Getting in trouble is inevitable for meter readers.
When it’s your job to go in people’s yards, homes and businesses, someone’s gonna do something wrong.
The biggest problem I had was with Winky.
Winky was a small dog that lived in one of those boring houses near Federal and West Cornell Avenue. The houses there are really easy to read because they have gates on both sides of the property, go in one gate and read the meter and exit the other gate. It was a set-up that allowed routes to go quite quickly.
According to the homeowner, I went in through one gate and out the other and left the first gate open and Winky escaped.
My boss, Gary received a phone call telling him of my misdeeds and Winky’s disappearance. Over the next few days, Gary got several more calls from the same homeowner and also a couple of letters. The homeowner detailed several other neighbors’ complaints who’d said I’d left their gates open as well. Their number reached about 10 and Winky’s owner called for justice: that I be fired, pay for losses because I’d apparently let burglars in, write a letter of apology and pay for the postage for the two letters sent.
I felt under siege with this as each day passed and more letters arrived. It became an office joke. My friend, Susan made up a badge from a meter reading card, a metal demand seal and I was expected to wear the badge every day to work and included the words, “Winky’s Seal of Approval.”
Winky was gone for almost four days and being so near Federal the owner presumed the worst but the dog was found, turned into the pound and reunited with the owner. Winky was in a bad way though, dirty, with a broken claw and according to the owner, traumatized. She demanded restitution, payment for vet and grooming services and compensation for trauma. The owner held Public Service blameless but demanded I cough up the money myself to teach me a lesson.
Now Gary was a great boss – the best I’ve ever had and he came to me with the list and asked if I wanted to pay for Winky but his tone told me I wasn’t expected to shell out any cash to this person who’d made not only my life hell but his as well. I absolutely refused. I figured that Gary probably paid for Winky’s care through PSCO funds and just let the matter die but the Winky jokes went on for weeks. My co-workers left notes from Winky in my mailbox including a rather rambunctious stay at a breeding facility.
The Jacuzzi cover was another huge problem that didn’t seem to want to die.
Snow covers everything and makes all things clean and white but it also hides things that can be broken such as Jacuzzi cover in a real swanky neighborhood near the Wellshire Golf Course.
As a rule, houses near golf courses tend to be expensive; very nice. This house had a huge deck that was made slippery by the snow and you guessed it, in I went to the Jacuzzi through the cover. It was cold and I was wet. I My first thought was to keep the handheld computer out of the water because it means going all the way back to the office and getting a new computer and driving all the way back and re-reading the route. I struggled to get out of the pool but my heavy coat and boots had other ideas. It was something worthy of TV’s Funniest Videos but no one saw it, they just saw the aftermath. The scene told the story: a broken Jacuzzi cover and lots of footprints depicting a desperate struggle.
Gary didn’t make me pay for that one either despite the homeowner’s continued attempts to make me pay and be chastened.
Sometimes the problem is more embarrassing than costly and you can feel your control slipping away like smoke through your fingers.
It was probably one of the first things I ever read, it was an apartment near Cheesman Park and I had forgotten to bring the set of keys for the doors. I went to the manager’s office and asked if they had a set and of course they couldn’t find any so their maintenance person started taking the doors off their hinges and I watched in fascination and she wrestled the doors despite their big locks.
“If she was my employee I’d fucking kill her,” the manager said to the maintenance lady not knowing I was within earshot.
Of course I was scared shitless. I was sure they’d call the office and Gary would fire me. He didn’t and I learned to never leave the keys in the office.
I probably should say how I found the job as a meter reader, it’s not something they advertise but there were 125 of us in Denver.
My ex-husband worked for Public Service first in the transportation department doing maintenance on the fleet and then as a lineman with the electric department. They were both good jobs but he had many family members what worked electric side and they helped get him into an apprenticeship program and he became a lineman in 1985.
Our family was still young but the kids were in school and we needed more money for our growing family. John came home and said there was a part-time job with PSCO and I should apply. A few of the guys he worked with had wives that read meters and they money was excellent.
I applied and since PSCO was nepotism central I got an interview right away. I met with Gary and Trish in the office downtown and they told me about the job. They were friendly and laughed easily. I told them I really wanted the job and I was a good cook. What could I make them and bring in to convince them I wanted the job?
They both laughed and a few days later I got the call that I was hired.
They don’t just stick you out there in neighborhoods without testing and training. The testing came in the form of walking around Sloan’s Lake three times: that’s 12 miles under 4 hours.
I had asked our meter reader what the test was all about and what I should do to prepare and he said, WALK. Routes were from 8-12 miles each day.
