Mystery lawsuit taxes writer's patience

City Diary: Laura Lippman

April 17, 2002

DON'T GET me wrong: I always expected the mayor and the City Council to sue me one day.

But I thought it would be for the words I produce on my computer, not the computer itself.

My story begins in one of Baltimore's most Kafkaesque locales, the 21218 post office.

Impossible to find, desirable to flee -- the workers hand over packages with the admonition, "You better go now" -- this gloomy spot inspires a kind of foxhole camaraderie.

"Hey, that's my ex-husband," one woman exclaims while studying the FBI's Most Wanted list. The man behind her offers to track him down if she'll agree to split the reward money.

But I'm too distracted to look for my ex-boyfriends among the fugitives. I have been summoned to pick up a certified letter, and in my experience, good news seldom arrives by certified letter. However, none of the worst-case scenarios I conjure while standing in line competes with the reality: I am being sued by Baltimore City for back taxes: $199.22 plus $49.49 in interest and penalties.

Forget the amount, which is admittedly piddling. (I've gotten bigger parking tickets.) I yearn to run straight to the Wolman Building to make things right with the mayor and City Council, the plaintiffs. But it's a Saturday afternoon, so I have no choice but to brood darkly for 48 hours -- or find where O'Malley's March is playing and fling $248.71 at the stage.

By 8:45 a.m. Monday, I am a basket case. It doesn't help that I'm not exactly sure what infraction I've committed, or how. The bills attached to the lawsuit look like ordinary property tax bills. But my mortgage company quickly confirms it has made all required escrow payments.

At 8:50 a.m., I call the number for billing inquiries. It rings once and stops. I replenish my coffee cup and, at 8:56 a.m., try again. After navigating a voice-mail system, I am placed on hold, where an automated voice comes on at 30-second intervals and asks me to keep holding.

After being on hold for nine minutes -- which means that I've heard the recorded message 18 times -- I use my cell phone to call the other contact listed on the court papers.

I reach another recorded message telling me I can hold for inquiries regarding metered water disputes.

Deciding it's decadent to have two phones on hold with the same city agency, I hang up the cell and jack up the volume on the other phone. This allows me to place the receiver on my desk and continue to work until, theoretically, a human voice will rise above the New Age music.

On hold for 38 minutes, I daydream about running to the home of former City Council President Mary Pat Clarke and banging on the door until she agrees to come out and help me. She lives nearby. Chances are I could get over there and back in 20 minutes, and still be on hold.

I finally call Councilwoman Stephanie Rawlings Blake's office. And although the lovely woman who answers the phone technically works for Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, she solves my problem in five minutes.

The tax bill is for "tangible personal property" -- that is, my computer, which the state taxes because it's part of my business. No one seems to know how the bill failed to arrive until it was delinquent. But if I pay the back taxes and penalties, the lawsuit will be dropped and my brief tenure as a civil defendant will be over.

Two hours later, as I wait in the cashier's line at Wolman, I wonder what other "tangible property" the state and city assess. But my real fear is that they might start going after intangibles, which could include the endless supply of material the city of Baltimore provides those of us who make a living writing about it.

If they ever figure out how to levy that tax, I'll be flat broke.

And, most likely, still on hold.

Today's writer

Laura Lippman, a mystery writer who lives in North Baltimore, is a former reporter for The Sun.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues and events in Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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