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Editors’ Note: On June 10, 1995—upon expiration of its contract with the International Union of Gas Workers (IUGW)—Washington Gas Light Co. locked out its 1,100 workers in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, and canceled their health care benefits. Facing increased competition and what it calls “a new era of deregulation,” the utility seeks to renegotiate its contract with the union so that it has greater flexibility in transferring workers. IUGW claims that the management proposal ignores seniority and would gut the union’s power to pursue arbitration and negotiate for pay raises; its members voted three times to reject the company’s contract. Though no contract was signed, Washington Gas ended the lockout on Wednesday, Sept. 27. Workers returned to their jobs under the company’s terms, but the union vows to continue the fight and has hired a consulting firm that specializes in “aggressive labor union battles.”
This piece was written by Marty McDonnell, who has worked at Washington Gas for 10 years. He serves as the shop steward for D.C.’s 13 meter readers.
Imagine that you had to shop for six hours a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year. Now imagine that the climate control at the mall goes haywire, and the temperature climbs to 100 degrees Fahrenheit or sinks to 20 below. Some salespeople are apathetic. Some are friendly. The rest are surly or belligerent. To examine the merchandise, you must descend hundreds of flights of stairs and wade through years of accumulated junk. The power goes out. You have only a flashlight to see what you want, and sometimes it illuminates things you wish you hadn’t seen—unchained attack dogs, gun-toting criminals, swarms of roaches and rats.
When I first began reading meters for Washington Gas in 1984, my wife regularly chastised me for needing a nap when I got home. She and other people who have never read meters don’t understand how physically demanding the job is. No doubt you have seen me, or one of Washington Gas’ 57 other meter readers, making rounds. But you’ve probably never stopped to wonder what our job is like.
I arrive at the office by 7 a.m. and pick up my DataCap—a handheld computer that shows my route for the day. I have a different route each day for 21 days. Then the cycle begins again. I park my car at the beginning of the route and start walking. I average about one mile every half hour, or about 15-20 miles per day. At the end of my route, I walk back to the car. Sometimes I am so tired, and so far from the car, that I grab a cab to the beginning of the route. Then I drive straight home and take a nap.
I walk fast because I have to. Until we were locked out in June, my union—the International Union of Gas Workers (IUGW)—and Washington Gas had agreed to plan routes according to an accepted formula. Under that formula, meter readers were allotted different amounts of time to read different types of meters: We got 90 seconds for an inside meter, 71 seconds for an outside meter, and 30 seconds for each of an apartment building’s “multiple” meters. The total time spent on each route could not exceed seven hours. Of course it was often impossible to get in and out of someone’s house in 90 seconds. But we made up time at houses where nobody was home, and we left a card so that residents can read their own indoor meters.
Over months and years, meter readers whittle down the times of their routes. Because experienced meter readers can sometimes finish a route in less than seven hours, the company’s negotiators insisted that Washington Gas abandon the formula and add additional buildings to “shorter” routes.
But routes that take a fast meter reader five hours would take another gas man the whole day, and knock him out for a week. Executives don’t understand that reading meters for five hours is not like walking 18 holes on a golf course. Unlike sand traps, the obstacles we face are capable of real harm. There’s no caddy ready to hand us a club if we’re attacked by a mugger or a large dog.
And there is an enormous difference between strolling 20 miles on a temperate day and covering 20 miles in snow, tropical heat, or pouring rain. Most meter readers particularly hate cold weather. I imagine the cold as a vampirelike crone who will catch me in an icy embrace if I don’t hurry. An overactive imagination helps me forget I’m freezing as I plod along from house to house, meter to meter. I once considered wearing a ski mask, but rejected the idea. Customers might think I’m casing their houses. It’s bad enough that our summer uniforms—blue-striped shirts—make some people imagine that a Lorton escapee is prowling through their yard.
Meter readers visit 300 to 600 houses and apartments every day. Gas bills announce the date of the next reading, but most people forget and don’t expect us. The element of surprise does not work to our advantage.
Customers are wary about admitting strangers into their houses. That’s understandable, but meter readers can’t help feeling nervous when customers trail us through their homes, watching our every move. Some are too helpful, nearly knocking us down steep flights of stairs as they reach to flick on a light.
