Tuesday, December 27, 2011

When the Meter Runs Out

Some with a philosophical bent tend to use that phrase as a metaphor for someone’s time among the living being up. Others use it as a ‘whistling past the graveyard’ expression: invoking the concept of death itself by any term that directly refers to death seems to imply they are ‘bringing it on’, as it were, so they opt for analogies. Those who think more pragmatically would interpret this phrase as: you have parked your car at the curb and now you must run back out and put more change in the meter. I wonder what it calls to mind for you?

In my case, I am referring to my electrical meter.

In all of my travels and all of my wanderings I’ve never heard of prepaid electricity… have you?

A few posts back (Heat!) I informed you that since living here I’ve not been charged for utilities. Presumably the developer of this area had not yet hired a management company so I was living here free of utility charges. I operated under that assumption because A. that’s what Sam told me and B. I used to have to sign a usage statement. I’ll get to that in a minute.

By sheer coincidence – well, not really. It was because the pavement had been dug up to finish running the gas lines that I had to adopt a new route in and out of the complex. Whereas before I was cutting across the complex, between the admin buildings and out to the main road, that avenue is now blocked so I take the road leading directly to/from my apartment to get to the main road. And there, in the building right next to mine, at the second stairwell entrance hangs a discreet sign: “Property Management LTD.”

Ok, so now we have a property manager. Since when? And have they started charging me for utilities yet? I don’t usually get informed of those things. The school manages such mundane things as utilities payment for me.

While living in the Concrete Bunker, around the 26th of each month Sam came around with a statement detailing our utility usage. Victor initialed by his summary of charges and I initialed by mine. The meters were easy to read because they were analog and in fact, the water meters were in our respective bathrooms. My utility charges were always higher than Victor’s because I actually live in my apartment but he tends to indulge himself while on campus. He runs the A/C to the max so his charges are actually pretty close to mine.

In this apartment the meters are digital. Both meters – water and electrical are in the stairwell. They are tamperproof – I made sure of that. So here I’ve been living, fat dumb and happy, waiting for a utilities charge. That is when Sam gave me the previous explanation: I’m living here for free.

Apparently I’m not living here for free, as previously asserted. It seems now the deal is that the school advances 1000Yuan from my pay for electricity charges. Once the meter calculates that prepaid amount it shuts itself out and it’s G’night, Irene! Whether I’m ready to say good night or not.

I can hear your next question: how could I not miss 1,000Yuan out of my pay? Well, I’ve not been to the bank in a while. I’ve received my travel allowance for the summer and have been living off that since I’ve been here. And, whereas I used to check my bank balance online, now I do not have internet access and I am NOT going to log into my bank account from the internet bar’s computers. I have a vague idea of how much money should be in my bank account and, the last time I checked it was pretty close to what was actually there.

Another factor: I get paid 4,400Yuan a month. Two hundred Yuan is earmarked for utilities usage so, when I calculate my pay I just calculate it at 4,000Yuan – a nice, round number. Thus, 4,000 times the three months I’ve been drawing salary since I’ve been back, added to what I had in the bank before I left this summer and… yep! Pretty close to what’s in there now.

That’s how I can justify not missing 1,000Yuan from my pay. That, and the fact that I no longer have to sign a summary of charges.

However, I can honestly say that Sam was derelict in telling me how my utilities would paid while living here, but there’s a really good chance he didn’t know. I can attest to his not knowing because last night, after power was restored to the building and mine went out approximately 15 minutes later I called him. He came over in a jif and got on the phone with somebody… not sure who. Ten minutes later, after I had resigned myself to sleeping without bed heaters and waking up at 6AM to the prospect of no hot tea and getting ready for class in the dark, he knocked on the door and let me know that is how things work now.

So now, apparently I have to watch my electric meter for usage up to… say… 900, and then let Sam know that I’m nearing my prepaid limit so the school can debit 1,000Yuan from my pay. Or does the property management company monitor my meter and let the school know when I’m getting close?

I’m not really sure. Last night, when the lights went out it was nearly 10PM and Sam, on campus for the first of his three nights here was already in bed when I roused him with my distress call. I could tell he was not thrilled at having to get out of bed after just falling asleep and trudging down 5 flights of stairs, braving the cold to investigate my meter and then engage in an official phone call that lasted nearly 15 minutes. And then he had the unpleasant task of informing me that, Yes, I will be cold all night long. His final chore for the night was sending me a text message telling me he placed a 2-liter thermos of hot water by my door so that I could at least wash my face and have a hot cup of tea in the morning.

That last he did out of the goodness of his heart. The rest was his duty. Doesn’t mean I didn’t feel bad for the poor, puffy-eyed man who had to get out of bed and go out in below freezing temps.

There is irony in this story. There almost has to be, for me to write about it so extensively.

Remember when I told you that I had lent Sam my space heater (see Heat). And, he is the one that took me shopping for bed heaters, thus providing me with the greatest armament of good sleep in the harsh China winters. So there he is, the one that is supposed to make sure I am safe and comfortable, enjoying a warm bed and a heated apartment on the fifth floor while I…

While I, in my first floor apartment shivered my way through Wuhan’s coldest night yet with no bed heaters and a chilled apartment (temp upon waking: 51 degrees).

I did not sleep well but I just LOVE irony!

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