Monday, March 14, 2011

The Heating Oil Mystery

Main Street, Richmond, 1972

In 1971 I worked as a clerk in a prominent law firm in Richmond, Virginia. I’d taken some time off from college and was looking for something challenging to do during that time. That search didn’t go far before a friend told me this law firm needed another messenger. I got hired and quickly realized that it was jobs like that that remind you why college is a good idea.

Before I returned to college full-time, though, I graduated from the messenger pool into the nascent world of paralegals. In those days, you had legal secretaries who were paid well because they could type quickly and accurately. And you had what were generally known as “legal clerks,” whose job it was to keep track of files. The first word of the job title suggested a bit of prestige. The second word, however, reminded you that you were easily replaceable. Still, it was the kind of job bright young people who wanted to go to a good law school sought in the hope they might get a good recommendation from a senior partner.

I, on the other hand, was attracted by the idea of the princely sum of $75 a week in return for keeping track of cases involving General Motors and other litigation clients, ranging from power companies to companies that made wooden pallets and caskets.

I think the two guys who ran the fax machines probably had more status in the firm that the legal assistants. But I got to know a number of senior attorneys in the firm who had been part of some of the most famous court cases in Virginia law. I got to watch some masterful legal performances in court. Some of the attorneys never let the three of us who worked in the litigation department forget that we were no higher than pond scum. But some of them, especially the oldest partners and the youngest associates, were a little nicer.

One day I was having lunch with a group of clerks from the “environmental” section, an ironic title since the department was known throughout the country for its ability to get controversial nuclear power plants licensed. One of the young whiz kid associates from the department—we’ll call him Terry—brought his lunch into the conference room and joined us. It was winter and we kids were fretting over things like the cold, our broken down cars and our heating bills.

Terry said he was having some problems with his heating bills, too. He was almost certain that someone was stealing heating oil out of the tank behind his house. Keep in mind, the legal clerks were jammed three and four and five together into seedy apartments in the Fan district. Terry, on the other hand, lived with his wife and two small children in a grand mansion on Monument Avenue.

At one point I asked Terry if he couldn’t confirm that was someone was stealing his heating oil by just comparing consumption between the most recent month and the same month in the prior winter. He answered that he’d done this, but that “since our heating oil bill tends to run about $1,400 a month, it takes a lot of variance for us to notice a change.”

Fourteen hundred bucks! FOURTEEN HUNDRED BUCKS!!! This is 1972, for crying out loud! The combined total monthly salary of the three clerks in the room was only $900, and this guy ‘s heating oil bill alone was almost one and a half times that amount.

In his defense, I will say that Terry is a nice guy. I know he meant no disrespect in highlighting the difference between our different levels of esteem within the firm. He practiced successfully for many years and went on to become president of a prestigious university. But as far as his heating oil woes were concerned that day in 1971, we quickly changed the subject and went onto something else.


4 comments:

  1. Jeeeez: even in this day and age, I freaked when our bill went up over $200--I knew our heat pump wasn't working properly. We don't keep the heat that high either.

    Sure enough--we had to replace our heat pump, and we're back down--way down--to a comfortable amount.

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