Working as a meter reader required special equipment – namely your car.
At that time I drove a 1979 Mercury Capri that my then husband had brought home on a whim, sort of like a stray dog with wipers and aluminum wheels. It hosted a 5.0-liter engine that translates into lots of speed, rack and pinion steering, a sporty louvered cover on the back window and the word, ‘Rally Sport’ on the fender. It was an introductory vehicle to the gateway of male midlife crisis.
He drove it for three weeks before he brought it home, tossed the keys on the kitchen counter and proclaimed he would drive it no more – that third speeding ticket put him over the edge.
For me it was a perfect vehicle for my job. Roomy enough to carry all necessary meter reading supplies: meter cards, seals, scope, extra clothing and shoes, rain gear, snow gear, tall boots, short boots, maps (this was before that thing called GoogleMaps), sunscreen, first-aid kit, water, snacks, cat food (or dog food depending on preference) and tie down straps in case you found a treasure. The louver covered all the stuff in the hatchback.
Public Service didn’t provide vehicles for us. The closest thing was a window placard that showed we were meter readers and had business walking around your neighborhood. Most of us preferred it that way. You can’t flip someone off in a company vehicle and most people have an intrinsic hatred of any utility company so our cars safely mingled with other cars the neighborhood.
Sometimes our cars stood out. In Cherry Creek our cars stood like shabby beacons among the Mercedes and BMWs that lined the tony streets. Sometimes our beater cars could have won top prize at a car show because the street was filled with four-wheel hopelessness. It just depended on the day. That was the great thing about being a meter reader – variety.
Most readers had a separate car for meter reading. One friend had a beat up old Toyota pick up that had almost 300,000 hard miles on it and he drove it for work. When not working he had a big SUV that guzzled gas and made him feel mean when he was behind the wheel.
Cars were chosen carefully – something cheap and something you could drive through the weeds along Santa Fe near Oxford, back before the light rail swallowed up the right-of-way that hosted billboards hawking everything from cars to strip clubs. I ruined a radiator driving that section of weedy road because the foxtails that can cause a dog or cat so much pain can also ruin a radiator. I found that out the hard way.
Cars also needed to be easy to park. As a meter reading in Denver Metro Region, you need serious parking skills. Like mad, parallel parking skills. Whip that car into a space just inches longer that you car and expertly wield it back out again. I still have that talent even though I now drive an SUV.
There’s a skill to parallel parking and most people today don’t know how to do it. Frankly I had no idea when I started and I had a few unhappy scrapes trying to get myself out of tight spots. Mostly I learned to park because I hated having to explain every little scratch on that Capri.
I took out a short post at the Juanita Nolasco residences at 9th Avenue and Utica St. in Denver and it left a big dent in the rear bumper. Not my fault, who puts in a three-foot post in a parking area? When I got home I could tell my ex was really upset about marking the car he didn’t want to drive anymore. It was a sore subject for several years because it turns out the car was a classic and parts were hard to come by.
A sore subject for meter readers is street sweeping. From April to November Denver cleans its streets and signs at the start of each block tell you which day of the week was sweeping day and heaven help you if you parked on the wrong side. Cars parked on the side being swept would find a ticket on their windshield. A ticket PSCO wouldn’t pay.
They also wouldn’t pay if you got nabbed in a pay-to-park lot because you parked without paying and they ticketed you. I was astonished at how fast someone could write up a ticket while I was reading one stupid meter. There were lots I couldn’t park in at any time because I was on their ‘wanted’ list.
After a while I got to know the guys in the pay-to-park booths and they were cool about my parking there for a few minutes. Truth is they didn’t give a rat’s ass if I parked there or not. When they replaced booth jockeys with machines I couldn’t sweet-talk my way into parking for just a quick moment. Tickets were the result.
When I left meter reading I guess I had a couple hundred dollars worth of parking tickets, both paid and unpaid. Whoever ended up with license plate GPH-674, I’m sorry and whatever you do, don’t park in any lots in downtown Denver.
On my cycle 20 in what would become LoDo, I read a mechanic shop’s meter each month. Russell was a rusty old man who had a two-level shop with a yard guarded by bad dogs.
Russell’s meters where in the basement of the aged building and a sloped ramp led down to where the truly hopeless cars were parked. It was the usual assortment of Toyotas and Nissans but in the corner was a gray Mustang.
My ex’s family was Ford crazy and the entire family was required to drive Fords. Mercury would do in a pinch but any car had to be from the Detroit family.
I walked over to the car and checked it out. The junkyard dogs apparently found the plush red interior to their comfort because that was home-sweet-home for a snooze. It smelled bad.
I got in and checked it out. The odometer read 54,786 miles. The book in the glove compartment said it was a 1985 Ford Mustang. The VIN said it was a 1984. The body was absolutely straight without a single ding (unlike the Capri a la post) and the interior was only dirty and could be cleaned.
I made my plan. I talked to my then husband and my then father-in-law and they were non-committal but interested.
John Edward Anderson, Sr. was a genius when it came to cars. He could fix just about anything. He once switched out the engine in my old Ford truck in under four hours. My dad was incredulous when he dropped the carburetor in a bucket of water to clean it. He pulled it out, dried it off and put it back in the truck and it worked better than before.
My ex used to come home at lunch to switch out his 1966 Mustang from an automatic to manual transmission. It was a gift they shared and I’d hoped that they could pull off the same magic for the sad Mustang in the basement.
The next month I went down and read the meter and the car was still there. I asked Russell about it. He said someone had brought it in to have a new engine in it and left it when they either ran out of money or interest. It sat undisturbed for almost three years before I saw it.
I asked Russell if he’d be interested in selling it.
“Oh, darlin’ you don’t wanna that car,” Russell said. “That car is no good.”
For three months I asked Russell how much he wanted for the car. He had the title and it was just taking up room.
The fourth month I went in I had a plan. Push-up bra and I undid the top button of my Oxford shirt.
Russell sold me the Mustang for $300.
The next day my then father-in-law showed up at Russell’s with a truck and flatbed trailer with a winch. He expertly winched the car out into the sunshine. It wasn’t gray; it was officially known as Diamond Dust Black.
“Good job,” the senior Anderson said.
They took it to their garage and unloaded that car into the driveway. They changed the oil, drained the gas tank and dropped the carburetor in a bucket of water.
They added three gallons of premium to the tank and got in and turned the key. It started right up.
I drove that car for 5,000 miles before the engine finally died. My ex and his dad replaced the engine for $300.
In 2000 the Ford-only-boundary lifted and I bought a Pontiac. Nobody wanted the Mustang because it had developed the problem of engine stall when it was hot and smoke would pour out of the console if you stood at a light too long. It was a design flaw where the gas line was too close to the engine and heated the gas and bubbles formed. No one could figure out how to fix it.
I took it to the car auction house in Commerce City.
A few weeks later I called to see if the car had sold.
“What car?” they said.
Someone stole it the day after I dropped it off but they’d lost the paperwork and couldn’t remember who owned it. They asked me how much I wanted for it. I took $300.
This post is part of a series on my days as a meter reader for Public Service Company of Colorado from 1989 – 1995.