Not suddenly, but over time. A few extra cases of Shasta soda stacked in the corner swells into 800 cans. The treadmill becomes a clothesline. A week's worth of newspapers piles into six years' worth, causing a full-scale occupation of a normally sovereign place, the basement.
"This is where we come in," said Mark Rubin, who along with his wife owns the local franchise of 1-800-Got-Junk LLC. It has become the Vancouver, B.C.-based company's most profitable operation in the United States, according to company officials. "Clutter clutters, but when we come around, we make people feel lighter," Rubin said.
Money, it seems, begets junk, and the Washington area has a lot of both. Average personal income in the area is about $73,000, which is $23,000 more than the national average, according to government statistics. Growing wealth means increased spending -- on clothes, furniture and the latest fitness equipment. Along with the money to redecorate, there's money to pay people like the Rubins to haul the old stuff away.
The Rubins, who live in Gaithersburg, are refugees from the dot-com collapse. They lost their jobs in what was supposed to be the industry of tomorrow. Now they own a junk franchise raking in about $192,000 a month, a truckload at a time. Sixteen percent of their earnings are sent to the corporate headquarters in Vancouver, a place franchise owners call the Junktion.
While there are numerous competitors starting to get into the local junk business these days, the Rubins' operation is among the most visible and established. The franchise will collect 3,500 tons of junk this year. The second most profitable 1-800-Got-Junk franchise -- in San Francisco -- will collect 2,000 tons.
It's a small portion of the hundreds of thousands of tons of trash, waste and household rubbish generated by Montgomery County residents each year. But by trekking into homes and doing the hauling, the Rubins find there's enough to keep their business growing. People with junk simply dial the name of the company. They schedule a pickup time. And then two skinny college guys like Frank O'Brien and Jonathan Charlton, blasting tunes through their iPods, come by in a mini-dump truck, usually the next day.
As O'Brien and Charlton pulled up to a home in Rockville one recent afternoon, a woman came to the door. She looked frazzled.
"Are you the junk guys?" she said.
"Yes, we're the junk guys," O'Brien said.
"Oh, thank God," the woman said. "I have a big job for you."
O'Brien's and Charlton's faces lit up. Like the Rubins, they love junk. They walked in the house and discovered an old living-room chair that was missing some stuffing. "Looks like the cat got to it," O'Brien said, picking it up. It is not the first time he has seen a chair apparently eaten by a cat.
The Rubins have their own theories about why there is so much junk in Washington. The region has been one of the hottest real estate markets in the country in recent years, and the stuff piling up in basements and spare rooms is a potentially damaging eyesore for people trying to sell their homes. Many other people who don't want to move -- or can't afford to -- are trying to reclaim space lost to decades-old collections of National Geographics and knickknacks.
Goodwill Industries of Greater Washington has enjoyed a series of year-to-year increases in donations in the area, which the organization's spokesman, Brendan Hurley, attributes to "the transient nature of the housing market." But Goodwill officials also say that companies like the Rubins' put a dent in their business, which relies on sales of donated products to run job-training programs.
"There are a lot of people out there who are benevolent and want to help our mission," Hurley said. But he acknowledged that for many others there are more convenient options. Nonprofit organizations, for example, often don't pick up the next day, and they usually don't go into the basement to wrestle out an old pool table.
Whether the junk franchise's customers know it, Dan Nissanoff, an entrepreneur and author of an upcoming book on consumer culture, said that contacting a pickup service is often the first step people take upon leaving a culture of accumulation and embracing a lifestyle of temporary ownership.
In this new paradigm, he said, consumers employ two different but similar buying strategies: either buying expensive items that they will turn around and sell on eBay a few years later, or buying less expensive versions of the same things that they will eventually throw out. Take, for example, a Chanel handbag. A consumer can buy a new one for $1,500, then sell it on e-Bay for $1,100 or so. Or she can buy a $400 bag and throw it away when it's no longer fashionable. Either way, she has spent the same amount of money before disposal.
"A company like 1-800-Got-Junk will haul away your stuff without any effort on your part at all," Nissanoff said.
To meet demand, the Rubins have 10 trucks and 24 employees who roam Montgomery County, Northern Virginia and parts of the District six days a week. They'll pick up one item for $119 -- no matter how bulky.
"No trash man is going to pick up a treadmill," Claudine Rubin said. "Too heavy. But we will."
The company's trucks have a capacity of 400 cubic feet, about the size of a standard FedEx truck. If the junk takes half the truck, that will be $375. A full load is $578. When the trucks are full, the junk staff drops the load at the Montgomery County dump. Occasionally the staff will keep things for themselves, particularly when the junk is 25 cases of wine or a new alternator for a Volkswagen. O'Brien once snagged a sombrero. "That was cool," he said. "It was real."
Charlton prefers books. "People throw out all this boundless knowledge," he said.
Earlier on that afternoon in Rockville, O'Brien and Charlton were making their way around in the truck. It was a beautiful day for junk. Not too hot, no rain. Charlton was driving. O'Brien was navigating, somewhat.
They eventually found their way to the Rockville townhouse with the cat-bitten chair. The customer, a woman who would not agree to having her name used in the newspaper, had sent her middle-age bachelor son on a vacation. One could not describe her son as being neat. While he was gone, his family planned to give the house a sort of Extreme Home Makeover. New floors, new furniture, new life.
But first, the junk had to go.
"Have you ever seen such a glorified mess?" she said, to which Charlton replied, "We love glorified messes."
O'Brien and Charlton hauled out at least a dozen garbage bags full of newspapers. Some of the papers fell out of the bags. They were from as far back as 1974. The young men hauled out old "artwork," lamps, pillows, and a lot of what could be described only as trash.
"We've seen a lot worse," O'Brien said, hopping back in the truck.
They stopped for hamburgers at Checkers and then made their way, without any U-turns, to another home in Rockville, where David Strauss was working on emptying his unfinished basement so his wife could finish it. She had heard finishing it would increase their home's value should they decide to sell.
There were two obstacles: two old refrigerators and a pool table that had become an excellent place to fold clothes. O'Brien decided that it would be easier to haul the pool table out if he first broke it into several dozen pieces with a sledgehammer.
"Smaller pieces are lighter than one big piece," he said. Strauss had to admit that the junk guy made an excellent point. But the balls were still on the table. So O'Brien rolled them across the table to Strauss, who decided he would save them, for reasons he couldn't exactly articulate.
"My wife didn't really want me to get rid of the table altogether," Strauss said. "But I'm over it. Nobody is using it."
And then came the hammer. In 10 minutes, the pool table was reduced to dozens of pieces. O'Brien took a hammer to the refrigerators, too. He was hammer happy. They made a dozen trips back and forth to the truck with the remains. O'Brien and Charlton left Strauss in his basement. It was nearly empty, full of opportunity.
It cost him $421.
The local franchise of a junk-hauling service makes making house calls to pick up bulky trash and take it to the dump.
Frank O'Brien, left, and Jonathan Charlton carried out an old carpet to dump in their truck.
The growth of trash-hauling services coincides with the rise of a culture of temporary ownership, according to author Dan Nissanoff.