Once upon a time, my mom and dad and I were driving back to their house from the airport after having picked up relatives visiting them from Germany. We were stopped at a toll booth, getting ready to pay, when we saw an old turquoise cadillac whiz past us, never slowing down, through the EZ tag lane. The camera flashed as it took a picture of this car and its plates and we realized that the driver (we’d managed to catch a glimpse of the person at the wheel – a woman) didn’t have the tags required to go through legally. Someone exclaimed “Whoops! She didn’t have tags!”. To which someone else declared “What does she care?! She’s from Tennessee!!” (we’d also managed to catch a glimpse of her license plates as she flew by). We all got giggles that erupted into laughter lasting for several minutes, kind of admiring her moxie. Lots of jokes ensued. Honestly, she was probably never coming back. She probably couldn’t get out of Texas fast enough and that’s why she didn’t give a shit! Why would she care about some 1.75 toll fee? She’s from Tennessee! Who was gonna chase her down? Catch her if you can! The carefree image of that driver became a running joke in my family. We giggle every time we think about her. Maybe you had to be there. Yeah. You had to be there.
Anyway, my parents live on the opposite end of the city from us. We’re in the southwest and they are in the northwest. To get to their house, there are various options to choose from and when my father was diagnosed with Mesothelioma, I wanted to be able to get out there as fast as I could when I needed because I planned on being at their house more often than usual. The fastest way was going to be the toll road.
Now, I have to digress to say that Houston’s freeways and tollways need an entire post to themselves. If you’ve never been here, they can be rather confusing. Even if you have lived here practically your whole life, they can be confusing. Suffice it to say that, in addition to the free public ways of getting around, there are toll roads with rules and regulations , and I thought that finally getting what’s called EZ Pass Express Tags was going to be worth the money in order to get around faster and quicker. Without tags, you have to wait in line at the actual toll booths and either have exact change to toss in, or you have to wait to get change made, and obviously, that’s not as convenient as just flying on your merry way through the stations.
I was never a fan of the toll roads. I kinda resented them, for reasons too long to go through here. However, I found after I signed up and created an account with the Harris County Toll Road Authority, that they were indeed a mightily easier way of getting around town. SO much faster!
One of our local news stations, KHOU, concisely explained how it works in one of their articles:
“The state’s TxTag requires you to pre-pay $20 worth of tolls. Harris County’s EZ TAG requires $40 down plus a $15 activation fee. The state doesn’t require you to keep a minimum balance, but if your account is negative when you go through a toll, you will receive a violation.”
(Ahem. A violation PLUS extra administrative fees, to be absolutely clear).
So, this is how it works getting tags so you can zip around with the greatest of ease:
1) You can walk into one of several EZ Tag stores and buy them in person. Which of course means finding a convenient location to visit and then waiting in line with a bunch of other people who, like you, would rather be somewhere else, and then dealing with a live person. And we all know how excited we get with that.
2) You can purchase them online. If you choose the EZ Tag Express program, you can download an app on your phone and manage your account from there. No lines, no fuss, no ACTUAL PEOPLE to talk to. You simply create an account and deposit money into it and voila! You are on your way! And if you happen to be the absent-minded sort – such as I am – you can even let this app connect to a credit card of your choosing so that your account will be replenished with the agreed upon amount of money when it runs out. For whatever reason, I decided to set the amount to keep in my account at forty dollars on the regular. The tolls aren’t that much, really, and I didn’t think, at the time, that I would be using the tollways too frequently anyhow.
I really, really, really, really appreciated that my account would automatically replenish with the set amount whenever my funds ran out.
I set this all up in July of last year, 2017. And, it turns out, I drove way more frequently on these toll roads because of all the construction on the rest of our freeways; because the traffic flowed easier; and it was always faster. I breezed around town, wondering why we hadn’t bought the tags sooner. I could tell guest passengers, like friends I picked up from whichever airport they needed (there are two major ones here located on opposite sides of Houston) “No worries! I’ve got tags!” and we could just wheel along feeling stress-free about arriving anywhere on time. I could make it to brunches with friends without wanting to punch myself in the face because I didn’t allow for traffic or lights and I was going to be really late again. I could drive on over to my parents when they needed me at the last minute for a favor, and then return home without the feeling that most of my day had been spent in the car. This went on for some time.
Then some bills for toll violations started trickling in….
They were for small amounts, like 1.25, or 3.50, or 6.75. I can remember sending a check or two. But, the bills kept coming. Geez! Another one? I just paid them! These bills must have crossed paths with the checks in the mail. My husband put some of it off to driving on the toll way in our other car, thinking he was covered too, until I told him that no, I just registered one car. So, now he knew he could only drive on the toll way in “my” car.
