This post is part of a series on my days as a meter reader for Public Service Company of Colorado from 1989 – 1995.
I’ll admit reading meters in a residential neighborhood could get pretty boring.
Routes like the 2’s down in Bear Valley are street after street of really boring houses and boring people.
OK, maybe the people weren’t boring but they definitely are too busy to be interesting. They’re the ones driving down the freeways, tailgating, zipping in and out of lanes trying to get somewhere and do something important. They’ll push ahead of you in the checkout line and then smile and say they didn’t notice you. The gates to their yards are never locked. Their dogs are never left out in the cold. They will yell at you if you walk across their pristine, snow-covered yard and ruin their feng shui.
Something about those kinds of neighborhoods – their desperation is kept very quiet as if they’re afraid the neighbors might hear. Keeping up appearances, keeping up with the Joneses.
In downtown Denver it’s very different.
Downtown lays it all right out there and it’s a compilation of history, homes, businesses, nightlife, homeless people, the mentally ill, old men playing chess, hookers and the casual rowdies of youth. Downtown is honest and it’s all on display.
The coolest place I read each month was a row of shops on Larimer Street on my cycle 15. A pawn shop sits on the corner and there’s a basement in each building. If you go into the liquor store, the owner will let you in the back and a screwdriver on the floor holds the door shut. You wind down a doubtful staircase and it leads you to a doorway that on either side has a canopy of spider webs. The webs move, pulsate with hundreds of spiders. Go through that canopy and there’s a room filled with boxes of brand-new shoes from about the 1940s. Piles of receipt books show transactions from WWII.
The first month I read this route, the previous reader went with me, the second month I read it, my then husband went with me. We’d gotten about halfway through the route and he stopped and looked at me and said:
“If I’d known you were doing this kind of work in these kind of places I’d never let you take this job,” he said.
The bar halfway down Larimer has a trap door behind the bar and the owner would always have it open when I walked in the door. When I would finish reading the meters, he’d always have a Pepsi set up on the bar for me. We’d chat and he’d tell me about life on Larimer Street. He was vastly disappointed to find out I was married but still, each month my Pepsi was there, waiting.
My cycle 20 was an entire route in downtown that included the May D&F Tower, the Federal Reserve Bank, the newly built Tabor Center, the Denver Mint and the old Denver Opera House.
The D&F tower was cool because there are lots of businesses, one on each floor. My favorite was an art gallery that had some really amazing pieces. The top floor where the old bell was usually off limits but a few of us knew how to get up there. The doors open and there was a mannequin standing there holding it’s head on a platter.
It was a great place to take a break and look out over the city. Stay off the balcony, though; it was dangerous as hell. Recently I saw a news story about the space being rejuvenated into a wedding venue.
In the early 1990s we had Black Monday. Banks were in trouble and stocks took a tumble. Government and businesses were worried and the feds response was to flood the economy with millions of dollars. I happen to read the meter at the Reserve bank that following Tuesday and the guard was a friend. After I read the meter, he asked me, “Wanna see something?”
He took me down a long hallway to a wall of bulletproof windows and inside was laundry carts full of cash. In that room was $320 million in $10s, $20s, $50s and $100 bills. Rows of women seated at machines bundled and wrapped cash ready for distribution. Only a handful of people got to see that sight.
The Mint, though, was a pretty uptight place. One security guard tried to get me to take all my clothes off for a strip search before I went into the Mint to read their meters but as I’ve mentioned before, I have a temper.
It’s really loud inside there and the Mint’s floor is littered with coins with no imprint on them. There are hundreds of the disks on the floor and nobody bends down at the Mint.
During Denver’s first run of Phantom of the Opera I got the chance to go out on stage and touch the chandelier because the steam meter sat (it’s gone now) right below the stage.
The steam meters were another type of meter we read each month and downtown probably had about 50 of them. Have you ever noticed the steam coming up from the vents in downtown Denver on a cold day? Every wonder what that is? It’s the steam meters below the city streets. Most large building used steam for their power rather than gas.
Finding your way to these downtown meters is tricky and it was easy to get lost in the sub-sub basements along 16th Street. Our computers had abbreviated locations and you had to implicitly trust what came up on the screen.
“Sub-subBM, L, L, MR on R.”
That meant go to the sub-sub basement (usually a dirt floor) go left, then left again and the meter room is on the right.
Almost in every sub-sub basement in downtown Denver has roaches. Not just the little skinny ones but also the big ones that can carry off small children. Their antennae are sometimes almost 2 inches long and some of those babies can fly.
Most meter readers would wear a hoodie when we had to go into some of the more roach infested places. For the most part hoods keep the roaches from hitchhiking home with you or going down the front of your shirt. A few times I’d come out of a basement with a few hitchhikers on me. After a while you’d get used to it and just brush yourself off and go to the next meter.
