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City staffs grapple with complaints about talking toilets and space invaders

November 06, 1986|GEORGE STEIN

Three days after he was first elected to the Torrance City Council, Bill Applegate learned about a part of the job that is not in any civics textbook.

The phone rang. An irate neighbor was on the line. It was 3 a.m.

"Just because you got elected to the City Council doesn't mean your dog can keep me up all night!" an angry voice bellowed. The phone slammed down before the groggy Applegate could answer.

"I hung the phone up, swung my legs off the bed to get up and stepped on my dog, who was sleeping alongside the bed," Applegate said. "I didn't know who to call back to tell it wasn't my dog. You really get some oddballs."

Indeed, you do.

City officials in the South Bay get calls about trash left out, dogs running loose, cars blocking driveways--those are expected. But they also receive requests that seem beyond municipal capabilities.

"We had one lady complain that her toilet was talking to her," said Rick Pickering, assistant to Torrance City Manager Leroy Jackson. "We naturally thought the lady had mental problems."

Nevertheless, a city crew went out and discovered to its surprise that a pipe was acting as an antenna. "She was picking up a local pop radio station," Pickering said.

The city could not do much about that but getting the explanation was gratifying. "The lady felt that nobody believed her until the city came out," Pickering said.

Most cities are periodically warned that Martians or other space invaders are coming to take over city government.

In Torrance, the city plays it deadpan.

The lookouts get a letter thanking them for the information and assuring them that the police have been notified.

But Inglewood responds in kind.

Rather than take time trying to answer "harmless" questions, city employees frequently respond with "harmless" answers that they make up, said Norman Cravens, deputy city manager.

Martian spotters, for example, are told "to wrap themselves in aluminum foil," Cravens said. That advice to one woman "apparently worked," he said. The city staff never heard from her again.

"Maybe she is still wrapped in aluminum foil," Cravens said mischievously.

In another case, a group of Inglewood women having coffee puzzled over a question and called City Hall for the answer.

"Do pigs sweat?" they wanted to know.

"We just said, 'No,' " Cravens said. "We really don't know."

(The city guessed right : Dr. John Dunbar, livestock specialist for the University of California's Cooperative Extension Service, confirmed that, indeed, pigs do not sweat like humans. To cool off, they wallow.)

The animal kingdom, it should be noted, is the source of a number of neighborhood disputes that wind up at City Hall.

A Torrance woman called about her neighbor's dog. The animal "was defecating in her neighbor's back yard and the smell annoyed her," said Pickering. "She wanted the city to come out and clean up her neighbor's yard." The matter was referred to the Health Department.

In Inglewood, one of the city's regular complainers came in with his hand bandaged and a bizarre tale.

"He had taken a bag of cat poop and thrown it on the lady across the street because, he claimed, it came from her cat. The lady, who does not own a cat, was understandably upset and proceeded to beat him up with a broomstick and actually broke his wrist," Cravens said.

"He came in to complain about the lady."

Cravens said the man was told the case was a civil matter because the police would probably not act on the matter "if he explained it."

Another smelly business came to the attention of Torrance Mayor Katy Geissert shortly after she was elected this year as mayor.

"This morning the sulphur in the air was so extreme that I could not breathe," a letter said. "There will soon be a catastrophe in Torrance if something isn't done about it. When Mayor (Jim) Armstrong was in office, we had relief from this nightmare. Since he's not the mayor, each day is a smelly mess. Please try to do something about it. I'm 69 years old and hope to see 70 with your help." The letter was signed "Obviously Anonymous."

Geissert said she checked with environmental officials and found nothing out of the ordinary. "Not smellier than usual," she said.

Her unknown correspondent wrote again three months later.

"Well, here I am again but I'm not griping this time," the letter said.

Since the last letter, "I have not suffered the awful sulphur and other smells in the air. I'm soon to complain but also retaliate quickly to improvement. Thank you. I'm sure that you are going to be great for Torrance. Good luck and God bless you." The letter was signed "as usual Anonymous ."

Geissert relished the moment. "I did it. I really did," she joked.

But that moment of satisfaction is unusual--and particularly so for city officials who must deal with affairs of the heart.

A visiting Englishman wanted help in tracking down an American woman he had met on the East Coast during World War II. He had heard that she moved to California. For some reason, he picked out Torrance and wrote city officials.

But "he did not provide the last name," said Pickering. "We wrote the gentleman back that if he had a last name, maybe there would be a way of helping him out. He never responded."

The most unusual complaint in this category involved an elderly couple living near an apartment building in Torrance.

"Their story," said Pickering, "is that people from the apartment complex--rather than using their apartments--have sex in the cars adjacent to the house.

"They are so noisy and it disgusts his wife so she could not sleep at night. It doesn't bother him."

The old man wondered if the city could put up a "No Parking" sign. "We asked him if he was looking for a "No Parking after 10 p.m." sign. He said he did not care if they parked there. He just didn't want them having sex in their cars.

"We jokingly talked about the type of signs that might go up there. That I will leave to your imagination."

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