Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Electricity Theft: The Whole Sparky Tale

(Elsewhere on "my block," missing meters and a notation in Sharpie about how the other meter was STOLEN)

I suspect the house at 416 30th Ave. N. stole electricity all winter from 3016 6th Ave. N.

In fact, I distinctly recall stepping on that wire on the snowy deck when I first went out there to look at the house, and excitedly called my real estate agent Juley Viger--too late in the evening, if the truth be told, though she was nice enough to pick up. The wire was mostly hidden in the snow, but spring revealed what was there.

My would-be handyman discovered the wire, and not only disconnected it but went around asking neighbors WTF? (To express it in "text talk.") Nobody would talk to him because, as he put it, they figured he was a cop. Based on his description in a voice mail--without even being able to reach him that night--I called up XCel energy and put the wheels in motion.

XCel was worried my handyman could have gotten hurt, or live wires might still be exposed. Their liability-based concern was heartwarming. (Sarcasm font) But my handyman handled stuff perfectly, shutting off juice at the fuse box and capping off the connection with wire nuts, taking up as much line as he could without going into a neighboring yard and unceremoniously tossing the line in the trash can out in front of the house amid, inter alia, numerous empty 40 oz. beer bottles and a child's doll.

I emailed Juley about the situation, and she passed everything to the seller, who never said anything like, "Stop! Whoah. We still own that house and, good heavens, you could get HURT or something." The next day I went out there and found a multi-colored cord connected to my house through a place where wire had been rammed right through siding, on the deck. I followed the line through not one but TWO yards, and saw how it went into a house, right through the back door. The warm cord had dug furrows into the remaining patches of ice.

The cord was orange, (in some places) black (in other places) and white. (at the point where it entered the other house) In some instances, it was cord meant to carry a cable television signal, not electricity. It ran over wire fences, atop the shingles of a small utility building, and along the snowy ground. There was no attempt to conceal the cord. It was brazen, and (incredibly) all this had been re-accomplished in the time since the handyman had disconnected it.

The electricity thieves had splurged, getting more cord somewhere instead of fishing the old stuff out of the trash. There's no shortage of empty houses on the North Side, trailing cables and cords.

Cops. I called the cops and I called XCel Energy...
The cops told me it might take a while. They had some other calls ahead of me. It ended up taking about an hour to get a cop out there.

I saw a car pull up to the vacant house next door which bore insignia from the housing inspection office, and I figured this must be the response to my call. I flagged him down.

"Did they send you about the electricity theft?" I asked.

No, they hadn't. But he was really interested. Eventually, two city inspectors showed up, and a police officer. I'm not going to say who said what, to give each of them an opportunity for (as they said in the Reagan years) "plausible denial."

One of the inspectors entered 3016 and asked if the power was on.

"No," I said. "I'm pretty sure it's turned off."

He flipped on the light over the oven. I let forth a string of expletives.

We went down in the basement. The inspector didn't have a flashlight--he had actually showed up to inspect the painting of a garage at 420 30th Ave. N., and abatement of the old lead paint--so we used my "green power" windup Chinese flashlight.

He shut the power off at the box, and we went out in the yard to follow the cord. In the time since I hailed him down and when we shut off the juice--at some point in there--the folks inside of 416 30th Ave. N. managed to haul ass and get their wire inside. I suspect some kids on bikes and some people who walked by were acting as lookouts. So I was forced to tell the inspector what I had witnessed about the cord running into the house.

Of course, he could plainly see the house had people living in it. This residence had apparently completed a "code compliance" inspection only the previous week, and was now occupied with renters, lacking license or, it seemed, very much "code compliance" at all. Also, though the wire was hauled inside, they couldn't disguise the lack of a meter.

The inspector's face was a firm line. When the other inspector came, he told the tale, to disbelieving shakes of the head. They agreed it was time to "boot and board" the house at 416 30th Ave. N., which meant kicking out the occupants (booting them out) and boarding up the doors and windows.

I thought of the two little children I had seen in the yard, riding bikes. I felt bad about those kids being out on the street, particularly the little girl who looked at me with a kind of innocent-but-scared expression, perhaps no older than 6 or 7. I also thought of how dangerous the electrical situation was with their house, and how bad I would feel about waking up in the morning and finding out children had died.

