Whipping Boys

Scripps-Howard News Service 1.07.03
Balint Vazsonyi

Few if any have something good to say about the services of the District of Columbia, and who could blame them? Our roadways are a national scandal, repair projects are begun but seem never to be completed, paperwork is lost in the various offices more often than not. And attempts at getting help over the phone fail much of the time because the person who answers won't even bother to speak at a level that can be understood.

All the more reason to report about my experiences with the emergency services. I never thought I would have as many opportunities to meet them as the last year produced, but one does not see the future - a wonderful arrangement.

So, for those fortunate among you who only see them in the rearview mirror of your car, I feel compelled to render this brief report.

All such episodes begin, naturally, with a call to 911. Given the frequent horror stories on national television about the sequence of events apparently all-too familiar in some areas, it is significant that all three of our calls were answered instantly, and that a single sentence was all that was required to have the operator connect us to the appropriate service. There, again, a single-sentence description sufficed before giving our address, quickly repeated for confirmation, and leading to the standard phrase of reassurance - "they are on their way."

The time elapsed from the moment of dialing 911 to receiving that phrase of reassurance remained invariably under two minutes.

After hanging up the phone, arrival of the help occurred somewhere between six and eight minutes. As much as I was able to observe, there always seemed to be one person to spare. More importantly, they seemed superbly trained and equipped, radiated calm and efficiency, and wasted not one moment. Their ability to assess the needs in a flash was beyond doubt; they knew their way around any kind of medication the patient had been taking, and they got to work after a minute or so, spent surveying the situation.

The transportation to the nearest emergency room unfolded with the same care and efficiency, every member of the team performing like the component of a precision watch. On the way, they were already in contact with those who would take delivery of me, administering the agreed medication without delay. I said "team," and that is the key word. Black or white, male or female, one was in the care of a team, requiring little verbal coordination.

And, on top of all this, every member of the team found the time to be reassuring, friendly, exceedingly pleasant. Every "thankyou" was returned with an easy "that's our job."

I hope if it has to be, your experiences will confirm the foregoing.

I wish, too, that your experiences might be similar to mine with another much-maligned institution, though my optimism may be over the top in this case.

Does anyone like the Internal Revenue Service?

Given the harrowing experiences many have endured, putting forth a word in favor of the IRS may be a losing proposition. And yet, and yet.

Just a few weeks ago, we received a threatening demand for a rather large amount we did not owe. The notice provided a phone number which we called. After a reasonable waiting time, an administrator answered. Clearly, a payment we had made was credited to someone else's account. We were able to provide details of our check, eventually faxed him both sides while we were online, and the matter was disposed of in about 25 minutes.

This was one of three "scrapes" with the agency since 1962 when I began to file our returns. The other was an audit. During an unusual period in my professional life, I devised a somewhat unorthodox manner of accounting for my expenses. Not unexpectedly, that prompted an audit. The examining officer listened to my explanation, then shook her head for several minutes. "Run this whole thing by me again," she said finally, "and make it slow."

I proceeded, adding this time that - having given the matter a great deal of thought - I opted for a way closer to the spirit than to the letter of the law, but that the Treasury Department actually ended up with the better deal.

She gave me a list of additional documents to send in, and required a written narrative of what I had done. About two months later, we received a check for just under $300.

The third time was different. Because a partnership notified a distribution in the year after it actually had been received, the IRS computer went haywire and we started receiving a bewildering variety of notices about owing anything between $250 and $3,500. For a while, I wrote patient letters explaining the origin of the error - to no avail. Finally, I wrote a letter suggesting that the particular IRS office writing to us had been replaced by an insane asylum and, unless a real and sane human being gets hold and takes care of the affair, I shall sue for a psychiatric examination of the entire unit.

I mailed the letter and waited for the sheriff to ring our doorbell. Instead, a notice arrived disposing of the entire affair and clearing our account.

What I find most reassuring, though, is their handling of late filings. In recent years, I had many occasions to file late, even very late. Naturally, we received the customary reminders, occasionally warnings. I always responded in a timely fashion, explained the reasons, and made certain they never had cause to assume that I was hiding. Invariably, their response was a great deal of patience, and fair treatment when my returns were finally received.

And that, to my mind, is exactly what you should expect of an agency of the United States Government.