Summer was a dreaded time for meter readers because the kids were home from school. Kids like to do things such as let dogs out into the yard when you’re reading the meter.
We had a huge whiteboard in the office and on the last day of school I would start a countdown to the first day of school in the fall. People scoffed at this but then they realized that things are better when school’s in session.
But I was pretty thankful for a kid one very hot summer day when working for the Northwest Metro Region reading meters just off Washington and 88th Avenue.
I was reading an apartment complex and was heading into a basement to read a bank of meters when I tripped and twisted my ankle inside the meter room. Lucky for me some kid named J.J. had followed me in and he panicked and wanted to make sure I was all right.
As you know, when I’m hurt, I’m pissed but this kid looked at me and said, “You want a Pepsi, lady?”
I handed him 50 cents and told him to get us both a Pepsi and he could keep me company until I could walk again. We sat down there and J.J. told me about his family, how his dad had left and he was now the man of the house at 10 years old. He said he wanted to get a dog but they couldn’t afford one, they couldn’t afford to buy food for the kids let alone a dog. He said the Pepsi was a real treat for him and J.J. drank it like he was getting ready to cross a desert.
He asked me about my kids, did they go to school, did they have enough to eat?
He didn’t like school because he said there weren’t a lot of kids that had just come up from Mexico and he was afraid someone would find out his family was here and they weren’t supposed to be. I don’t think the adults in his life every used the word “illegal” but J.J. had a suspicion that him being in America was something that made people mad. He felt tense every moment whether he was at school or home because no place was safe and he couldn’t figure out why.
I didn’t explain things to him.
He helped me up and stayed right by me as I went up the stairs and he walked me to my car. Looking down he kicked his feet on the small asphalt rocks on the old pavement for a moment and asked if he could go with me. I told him he couldn’t, that his family would miss him. Clearly, he didn’t believe me. I had another quarter in my pocket and gave it to him to save for the next time he wanted a Pepsi.
“I’ll save it for the next time you come here and bust up your ankle,” J.J. said.
Closer to Denver there’s a Jewish neighborhood just off Colfax from Sheridan to Federal and some of those houses are really beautiful inside. The kosher women and children regarded us women meter readers with decorum but they seemed uncomfortable in our presence after we’d read the meter we were ushered out the door without a goodbye.
Near the synagogue on 14th Avenue there was a house that was one of the first houses on that route. I knocked at the door because like most older homes, this meter was in the basement. A lady in her 20s sucked on a cigarette in one hand and with coffee mug in the other, and after a sarcastic eye roll she led me to the basement.
Down there was like a Roman banquet. The remains of a big party, drink glasses, bottles of beer, tequila and whiskey littered the room and furniture and the floor crunched from tortilla chips and Cheetos and the smell of warm cold cuts were the entrails of a really good party. Somehow they’d managed to shove beer bottles through the ceiling tiles and had spelled the word, “Hola.”
Every couch was spoken for, and there were a lot of couches down there. Maybe 20 people in all were draped criss-cross on each other and the snoring sounded like lions.
As I walked back out, something caught my eye. A little girl about 4 years old was sitting up, wide awake on a couch with her mother’s legs draped over her lap. Clearly that child wasn’t going anywhere but there she was, waiting. Just waiting. I stopped and gave her a little wave and she waved back. Cigarette-and-coffee-eye-rolling lady snapped her fingers and made a hissing sound at the little girl and the child frowned slightly and dropped her head just a bit.
I’ve thought about that little girl many times over the years. She should have been upstairs eating cereal and watching cartoons and getting ready for pre-school but she was stuck in that party animal wasteland waiting for mother to wake up.
There’s a row of houses just north of downtown in an area that was feeling some revival as people purchased old homes from Denver past and rejuvenated them. I’ve been in some of the houses near Curtis Park and the insides are decorated in keeping with Denver’s past. They’re gaudy and glorious and each house has a story and most have a historical society designation.
Their owners are mesmerizing as they share the details of the house’s past. The one thing all those dressed up ladies had in common was a wrought iron fence guarding the perimeter. Beautiful but don’t touch.
That neighborhood had a few row houses that were low-income and all of them were roach infested. Some were so bad the roaches would answer the door. When the door opened dozens of roaches would scatter.
