Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Burning Money

When I was 26 years old, I moved from my hometown in the Midwest to Los Angeles for my first real job. By all social measures, I was an independently functioning adult. I had a freshly minted graduate degree and at least three credit cards in my name. I had reasonably informed political opinions and could, on occasion, produce a bon mot. But, when it came to the practical management of my life -- what to do when you lock your keys in the car, when to call 911, and how to avoid axe-murders -- I was clueless. Up to that point, my whole life had been under the stewardship of my overly-involved parents. I would be lucky to survive a few days, much less several years, with only myself as a guide.

It took me only two months in Los Angeles to rack up nearly a thousand dollars of moron tax.

When I moved into my apartment, the city was undergoing a heatwave, and my apartment was unbearably hot. For the first couple weeks, I kept my windows open and tried to be patient with the weather. When the heatwave passed, my apartment remained stifling even when the outside air was cool. I figured that the apartment was trapping heat during the day, so I bought three large fans and installed them in the windows. I ran the fans all day while I was at work so that the fans would blow the hot air outside. When I came home from work, the apartment was mildly cooler, but still uncomfortably warm. At a loss as what to do next, I concluded that I would simply have to wait for summer to pass. Then, my electric bill arrived.

My jaw dropped when I saw the bill for more than $800.* That was more than 20x any previous electric bill and more than half of my rent. How could it be so much? And how was I going to afford my future bills at this rate? I called the electric company in desperate tears. The customer service representative listened, with pity, to my sobbing. "Honey, did you leave your oven on?" (No, it's a gas oven). "Maybe you left your air conditioner on?" (Can't be, I don't have one). She paused, then gingerly asked, "Did you check your thermostat?"

Oh my god, the thermostat! I had not thought to check it because there was no need to turn on the heater in the summer. I ran over to the thermostat on the wall. Sure enough, it was cranked to the toasty setting of 87 degrees. I thought of my fans blowing 24 hours each day for several weeks and closed my eyes in defeat. "I don't understand," I moaned, "where are the heating vents or the radiator?" "Honey," the customer representative explained, "in California we have radiant heat. The heat comes from coils embedded in the ceilings. You won't know they're on unless you look at the thermostat." Indeed not.

* The next electric bill was also quite high -- more than $200 -- because I did not receive the first electric bill until more than week into the next billing cycle. So the total moron tax accrued is approximately $1000.

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