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The Hang-Ups of Suburban Life Can Be Taxing

April 04, 2001|CHRIS ERSKINE

As we're starting to find, there is more to the suburbs than manicured lawns and a simmering sexual tension. There are money worries as well.

"Everybody should just not pay," says my wife, staring at the power bill.

That's one worry: the power bill. My mild-mannered wife, the one who gently pulls the covers over my feet on chilly nights, is mad.

She wakes up on a perfect spring morning cursing the power companies--gas and electric both--wishing that all the ratepayers in California would revolt and not pay their bills. Way to go, Reliant and Duke. You've made the mothers mad. Lord save your corporate souls.

"Everybody should just not pay," my wife says again. "Like that movie 'Network' where everybody just turned off their TVs."

There are taxes to worry about, too. A suburban spring is sneaky like this, all apple blossoms and school fairs, Little League and margarita mix.

Suddenly, there is sun in the kids' cheeks and pork chops on the new grill. It's the perfect time for a government to pounce.

"I'll call on this tax question," I tell my wife.

"I'll call," she says.

"No, I'll call," I say.

She is already angry enough, my wife. She's talking revolution over this power company thing.

All I need now is for Jane Fonda here to get on the horn to some brokerage and start making accusations about an erroneous tax form. We'll all end up in jail.

Besides, she's on my short list of women I'd like to take to the prom. Her and that Bjork person.

"Tomorrow morning, I'll call on that tax thing," I assure my wife.

"I'll call," she says.

"No, I insist."

In the morning, I call. There is a question about the 1099 form. So I call.

"Hello?" I say.

And the electronic phone girl kicks in.

"Welcome to the employee plan service center," the recorded message says. "For the purpose of quality assurance, this call may be recorded."

Like you, we pay a significant portion of our income to taxes. Our family budget, typical for a family of five, is spent this way:

* 34% taxes

* 35% housing

* 40% electricity and gas

* 45% various school and athletic fees, including Girl Scouts

* 12% bread, chocolate milk and Pop Tarts

* 18% margarita mix

This adds up to 184%, a mere 84% above income, which explains the margarita mix, the only true necessity in any suburban budget.

On warm spring evenings, my lovely wife bastes pork chops with it. It turns out well, this margarita meat. It's no wonder I'm thinking of her for the prom. Her and Bjork.

"Hello?" I say to the electronic phone service.

I have been on the phone five minutes now and have yet to talk to an actual person.

I find it soothing, punching various buttons on the phone in hopes of talking to someone.

In the background, a string quartet plays. Evidently, First Chicago Trust Company of New York--located in New Jersey--has gone to a lot of trouble to keep me entertained while I wait. They have looped a 20-second portion of Vivaldi that plays over and over.

"Hello," I say again.

I stand there listening to the Vivaldi. I think it's Vivaldi. Might be Mendelssohn. Might be the Moody Blues. There's only 20 seconds of it, so it's a little hard to be sure.

I stand there shifting my weight from one leg to the other, wondering if I could really tell the difference between Mendelssohn and Vivaldi. For 10 minutes, I wait. For 15 minutes. For 20.

Finally, something rings. After 25 minutes of waiting, I'm being patched through to a customer service representative. This is exciting. I'm about to get tax information.

"Hello?" I say hopefully.

The phone stops ringing. This is followed by nothing. As a father, I am used to nothing. Still, it catches me by surprise.

"Hello?" I say a little louder.




Every five seconds, there's an electronic beep. It sounds like some gastrointestinal NASA sound.


There is no Vivaldi now, just this faint beep. And the sound of the hair growing in my ears.

Somewhere in New Jersey, a viola player goes out for a smoke.

"Helloooooooo!" I scream.

"Hi Dad," the little girl calls from the kitchen.

"Helloooooooo!" I scream.

"Hi Dad," the little girl says louder.

The dog jumps around. He thinks this is fun, the way everyone is screaming "hello." Spring is in the air. Baseball is upon us. Prom is just around the corner. Who wouldn't be excited?

"Hellooooooooo!" I scream for a final time.

"Hello, already," says the little girl as she dances with the dog.

I dial again.

"Welcome to the employee plan service center," the recorded voice says. "For the purpose of quality assurance, this call may be recorded."


Chris Erskine's column runs on Wednesdays. His e-mail address is

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