Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Baby It’s Cold Inside

The gas bill arrived. The envelope notified me of “important messages inside.”

Besides, “prepare to empty your savings account,” I wondered what Peoples Energy could possibly add to the discussion that hadn’t already been said a hundred times over by experts on every media outlet since last September. We get the picture already—gas prices are sky high.

Oh, right, Peoples Energy is not responsible for the cost of heat. They just deliver the gas. It’s those nasty folks at OneOk Energy Services, Occidental Energy Marketing, Tenaska Marketing, ConocoPhillips and BP Canada who are gouging us (**my interpretation, not Peoples’ actual language). I’d never heard of half these companies; I’m sure they appreciate the shout-out in Peoples’ mailer.

I opened the bill. $114.76. About $12 less than last year. That’s right—I said less. How can that be, you ask? Simple. We’re freezing our asses off.

I hate being cold. But I hate being poor even more. So we’ve turned the thermostat down from 71 to 67 degrees.

Not that the temperature in our condo ever approaches 67 except for the spot in the hallway where the thermostat is located. Our building was constructed circa 1920, apparently prior to the invention of insulation, and rehabbed haphazardly in 1999, when the comfort of the residents was not one of the developer’s priorities. Our unit has south, west and east exposure. The heating vents are positioned for maximum inefficiency, located in the ceiling (9 feet high where the warmth tends to congregate) and sparse in number. There are none at all in the kitchen, which doubles as the rear entry, and the two in the master bedroom stare 13 feet across at the windows opposite. The thermostat sits snugly between interior walls. Save for days featuring sub-zero wind chills, the furnace is scarcely told to run.

Were one to traverse barefoot east (living room) to west (bedroom) one would move from comfort, to chilly, to artic. But one never walks about in less than a double layer of stockings and slippers. I’m guesstimating actual air temp in our bedroom is somewhere in the 50s. I can’t see my breath, but there’s frost on the inside of the windows.

I’ve done my father proud.

I grew up during an energy crunch. Back then, our arch nemesis was the Electric Company. Waging unilateral war against Toledo Edison, Dad kept the house in the mid-60s range. The tip of my nose was constantly chilled, my fingertips perpetually purpled. I suppose my father thought I carried around my childhood “bankie” for Linus-like security. Not so. I needed the extra layer for warmth.

We quickly earned a reputation among our extended family. Relatives would arrive for Christmas dinner packing extra sweaters along with their casseroles and pumpkin pie. My aunt would plead for a fire in the fireplace, plant her chair in front of the flames and vacate the hot seat only for bathroom breaks.

Pops taught us well.

A flurry of emails made the rounds among my siblings in November. Matt was holding out until Thanksgiving to switch on his furnace. “Our apartment got down to 57 degrees last night. Yikes!” Dave and I had engaged in a bit of “How Low Can It Go” ourselves, but caved the day he came home from work and found me wearing two sweatshirts and a scarf. Indoors. The thermostat read 64.

We got a note from Dad in early January. “Got my bill today and it was $344. Which is $94 more than last year and a 38% increase.” (Some fathers collect Playboys. My dad has stacks of spiral notebooks that chart utilities and other household expenses back to the 1960s.)

Based on his calculations, I was prepared to write a check to Peoples in the neighborhood of $175. When I saw $114, I immediately called Dad to gloat. I had beaten the Heat Miser at his own game.

Now I can take that $12 in savings and buy another pair of long johns.


Twenty-four days into the New Year, I have broken one of my resolutions. I vowed not to eat cookies, chocolate chips and popcorn for dinner. I begin today with renewed commitment.


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