4 Scary Things You Only See Cutting People's Power as a Job
It happened. You forgot to pay your power bill -- and by "forgot" we mean "had no intention of ever doing," and by "your power bill" we mean "all of your bills." Now they're coming to shut off everything and send you back to the Stone Age. You don't shower much anyway and all you drink is Red Bull; you'll be fine without water. You've got a Power Rangers sleeping bag; you'll be fine without heat. But when the power goes off, and the TV and Internet with it, that's when the hammer really comes down. Cracked sat down with a meter specialist to find out what it's like to be the one bringing down that hammer.
There's a Surprising Amount of Violence and Nudity
"Meter specialist" doesn't sound like a sexy, thrill-a-minute job. True, the cars aren't all that fast and there is a limited or nonexistent amount of base-jumping into active volcanoes, but there is a surprisingly consistent amount of danger nonetheless. Since people living in low-income neighborhoods often can't afford to pay their bills, a majority of our shut-off orders are for places where gang violence is less The Warriors and more New Jack City.
That's me on the right -- several miles to the right.
I was halfway done working at an apartment complex in the poorest area of town when I heard what sounded like distant, muffled fireworks. I didn't think anything of it at the time, but as I finished my last order, a bunch of SUVs screeched into the parking lot. When the SUVs vomited out a bunch of cops, guns drawn, who then ran into another building in the complex -- that's when I decided I needed to go to my truck to get uh, a pen. After I got my pen, I remembered I needed to leave because I was uh, late for a haircut. I later found out on the news that I was in the direct vicinity of a drug-related shooting. So, yeah, I know what it sounds like to kill a man.
From a distance.
With no involvement on my end beyond fleeing.
I've also seen so many dicks. Like, even if my favorite thing was seeing dicks, it would have lost its luster within my first year on the job. I once walked through a backyard to read a meter, and there was a couple sunbathing completely nude. They hadn't heard me knock or enter their backyard because they were both wearing headphones. I quietly read their meter and left without them ever knowing I was there.
Or that was their kink, and I played right into their trap. I try not to overthink it.
I've interrupted lots of sex. I went to the side yard of a house to turn off the power, and as I got closer to the meter, I could hear either women's tennis or exactly what you think it was. I went to put the meter back together but couldn't get it closed without slamming it shut. Someone inside the house screamed, then a couple peeked out the window to see what the noise was. I told them I was there to turn their power back on, and they both sighed with relief, but I don't think it had anything to do with their electricity.
One of my co-workers, a scumbag of both note and notoriety, had an agreement with some of his customers: if they flashed him their breasts, he'd leave their power on. Needless to say, he's not my co-worker anymore. The guy who replaced him had no idea of this agreement and spent about three months dealing with unwanted flashings before the customers learned he didn't accept the ol' New Orleans Credit Card.
Interest rates vary wildly.
People Do Attack Us, but We Still Have to Service Their Home
One time my boss went to knock on the door of a house to turn off the electricity. The owner wasn't home, but her German shepherd and 16- and 18-year-old sons were. When he went to find the meter, the dog tried to attack him. He squeezed himself between the screen and front door and sprayed the dog with mace to get it to stop trying to kill him. The sons, thinking some random dickhead was trying to hurt their dog, came out carrying nunchucks and a baseball bat. When they realized it was just the utilities guy who'd come to shut off their power, they brought the dog inside and proceeded to attack him anyway.
Unfortunately for the deluded teenage badasses, my boss was a Desert Storm veteran and most teenagers are not. They rushed him, but my boss deflected both of their attacks, kicked Michelangelo in the chest, and threw Donatello against the wall of the house. Then he called the cops and clocked out for the day, presumably to attend his night job winning the Kumite.
"Just call me ... the Power Man. Wait, no, that's dumb, call me Steve."
Not all of us are combat-trained, though. To protect my family and myself, I have to make sure I'm wearing sunglasses and a hat when I knock on a customer's door so they have a harder time recognizing me around town. One of my co-workers was once eating dinner at a bar alone, still in his work uniform. A few guys came up and started berating him for shutting off their power. Like eating dinner at a bar alone still in your work uniform isn't enough of a tip-off that your life isn't going quite as planned. I've had customers follow me on my routes after shutting off their power to scare me into turning their power back on.
