I don't know what's up with me lately. I seem to be going out of my way to annoy people. I like to think of myself as a genial fellow who does not set out to harass and provoke without good cause, but either we live in increasingly testy times or my personality is deteriorating.
It began with the mailbox. I live in a part of the country where all of the mailboxes are on posts near the heads of driveways, about a hundred feet from the houses. Over the years, my friends and neighbors have used mailboxes as convenient drop-off spots. Someone driving to work in the morning will pause and insert a birthday card, a letter, a paperback, the gloves my wife left after a recent Saturday-night dinner party.
Not long ago I left the outgoing mail in my box for the new mailman to pick up, then walked to my neighbor's mailbox and left a letter for him. The next day my letter was back in my box with a note from the post office: "Insufficient postage." I called the post office and got hold of a functionary there.
"Your note was in error," I told him. "It wasn't insufficient postage, it was no postage."
"So you forgot to put a stamp on," he said. "Put a stamp on and we'll deliver it for you."
"I did not forget to put a stamp on," I said. "I had no intention of putting a stamp on. There was no need."
"You want your mail delivered, you got to use a stamp."
"No, look," I said. "This is my next-door neighbor. I can hit his mailbox with a tennis ball from where I sit. I saw no need to trouble you guys; I didn't want you to get involved."
"You can't deliver mail. That's our job, delivering the mail."
"Wait a minute," I said. "My neighbor asked me to write that letter and put it in his box."
"He's not allowed to say that to you."
"It's not his mailbox. It's our mailbox. We're the only ones who can put anything in it."
As luck would have it, my mailbox was totally destroyed three days later, as were several others in the area. This happens once or twice a year to various households and usually the culprits are destruction-deprived teens.
I called my friend at the post office.
"Listen," I said, "a mailbox at 31 Crown Lane was smashed to bits last night and needs to be replaced."
"Sorry to hear it," he replied. "Better get another one up fast. We can't deliver mail if there's no box."
"No, it's not my box, it's your box. Your box was destroyed, so you have to replace it."
Silence, then: "Is this that same guy?"
"Yes it is," I said. "Are you going to give me a new box?"
"Are you kidding me?"
"So three days ago it was your box. Now that it's been smashed, it's my box. C'mon, it's got to be one or the other. You want me to run out to a store, buy a box, get it back on the post somehow, paint it nice and pretty, put a number on it, and when it's all ready to use, then it becomes your box."
"You got it," he said.
Later, after I talked to a supervisor at the post office, I found my wife and told her, "Know what? That guy was right and I was wrong. The inside of the mailbox does belong to them." My wife, who has other concerns, asked me to help her find a garden trowel.
Later I went down to the hardware store on Main Street to buy a mailbox and got into a bit of a dustup with a cop about some new "smart" parking meters our town is trying out. These meters are computerized and have heat and motion detectors that enable them to sense when a car has vacated a space. The meter then resets itself back to zero. Nobody gets free time from the new meters.
"You mean," I said to the cop, "that I'm required to put in a quarter for a half-hour, but if I only need two minutes to buy a magazine, I can't donate the other 28 minutes to another driver?"
"You got it," he said.
"But I've bought that time, it's my time. The town can't sell the same time twice. I can do what I want with it."
"We make the rules, you don't make the rules."
"Let's say I go to a bar and buy a beer. I pay for it. Now I own that beer. A pal comes in, and for some reason I'm suddenly not thirsty anymore. I offer my beer to my pal. Can the bartender grab it back and sell it to somebody else?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," the cop replied. "Now please get away from me."
"Do you have a brother who works in the post office?"
The cop looked so grim that I decided to take his advice and leave. I even forgot to buy the mailbox.
Late that afternoon I was on the phone to a local hospital administrator, trying to get to the bottom of why they add a 6 percent sales tax and an 11 percent gross earnings tax, whatever that is, to the bills of hospital patients. It was a very unsatisfactory conversation, and we will not be friends.
I hung up and told my wife I thought sick taxes are almost as bad as death taxes. "A person works hard all his life, pays his taxes, manages to save a little. Then he dies and the government says, 'Oh, Jones died? What did he have left? We'll just take a nice chunk of that.'" I fixed myself a drink and said, "I'd like to call up and complain, but I don't know who to complain to." "Good," said my wife.