Others follow us to make sure we don’t rob them. One lady called my supervisor claiming I had stolen her $200 address book. The question of why I would risk my job for someone else’s address book, no matter how wonderful, was not discussed. I still wonder what made it so expensive (jewel-encrusted? pterodactyl-skinned?). I would have brooded over the accusation the rest of the day, but luckily she found it and called back. I brooded anyway.
Rude customers can ruin an entire day. But it’s usually not a good idea to tell them off. One woman took it as an insult when I refused to enter her home until she tied up her two snarling Great Danes. I handed her a card so that she could read the meter herself. She tore it into little pieces, and threw it in my face. It took all my self-control to walk away quietly. I repeated, “I must not jeopardize my job,” over and over in my head until I was out of earshot.
I got a bad feeling at one house when the door opened a crack and the bloodshot eyeball behind it took a long time to acknowledge my existence. After finally focusing on me, it slowly looked me up and down. When the door closed in my face, I hurriedly turned away. Then I realized the tenant was undoing a chain lock.
“What do you want?” Obviously the eyeball hadn’t understood the significance of my uniform and handheld computer.
“It’s only the gas man, to read the meter, sir.” No response. “From the gas company,” I added inanely.
I heard a muffled discussion inside, and the door opened. I was surprised to find two normal-looking guys, not the asylum escapees I half expected. One led me through a kitchen to a basement door. Halfway down the stairs, I suspected my being allowed entry had been a mistake. Sudden furtive movements and hostile glares from people clustered around a table confirmed my suspicion. They wore surgeon’s masks. Triple-beam scales, large plastic bags, and mounds of white powder littered the tabletop. One guy had the presence of mind to lean over his work far enough to block my view. Another guy with a shoulder holster looked pretty pissed off.
I affected nonchalance, as if strolling through cocaine-cutting laboratories was a routine, slightly boring part of my job. I resisted the urge to reassure them with a jolly “Carry on, don’t mind me!” I quickly read the meter and casually started back up the stairs, expecting a hail of bullets to follow me. It didn’t. I waved and said, sincerely, “Thanks!” Once outside, I briefly considered, then rejected, the idea of alerting the police. I wanted to survive my return next month.
Every D.C. meter reader has been accosted, robbed, or beaten, some more than once. I had plastic surgery to repair a bone in my face after a robbery and attempted carjacking by three thugs—one of whom wielded brass knuckles. I wasn’t eligible for worker’s compensation because I had completed my route. I’d been suckered by a well-dressed guy whose “car battery needs a jump,” at a gas station on my way home. I’m much less gullible now.
We are permitted to pass on meters where conditions are unsafe. But skipping entire routes is frowned upon. In neighborhoods where even armed police are loath to leave the safety of their squad cars, what can a meter reader do?
It is generally wise to visit the worst areas on a route first. Miscreants are usually sleeping at 7 a.m., though you might be unfortunate enough to run into one still carousing from the night before. Gas men, who are not allowed to carry mace or firearms, envy water-meter readers. They carry claw hammers, ostensibly for prying off meter covers, and travel in pairs.
For better or for worse, new technology known as “enscanning” is eliminating many urban routes. A transmitter attached to the meter broadcasts the reading directly to a passing truck. Washington Gas hopes to “enscan” all of D.C. within a few years, and eventually implement the technology in Maryland and Virginia. Enscanning cuts down on risk, but it will put a lot of meter readers out of their jobs.
Once I was reading meters at Eastgate, a notorious public-housing complex in Southeast. I only had two meters left to go when I rounded a corner and encountered a group of guys examining a machine gun. I looked at the firearm and thought: “That can’t be real.” As if reading my mind, the guy holding it grinned at me, then pulled back and released the bolt. It made a metal-on-metal sound—definitely not a toy.
My heartbeat skyrocketed and my senses were incredibly heightened. I could smell fresh gun oil cutting through the reek of the decaying crab shells littering the sidewalk. A middle-aged lady in a sweatsuit and apron was pinning a shirt on a clothesline halfway down the block, oblivious to what was happening.
