Reading gas and electric meters for Public Service five days a week was a physical challenge. We worked in all kinds of weather: heat, rain, snow and that uncategorized climate call “Colorado.”
Most everyone agreed that the perfect temperature to walk your route was around 40 degrees. Much warmer than that and you were sweating and struggling to stay hydrated. Much colder than that and your hands wouldn’t work – gates would stick and the traps were heavier.
A few things were pains in the ass such as heavy traps. In most parts of old Denver the gas meters were kept in basements to keep them from freezing. An improvement was to place the meter under the house covered by what we would call a trap. Usually it was a trap door that you had to get down on your knees, lift with one hand, tip your head sideways to read the meter, enter the reading with one hand while still holding the trap up. Sometimes the traps were just piece of plywood, other times they were architectural masterpieces of wood and shingles weighing as much as 80 pounds. This is a miserable enterprise even without the surprises under people’s houses. Black widow spiders, mice and rats, miller moths and sometimes a family of four huddled in a 3-foot crawlspace.
I was filling in for another meter reader working off of Mississippi and Federal when I came up on a trap that had a shiny new lock on it. I went to the front door and knocked and the owner answered. I asked him why the lock and he told me the story – he and his wife had been hearing sounds coming from under the house at night. Mice or possibly a raccoon but each time he would investigate the sounds would stop. After about a week, both of them heard what sounded like a child crying. Not outside, not across the street but from under the house. The owner went outside with a flashlight, opened the trap and a man, woman and two girls ages 2 and 4 living there. They were more frightened than the homeowner but he said he ordered them out and into that autumn night.
I asked if he knew where they went and he said he didn’t care, they weren’t going to live under his house hence the lock.
Some routes including the cycle 2, 3, 6, 15, 16 and 18 would be almost all trap meters. You were in for a long day unless more than a foot of snow had fallen, then most of those trap meters didn’t get read – they were “estimated” by computer software. It was a good day.
PSCO had an entire department that took care of the business of meters, their readings and customer bills. It was a job that made you consider taxi dancing or cleaning bear cages at the zoo or collecting urine from racing dogs. Customers are bad enough but handling customer bills is not the way towards inner peace.
Gates were the other problem we faced every single day. Some gates are friendly; welcoming. Others are designed to frustrate and challenge and it becomes a chess match with some gates. Strategy, moves, counter moves.
The worst gates were the ones that were the brainchild of retired engineers. The intrepid designs used weights and pulleys or where you had to put your hand through a hole in the fence to grab the latch and pray there wasn’t a Doberman on the other side of the gate.
Sometimes gates are locked. Sometimes their neighbors’ gates aren’t and meter readers tend to be excellent problem solvers. It also helped that we had a gizmo called a scope. It was a single lens that we could use to either read the neighbor’s meter through or over the fence. The term we used is ROF.
Our computers we used displayed information on each specific meter we read. They came up in order according to the best practice for walking the route in the most efficient manner. The display included the address, meter number, meter location and last month’s reading.
Let’s say that at a specific address there’s a vicious dog on the property. There was a way to set a comment before we reached that meter and there wasn’t a lot of room to put notes. It was Twitter beta version. Brevity was paramount so we came up with abbreviations and many times you’d be standing in a yard looking at the computer and thinking, WTF?
Let’s go back to the vicious dog. In code, right before that customer’s meter would come up, the computer would beep and you’d see a message: DV ROF. Translated that means there’s a vicious dog on the premises and you should read the meter over the fence.
Along with DV ROF we also had Dog Watch, Dog, Football, NG or SG, Crack House or Card to name just a few.
Dog Watch meant you could probably go in the yard but watch that sucker real close. Dog meant there was a dog on the premises and you were probably OK to go in the yard. Football meant it was a small dog and if you had to kick them, well, you get the idea. Crack House is pretty obvious and NG or SG meant to go to either the north gate or the south gate. Card meant to not even bother going to the front door and knocking, just fill out the meter card and leave it on the door and keep moving.
I was reading meters near Federal and Morrison Road and it was a trap book. the house was well-kept but there was no car in the driveway and to complicate things the electric meter was on an enclosed porch. Neither meter had been read in a long time and the message on the computer said, “Card.”
As I walked up to the door, I had to walk by a big picture window. Inside, on the couch was a short Hispanic guy and he was busy working away on top of a naked, fat white lady. She was huge and her fat wobbled in a rather rhythmic manner. He was giving it all he had.
I couldn’t help myself but I walked to the door and rang the bell. I heard some scuffling and a loud and clear voice called out, “Get the fuck away from the door, bitch!”
The blinds came down in a fury.
I giggled and walked away.
Another meter reader I worked with had a similar problem each month at a house in south Denver. Each month the lady who lived there would answer the door in a see-thru negligee. Now Martin was really good-looking dude. He spent his time after work in a gym so he was built. Apparently this lady liked what she saw and each month would give it the old college try even though she was in her late 40s. Hope springs eternal.
I asked Martin once if he ever gave in to the temptation and he said he never had. He said he’d gotten used to being pawed at by women on his routes.
Most of the meter readers were men in our division. There were eight women and they were a tough bunch. One tough lesbian with arms like a professional arm wrestler became a firefighter and Martin’s response to that was, “Jesus please don’t let that woman give me mouth-to-mouth.”
Things got interesting when Rachelle came to work with us. She came in with gold jewelry, teased and dyed hair and a flirtatious personality. We gave her a month. She lasted for more than 7 years. She was a good time although she married a Bozo and he took her fire away. Before that and once you got used to her, she was fun to be around both on and off the job. She was a big help for me the day after I’d gone to have my hair highlighted and the hairdresser hadn’t dyed my hair right and my brown hair ended up orange. Rachelle fixed my hair in about 5 minutes.
I should mention our workday – it was surreal.
The original routes were set up based on walking with a paper book. Once computers arrived things sped up and you could get a 6-hour route done in 3 hours. Most meter readers were done with work by noon. We used to joke that anything past noon was overtime.
We also got paid for finding problems out there in the neighbors. Closed Loops, leaking gas meters, upside down meters, stuff like that. A Closed Loop would bring 10% bonus to the meter reader who found it. One of us found a Closed Loop at the then new K-Mart in Northglenn. They recovered revenue was $100,000 and John got a bonus of $10,000. Rumors were that ten grand when straight up his nose.
If you pay attention you could make some serious money. Add to that the fact that our health insurance was free, they paid our car insurance and mileage. Nobody complained about being a meter reader.
This post is part of a series on my days as a meter reader for Public Service Company of Colorado from 1989 – 1995.