Seeing things you don’t want to see

The reading on this meter is 65743

Everyone does stuff in the private spaces of home. Most never want other people to know about their past-times but there were people who weren’t shy about sharing.

We’d probably never know about people’s predilections if meters weren’t inside people’s homes. Over the years, PSCO has made real effort to bring all meters outside, especially when they started putting “readers” on both gas and electric meters in an effort to eliminate meter readers all together through automation.

While meters were still inside we got to deal with some pretty interesting characters.

Rachelle had a route that started on Federal and Louisiana. The other three corners of the intersection were commercial ventures but this one white clapboard house still stood on 2 acres locked behind a 6-foot chain-link fence. An old sheepdog guarded the property.

Rachelle was sidelined by hernia surgery after lifting a too-heavy trap but her routes still had to be read. I was ahead on my routes so I was given her cycle 9. The area is rather low-income but many homes are long-time residents who purchased the inexpensive homes during Denver’s building hey-day after World War II.

The area is filled with parks and lakes, schools, Mom-and-Pop grocery stores and easy access to downtown Denver. As the area aged the homes aged pretty well and subsequent generations called Athmar Park home.

The one white house told its own story because other houses were lined up like a residential parking lot but this one stood alone.

Rachelle was in the office that day and brought paperwork so she could continue to get a paycheck while recovering from surgery and we had a chance to talk about the route.

“Watch out for the guy in the house on Federal and Louisiana,” she said. “He’s kind of funny, so keep him at an arm’s reach.”

He must have seen me get out of my car because he was waiting for me at the gate. He was an older man with graying hair, bagging pants and a much-patched cardigan. I’ll call him Mr. Cardigan.

Mr. Cardigan’s electric meter was one of those weird ones situated just off the kitchen in the stairwell that led to the basement. He walked me to the meter and stood to my right and the meter was right above me but it was a little dark in the stairwell so I reached for my flashlight. He stopped me and said he’d turn the light on for me, the switch being on my left.

He reached across my chest is a slow and deliberate manner as he reached for the light switch. It seemed to happen in slow motion and I watched incredulously as his hand groped towards the light switch. My response was electric and powerful.

“You old son of a bitch!” I said. “Get your fucking hands away from me or I’ll push you down the stairs! And don’t ever do this to another meter reader ever again!”

He hadn’t expected such a strong reaction and he held his hands up in front of himself and he was genuinely scared in small fearful steps. I told him to move back into the kitchen and stay there, don’t move. He might have been trying to rectify his faux-pax by being helpful.

“Let me turn the light on for you,” he said.

I told him to get the fuck away from the doorway and just stand there.

I read the meter and left and told him to walk in front of me so there wouldn’t be any surprises on my way out.

I called Rachelle after the route was over and asked Rachelle if she’s had problems with Mr. Cardigan before.

“Yah, it’s a regular thing but I told him I would push him down the stairs if he ever tried it again.”

Down Mississippi near the Platte River are rows of apartments that have a real low-rent feel to them but one 20-story building sits in the middle of the urbanity and houses low-income seniors.

I was filling in for another reader and had to read all the meters in the building but that meant going to the manager’s office first. There was no one in the office and across the hall was the maintenance office but that was empty too. I hated the idea of doing a “Can’t Read” on 200 meters so I hung around for a few minutes.

The maintenance guy’s name as Jose was the first to appear and he didn’t look so good and the front of his shirt was slightly damp. Jose had a green pallor across his face and I asked him if he was feeling all right.

He stopped for a moment and the under the pallor was a hunted expression.

One thing that happens in senior housing is sometimes people die. This place had an ingenious method for checking to see if tenants were still alive without having to actually knock on doors. Around that time Cheerios was offering small hollow rings that looked like Frisbees. Someone at the building must have really like Cheerios because each resident had a Frisbee they had to put on their doorknob at night and in retrieve in the morning. Jose was supposed to walk each floor and check for Frisbees but he’d recently hurt his leg so he came up with an alternate plan – peer out from the elevator checking for Frisbees. The only problem is some of the units are around the corner and he missed the fact that the tenant in 501 had passed away several days before.

The smell was what got people’s attention first, that rotten warm smell coming from inside 501. On top of that, no one had seen Mr. Hernandez for a while but nobody really liked him so nobody went looking for him. Jose was instructed to enter the apartment.

“I opened the door and there were flies, everywhere,” he said “Not just regular flies but big, big ones.”

Jose told me he’d seen dead bodies before, twice: Mr. Parker in 1210 and Mrs. Donnelly in 1505. Both times they’d died just hours before and it was no big deal, call the ambulance, sign some paperwork, call the family and it’s done. Later on Jose would clean and paint the apartment for the next tenant.

So Jose found Mr. Hernandez on the living room floor and it was apparent by so many signs that he’d died about 4 days before.

“The amblance (sic) man came and he needed help moving him and when I helped to lift him, he ruptured, “ Jose said.

Jose lost it right there and then, lunch, breakfast and his will to live. Some of the fluids from Mr. Hernandez and found their way onto Jose’s clothing and into his eyes and mouth. Some of Mr. Hernandez seeped onto the cheap pile carpet and after the ambulance had left, it was up to Jose to get rid of the flies and try to exorcise any fluid ghosts.

At first I thought he was kidding me and I laughed a bit at his story.

“You wouldn’t laugh if this happened to you,” Jose said.

As I left the building, I thought I could detect the faint odor left by Mr. Hernandez.

This post is part of a series on my days as a meter reader for Public Service Company of Colorado from 1989 – 1995.

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