This post is part of a series on my days as a meter reader for Public Service Company of Colorado from 1989 – 1995.
Back in the 1990s I was a meter reader for the then Public Service Company of Colorado.
Now most people get confused and think I read parking meters, that I gave people tickets. Most people are surprised to learn that years ago gas and electric meters were read by a person. It was a cool job, the best one I’ve ever had. Damn, that was fun.
Denver had five major regions that housed gas and electric departments, repair facilities, business offices and meter readers. I was part of Denver Metro Region and we worked out of the pink building at 15th and Glenarm. Parking was a nightmare downtown (even then) so the 25 of us meter readers came in any time between 6:30 a.m. and 8 a.m., upload the previous day’s assignment and download the current day.
For many years readers used paper and pencil and heaven help you if you dropped that “book” in the rain. You’d spend some time with an iron trying to press and save your readings, lest you have to go out and read the route all over again.
In the mid 80s we got gray hand-held computers that weighed about 3 pounds and the information on the route was loaded onto small cassette tapes. “Writing tapes” for those 25 computers was a job usually given to people who were on light duty, injured or if there were no extra routes to read that day. It was tedious as hell back in the day of no cell phones, iPods, not even Walkman radio.
By the mid-90s we were given hand-helds that didn’t use the tape and they were fast. Using the paper system a meter reader could read 600 banked apartment meters in a 6-hour day. With the tape system you could read 900 meters in 4 hours. With the new devices you could read a whopping 1,200 banked meters in an hour.
Routes were part of a “book” or a “set.” There were 20 routes to a book or set, covering a monthly billing cycle. Sets were bid by seniority according to IBEW Local 111 by-laws. People on the bottom of the totem pole could wait years for their own set and be stuck reading “parts” or catch up routes that didn’t get finished the day before. Their days were long and miserable.
I got my own “set” after only working for 5 years. I was lucky.
The term book comes from the fact that the books were actually made of paper and between that book and the routes with lots of keys, your hands were full. Some downtown routes with apartment buildings could have as many as 8 pounds of keys that you had to carry around and use.
The worst routes for keys were routes, 7,8,11,15,20,21 but 7s downtown were the worst. Apartment after apartment, elevators and stairs.
Every friggin’ meter room on those routes had a lock on the meter room door and Lord knows what you’d find in those meter rooms.
Once I came across a dog that’d been locked up in there and left to die, which it did. Flies everywhere, I never closed a door so fast in all my life. The owners of the building had the nerve to call the main office and say that I had put the dog in there.
The boundaries for Denver Metro Region was Colorado Blvd to the east, Hampden to the south, Sheridan to the west and downtown to the north. It was a wide area but 25 of us covered it every month whether it was 105 degrees of -25.
We saw weird shit all the time and because of that, few people were ever late for work; not because we were afraid of discipline or of our bosses, Gary Keaney and Trish Day but because you didn’t want to miss the 25 stories that came back each morning with my comrades.
You learned to spin yarn if you were a meter reader – every day was a chance to go into people’s lives and homes and for better or worse, stuff happens. We could hardly wait to tell each other every morning. We were loud, rowdy, bawdy and hilarious.
One of the first stories new readers would hear was about Short Place.
Short Place near Federal was ranch-style on the outside and slaughterhouse on the inside. If you could make it to the basement gas meter without wretching you earned the group’s hard-earned respect. What made it so bad was the dead animals on the floor, the putrified food on the tables and couches; clothing all over the floor, feces and flies.
There was a great debate among meter readers about those places that smelled really bad. I mean really bad, like sewage, rotten raw chicken and snakes.
The first theory was to take a deep breath and hold it, walking quickly to the meter and then walk back out, maybe 2 minutes. Pitfalls to this was that most people can’t hold their breath that long and when you got to the meter, you’re turning blue and have to take a deep breath, thereby taking in all the smell in all its tepid grisly beef-fat glory.
The second theory was to breath between your teeth. Very shallow, like Lamaze laboring mothers do, because you can’t smell through your mouth. We tested these theories each day and conferred our results.
Almost all meter readers were famous for their tempers. We didn’t take shit from anyone. We had to have attitude to survive – being meek and mild can get you hurt.
Dog bites were the worst, not because they friggin’ hurt but because of the paperwork and then after you’re done with the company docs you have to go back out and finish your route. Insult to injury.
I got bit bad by a little son-of-a-bitch white fluff-ball dog near Sloan’s Lake one day. It moved like lightning and drew blood on my leg. Dog bites make you irrationally mad and I was no exception; I chased that dog around the yard and threw everything at it that I could: a sprinkler head, food dish, water dish, garden trowel and a rock. I have an unusual gift in that I hit anything I aim at and by the time I got done, the dog was cowering in the corner of the yard. I went to the front door and told the owner what their dog did and he laughed; that made me ever madder. I pushed my way in to use their bathroom and check my wounds and when I came out a woman in a sweaty saggy Eyore t-shirt tried to shut my anger down but I got the upper hand on that argument.