One house had two different families living there and the house smelled like burned beef fat and scalded milk. Roaches were all over the walls in the living room and especially in the kitchen. The meters were kept in the basement and even more roaches would scatter when you opened the basement door. This is when meter-reading skills really come in handy. I’m not going down there but you can kneel down without touching your knees to the floor, shine your flashlight and read it from there. God knows what’s in those basements.
I don’t know why I didn’t notice at first but there was a baby on the floor, asleep on the rug. Roaches were crawling on the baby’s chest and one slid down into the child’s diaper. I looked at one of the women that lived there and asked, “Really?”
She told me to mind my own fucking business.
I left the route and went to a phone to contact Denver Social Services. The intake person I spoke to said they’d had lots of complaints about that building and the roaches but this was the first complaint about roaches on a baby. She said they’d look into it.
There used to be place called “The Dairy” which is funny because they didn’t sell milk, they sold amazing Mexican food. It was an unassuming blue building right across from Curtis Park and you could order your take-out and go sit in the park. I wasn’t working the day a few friends stopped there to get rellenos and they had just settled down by the playground to eat and gunshots rang out sending everyone, kids and all for cover. The shooting stopped and people got up and went about their business and the kids went back to playing on the playground.
Public Service used to be an organization that offered lots of ways to get involved in the community. Many of us became pen pals with schools in Denver and each week we’d get a big envelope filled with letters from kids bursting with their questions about being a meter reader and sharing details of their lives. I volunteered at a couple of schools in east Denver and once I got to go in and meet the kids and talk about my job. They loved it. Somewhere in my pictures is one of my surrounded by about two-dozen kids, everyone is smiling.
These schools weren’t in great neighborhoods and on occasion I’d have some punk teenager demand my wallet. Now, no meter reader in their right mind would do such a thing, carry a wallet. I’d just smile and shrug my shoulders.
All meter readers drove their own cars rather than a company vehicle. This worked out well because some people really hate the power company. They’re paranoid and sure there’s a conspiracy running through the power lines and gas lines. Any time you’re on their property you’re suspect; your collecting data, making notes, plotting.
It wasn’t too surprising to find out that even the kids thought PSCO was a spy agency.
I was reading meters in Bear Valley and hit the jackpot because I could stand on the transformer box in the back yard and read the meters for three houses. One of the kids in the yard freaked out when I did this and ran to get his mother. She freaked out and said I must be spying on them and that my scope was actually surveillance pictures. The little kid beside her kept shaking his head in agreement.
The real conspiracy theorists didn’t have guns, they were content to just look out windows and be suspicious of anything that moved and only a few times did I come across someone with a gun. Believe me there were warnings on the computer to stay away from those houses. The last thing Public Service wanted was a dead meter reader on their hands.
One time a kid made trouble for a meter reader when he let a Chow out and that dog lunged and bit the person right on the chest and arm. These weren’t just bites, they were deep gouges that would leave permanent and lasting scars. The dog bit her over and over until owner wrestled the dog away and she was transported to the hospital. Turns out I knew the guy who owned the dog and it was curtains for the Chow so he gave it to his brother to hide. They never did find the dog and the meter reader took her scars and left the job.
Kids were always letting dogs out on us. Kids are curious why there’s someone in their back yard and dogs are only doing their job. Sometimes you could just high step out of the yard and hope the dog didn’t bite other times you had to take more drastic measures.
I was talking with my friend, Mike at a corner behind the shopping center on Florida near Sheridan. He rolled up in his truck and I was still walking my route and he stopped to chat and out of nowhere a dog charged me and he meant business. I swirled around and charged the dog (sometimes they’re just bluffing) but this one wasn’t having it. Now Mike was a big dude and I’d never seen anyone move that fast but he was out of truck with one of those big MagLite flashlight in hand and the dog sensed Mike meant serious business. The dog turned and ran the other way.
I was reading at a house up the block and somehow, someway the dog in the yard died sometime right after I’d left the yard. Natural causes or I don’t know what but they were sure I finished off Fido. Gary believed me when I told him that killing dogs wasn’t on my to-do list each day. Just sometimes dogs just die and I felt sorry for the family though, they’d lost their beloved pet and didn’t know why.
Mike had a kid let a big dog out on him while he was in the back yard and it came up alongside him and he hit the dog across the head with his big MagLite and killed the dog instantly with one blow. At that month’s safety meeting the bosses implored us to not kill any more dogs if we could avoid it.
This post is part of a series on my days as a meter reader for Public Service Company of Colorado from 1989 – 1995.