At 50 gallons a week, widow knows just how precious water is

Last August, the DWP shut off Doris Tillman's water service because she'd fallen behind on her payments

Doris Tillman got a jump on the rest of us when it comes to water conservation.

The 71-year-old South Los Angeles homeowner had no choice.

Last August, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power shut off the church-going widow's water service because Mrs. Tillman had fallen behind on her payments after a series of setbacks. She lost her job as a delivery driver, her leaky pipes left her with a $7,000 plumbing bill she's still paying off, and her Social Security check wasn't covering her expenses.

The things we take for granted — flushing the toilet, running a bath, washing the dishes — all became additional challenges for Mrs. Tillman. But she's learned to improvise.

"I'm going to write a book on how to survive in L.A. without water," Mrs. Tillman told me as she demonstrated how she hoists the five-gallon water jugs she fills at a nearby water machine.

She bent over, tilted one of the heavy jugs and rolled it along the floor of her living room toward the kitchen.

"Let's say I wanted to put this one on the kitchen sink," said Mrs. Tillman. She then squatted like a sprinter in the starting blocks, raised one knee, and hoisted the jug onto it with a grunt.

"Then I lift, using my knee to balance it, until I stand up straight and then take it wherever I need to go."

It was a considerable display of strength and willpower, at once impressive and sad. Most of us think of water and electricity as part of the deal in a civilized country of unsurpassed wealth. But all around us, there exists a Third World reality.

A DWP official told me the utility shuts off service to roughly 8,000 customers every month. Some people don't pay their bills, and the DWP certainly can't give its services away for free. But a class-action suit charges that many customers have been over-billed, and some may have lost service as a result.

Mrs. Tillman admits she stopped paying her DWP bills, partly because she thought the charges were too high and must be a mistake and partly because she couldn't afford to pay after her unemployment insurance ran out. So now she's in a big hole, with the DWP claiming she owes $11,000-plus in back charges for water, power, sewer and trash, even after she made a $1,000 payment through a low-income energy assistance fund.

On Friday, the DWP told me it's willing to negotiate a payment plan that gets Mrs. Tillman's water turned back on. But Mrs. Tillman still doesn't know if she can come up with enough money to make that happen.

She said she'd take in a boarder, except that no one would rent a room in a house without running water.

Friends have told her to sell the house, but Mrs. Tillman says she can't do that under the terms of a state-sponsored mortgage assistance program she signed up for.

So she's stuck, and her job-hunting isn't going so well.

"No one's hiring a 71-year-old person," said Mrs. Tillman.

When I paid my first visit, she let me in and said: "I've turned my house into a factory."

Several sewing stations were set up in the living room, with spools of yarn all around, and fabric draped over hangers.

"I have to do anything and everything I can to make a dollar," she said.

So she's begun making clothing, scarves and crocheted items, all of which she says will be labeled "Made in America." Business is off to a slow start, though, and she welcomes new orders at DHFVF@yahoo.com.

She's calling her company Dreams Hoped For ... Visions Fulfilled.

At the risk of getting too personal, I asked Mrs. Tillman how a person bathes in a house without running water. Last year she signed up for swimming lessons, she said, so she could shower at the rec center. And she's showered at yoga class, too, as well as at the home of a granddaughter.

But she has a system at home, as well.

Mrs. Tillman took me into the kitchen to show me the 2-gallon stock pot and 1.5-gallon crock pot she fills with water. She heats the water, pours it into the bathtub, climbs in and sits down.

"It's just enough to cover my ..." she said.

Then she uses a 1-gallon jug to rinse.

"I take one bath a week," she said, and "and every day, I do what we call a PTA."

A sponge bath, in other words.

Cooking is another exercise in conservation.

"I recycle my recycled water," she said.

She'll save pasta water and use it to steam vegetables, or strain it and use it to clean the sink, or pour it into the toilet tank so she can flush.

"In using the toilet, I used to go at the drop of a hat," Mrs. Tillman said. "Now I hold it in until there's more serious things that have to happen."

When it's cold at night, she doesn't sleep in her bedroom, where too many windows add to the chill. It's a bit warmer in the living room, but she's been kept awake lately by some tapping in the ceiling. She suspects it's rodents, and that's another bill she'll have to pay.

For all her troubles, Mrs. Tillman still visits the sick and elderly as a volunteer at her church, and she said she never speaks to them of her trials.

"You don't go to help somebody and give them your problems," she said.

Mrs. Tillman said if she could do it all over again, she'd have better prepared herself for bad breaks like losing a job and losing a husband too soon. But it seems to her the margin for error in today's world is too thin, that there's too much greed, and too many people left behind.

"You have to fight to survive in this economy," she said. But she hasn't lost her faith.

One thing she's learned, Mrs. Tillman said, is that water is precious. She survives on just under 50 gallons a week, paying about 25 cents a gallon.

If she ever gets the water turned back on, she said, she'll never waste a drop of it.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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