The fading cry of 'Gaaaaas Man'

August 28, 1994|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Baltimore Gas and Electric CompanySun Staff Writer

In the course of a day's work, Fred Trebes has been bitten by dogs, chased by geese, locked in a basement, rained on, argued with, ignored and propositioned by a woman in a lacy negligee.

It's the life of a gas and electric meter reader: Adventurous, unpredictable and increasingly obsolete. With the advent of new technology -- a radio device that allows for remote readings -- the meter reader may soon go the way of the steam locomotive, slide rule and eight-track tape.

Since May, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. has installed more than 30,000 meters that can be read without entering a home. By 1999, the company plans to have 500,000 in the Baltimore area, all but eliminating the need for door-to-door meter readers in the city.

"It's modern technology," laments Mr. Trebes, 53, a meter reader for 26 years. Colleague Robert Clark says: "I tell my customers one day we'll be in that place in the sky with the milkman."

BGE believes that the $35.5 million project will increase billing accuracy and reduce the intrusion into a customer's life, says senior engineer R. Richard Seubert.

Using a meter with an electronic chip that can send and receive information, an employee can take readings with a portable receiver from 1,000 yards away. The new gadget will eliminate nearly 80 positions, but no layoffs are expected. The company will still need readers to occasionally check city meters and to work in the suburbs where installation is taking place more gradually.

In an increasingly technological world, there is something sweetly old-fashioned about the basso profundo "Gaaaaaas Man" greeting that rings through neighborhoods on reading days -- and the wave of dog barking it brings.

"It comes naturally," John Matuk Jr., 34, says of the bellow hehas perfected in three years of reading meters.

"You just take a deep breath and let the words out."

But as readers attest, their job requires more than good lungs and a knack for scanning the dials. During a routine 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift, they are called on to be explorers, good Samaritans, counselors, technicians, diplomats and friends.

Customers represent the spectrum of humanity -- from the grouches who yell at readers for drinking from the outside water faucet on a 100-degree day to the kind-hearted who insist on packing them a sandwich, snack and soft drink (wrapped in tin foil) for lunch.

"You can't beat the homemade cookies in Highlandtown," says Mr. Trebes, who lives in Brooklyn.

The job has its perks. Readers make their own hours: Quitting time comes when they complete their daily route, treks that may require a 12-mile walk and readings from as many as 1,100 meters.

They work far away from the gaze of the boss. And to make their jobs easier, the company throws in Gatorade, rain gear, flashlights, first-aid kits and pepper spray.

Gifts, however, can't offset the danger they face. In addition to battling the elements, readers -- who make between $20,000 and $33,000 a year -- must deal with crime, animals, insects and uncertainty every time they walk into a customer's home.

A dog bite is practically a rite of passage for them.

For Gary Middlebrooks, being reluctant to enter an Annapolis home in May may have saved it from burning down. Walking toward the back door, he smelled "burnt toast" and heard the smoke alarm. He had a neighbor call the fire department. When (( firefighters arrived, they knocked in the door and smoke poured out. He was credited with saving the house from burning down.

"Doing that made my day," says Mr. Middlebrooks, 37, who has been a reader for 13 years. "I made a difference."

Years ago, Mr. Trebes got a surprise of a different sort while reading a meter in West Baltimore.

"This gorgeous lady came to the door wearing a negligee," he says. "She insisted on following me to the basement and leaning real close while I tried to read the meter. I remember I missed a step and the flashlight went out of my hand. I'm proud to say I didn't take the bait. . . . But I was all shook up. I went to leave and walked into the cupboard."

The flip side occurred when an older woman in the heart of the city locked him in her rat-infested cellar during a reading.

"I beat and banged on the door," he says. "She finally let me out and didn't say a thing. I think she might have been crazy."

Since BGE meter readers began making rounds in 1834, theirs has been a colorful profession.

At first, meter men spent nearly as much time servicing primitive water-filled units as reading them -- and often used whiskey as antifreeze. Up to the turn of the century, they also had to lug new or broken meters to homes, since the company lacked transportation.

In 1913, a meter man shared his travails in the company newsletter:

To start with the morning's work, the meter reader makes his first call, rings the bell, lady comes to the door.

"Good morning, madam, I wish to read the meter."

"All right, sir."

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