bills.”
    “Restaurant? What restaurant?”
    “My restaurant. The restaurant that owes you the money.”
    “You have a commercial account?”
    “Why didn’t you say that?”
    “I didn’t know it made a difference.”
    “If you had said it was a commercial account, the fee system is different.”
    “Really? Credit card payments for commercial accounts cost more to process than for residential accounts?”
    “We don’t make the rules.”
    “I know. Western Union does.”
    “I am looking up fees for commercial accounts. Hold, please.”
    I listen to a piano figure repeat for 3 minutes, 35 seconds. It is hypnotic. Good thing I am not driving.
    “Yes, I am still here. I liked the music.”
    “For payment with credit card for a commercial account, the fee is $7.95 for the first $1,000 and $50 for anything over $1000.01 up to $2,500.”
    “Yes sir.”
    “Fifty dollars?”
    “That’s right.”
    “It’s not late or anything.”
    “A late fee would make it more.”
    “What if the bill is over $2,500?”
    “For anything between $2,500.01 and $5,000, that fee would be $225.”
    “Really? $225? That’s almost a 10-percent surcharge. Doesn’t it take the same time and energy to receive $1,000 as it does $2,000?”
    “We don’t make the rules, sir . . .”
    “I know. Western Union.”
    “And to pay a bill between $10,000.01 and $20,000, the fee is $425.”
    “That’s awfully steep for paying a utility bill.”
    “I told you, National Grid is not a utility.”
    “Right. I forgot. It’s a private company.”
    “I think it’s a public company.”
    “So I can invest in National Grid?”
    “I believe so.”
    “On the New York Stock Exchange?”
    “I don’t think so. It’s in England.”
    “Wait. National Grid is English?”
    “Not exactly English. National Grid is a multinational corporation with headquarters in England.”
    “Kind of a misleading name, wouldn’t you say?”
    “I wouldn’t say.”
    “Is LIPA an American outfit?”
    “I can transfer you to the Long Island Power Authority.”
    “Great. Thank you.”
    “Hold on, please.”
    There are no short questions about the service that was provided. I listen to piano music for 2 minutes, 45 seconds.
    “LIPA. How can I help you?”
    “Hello, LIPA. Are you an American company?”
    “Yes we are.”
    “Are you a utility?”
    “Yes we are.”
    “The same utility that overcharged their customers $231 million and caused the New York State Senate to demand an oversight committee overnight?”
    “How can I assist you?”
    “I’d like to pay my bloated bill.”
    “I need your account number before we can go any further.”
    “Uh-oh . . .”

    Bruce Buschel is a writer of nonfiction and an Off Broadway musical. He blogs for The New York Times about his restaurant in Bridgehampton, Southfork Kitchen. He has also directed and produced a series of jazz films, “Live at the Village Vanguard.”