HOW TO HUSTLE OLD LADIES
This post is slow getting written for three reasons. One is that it’s complex, one is that it brings back the reality of danger in living on the edge, and one is fear of retaliation. It’s starts with a terrible hail storm. It ends happily with the cats piled in the chair in front of my new wall furnace.
Last summer there was a particularly fierce hailstorm that destroyed roofs and broke windows all over town. As soon as the insurance money came, one could hear hammers all day everyday. I can’t afford insurance but this is a population used to insuring for hail on crops, their only income. The local hardware/construction company made a list of local people who did roofing. All of them were signed up. I wondered whether I could get by another winter, but it depended on the winter and if it were wetter and harder, it would destroy the house.
While I pondered about this, one of the roofers with a good reputation appeared at my door and said his girl friend’s son had just arrived from Sequim and was also a roofer and would be willing to take on my roof. He lived in Great Falls but would drive the 80 miles. We agreed on a price and I had carefully built up my credit so I borrowed the money, or almost.
When he came to the hole where the gas vent went through, he found the venting was rotten, corroded, and shingled it over. This meant that the two appliances under my floor were disabled: my floor furnace and my hot water heater.
The girl friend turned out to have worked for LIEAP which stands for Low Income Energy Assistance Program, which is supported by the gas company. The girl friend said I qualified and not only would they help with my gas bills, they would pay for a new furnace. I had put a new water heater on my VISA and used my Covid-19 $600 to pay for installation. She thought this was a shame because LIEAP would have paid for it. (My income is just a bit over the poverty line, about $1200. When I was in ministry, that was about my income, but this was from SSI and PERS. When my mother died, I finally paid off my seminary tuition and bought this little old house for $30,000.) I put in all the papers necessary to apply for help with a new furnace.
I’m on the computer writing and researching all day. As soon as the computer saw that I was looking for a new gas furnace, it began sending me stories about piped natural gas. Not long ago an art gallery in Bozeman exploded because of a gas leak The manager was killed and the building was leveled. Only months earlier my next door neighbors had had to have their pipeline to the main feed dug up and replaced because of a leak, this time coming up outdoors in a little invisible but stinky fountain.
Bob Scriver’s Museum of Montana Wildlife blew up in flames years ago because of a gas line leak. At the time this was not admitted and the FBI claimed that AIM had set the building on fire. It was years later when Bob explained privately that the investigation had traced the fire to a gas leak. By that time the incident had enflamed racism even more than usual.
The drilling industry in this East Slope area that includes the Blackfeet Reservation is something like coal country, in that the discovery of oil led to a major economic boom, high times, and then dwindling times when the resource was used up, leading to economic panic. Natural gas had seemed like a godsend: clean, easy to funnel along, cheap — so far. In short, no one wanted me talking about troubles with gas but I was becoming more and more alert about the problems.
Realizing that in the previous winter I’d often been a little woozy, probably from fumes, I no longer wanted a gas appliance under my house where fumes could accumulate and settled on the idea of a wall furnace vented outside and an electrical water heater. I put the furnace on my VISA and the installer let me pay on timed installments.
In the meantime LIEAP had approved my application for them to pay for my furnace and sent up their technician. He was an old handyman with no technical training who had been installing gas furnaces forever. He thought he might have a furnace in his shop that would work but he went over the house, especially under the floor. I began to do a bit of research. Gas installers are not regulated in Montana if the business is owned by the worker and only has one other employee, needed to carry heavy equipment, etc.
He was a type I recognized from the Sixties, a hustler of a sort, who often hung around the Scriver Studio in hopes of picking up gig work. He wanted to work on my garage woodstove and said he would come to see about installing a second wall heater, though I didn’t want one. He took a paternal tone that assumed I knew nothing. Old single poor woman, also a type.
When I talked to other gas businesses, I found quite a different sort. Tech school graduates, they were employed by far-flung franchises that required training and standards of operation. They were far more expensive. Gradually I began to realize that this LIEAP man was both cheap and unsafe.
When I talked to the office, they said that he had worked for them “forever” and though they used to ask for bids every year, his was always lowest so he just became their only go-to installer. They were very nervous. Then I began to hear the gossip about the girl friend. Pretty soon I had heard enough and pulled out of any relationship to LIEAP. You can google for other incidents with this program across the country.
My little house was built in the Thirties with as little lumber as possible. With the wooden shakes off the roof and replaced with much lighter composite singles, the rafters were straighter. The electric gas heater was half the capacity of the former one, but was a dome, short and fat, to beat the problem of uprights that did much damage when they tipped over. It would not go down the little trapdoor access.
Since the floor furnace would be replaced anyhow, it was pulled up, making a hole barely big enough to put the heater down. The grille that had been over the furnace was now the only thing over a hole in the middle of my house. But I had hot water. The weather was holding — by now it was fall — but I did not have to struggle with icy showers and teakettle dish-washing. Also, the absence of the floor furnace compensated for the heavy sink I had bought, so the floor rebounded a bit.
I found the wall furnace online in North Carolina and watched it come across the continent by using the new cyber-tracking program. UPS brought it right into the kitchen. But the installer had had Covid-19 in August and was still running behind except for major jobs that kept the business afloat. I had to nag to get him to do the job, but then the Northwestern Power emergency man was involved. He knew a LOT about gas and installations, many regulations.
Now he discovered that my old gas meter was leaking. Replacing it was a bear of a job and took a whole day, but he did it. In the end the whole gas line under the house was shut down and detached. But he wouldn’t approve the new wall furnace because of an error in the type of flexible pipe used. The installer came down from Shelby, the Northern guy came from Conrad. each thirty miles from Valier. They could not get here at the same time, didn’t know each other, had other jobs that demanded attention.
It was getting cold. I was using small space heaters and they were enough for the moment but the temp here can go to twenty below almost overnight with little warning. The space heaters were not warm enough to keep my water pipes from bursting. So I burst — into tears.
It was a trigger. Both men dropped everything, came at the same time, and got the job done in an hour. Afterwards they spent a little time getting to know each other, visiting while I stood inside the screen door eavesdropping. They were basically valuable tradesmen, trained and motivated, decent and handsome with families at home. The NW Power guy had the name of a classic poet.
LIEAP is an example of how to work a hustle. Find a worthy cause (cold impoverished old ladies), swing a big bank account deposit from the government, put a couple of brisk women in high heels in charge, and do a lot of image-improving advertising (help from your friendly fuel supplier). There was more, it was scandalous, and I’m afraid of law suits. I’m in debt but my conscience is clear.