I just drove in circles for a while, because if they can't afford power ...
Our company's safety protocols are: If a customer is threatening you, run away, call the cops, and wait until they arrive so you can finish your job. One of my co-workers, a black guy, went to shut off the power to a house because the new owners hadn't paid their security deposit. When he got there, it was just the wife at the house. By the time he was finished, the husband and the husband's friend had come home. When the husband saw my co-worker's truck, he knew his power was being shut off, so he parked his truck behind my co-worker to prevent him from leaving.
When the owner discovered that the meter specialist was a black guy, things got bad, because surprise! He and his buddy were proud members of the Ku Klux Klan. My co-worker got back into his truck and called the police while they beat on the windows and yelled slurs at him. Now, regardless of ethnicity or gender, anyone who has to go out to that house has to bring a police escort with them. Yep, just because you have a history of attacking utility workers, doesn't mean utility workers can stop showing up. Somebody's gotta supply power to the disturbed racist assholes, otherwise how would we have YouTube comments?
"Excuse me, I'm here about HUSSEINOBAMA_IS_THE_PRESIDONT_420's power."
You Could Lose Your Kids
If I had a nickel for every time a customer called after getting his power shut off to say he's got a kid on a breathing machine, I would swim in giant vault of nickels like a second-tier Scrooge McDuck. Many customers will try using nonexistent children to have their power kept on, but others will have their real kids taken away because of us. What? No, I'm not confessing to kidnapping.
I will confess to being a collage enthusiast.
I knocked on the door to a house, and three kids under the age of 10 answered it. As I went around the side of the house to find the meter, the neighbors called me over because the parents had been gone so long that the kids were peeing out of the windows. They'd already called the cops, so I didn't have to. I shut the power off anyway -- because shitty or not, that's my job -- and continued on my route. Two days later, one of my co-workers had to go back to that house to investigate if they were stealing power. This time, Child Protective Services was there taking the kids away. To be clear, CPS didn't show up because the kids were peeing out of windows, but because we'd shut off their power. It sort of makes sense: kids are cool with pissing wherever -- toilet, windows, little brother's Big Wheel, it's all the same to them -- but once the heat goes off, there's an actual danger. And not just from the inevitable sharp peecicles everywhere.
"Bye, kids. If any wild animals come by, just break one off and stab it."
There's a Lot We Can Tell About You Just From Your Yard and Electric Bill
If you've ever watched Weeds or like, just been a person who grows a ton of weed, you probably have a good idea of how much electricity growing pot requires. We have a machine that we hook up to the power lines that can read the raw usage going into a house. Police can use that and past records to see when a customer went from using 200kW to 1,500kW a month -- that kind of jump doesn't just come from binge-watching all of Friends the week that Netflix got it.
"OK, this is either a grow-op or one hell of a World of Warcraft raid."
I can also usually tell if you're going through a divorce or have lost a job. If you've had a perfect payment history, and then three months ago you just stopped paying, you lost your job. If you have an inconsistent payment history where you'll get a few months behind, then catch up, then fall behind again, you're probably going through a divorce.
Then there's your yard: when I'm walking through discarded needles and helium tanks, my first thought isn't that you're a diabetic clown. John Law is getting a phone call. We even receive training from the police department on how to manufacture meth, so we can recognize evidence of it being made (as opposed to just like, using that information to build the greatest electric company-based drug empire the world has ever seen). Feel free to steal that idea, Vince Gilligan.
May I suggest either Power Break or Meter Heads? No?
There are also those little signs people put in the yard for their son or daughter's high school sports team. For some reason, parents think it's totally fine to give potential predators the first name, team, player number, and home address of a child. That's for anybody walking by to see, not just the power guy. But combined with your electricity usage info -- with how much or how little you use, we can generally tell how many people are at home and on what days; when everything goes off, that's when you usually go to sleep -- that could either make for a pretty effective predator, or maybe like an evil version of Santa Claus.
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Bizarre Things Only Mailmen Know About Your Neighborhood and 5 Reasons Packages Get Destroyed (Learned Working at UPS).
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