By the time this paper hits the streets or the internet I will have turned forty. The big Four O! Somewhere I read or somebody told me that we all mellow as we get older. Fat chance. Sometimes I think I’m still the same angry young man, fighting with the same “take no prisoners” mind-set, that I was at twenty-five.

This week was exceptionally trying. Our offices are being painted and the place is a mess. My files are scattered and only G-d and my office partner, Bill, know where half my stuff is. Neither one is talking.

Getting my house ready for sale is equally disruptive. Nothing major needs repaired or fixed, but it is amazing how many flaws can be stored in 2000 square feet.

Three totally unneeded sources of aggravation invaded my turbulent week. My first was a disagreement with the shop where Phillip had rented a tux. We had a quiet chat. I chatted. The manager was quiet. Case closed.

The second conflict was over my computer. It took two visits to their facility this week but I think (I hope) that my system is finally fixed. My 486SX is less than thirteen months old. It has had the motherboard replaced four times. A variety of other parts have either been repaired or replaced after gentle prodding on my part. With any kind of luck it will still be working the day you read this column.

My last source of aggravation was the most indefensible. Buying a house is the financial equivalent of driving to work naked. Totally exposed, you wait for complete strangers to grudgingly accept you.

My credit report came in the mail Thursday. I was sitting at my desk Friday morning, enjoying coffee and a cinnamon roll, when an entry caught my eye. There was a collection entry for $26 from University Dermatologists. I couldn’t believe it.

In the spring of 1992 I made an appointment to see Dr. Craig Elmets about a small growth on my left arm. He rescheduled our first appointment and then kept me waiting for an hour and a half the day we finally got together. Had we not shaken hands, Dr. Elmets would have never been within three feet of me during our brief encounter. He saw the growth, said that it was not cancerous and that insurance wouldn’t pay for its removal, and he left.

I received a statement from my insurance company a few weeks later. The usual, customary, and reasonable charge for the office visit was $39. That amount was credited to my deductible. Dr. Elmets’s charge was $65, nearly double the accepted rate. I copied the form and sent a note and a check for $39. That should have been the end of this story.

First came the threatening notes. Then came the harassing phone calls. The care given by University Dermatologists hadn’t been worth a dime. Elemets and crew certainly didn’t deserve $65.

Bill and I have done medical collections in the past. We followed the basic rules: no nasty calls, terminate any small claims (under $200) where service was questioned, and no legal pursuit of any claim under $500. I was staring at a $26 entry.

The mortgage banker was very understanding. He told me that my five pages of perfect credit meant nothing as long as this entry was unsettled. Pay the doctor or forget the house. I was lucky. Elmets overcharged me only $26. It could have been $126.

In essence, University Dermatologists was holding me hostage. I called the office. They referred me to a “billing office” located elsewhere in the building. I asked the billing office to justify the charges and they referred me back to the other office. Nobody’s accountable. They just do what they’re told. Responsibility diffused.

I gave up. Friday afternoon I went to Elmet’s office and gave them hell and $26. Yes, I could have simply sent the money and hoped that they eventually corrected my credit report, but how many more people would they rip off? The only way to protect ourselves in situations like this is to make the experience unpleasant for them, too. Maybe they will think twice before they pursue excess charges again.

The French know how to deal with people who take hostages. They shoot them. Here we pay them exorbitant fees and call them doctor.