We are told to avoid eye contact when confronted by a dangerous canine. But in this situation I tried to change myself from a prospective target into a fellow human being. I locked eyes with the man holding the gun. Though he was smiling, there was no sign of mirth in his eyes. They reminded me of a shark’s eyes—flat, unfocused, and lifeless.
I refrained from glancing at the gun. I didn’t want him to think I wanted a demonstration. I didn’t break stride, though I picked up my pace and veered away. I knew the guy wouldn’t feel much beyond recoil if he pulled the trigger. But it wasn’t my time. Laughter at my expense followed me to my car.
All of Eastgate, with the exception of two meters, has since been “enscanned.” Most of us chose to estimate the remaining two meters.
Outlaws armed to the teeth are dangerous, but dogs armed with teeth are worse.
The most painful injury of my life was a dog bite on my leg inflicted while I was reading a meter in Dale City, Va. It caused thrombophlebitis and nerve damage that caused a constant aching pain for months. Ten years later the pain is gone, but I’m still angry that the dog’s owner gave no warning that it had gotten loose while my back was turned, and I’m even angrier that he didn’t pull it off me as it chowed down on my calf. I later learned that the dog had bitten a friend of the owner in the throat the week before. Nice pet.
One winter morning, I was so bundled up that I didn’t notice a dog biting me until I heard it snarling through its clenched teeth. This was the same dog the owner had told me “doesn’t bite.” I begged to differ. “Oh, he’s never done that before!” she exclaimed. She then tried to pry the pet’s teeth apart with her fingers (something I would not have advised), and finally began beating “Fluffy” with a broomstick to make him let go.
Our survival in a world of hostile canines depends on a sixth sense keyed to the rustle of foliage and the jingle of dog tags. A special instructions sheet that accompanies most routes warns of different dangers: “Customer refuses to restrain dogs” or “Bad dog can open gate.” But often Washington Gas does not know that customers have dogs until the dogs maul meter readers.
Before entering an enclosed yard, meter readers make noise by shaking fences, banging on trash cans, and yelling, “Gas man!” This tactic fails, however, when a dog is hard of hearing or exceptionally cunning. It also fails when a customer lets the mutt out to investigate the racket.
When dogs are visible, the meter reader calculates the risk. Small dogs—known, not fondly, as “ankle biters”—aren’t usually a problem when deprived of the element of surprise. They can usually be intimidated by a stamp of the foot or a feigned rock throw. But some make up in ferocity what they lack in size. There is no fixed rule.
Some owners pen their pets with an underground electric fence. Dogs wearing a special collar are shocked by the fence if they cross the property line. My first encounter with an electric-fenced dog occurred when I was well inside the expansive grounds of a large mansion. There was a high fence on the left side of the otherwise unenclosed property. My computer gave the meter location as “outside rear.” I heard deep barks from the back yard, but assumed the dog was tied up. As I rounded the rear of the house, I came face to face with a huge German shepherd. I instantly became aware of two facts: The dog was unrestrained, and it wore an electric collar.
I didn’t have an inkling of where the electric fence began, and I had no guarantee that the hellhound wouldn’t trade a shock for the satisfaction of sinking its fangs into my posterior. My only hope lay in hurling myself over the seven-foot fence to the left of the house. If asked to do it again without a slavering guard dog racing after me, I’m sure I couldn’t. But I launched myself over the fence in a Fosbury flop as if my life depended on it. It probably did. Miraculously, I cleared the top with room to spare, injuring only my pride and handheld computer, in the latter case fatally.
Meter readers are at war not just with dogs, but with the entire animal kingdom. We learn to brace storm doors shut with one foot when we knock, because there’s no telling what will bound or slither out.
I thought it was someone’s practical joke when I read “Bobcat here, read at own risk” on my special instructions sheet for a Virginia route. The lady of the house showed me into the foyer and said, sotto voce, “I have a cat.”
“Oh?” I replied, feigning indifference.
In a voice fraught with hidden significance, she added, “It’s not an ordinary cat, you know.” Since she was obviously enjoying herself, I didn’t let on that I knew the punch line.
