The call to the billing department at SoCalGas was made around 11 a.m. last Tuesday. It ended two loads of laundry and a car wash later while I waited on hold.
“We apologize, but we’re experiencing high call volume. Your wait time is between one hour and five minutes and one hour and 38 minutes. If this is an emergency, please hang up and call 911.”
As a matter of fact, it was an emergency. When I tell my 95-year-old father his gas bill this month is $490, I’m going to need a couple of paramedics to help me get him down from the ceiling.
“What the hell is going on?” he asked me last month when his gas bill was “only” $270. It’s a legitimate question 21.8 million people being held hostage by SoCalGas are asking. It’s not like we have a choice to use them. Where else are we going to go?
My dad’s an old school Republican living on an old school Democrat agenda. He gets by on Social Security and Medicare, but he’s glued to Fox News all day.
We don’t talk politics, but we do talk money, and these days that’s the cost of natural gas, which is testing the ground rules for a lot of people from his generation living out their lives on fixed income budgets with zero fat in them.
My father supported his family on the salary of a Brink’s Armored Car guard for 30 years — getting shot once for it — and he never made more than $28,000 a year with overtime. Like a lot of families, we lived paycheck to paycheck, but he always made sure I never wanted for anything. His kid came first.
Now, it’s payback time, me taking care of him, but he won’t hear of it. He’s stubborn as an old mule. That’s not the way it worked for his generation. They paid for their kids coming into the world and damn if they’re going to ask their kids to pay for them as they leave it.
My dad’s blind so he can’t see the bills when they come in. I’ve been hiding this one from him. My mom used to read every bill to him, patiently sitting at the kitchen counter, but since she passed away last year, he relies on me to sort them out, and I’m not doing a very good job.
Financially, it was a big hit losing her social security check so things have gotten a little tight, but he won’t admit it. He shares his 1,400 square foot mobile home in a nice park with a caregiver who is paid for with funds from the Veterans Affairs’ aid and attendance program for veterans who served during combat.
I sat on hold for over an hour (no, I don’t trust them calling me back) to see if there were any other discounts I was missing besides the 20% off he gets from the utility’s California Alternate Rates for Energy program for people who qualify.
Without it, his bill would have been $581 this month. He doesn’t use the stove or washer and dryer anymore, just the heat — a lot of heat because he’s always cold, even with blankets on him.
When my number finally came up, the young man who answered apologized for the long wait. He had that weary, resigned tone in his voice like he knew what was coming next.
The $64,000 question he hears all day. “What the hell is going on?”
“Bad day?” I asked. He laughed. You could say that. Not as bad as the one I’m going to have when I show my 95-year-old father this bill, I said. Help me out here.
He understood and gave me the numbers of a few federal and state aid programs, and explained why the bill was so high. But other than the CARE program my father was already on, there was nothing SoCalGas could do for him. We could have argued that point all day, but the guy was reading a script and had no power to change it. I get it.
But, investor-owned SoCalGas is regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission, and it has plenty of power. How about using some of it for the low-income, paycheck-to-paycheck families being hit hardest by these insanely escalating gas bills?
I’ve decided to lie and tell my dad his gas bill went down this month. It’ll make him feel better and I’ll get to sneak in a little of that payback money he doesn’t want.
It’s a heck of a lot less hassle and costly than telling him the truth, and having to call 911 to help me get him down from the ceiling.
SoCalGas, http://www.socalgas.com. Information on the CARE program: http://www.socalgas.com/save-money-and-energy/assistance-programs/california-alternate-rates-for-energy
Dennis McCarthy’s column runs on Sunday. He can be reached at email@example.com.