But….the bills kept coming. Sometimes there were more than one in my mailbox on the same day. And they started to arrive almost everyday. I would try to make sense of the bills but, trust me, it’s not easy because some bills had the previous toll violations included along with the new ones and the format was difficult to make sense of. Things were piggy-backing and I kept thinking there was some mistake somewhere because, as far as I knew, my EZ Tag account should have been replenishing and taking care of these things. I began to wonder if the toll authorities were perhaps trying to rip me off. I started getting ticked off with them. I just KNEW someone had messed up somewhere! I didn’t even bother opening some of the bills because I assumed that many were duplicates. And I certainly wasn’t going to pay them until I figured out exactly what I actually owed and which bills were legitimate. All I knew was someone had messed up and these bills had to be wrong.
In the meantime, there were other more pressing things I was preoccupied with and the bills just got shoved into a growing mound of paper and unopened mail, which got shoved into a box and into a cabinet whenever I needed to make the house slightly more presentable when guests were going to drop by. Of course, the room may have looked better, but you know that old saying about “out of sight….”
All during this time, I drove blithely about town, singing along with the radio, bobbing my head and keeping the beat as I flew through those EZ tag lanes.
One day, when we finally focused, my husband and I got down to tackling that mountain of paper. I got up from the dining table and went into the kitchen for something to drink. When I returned, I found my husband with his jaw hanging and his eyes wide in disbelief. He turned to me, almost laughing out of shock, and informed me how much the Harris County Toll Authority said we owed them……
I am not going to repeat the number here. Let’s just say we were relieved to find out that some of the fines had been reduced and we could pay them a smaller number. Which I am still not going to reveal. Let’s just say that it was a lot.
Maybe it was the feeling of guilt and embarrassment for being so irresponsible about opening our mail that we unquestioningly paid our debt, put more money into our EZ Tag account, breathed a sigh of sheepish relief that it was done, and jumped back onto the toll road with the confidence of being completely legal again.
When the next bill arrived, two weeks later, I scoffed and thought that they really needed to get their shit together because this obviously was mailed the day that we had paid our bills.
And when another bill arrived the following day, I thought, no way could this be happening because I hadn’t even been on the toll road for a couple of days already.
Then it all started over again. This time I was pretty annoyed and absolutely certain that they were just trying to pull something sneaky and bill me for things we’d already paid for. I would call them when I had a moment. Of course, that moment didn’t come for about a month…
I immediately got a live person on the line when I called the authority up this past Saturday. A very nice, very friendly, very patient woman went through the latest in my account, while I also had up our latest Amex statement in another window so I could let her know what we had already been charged. None of the numbers that she and I looked at were making any sense at all. I was confused. She was confused. We most definitely shouldn’t have been charged that kind of money. I had money in my EZ Tag account! I should not be getting bills like this. Something was definitely messed up. She excused herself to find a supervisor to get permission to view more information on my account.
She returned to the phone after some minutes to reluctantly and gently inform me that my EZ Tags, the ones that I actually told someone in a toll booth one time (told them cheerfully with a big smile on my face!) I had so that I could quickly roll on through, were EXPIRED. In fact, they expired THREE DAYS after I had activated my account. They had expired an entire YEAR ago because of (and I think she was being generous with me) …… a typo. “It happens to lots of people”, she quietly assured me.
The mortifying thing is that it wasn’t exactly a typo. Or maybe it was. Who can say at this point? But I remember pulling up my account, pushing the “edit” button (took me long enough to work it out too), and seeing the evidence myself. There it was: “Activation date: July 20, 2017. Expiration date: July 23, 2017”.
“Why the HELL would I do something like that?!” I wondered out loud in astonishment.
“I don’t know”, she giggled , “It was an honest mistake. A typo. It happens.”
She really was too nice. Too nice to point out that I clearly didn’t know what I was doing when I signed up with the app.
“So I’ve been driving all around town, with expired tags, for a whole year??!!”
“I’m afraid so”. There was a quiet pause between the two of us.
“Well…..that certainly explains it!” I said. She clarified how I could fix the problem, after, of course, I paid the latest bill online (which, thankfully, wasn’t anywhere near as much as previously) and she stayed on the line with me until my account was clear.
Then we sat there and laughed.
“I was so CONFUSED!”, she said.
Obviously, I am a confused and confusing woman. Clearly.
I sat there a little stunned and a little relieved at the same time, like a patient who has just received a troubling diagnosis. It’s not great, but it’s good to know what’s gone wrong so that maybe it can be fixed.
But then I couldn’t stop the giggles from welling up as I suddenly had an image in my mind….of myself…flying around town, not a care in the world, obliviously feeling secure in my little bubble of ignorance, careening from one place to another along the tollways, a little scarf (I don’t know why a little scarf; I never wear scarves, but there it is in the picture), blithely waving an arm out the window (yeah, I really don’t do that either, but nevertheless…), crying out in a cheerful, yet slightly hysterical way as I zoom through the lanes, “DON’T WORRY!!! I’VE GOT EZ TAGS!!!!…..”
What do I care, right? Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!!!