The inspectors and--for that matter--Police Officer Mooney had no intention of creating a confrontation with the occupants of 416, which they saw as problematic and criminally-inclined persons. I was told some pretty amazing stuff like:

Get out. Don't buy this house. Don't show your face in this neighborhood.

I expressed I would indeed buy the house. It was a bargain. It was $8,500 plus $500 tax, and I had a contract for sale.

I was told one of the houses--either 416 or 3016 would be "in flames" within the week, you could bet on it. The people in 416 would probably have one last weekend party, when they figured out the game was over, and then they'd put a match to both houses for the hell of it. They "didn't care about their own lives" so the life of somebody like me was worth even less.

And I said, "I'm a veteran of the armed forces. I don't back down to gang bangers. I'm buying this house and I'm going to turn this block around, and then I'm going to turn the next block around and the next one. I'm crazy. Just deal with it."

Well, then, if that was how I felt about it...just stay away until 416 was booted and boarded. Just keep yourself scarce. And, above all, don't be interacting with individuals in the neighborhood who were criminally-inclined, or you'd find yourself in a bad situation.

I did make myself more scarce than usual, considering my active and gregarious nature, so I was (in that sense) true to my word. I went around and--in a low key manner--took steps to "secure the block." (More on this in a subsequent entry)

Driving by at night, I could see lights on at 416. I didn't know what to make of it. Daylight revealed they had tapped into the line behind their house. I updated the city inspectors. I didn't bother calling the police, because the inspectors were taking the lead on this and would coordinate with the police. I called XCel energy and updated them.

Per my advice--which was really advice I was just passing on--XCel stayed away until the police and inspectors dealt with the situation. Well, they sure did deal with it. Boards were slapped up over windows and doors. The bikes I saw the children riding remained in the yard. Incredibly, the wire ran into the house underneath the boards of the back door, and was still connected to the power line!

I called up XCel Energy, and they promised to come out to do what they called "coiling," which involved removing the electrical tap.

I ended up talking face-to-face with some of the guys who hung out at 416, making a low-but-fair offer to buy the van one of them was selling. They didn't seem like bad folks at all. They were, I learned, brothers.

Pointing to a speaker in the van, one of them said, proudly, "I wired that in myself!"

Further Update, Wednesday April 9:

I saw a truck pull into the driveway next door, and I thought it might be yet another "john" engaging in a "car date," so I went there to deal with him. Fortunately, it turned out to be Name Withheld Per His Request, Revenue Protection Investigator for Xcel Energy. He was following up on all the reports I'd made about electricity theft at 416 30th Ave. N.

Just last night, I had observed a 100 watt bulb burning inside 416 30th Ave. N., in the rear kitchen area. The house had been boarded right over the electrical wire, which runs from the line in the back yard and under the board over back door, and it is--guess what? LIVE!!!!!!!!!!!

While there, I noticed a window on the second story was wide open, and I figured entry was being gained there to, perhaps, salvage possessions left behind in the hasty eviction. (Who can blame them?)

Or, then again, maybe the house is being occupied again. Who knows? I will have to keep an eye on it. I'm not looking forward to trying to board up that second story window but, damn it, it's just one window and the porch is quite low. It's do-able.

Will I *ever* get my block completely secured? As soon as one board goes up, it seems, two more boards get ripped loose by crack heads needing a place to sleep. The 311 system can hardly keep up with my reports.

Name Witheld was very nice, and pointed out how my own property needed an electrical box over the meter, something which had been previously reported. I appreciated him pointing that out personally, though I told him it was quite possible the house might have a new owner "within hours."

It turned out the house next door had been using a stolen meter, at 420 30th Ave. N. I photographed the empty space with a tag affixed to the place where the meter had been, after Name Witheld pointed it out. He gave me his card, so now I won't need to call the general Xcel number and get patched through, instead I can talk to Name Withheld directly.

Name Withheld also taught me the distinction between electrical lines and lines for cable television.

"Our lines are always at the top," he said. "Always."


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