With power restored, families put away the candles

March 03, 1994|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Sun Staff Writer

When Mary M. Mitchell heard that nine people had died in a blaze ignited by a candle, she shook her head -- and continued to light the 10 candles she burned each night in her own rowhouse.

"My heart just went out to them," said the 67-year-old grandmother, who lives with her daughter, son and granddaughter. "But what was I supposed to do?"

Like the 14 people crowded into that other house, on Hollins Street in Southwest Baltimore, Mrs. Mitchell had been without power since October, cut off because she could not pay enough toward a $2,000 bill.

She had been without electricity so long, in the tiny house on Eareckson Place in East Baltimore, that she no longer remembered what her average monthly bill was. She only knew she could not pay it.

Yesterday, the lights came back on in Mrs. Mitchell's house. Having electricity also means her granddaughter can watch TV and sing along with Barney again. And, with the refrigerator working, Ms. Mitchell can buy more food.

The Mitchells were one of the first Central Maryland households to benefit from a new Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. policy: Up to 3,000 "hardship" customers who had lost service are to be restored through April 30. The company will not forgive the debts but will try in the next two months to find assistance for those households.

The utility announced the new program Tuesday, three days after the Hollins Street fire. About 25 people who might be eligible called, and work crews were dispatched to see if power could be restored. But each customer must meet an eligibility standard -- household income of no more than $1,794 a month for a family of four.

Between Social Security and welfare checks, the Mitchell household income is about $700 a month. Rent is $275 and is always paid first, Mrs. Mitchell said. The utility bill often came last.

Mrs. Mitchell says she doesn't blame BG&E for cutting her off. But she also didn't see any way she could get service again, resorted to the subterfuges often used by impoverished clients -- moving from the house where she has lived for 22 years or finding someone to open the account in a new name.

Instead, the family lived in semi-darkness, buying 10 candles each day, at 10 cents apiece, and listening to a battery-powered radio. The family was careful with the candles, and the granddaughter, Courtney, who is about to turn 3, was cautioned to stay away from them.

Yesterday, electric light was a novelty in the house. "We're just not used to having it," said Barbara Mitchell, the daughter of Mary Mitchell. The family sat by a gas space heater in the dim front room; the naked bulb in a ceiling fixture was not turned on.

Across town, Sally Griffin also was getting re-acquainted with electricity. She had her lights and television on as she tried to straighten up her house, which had become a little cluttered in the four months she had been without service.

Ms. Griffin, who owns the house on South Arlington Street, couldn't explain how her bills had mounted up. She just knew she owed almost $800 by last October and couldn't pay it.

She didn't use candles, saying, "I'm scared of them." Instead, the 72-year-old woman ate out in cheap restaurants and played cards with neighbors during the long, dark evenings.

"Pitty-pat," she said. "For a penny. When I came home, I just got into bed and stayed there until the next day."

Like the Mitchells, she had gas heat, hot water and a stove. But she couldn't wash clothes, or dry them.

Meanwhile, in their tiny house on Eareckson Place, the Mitchells are looking forward to Courtney's third birthday tomorrow. A sheet cake, in the shape of Barney, has already been ordered.

But Barbara Mitchell isn't sure daughter Courtney will have any candles to blow out: "To tell you the truth, I'm sick of candles."

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