“Oh?” I repeated.
After a suitably dramatic pause she shared with barely concealed pride:
“It’s a bobcat.”
I cringed on cue and backed up a step.
“It lives in the meter room,” she added.
I hadn’t expected that, but if she thought it would dissuade me, she was mistaken. This I had to see. Fortunately, the feline encounter was pretty anticlimactic. The bobcat was a small, sickly looking creature, with sad, lambent eyes. I peeked over its corral to read the meter without incident.
Besides, bobcats are nothing compared to rats. I had the misfortune to witness one of the most terrifying events in nature—a rat stampede—in a large downtown restaurant. I should have been forewarned by the relieved look that crossed the face of the maitre d’ when he realized I was not from the health department and that I wanted to go to the basement to read the meter, not make a spot inspection of the premises. As I headed toward the basement, one waitress glanced at me with an expression I didn’t understand at the time.
It was pity.
There is only one thing scarier than seeing countless beady eyes reflecting your flashlight beam: It is hearing the patter of little feet and realizing the owners of those eyes are approaching en masse. If not for the unusually high ceiling, I would have flattened the top of my head as I jumped to get out of the way.
On another occasion, I had just passed an innocent-looking shopping bag propped on a stairwell landing, when peripheral movement caught my eye. Something in the bag was writhing and convulsing. Suddenly it erupted, spewing a squirming torrent of gray snouts, furiously pumping legs, and thrashing tails.
The rodents careened off the walls, floor, and each other before beelining down the steps. One particularly hefty specimen I later dubbed “Super Rat” bypassed the steps altogether. It hurled itself off the landing as if it were a flying squirrel. The parody of flight ended with a splattering thud as its bloated, outstretched body slammed into concrete. To my amazement, the rat bounced like a ball of India rubber. Then it launched its bruised but apparently unbroken body headfirst through a crack in the wall no wider than my pinkie.
Where there are rats (and often where there are not rats), there are usually bugs. I can imagine few scenes more grotesque than one I witnessed at an office party downtown. A giant flying roach, euphemistically called a “palmetto bug” by the hostess, had crashed the event. Few things can break up a gathering more effectively than a roach with a six-inch wingspan doing Immelman turns above the buffet line. Men and women alike were shrieking and waving arms above their heads. It was like a scene from Godzilla Meets Mothra.
Amid the pandemonium, a few brave men in business suits vainly whacked at the winged intruder with makeshift weapons. When someone did manage to connect, the flying roach was unfazed. It would alight briefly on the floor or furniture, then bound skyward before anyone could administer the coup de grâce.
Not one for heroics, I initially intended to proceed directly to the closet that held the gas meter, read it, and leave. But in the interest of customer relations, I entered the fray. Unlike the others, I wielded a weapon well suited to crack the bug’s chitinous shell: my DataCap computer. My first swing was a miss. But as the roach dived directly at my head, I made a second swing that was guided by self-preservation. Babe Ruth would have been proud, but the remaining guests evinced a distressing lack of gratitude. The Babe could place his home runs, but how was I to help that mine landed in the punch bowl?
I’ve also encountered a weird-looking creature that must be an arachnophobe’s worst nightmare. It looks like a mutant cross between a spider and a grasshopper. It doesn’t just scuttle after you—it hops. The first time I met this horror, I was in an apartment basement. Out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw a wall undulating. I looked again and saw a living tapestry of bugs. It’s bad enough to run into a single spider—this was a herd of them.
But of all tiny insects, biters—mosquitoes, lice, and fleas—are the worst. There is something truly odious about the forced intimacy that occurs when a creature is sucking your blood. Washington Gas issues cans of insect spray to meter readers, but sometimes the stuff seems to act as an attractant rather than a repellent. In one basement, the fleas formed a gray cloud. They were so concentrated that they were bumping into each other. The collisions sounded like rustling paper. The cloud moved toward me as I watched, transfixed with disgust. As they neared striking range, I sprinted up the stairs and slammed the door. From the safety of the other side, I swear I could hear them hitting the wood.
There are some meters that just aren’t worth reading.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Jack Hornady.