'Nother day, 'nother angry person

I haven't written anything here for a while, because it seems like there's getting to be a sameness to the posts.  I've been trying to come up with a different angle, a different topic to write about, but so far, nothing.  So, here goes again...

The other day, I was paged to go talk to someone in the permit center.  It started out the way it usually does, but I’m getting better at suspecting the ones that are going to turn out bad.  When I smile and introduce myself and hold out my hand, she just looks down and ignores me.

The conversation starts out innocently enough. “Could you tell me something about this parcel, and whether it has wetlands on it?”

I look it up, and learn that in 2002, someone from our office visited the site and noted that wetlands and streams are present.  I tell her that.

“Where do you get off, telling me I have wetlands on my property?”  Her voice is now raised, about 1 minute into the conversation.  I don’t know it yet, but this is only the first minute of 60 that I’ll spend with her.

“Um, all I know is what I’m reading here on the screen.  I haven’t been to this property, but eight years ago, someone requested that we look at it, and they noted the wetlands and streams.  Was it you who requested it?”

“No.  It was someone who was going to buy it, but they didn’t, thanks to you.”  She’s seething, doing that stare thing, making super-intense eye contact the way you aren’t supposed to do with a dog or a grizzly bear. I’m thinking about my yoga mat and trying to remain curious.

I bring my hands to my heart center and say, “what can I help you with today?”

“You’ve got to be kidding.  You tell me you get to dump water all over my property, and then call it a wetland, and then you have the nerve to ask me if you can help?”

On my yoga mat, things are still going okay.
In the kindest voice I can summon, I say, “So, do you have any questions?”

“Yes.  First off,” and she points to the map on the computer we’re looking at, “why is my parcel yellow?  None of the others are yellow.”

“Oh, that’s just because it’s the selected parcel.”

“Yeah, exactly. Why did the county select my parcel?  What has it been selected for? As a dumping ground for all of the county’s water?”

“Uh, that just means that you asked about that parcel, so I typed it in, and the computer considers that the ‘selected parcel’ and makes it yellow.”

“Why aren’t the others selected?”

“Um, if you’d like, we could make a different parcel yellow.”

“No, never mind.” She says this in a way that suggests I can’t be trusted, and making a different parcel yellow won’t solve her problems.  I'm looking for common ground with her, and realize we agree on this.

She asks about a nearby parcel.  “These people built a garage without permits, and they’re living in it.

I look it up and find that actually, they did obtain a permit, and it was for living quarters. I tell her that, and ask if she has any more questions.

“Why do they get to build a second house on the property?”
I leave my yoga mat for a minute and go all code zombie on her: “per 21.A blah blah blah.  I recite the zoning code the way those people in the airport in the 70’s used to chant nam myoho ringe kay. 

She points to a different parcel on a small lake a few lots away from hers.

 “Do they get to use their lake front?“

“Um, I’m not sure what exactly you mean.”

“Why were they allowed to build their house?”

I pull up the permit history on the parcel, which, by the way, now becomes yellow because I’ve selected it.  I’m thinking about what a sweet color yellow is.  The sheets in the Bedroom at Arles, that very soft, buttery yellow.

“Uh, based on these notes, at the time they got the permit, there was a fifty foot buffer on the lake, and their house was 115 feet from it.”
“Why are you saying that?”

I check the distance with the measuring tool on the photo.  “Um, see, it looks like the house is about 115 feet from the edge of the lake.  So, the house met the zoning code at the time it was built.”

“Well, are they allowed to use their waterfront?”  She’s seething by now, and her anger is spilling onto my yoga mat.  I can see it feel it seeping closer and closer.   I think harder about the Bedroom at Arles, and explain that there are a lot of allowances in the code that address unique circumstances, and without knowing the history of the site, I can’t really comment on the legality of what’s going on, but if that’s really her question, I can look into it.

She keeps pressing a point, but I’m not really sure what the point is.  I ask again.  “I’m sorry, I’m not exactly clear where we’re going with this.  Is your question about whether they’re complying with the permit conditions?

“My question is this: Why did the County put a culvert under this road?  In 1999 they put a culvert in and it messed up the drainage.”

“Hmm, I really don’t know anything about that.  Did you want to look into that?”

She switches one more time, and it helps me remember to be exactly present right there, and try to keep up.  “No,” she says. “My question is about why those people put up a fence.  Did the County make them do that?”

“Um, I could look that up for you, but it will take a fair amount of time, and I’ve gotta say, you seem pretty angry.  Can you try to pinpoint your real question?  It seems like we’ve been skipping around quite a bit.”

She stares me down, and I meet her stare in a hopefully neutral way, but I don’t blink, which isn’t very neutral at all.  I know.  The stare down thing lasts long enough that I can feel dust settling on my eyeballs, and I know this isn’t good.  We’ve been talking for half an hour by now, and I’m beginning to wonder where my yoga mat disappeared to.  I flag down one of the engineers who happens to be walking by.

It strikes me that when people are really angry, they badly want you to be angry back; she’s working so hard at it that I feel my tether on compassion slipping away.  It’s useful to involve another person when that starts happening, and most especially if the other person is crazy too.

The engineer meets my criteria.  He’s the kind of guy who, when they caught the Green River Killer was all, “Hey, yeah, he was in my boy scout troop.  Helluva guy.”  He met one of his recent girlfriends when he found her living in his storage locker, and brought her home to live with him.
I’ve noticed that when a normal angry person intersects with someone a bit crazy, they tend to tone it down a bit, because they realize they’re sort of playing with fire.

Engineer is normally walking around the office with a saucepan full of oatmeal at this time of day, but for some reason, he’s not today, and comes to sit down.  He’s extremely smart, and about to be laid off.  He's definitely trying to be helpful, because he's a pretty nice guy, but on the other hand, the stakes are pretty low.

He doesn’t look up at her, because he’s focused on removing splinters from his hands.  I look at his hands and try to imagine what happened.  It looks like maybe he was pulling blackberries without gloves, or playing with a cactus.  I’m watching him pick at the splinters and remember the time when he offered me a drink of cranberry juice.  It was about 11 am on a work day.  I said sure, and a bit later, he delivered it to my desk.  After he left, I took a gulp and realized it had cranberry juice, but also a healthy dose of vodka in it, and I started sputtering.  B. heard me, and asked what was going on.  “Engineer just gave me a drink and it’s got vodka in it.”

“Jesus, Betsy. Do you not know rule number one, don’t drink anything you didn’t pour?  I wouldn’t drink anything that guy hands you.”

Angry Lady continues on her path of trying to get us angry, but he’s calm and quick with the answers, and it gives me a chance to reconnect with my yoga mat.  She brings up concerns about a proposed development a few miles away; she’s angry that missed the comment period. When we look it up, we discover that the comment period ended three years ago.  She’s angry that a middle school two miles up the hill is dumping stormwater on her property, but when we look it up, the school was built twenty years ago.  And so on.

This goes on for a while, and I eventually do the, “Oh, I’m so sorry, but I have a meeting coming up,” trick.  She knows it’s a fake meeting, and I know she knows it’s a fake meeting, so she keeps asking the questions in an angry, provoking way until a full hour has elapsed.

Most of the splinters seem to be gone from Engineers’ hand by then, and I realize how smart it is that he didn’t look up at her, because I think that seems more effective than thinking about yellow.


  1. You poor thing. If this kind stuff happened to me regularly at work, I wouldn't be able to write about anything else either.

  2. I'm guessing there a lot of yellow-hating Tea Party types out your way.


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