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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Water service terminators and the little baby loophole

Years ago, when I worked for a public utility, every two weeks or so, the City Hall office handed out some shut-off work-orders for us to perform. Our water department usually worked well with late-paying customers. Besides the initial bill, City Hall mailed out past-due notices and then final notices before waiting another week to turn off a customer’s service.

Soon, I noticed that the same houses often ended up with delinquent accounts. In a way, this actually helped us, to become familiar with where those customers’ meters lay. We worked up certain strategies to make the operation quick. The driver pulled the truck up to the meter, while one of us burst out the side-door, unbolted the hatch, reached the special key down to the shut-off valve and turned everything off, all in a matter of seconds. We might have tested this with stopwatches, because we became lightning-fast.

As you can imagine, actually having it come to be, so that they were suddenly without their sacred water, angered some customers. After all, there was a time when clean water ran free nearly everywhere. Some would call the office, claiming that the check was in the mail, or that they had a sick baby, etc. All the old clichés. The sick baby excuse actually worked though. If someone used that pretext, we were required to return water service to their household the same day - payment or no. We did not seek to extract proof of the ill child, but only took the customer’s dry voice at word. I thought that this was some sort of health department mandate. However, perhaps it was a bit of empathy that the water department developed on its own - a policy which transcended book laws. I suppose that if I was a sick baby and my parents couldn’t afford to pay the bills, it would be nice to hear later, that the water department held some compassion.

Some in our crew compared our unhappy task to that what the repossession man must go through, before taking someone’s car back to the bank. Occasionally a terminated customer would sneak out to the valve at night and force the water back on with a pipe-wrench. If they had still not paid the bill several days after turnoff, we checked for tampering and re-read the meter for evidence of consumption. If we discovered tampering, we attached an elaborate brass lock mechanism around the neck of the shut-off valve.

Occasionally, we discovered that a customer had reset the valve by smashing off our hardy lock. One man did this and then parked his car tire over the meter top! This was the final straw for our superintendent. After hearing of this tomfoolery, he sent out a full crew, along with a police escort. Our crew jackhammered up the street and dug down eight feet to crimp off the customer’s connection at the water main. Then we refilled the hole, tamped the earth back down and patched the street with some ‘coal-mix.’ With the work complete, our superintendent proclaimed, “There, I’d like to see him try to turn his water back on now!”

The man lived in that tiny house for several more months, all the time without water –or so we thought. Once or twice, the health department went to his house for a welfare check, lugging along some fresh water containers in the event he would like some. They stated that the stubborn codger said he ‘warn’t thirsty’ and turned down their free offer.


Soon, his property was sold to a big developer to make room for progress and the man moved south. While the workers were excavating his tumbledown shack, they discovered that he had managed to rig his ancient well system back into service, which indicated that that he had been freely using the City’s sewerage system. He probably reckoned that - as hard as they say it is to do - he had fought City Hall and actually prevailed with a small victory.

This 'shabster' might have saved himself even more trouble had he known about the sick baby loophole.

1 comment:

Blowing Shit Up With Gas said...

Funny story...

A friend of mine lives next to a very secluded site of a home that was demolished ages ago -- like, probably in the 60s or 70s. While the house is gone, the water line that was once their outside spigot is still there and works. So, that guy uses that spigot anytime he has major water needs -- kids pool, washing the car, watering the lawn, etc. He won the "free water for life" prize, apparently.

Oh, btw, Wendi's been watching a video series that you might like. It's called "The Power of Myth" -- an old PBS series from the 80s (probably available only through your library these days). It's several episodes on VHS of Bill Moyers talking with Joseph Campbell.