There’s a souvenir shop on the 16th Street mall that looks clean enough but this building has a sub-sub-sub basement and a beautiful staircase takes you down, down, down.
There’s a row of demand meters in a row way back against a far wall and without fail, each month, there’s a dozen or so big roaches on the meters. Now with demand meters you have to actually touch them to reset the meter – take off the previous month’s plastic seal and put a new one on. Each month I felt like those roaches judged me. They’d stick their heads out of the holes above the meters and just watch me do my job. I’d thought about naming them but we had a deal; they stayed on that side of the meter and I’d stay on this side of the meter.
For us, downtown was greatly anticipated by my meter-reader friends. It meant lunch together at Quizno’s near Larimer, punctually at noon. We would order our sandwiches and sit in a row at the tables by the window. We had a game where we’d rate the people as they walked by – would we sleep with them or not? Scale of 1-10. The manager didn’t think it was appropriate because some of 9’s and 10’s that would walk by also got a few wolf whistles and whoo-hoos. Martin would add a hand gesture with his vocal praise. It was great fun.
I was training with another meter reader called “shadowing.” It was important that some of the more intricate routes have a back up because there weren’t enough characters on the computer to explain the depths you had to go to find those meters.
My good friend, Susan had a route that included the old Denver Fire Clay Building there on 15th Street. Oddly enough my mother had worked in that building during the war so it was funny to be there spelunking its bare-dirt depths. We were walking along a hallway, heading towards the steam meters in that sub basement and I noticed that there were dozens of BIG dead cockroaches lying on the floor. I casually mentioned that for every one you see, there are 10 above you, watching you. Susan’s reaction was spectacular. Her screams were worthy of a Wes Craven movie. Apparently cockroaches are to her as snakes are to me. Someone must have heard the screams because when we came upstairs to exit the building, the police were there. Some explanations are harder and funnier than others.
Steam meters make working in cold weather a real challenge. Condensation is for a steam meter as frosting is to cake. Each meter has a dial has a little windshield wiper to clear the condensation. Wherever a steam meter is, it’s hot. You can be dressed for a zero-degree day outside and be subjected to the tropics inside. All of us looked pretty haggard after a day of reading steam meters.
The first month I read my set that included my route downtown, it was winter and it was cold. One of the places I had to read was the Diamond Cabaret, a gentleman’s club just outside downtown. Now the previous owner of this set was a nice man named Guy and he told me he used to time his route so he got to the Cabaret about noon. I happened in there about the same time and as usual I was dressed to work outside: work boots, a heavy, dirty coat, hat, gloves.
I walked in and a very busty girl wearing not much more than a smile asked me if I wanted a table. I told her no, I needed to read the meters and she asked me to follow her. I stepped into the dining area and to say I looked like a brown shoe among tuxedos was an understatement. There was more skin in there than at the beach. Titties everywhere. I read the meters and left feeling rather frumpy.
Steam, gas and electric meters don’t care what you look like but once the boss asked me if I had a run-in with a customer one day and I replied no, why? She said they’d received a complaint about me and the boss asked what the complaint was. Was I rude (good chance that)? Damaged something (hmm, possible)? No, she just didn’t like the way I looked and wanted to complain about it.
Despite that complaint I was known as someone who’d help out, that if the bosses needed something, most likely I’d do it without giving them much shit.
A few months later it was another really cold day; I mean 20 below cold and I was dressed for the weather. I had to read a number of steam meters that the previous day’s reader had been too afraid to go where the meters were. Gary, my boss and his supervisor had asked me to go read that and a few other meters for them. I agreed. Hey, it’s downtown, right?
The old building is right there on 15th Street and has a peep show on one side and McDonalds on the other. Nobody liked going to where this meter was because it was in the sub-sub basement and you had to crawl up a rickety wooden ladder to reach the meter’s dial. To make matters worse the steam meter would vent about a bathtub-sized amount of water every 2 minutes. I have no idea why but whoever invented that feature should have been shot. You had to time your climb, read, write and get away in two minutes. Sounds easy? Not so much.
The day I read that meter was the first time and no one had told me about this meter’s quirkiness before hand.
To say that I was wet was an understatement.
The steam coming off of my wet, heavy winter attire as I walked back to the office in -20 degrees was impressive but it was no comparison to how steamed I was about being sent into a building and not being told about the bathtub of water.
Gary saw me coming through the lobby and tried hard to hide his amusement. He knew better than to make me madder and as I started to launch my tirade, he cut me short and though it was only 9 a.m. he told me he didn’t need me the rest of the day, smiled and walked away.
He left me there, fuming. I stood there for a moment and realized people were looking and me in my soggy state. I flipped them off and went home.