I f you attended high school in America at some point in, say, the last 100 years, the chances are pretty good you read "The Scarlet Letter," by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Or if you didn't read it, you were supposed to read it, probably as part of an American literature class.
You probably know the story: It's set in Puritan Boston in about 1642. Hester Prynne gives birth to a daughter, the result of an adulterous affair, and has been tagged with a "rag of scarlet cloth" in the shape of an "A," which stood for "adultery."
It is a badge of shame, a symbol of her sin, and one she must wear on her chest at all times for all to see. It is her punishment for having committed adultery, made worse because she would not reveal her lover's identity.
The story goes on from there, and I won't ruin it for you in case you might want to try reading it today just for the fun of it.
But the important point is that once upon a time in this country -- just 350 years ago -- people often were punished for moral or social shortcomings by being made the example.
Let's call it a public shaming or public humiliation.
Because that's what it was.
Steal something that didn't belong to you, and you might end up in a pillory, where you were subjected to public scorn.
Pass on a rumor and you might be required to stand in the town square to take your verbal lashing from passersby.
Tarring and feathering might be the punishment for cheating a neighbor or having overcharged a customer in a business deal.
Be caught telling a lie and you might have your head shaved and be paraded around town for all to see.
Fail to pay your bills, and you might be placed in stocks, hands and feet captured in round openings of the wooden device, held together with a substantial metal lock.
The themes of sin and guilt were clearly an American passion not so long ago.
And today, too, I'm thinking.
Consider the solution York City officials have come up with to resolve the matter of $18 million in delinquent trash and sewer bills -- public shaming. It is, one city official said, a "new way of doing business."
Why? Well, there are about 5,000 (of 15,000) sewer customers who are behind on their payments, according to York City business administrator Michael O'Rourke.
And some of those delinquent bills go back a lot of years.
How? Well, all delinquent customers would receive a final notice. They'll be given a chance to pay up or at least set up a payment plan by May 1.
If nothing happens by then, delinquent sewer customers risk having their water shut off by the York Water Co. and having their names, addresses and how much they owe published on the city's website for the whole world to see.
Public shaming 101.
O'Rourke said it perfectly: "People don't like to look bad." It is the essence of all public humiliation.
It also assumes that these people easily could pay their sewer bills, but just don't feel like doing it. I doubt that's the case with many of them.
Yes, I understand the cash-strapped city is sitting between a rock and a hard place. It needs money, lots of it, and fast.
And it's not fair to the 10,000 sewer customers who pay their bills on time when they basically are subsidizing the 5,000 customers who aren't paying their bills at all.
It's also, by the way, not fair to those who pay their bills on time when the slackers of the bunch are given amnesty, after years of not paying their bills, so all interest and penalties are forgiven.
What's the incentive to pay on time, I wonder, if you can pay the bill five years late without any interest or penalties?
My concern is those property owners who, through no fault of their own, find themselves financially unable to make ends meet. For whatever reason they just don't have enough money to pay all their bills, so they do what all of us would do -- they pay the important stuff first.
So they pay their mortgage. They pay for the car, insurance, groceries, clothing, prescription drugs, medical care, gasoline and if there's enough money to go around, they try to pay their property taxes and assorted city fees for sewer and trash collection.
I'm not talking about property owners -- absentee landlords, for instance -- who abuse the system because they know they can get away with it.
I'm talking about people who find themselves between the same rock and same hard place the city finds itself.
They deserve better than public humiliation.
They deserve better than the 21st century equivalent of a scarlet letter.
This time a capital "D" for deadbeat.
Surely we can do better than that.
Columns by Larry A. Hicks, Dispatch columnist, run Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.