Jingle Hell

Jingle Hell

Season's greetings from the utility company everybody loves to hate

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Until recently I thought the funniest, most cringe-inspiring holiday letter ever written was the David Sedaris parody Season’s Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!, which chronicles a trying holiday season for the fictional Dunbar family.

Mr. Dunbar’s youthful indiscretion in a far-flung land comes to haunt the family on Halloween. A young woman appears at the Dunbars’ door in a furry jacket, a miniskirt the size of a beer koozie and enough makeup to repaint the house. Mistaking her for a teen in an unsettling prostitute costume, Mrs. Dunbar offers a handful of chocolate nougats and hopes she’ll move on. No such luck. Mr. Dunbar’s long-lost daughter is there to stay, and the only English words she knows are “daddy,” “shiny” and “five dollar.”

By Thanksgiving, the beleaguered Dunbars find themselves caring for their first grandchild, a drug-addicted infant that their junkie daughter names Satan Speaks. Mr. Dunbar wonders if Satan Speaks is called a “crack baby” because he wakes them at the crack of dawn shrieking. As Christmas nears, Mrs. Dunbar’s last nerve snaps. She tosses Satan Speaks into the washing machine with the rest of the family’s dirty laundry and eventually is arrested.

None of that prevents Mrs. Dunbar from polishing up recent family events and recounting them in a holiday letter so determinedly upbeat it is hallucinatory. “Many of you, our friends and family, are probably taken aback by this, our annual holiday newsletter,” Mrs. Dunbar writes. “You’ve read of our recent tragedy in the newspapers and were no doubt thinking that, what with all of their sudden legal woes and ‘hassles,’ the Dunbar clan might just stick their heads in the sand and avoid this upcoming holiday season altogether!!…Well, think again!!!!!!!!!!!!

“Our tree is standing tall in the living room, the stockings are hung, and we are eagerly awaiting the arrival of a certain portly gentleman who goes by the name ‘Saint Nick’!!!!!!!!!!!!”

This holiday season I won’t need to take Sedaris’ short story off the shelf to chuckle and cringe at the human comedy of absurd holiday self-promotion. I’ll just download the Pepco Holiday eCard app.

That’s right, Pepco—the utility named the most hated company in America last year by BusinessInsider.com—has an app that allows you to create and send free holiday greetings to everyone you know along with Pepco’s winter energy conservation tips.

Maybe it’s just me, but the Pepco app, available on iTunes, strikes me as an idea conceived by publicists who, as Mrs. Dunbar might say, have the brains of a sock puppet.

Pepco’s service has been so poor for so long that Maryland regulators fined the utility last December for failing to fix problems that leave legions of customers without power in all kinds of weather.

“Pepco offers myriad excuses for its performance, but we’re not buying,” the Maryland Public Service Commission said in its order. “Pepco’s customers have paid a substantial price for Pepco’s neglect, measured not just by direct economic costs such as closures of businesses leading to lost wages and reduced tax revenue, but also by less tangible costs, including the physical discomfort.”

Maybe it’s because I spent too much of my youth reading Mad magazine. Or maybe it’s because I’ve been a Pepco customer for 12 years and have the Coleman camping lanterns to prove it. But the only holiday greeting I’d consider asking Pepco to send in my name would be the “Pepco Jingle Bells”:

Something smells, something smells, something smells like rot.
I think it is my Christmas roast and merry it is not, hey!
Something smells, something smells, something smells like rot.
Since Pepco left me in the dark, my oven won’t get hot.

Actually, it isn’t just me. Not a single Pepco customer I’ve spoken to about the Pepco Holiday eCard app associates the company with jolly holiday greetings.

Marty Langelan doesn’t want Pepco to help her send holiday greetings. She wants it to spend less on lobbyists, executive pay and stockholder dividends, and more on replacing outdated infrastructure. And she doesn’t want to hear from Pepco over the holidays unless “they send me a coupon for a five-mile-long extension cord so I can plug my refrigerator in someplace where there is a reliable power grid.”

Marty and her husband used to live in Maine, land of deep woods and deeper snow. They never once lost power there. Now they live in Martin’s Additions in Chevy Chase. Marty logged 29 Pepco power outages on their stretch of Chestnut Street between May 2010 and February 2011, many in fair weather. During major outages, Marty and her neighbors run so many extension cords across streets and over fences seeking assistance from households with power that “we look like a suburb of Calcutta, India,” Marty says.

Her winter energy conservation tip: “If you want reliable power, put a windmill in your front yard.”

On nearby Thornapple Street, Bob Slapnik’s house was one of the few on the block to retain power after the derecho storm in late June. Pepco’s public relations team legitimately can claim that the utility helps bring friends and neighbors closer together, Bob jokes, “because when their power goes out, they end up living in your spare bedroom.”

The Pepco Holiday eCard app has been available on iTunes since Dec. 15, 2010. The developer is Citrrus, which also has an app named the Grooming Lounge, designed to let users send anonymous grooming tips to other people, such as “Someone wanted us to mention…your nose hair could use a proper trim.” (I don’t make these things up. As anyone who has ever lived in South Florida knows, truth is stranger than fiction.)

Asked about the Pepco Holiday eCard app, Pepco spokeswoman Courtney Nogas says the media relations department is not currently promoting it, though it is still available through www.Pepco.com. “We’re going through a whole new branding right now,” she says.

Can you blame them?

Bill Conti, a lawyer who lives in Chevy Chase, says he’s tired of Pepco leaving him literally in the dark during power failures and clueless about when his electricity will return. So if he downloads the Pepco Holiday eCard app this season, it will be to send the utility company this message:

Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree, how come the lights don’t shine on thee?
Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree, you’re dark and cold as you can be.
Pepco’s been called, they’re on the way. They promise light by New Year’s Day.
Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree, how come the lights don’t shine on thee?

That’s a fair question, and the answer isn’t “Season’s Greetings.”

April Witt, an award-winning journalist, lives in Bethesda. Send comments or column ideas to aprilwitt@hotmail.com.

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