By the time I took the test at Sloan’s Lake I was mostly ready. There were 8 of us that set out that morning as Trish watched us from her car in one of the parking lots. We stayed together but as the miles wore on you could tell people were lagging behind and it was obvious who’d prepared and who hadn’t.
I finished in 2 hour 20 minutes and wow, did my feet hurt. I hadn’t discovered Hi-Tec shoes by then and the sneakers I wore were already pretty worn out. That’s one thing you learn and learn fast is take good care of your feet. Good shoes, good socks, soak your feet when necessary, watch for ingrown toenails, and never ever take your shoes off in someone else’s house. Your feet were your livelihood.
Oh, it was easy to learn how to read meters. Not.
Most meters have four dials and they’re read from right to left. This is hard.
The first dial on the right goes clockwise from 0-9, the second dial from the right goes counter-clockwise from 0-9 and so on. Clockwise, counter-clockwise, clockwise, counter-clockwise. It can get really confusing and you can make errors fast.
Each reader would read an average of 100,000 meters a year. You were allowed 1-2 errors a month. This is also hard.
Each month we’d receive our error slips and it was disheartening. Anything can distract you from a correct reading, a dog, a homeowner, the weather, anything. Those errors show up in your mailbox and everyone sees how many errors you made.
We had one meter reader who went five years without making a single mistake. That was a rare and beautiful thing and we were in awe. I asked him how he did this magical trick, making no errors and he just shrugged his shoulders. I learned his secret one day when I was parked behind him and we were preparing to go to our respective routes. He picked up a pipe in one hand and a lighter in the other. The secret became clear. RELAX.
I would go months and months without an error then I’d come in and there’d be a slip with my name on it. It shot the hell out of a good day.
On the other end of the spectrum was a reader named Robert. He and another Robert were hired at the same time. Robert Wright and the other we christened Robert “Wrong.”
That dude did soooo much that was wrong. He’d load himself down with things like first-aid kits and extra pairs of shoes and he struggled horribly. His hair always seemed to point straight up and to one side like he’d slept real hard on it. Since he was averse to washing and reading meters is a dirty, sweaty business, he earned the nickname of “Tuna.”
His first month out he made the usual mistakes, usually about five but subsequent months the numbers climbed until the total reached 243 errors in one month. Back to meter reading class he went.
They teach you how to read by sitting in a class holding your own computer called a DataCap and you looked at slideshows of pictures of meters and you entered in their readings. They reveal all the secrets to successfully reading and there were a few tricks but lots of factors come into play so reading while sitting in a comfortable chair is a piece of cake but reality is a bit harsher. Since it was such a tough job, we had a tendency to blow off a little steam every once and a while.
Birthdays were always met with a celebration and someone would always bring in a cake and some pop and we’d eat it for breakfast. Since we were so loud by nature we weren’t allowed to sing, “Happy Birthday” because Gary felt we were hard enough to control as it was.
One year I brought a birthday cake in for Susan but I also stopped at Bakery la Sensual that used to be on Speer Blvd and bought a cupcake with a large penis made out of frosting. Since Susan was going through a dry spell during that time I also got everyone to sign a card that had a picture of a very well endowed man on the front. It was the same old joke, every guy who signed it said, “Oh, look, they finally got a lens long enough to do my Johnson justice.”
Susan loved it and Gary didn’t see it.
That next week someone had been to one of the sex shops on Broadway to read and they’d bought a huge condom made of Brillo Pad material. The thing was about a foot long and was called, “The Black Man’s Best Friend. Someone put the thing in Martin’s mailbox and everyone saw it.
Well, one of the lady readers didn’t like it made a complaint. Gary was exasperated by all this because practical jokes were something he was used to but this pushed even his good sensibilities to the limit. All of us had to attend a sexual harassment training seminar. They wouldn’t allow Susan and I to sit next to each other.
We were incensed but after that we kept our good humor outside the office.
The porn shops were one place we didn’t get in much trouble. Trouble is the antithesis to a porn shop and all were welcome. The problem is you didn’t know where to put your eyes. No place was safe; the walls and ceiling were covered with everything from tits to cocks. You had to be in the mood for the porn shops on Broadway or the porno theaters on Colfax.
Kitty’s on Colfax had the meter behind the screen in the theater and the reader said she always tried to read the meter before the porn showings started at 10 a.m.
They also had lots of accessories at Kitty’s including a huge penis made out of rubber that was a foot around and two feet long.
Martin was had bought a house and had a huge party to celebrate his accomplishment and as a housewarming gift, Susan and I bought him an inflatable sheep. He kept it in the corner of his living room next to his TV but his fiancé put an end to that and the sheep was seen no more.
This post is part of a series on my days as a meter reader for Public Service Company of Colorado from 1989 – 1995.