Meter readers have lots of resources: who to buy pot from, where to get laid if you want, where all the crack houses are. The most valuable resource is the Denver Animal Services, people we had almost daily contact with to report abused and abandoned animals. These are also the people who give out tickets for things like vicious animals. That little bite cost that dude $275 for harboring a vicious animal, no dog license and no rabies tag.
We saw sad things, too: animals left out in below-zero weather with no food or shelter, cockroaches crawling on babies as they lie on the floor, people who shit in their kitchen sinks, hoarders whose houses are filled wall-to-wall and ceiling to floor with trash, porn magazines in church bathrooms.
The most sad for me was an old man on my cycle 9-route. It was a house I’d been to for years before and knew both him and his wife. The previous month his wife had died and his family lived in another part of Colorado so he was alone. He let me into his house to read his electric meter in the kitchen (most older meters in Denver are kept there to keep them from freezing). I was stunned when he told me she had died, it was swift and sudden. His only company was the radio and the Rocky Mountain News crossword puzzle. He watched the birds and the bird feeder and ate off a dinner tray in front of the TV but kept the house meticulous in her memory. We talked for a few minutes and he asked about my growing family, my husband and as I answered he began to cry.
With sad eyes, he asked me, “If I give you a Pepsi will you sit and talk with me for a while?”
Now, I used to be very trim and rather hot looking, I’m not ashamed to admit. Walking 8-12 miles a day keeps your butt in good shape and my first thought was that he was coming on to me but something in his words made me realize I’d read that wrong. He just wanted to talk. Just the pleasure of another person’s company, not to complain or whine, just to talk. Talk about the apples on the trees and a possible answer to 32 across. I took the can of Pepsi and sat down on a floral chair that was clearly his wife’s seat in that living room. He showed me a flowered box that contained his mementos and memories of his wife, their life together. I could see her smiling down from the pictures on the wall.
Each month when I went to their house I always took a few minutes to talk to the old man about the weather or the price of gas until one day I knocked on the door and barking came from inside. He proudly showed off his new puppy friend that he’d found at the Denver Dumb Friend’s League. Clearly he adored the young dog and the dog re-payed him in kind. I thought about his optimism in getting a puppy but for the first time in months he was smiling, though still moving around the house as though his wife was by his side.
Three months went by with friendly conversation and puppy kisses with each visit.
That next month the neighbor answered the door with boxes and newspaper in her hand. The old man had passed away shortly after his dog had gotten out and ran into the street and was killed by a car. She never said why he died so suddenly but people only have one heart to break and his had broken months before, he just hadn’t ever thought to lie down and die.
“In the end, we’re all alone,” the middle-aged neighbor lady said.
She asked me if there was anything I wanted of the old man’s home, they were boxing things up but most of their life was headed to the anonymity of Goodwill. I looked around noticing the walls where his wife’s smiling picture hung and told her no, that he’d given me a great gift because I would remember him every time I had a can of Pepsi.
Though it was dangerous, my favorite route was a cycle 20, the route started at 20th and Larimer that started there and went up to 25th and Lawrence. Coors Field wasn’t there yet but the area had lots of businesses then. It wasn’t a long route but it was replete with character.
Shops included a plaster-casting company housed inside Maddie Silks’ former brothel, an old vaudeville hall that sat empty between a bar and a flophouse, countless bars, a music store, Mexican bakery and a general store. The route was dangerous because some of the meter rooms were in the basements that hadn’t seen light since they were built sometime in the 1890s. Bums lived in those dark holes and the alley by one business you might get hit with flying rats. The owner’s name was Earl and he was fond of sitting at his desk with a loaded .45 and his pleasure was to take out rats as they ran across his office. He got rid of the rats by tossing them over the fence into the alley. He chuckled when he’d hear a scream as a dead rat pelted some homeless person.
I was nearing the end of the route on a warm summer day and I decided to go to the general store for a Pepsi. Three girls stood out front, not much older than me. One of them asked me for a cigarette. I told her I didn’t smoke and the only money I had was got a Pepsi (which was true, NEVER carry money or wear jewelry as a meter reader). She told me they’d been keeping an eye on me over the last few months. That corner where the store was marked their “territory.” She said it was clear I wasn’t competition but then a funny look came over her face.
“If I had a body like yours I could get off Larimer Street,” she said.
That’s the best compliment I’ve ever had in my life.