There were two kinds of people, and only two kinds of people, when it came to those people who wouldn’t pay their water bill. There were those people whose lifestyle interfered with their bill paying, and there were those people who were broke. Thursdays meant we didn’t read meters. Thursdays meant we either cut the meters off, or put a lock on them. It also meant we had to interact with the people whose water had just been cut off.
All it really took to cut the water back on was a wrench. But if the customer did that, and didn’t pay their bill the next month, we’d put a lock on it, and that was a little harder to get through. If someone did bust the lock off, we’d remove the meter. If they put a straight line in, law enforcement would get involved. I had to testify in court one day that I found a straight line where the water meter was supposed to be.
People parked their cars over the meters, they piled brush on top of the boxes, and they generally would stand outside and threaten us if we tried to cut their water off. We cut off one meter and as we pulled away a man came out of the house wearing nothing but a towel. We also had a woman file a complaint that we cut her off even though she had a very sick father at home. He was really, really, sick, seeing he had died a year earlier. People will lie to you. They’ll tell you any tale that might work. I learned just to say “Yes ma’am,” or “Yes sir” and keep doing my job. We had someone put their dog droppings in a meter box, but we had Booger for that sort of thing. Booger was the guy who got all the nasty jobs. More on Booger later, but don’t eat before you read about Booger.
I had a guy help me remove his meter one day. He said he understood my job, and there was no sense in trying to hinder me, or change my mind. He was more than a little drunk, but one of those drunks that liked to shake your hand or hug you. I’d rather deal with violence. At least you can defend against that.
The hand-held computers that we carried were fairly new and they could be gamed. The meter reading had to be within a certain range or it would beep at you. A good meter reader knew about where a reading ought to be by entering readings until the computer stopped beeping. If a reader was really, very, good, it took just a few seconds. We got good reviews for accuracy, and so changing the reading so it fell within the expected range was considered accurate.
I came to a house that was well kept, but small. The roof was rusted tin, patched with other pieces of tin, and the siding was very old wood. There was an even older rocking chair on the porch. In the vacant lot next door, there was a Garden of Eden. Neat rows of corn, tomato plants, peppers, and all sorts of produce were in a well-tended garden that looked as if it had been tilled entirely by the thick handle hoe leaning on the fence. A hoe with a skinny handle is lighter, but a hoe used for real work has to be nearly a post with a metal head. A series of sprinklers were kicking out water and we learned this usually meant a high water bill. I stopped and entered a few numbers, down, down, down, down, down, whoa. I finally figured out the meter hadn’t moved at all in a month. I dug down under the meter and found a pipe, ran straight under the meter. This was theft, but clever theft. There was an old man in overalls that came out of the garden, waved at me, and came over, and he smiled. “Yeah, okay, this is all I got for food these days, and I don’t mind working for it, you know this isn’t easy,” was what his smile said.
I entered a number with the range I knew would be accurate, and I smiled back, and told him I’d see him next month. Nobody that worked that hard for food had money. I’ve been there.
Mike writes regularly at his site: The Hickory Head Hermit. Opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the management of this site.