Triumph of the trashmen: Landing a gig on D.C. truck is nearly impossible

February 6, 2012

For more than four decades, Maurice Queen has held one of the most coveted jobs in the District government.

He’s not deputy mayor or chief technology officer. He doesn’t even have a desk.

He’s a trash collector. And in a city where good paying jobs are hard to come by for those without college degrees, that makes Queen and his colleagues an object of envy.

“It is a great job,” said Queen, who’s 64 and has no immediate plans to retire, “and a lot of people would love to have it.”

A spot on the back of a garbage truck has become a lofty perch, especially during an economic downturn that has hit other blue-collar jobs in construction, manufacturing and transportation hard. Online applications for city jobs are up 28 percent since 2008, and a sanitation job is one of the hardest to get.

The 241 men and women who work along 55 routes and collect nearly 100,000 tons of trash and recycling each year, know they’re fortunate. The work can be back-breaking and potentially hazardous. Workers have run across everything from skinned deer remains to phosphoric acid. But the pay — an average salary of $36,000 a year, plus health and other benefits — is good, and the hours are even better. As long as the weather and traffic cooperate, sanitation workers who start work at 6:30 a.m. can be done by the time most desk jockeys are pondering their second cup of coffee.

“You can be finished by 10, 11 o’clock in the morning. That right there is the big draw,” said Barry Nix, who has been a District sanitation worker for 25 years. “You can get home to see your kids.”

Or get a second job. Queen, for example, is known as “The Pony Man” because he runs a horse-rental business on the side.

Twenty-plus-year tenures are commonplace inside the Department of Public Works’ Solid Waste Division. (In Montgomery, Fairfax and other places outside the city, garbage collectors often work for private contractors, not the county.) Most D.C. employees with that many years on the job are drivers or supervisors. Getting in the door means landing an entry-level “technician” position, riding on the outside of the truck. And there are only a few openings a year.

With 42 years on the job, Queen is the Cal Ripken of District garbage collectors. There are guys who have worked in waste collection longer, but not just as a technician the way Queen has.

“I enjoy throwing trash,” said Queen, a bearded, barrel-chested former professional bull rider who lives in Hyattsville. “It keeps you active. And I’m an outdoor person.”

Relentless pace

Queen has been around so long that he predates the arrival of the Supercan and trash compactor trucks. When he started, there were five men on a truck: a driver, two in rear of the vehicle and two more in the alley hoisting cans. Without a compactor, the truck filled up quickly, and it could take five or six loads to finish one route.

“Some of these guys today wouldn’t last,” Queen said.

Hauling trash nowadays resembles assembly line work. The 85-gallon Supercans roll onto a lift in the back of the truck, then tilt open with the pull of a lever.

On a recent weekday, Nix, 48, and Lorenzo Bland, 46, hustle through alleys in the Palisades, rolling one can after another onto the lifts. Some alleys that they pass through off MacArthur Boulevard are nicer than many streets in the District. There are landscaped yards, trellised barbecue pits, and playhouses the size of studio apartments. But Bland and Nix don’t do much sightseeing. They can’t if they want to keep up with the truck. The pace is relentless.

There are temptations. Televisions, laptops, leather chairs. The official agency policy prohibits workers from taking home discarded items. But workers sometimes still do, discreetly.

Trash collectors are also not allowed to accept tips and gifts, which can lead to awkward interactions with grateful residents such as the woman who approached Bland and Nix’s truck as it idled behind a townhouse development off of Arizona Avenue NW. She tried to hand an envelope to driver and crew chief, Tavis Clinton, 34. It takes some doing before she gives up, gets into her red Prius, and drives off.

Other parts of town are less hospitable. A crew might run into anything from unchained Rottweilers, drug dealers, or gun shots.

“You have a lot of nefarious actions that go on in alleys,” said James E. Ivey, president of ­AFSCME District Council 20, which represents the District’s sanitation workers.

A sanitation technician was killed on the job in October, as he was starting his shift at the DPW yard on W Street NE. Larry Hutchins, 51, a tech for 24 years, was shot and killed when an unidentified man walked into the yardand opened fire. Another worker was also wounded. The case remains unsolved.

The Palisades route is mercifully free of stray bullets. The trash also tends to be “neater” — more Sur La Table boxes, and fewer hypodermic needles.It has its downsides, namely being furthest from the Fort Totten Trash Transfer Station. The longer the ride to the dump, the longer it takes to finish the route.

The denizens of Palisades are also quick to pick up the phone if Supercans aren’t neatly put away or a truck doesn’t pull up as quickly as expected.

‘The Pony Man’

Once someone calls, the person most likely to appear by their Supercan is Queen, who now operates a “complaint truck,” a diminutive version of the regular garbage packer that responds to reports of missed collections. On a recent Monday, Queen and two other technicians were responsible for all of Ward 3, “where the aristocrats live,” as he put it.

Queen headed to Barnaby Woods, cranking the heat and the radio, which he keeps on Praise 104.1. He wore a blue sweater over a button down shirt, and an orange scarf tied around his neck. His black shoes were shined. He said some of the guys make fun of him for not dressing down more.

Queen was born and raised in Southeast Washington, but he fell in love with horses after visiting a stable.

By the early 1980s, he was hauling trash by day, and on the weekends competing on the rodeo circuit in Oklahoma and Texas. One of his mentors was Charles Sampson, another black bull rider, who grew up in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles and was later inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame.

Whenever Queen would return home after a rodeo, his wife would ask him, “Have you had enough?” Seven years later, after a few broken bones, bruised ribs, and a scar between his eyes where a bull’s hoof once landed, he answered, “Yes.”

He now spends his weekends running a business renting out horses for birthday parties, weddings, and funerals.

By the time Queen returned to the yard, it was 2:30 p.m. The other crews were long gone. He looked over his truck one last time to make sure it would be ready when he returned at 6:30 a.m. Then he headed home.

Annys Shin has been a staff writer at the Washington Post since 2004.
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