Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The Phantom Street Light Caller-Inner

This is one of those many things that has been rattling around in the ol’ noggin for some time but I have never quite known how to write about it. I thought I would give it a go tonight.

A friend of mine works for one of the Oxford Councils, they have been there and worked in the Street Lighting department for about 9 or 10 years now.

When he started it was very much an office junior role, answering the phones, taking messages, and making tea. He told me in his first few weeks about a curious thing. Overnight when the office is closed there is an answer-phone service, where outside of business hours people could let them know if a street light was out. Very soon he realised that there was a consistent voice on the recordings, and three, four and sometimes five times a week the same person was leaving messages about broken street lights in and around the county.

The people on the office who had been there some time had already noticed this, and were not surprised when my friend mentioned this and he quickly became familiar with a number of calls and messages that had made in that past that had stuck in people’s minds.

Anyway, it sticks in my mind and whenever I meet up with this friend and we go through the motion of catching up and asking about work, family etc I always feel compelled to ask if this guy has been phoning in still; which by the way he still is.

From the moment I first heard about it all those years’ back it got me thinking, and all these years on I still think about who this person might be, but more interestingly why he calls in, in the manner and frequency that he does. The thing is, he never calls during the day, he has never once left a name or a contact number or mentioned any other details other than where a particular street light needs repairing. He is 100% reliable in his reports.

Is this perhaps a man so public spirited that whenever he goes anywhere he makes note of things to highlight to the council? What would possess a person to so regimentally call in on such an issue? Perhaps it is the memory of some tragedy that could have been averted had a street light not been broken? And if it is public spirit, why street lights, why not go hunting for criminals or injured people? Is it just street lights, perhaps he reports broken street signs, graffiti, and pot-holes. No other department of the council seems to have such a persistent and reliable source.

He covers a wide area of the county, so it is speculated (within the Street Lighting team) that perhaps he is a taxi or an ambulance driver, who upon their nightly duties simply makes a note of lights he notices to be broken and calls them in… given the wide areas he takes to, if he is driving around vast distance looking for one or two broken bulbs, he can’t be on a commission, because the petrol wouldn’t cover it.

I am not sure what the people in the street lighting department would do if he stopped phoning in, but I know they would genuinely be disappointed. This man in a weird, unsexy and much pigeonholed manner is something of a legend to the boys in that office.

This story will not grab everyone’s imagination, and if it does it will not set it a light; but for a few of you, it will fester and reappear at odd moments and generate bizarre thoughts and theories. You can thank me later on that score.

Clearly I do not know why a person would do this, but it is to the benefit of the people of the county he reports these, and that they are able to be fixed in a timely manner. Because he leaves overnight messages and has never spoken to anyone directly at the council, nobody has in over a decade of such kind spirit had the chance to say thank you to him. Reward is obviously not a motive for this man, but I can’t help thinking sometimes that some kind of recognition is deserved.


Tarquin said...

that's cool - you do get people who have an obsession with certain aspects of civil duty

Where I live there are dozens of street lights out, it wouldn't surprise me if the old blokes I know complained about it - but they never get fixed, just perpetual darkness in many corners

banned said...

A former office of mine used to be the Street Lighting dept of the Council and the phones had not changed.
Now and then someone, using an old Council directory, would 'phone to complain about a streetlight and we would give them the correct number unless we were in a bad mood when we would tell them to stop moaning and fix it themselves.