Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Secret lives of Meter Readers

Commentary by Jim Banholzer


Jim Banholzer

If you are looking for a long walk every day with not bad pay, maybe meter reading is the ticket. Generally, you get to spend a lot of peaceful time by yourself, plenty of reflecting space, unhindered by a bickering work crew. Dedicating yourself to simply reading meters all day can actually lead into a very ascetic lifestyle.

When a vault into the earth is uncovered, great mysteries lie inside. Neighborhood kids dash over and want to see. Newts and frogs, snakes, snails and polliwogs are all found in these tiny underground arenas. If the meter reader is not watching carefully, he may uncover a bee's nest. Most workers carry a medicine pouch within their toolkits.

Meter reading routes may be a hard road at first, but endurance soon builds up, as the man (or woman) becomes self-reliant. As he walks along, he strengthens his full character, all the way down to his stem cells. Striding along, his breathing becomes natural and he finds himself more plainspoken.

Directions and unusual questions are often posed to meter readers. Do the deer turn into elk at the same elevation rattlesnakes stop snapping? On what street did Hemingway kick the can? Having handy answers makes the job more enjoyable.

Dogs are a part of meter reading. Most bowsers are friendly and can read the meter reader's spirit with a high degree of accuracy. Many will let you enter their gated community to inspect the meter. It's getting out again that presents a problem, as pups craving companionship insist you stay and play.

Some meter readers get to thinking up fantastic ideas along the trail. They begin to carry a notepad alongside their number recorder and write down musings in a Thoreau-like manner. Even in cities, they see bits of nature, which many motorists blur by too fast to appreciate. Along the stream a few morel mushrooms for their pouch. A storytelling of crows over in that tamarack tree trying to change a chapter in an owl's life.

Meter readers of various utilities develop an eye for detail and take note of safety concerns that might otherwise go unnoticed. A dead tree branch leaning into a power line. The smell of gases somewhere or loose manholes in the street. This talent is not lost on Homeland Security officials who sometimes speak of enlisting meter readers to keep "an eye out" for all of us. However, most meter readers are not into this sort of thing. They could draft a map of the homes of stars if they wished, but they prefer to shine as more of a nameless Pale Rider-type of hero. Blending into the background, but emerging with more than speedy serendipity for the occasional good deed along their way.

Daydreams of meter readers include running a line of electricity up to Pioneer Cabin. Imagine the boss man wondering why only one meter was read this afternoon. Meter readers do have it tough here in the winter—trudging across the tundra. They truly appreciate it if you can keep a pathway clear around reading time. Keeping the snow off your roof, away from potentially sliding into your meter area, is helpful. A few years ago at the Gannett Fire Station, ice slid off the roof, breaking the gas pipe at the meter. The station house filled with gas and a thermostat clicked on—razing the whole building.

Customers must think that meter readers are as secretive as wolverines, so seldom seen are they. However, when they are detected it's nice to give them a high howdy and a thank you. They will likely remember that for a long time. During my years of meter reading there were only a handful of times when thanks was given, but it always brightened my day. Almost as much as the aurora brightens my paper route now. Of course, back then it was thin trails of sanity inside the craziness of the Beltway. Certainly, the energy is better on the grids out here—this being a high-radiation area notwithstanding.

Alas, many aspects of meter reading are changing rapidly along with the rest of the world. With the advent of the GPS receiver, probing rods and older methods of tie-down measurements are less often required to help locate meters buried by leaves or grass. Remote registers and telemetry are phasing out some routes. So if your dog seems a tad more lonesome, it could be that he didn't get his monthly belly rub and a pat on the head from your friendly neighborhood meter reader.

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