MATT PULLS the trash truck, a large flatbed, to the curb. He leans over and asks, softly, "You want a beer?" Sure we do. Well all pile on and cross the street to a corner liquor store. But the door is locked tight. It is not yet 9 o'clock in the morning.
A bit less than two hours earlier, Matt, Luther and Charles (not their real names) and a fourth irregular observer, had set out from the Ft. Totten Transfer Station in one of the District's flatbe trash trucks to clean up Ward IV. The District has eight such trucks-each with three-man crews. It keeps another 77 of the more familiar trash trucks-also manned by teams of three-in its arsenal of waste-collecting devices.
On a Wednesday morning, the men begin drifing into Ft. Totten around 6 o'clock, though no one is scheduled to leave until 6:30. While most of the city is still unaware of the approaching dawn, the trash men are already in unprariously good spirits in the down stairs of the transfer station, cracking each other up with earthy jokes, telling stories about Christmas bucks collected from the citizenry last year, wrestling in the supervisor's office.
The supervisor arrives slightly after 6:30 and sends a man out to the coffee truck for coffee and doughnuts. Then he proceeds with the business of assigning routes. Wednesday is "sweep up" day for most of the crews: going through the alleys and gathering loose trash around the collection sites. For the men who pick up the odd junk-fritzed refrigerators, junked juke boxes and wrecked recliners-it is business as usual.
"What we got here is all Ward IV," says the supervisor, pulling a handful of pick-up request forms from his desk's organizers, all neatly marked with the respective ward numbers. "We'll spend today and tomorrow on Ward IV. Try and get all the metal stuff first."
The junk man does a lot of driving. Most of it through narrow, twisting alleys. He must be good at his job, and Matt's been at it for 17 years, earning a little more than $8 an hour. He'll cruise the main streets searching for the correct address, then turn sharply into an alleyway the normal driver would likely pass without noticing. Suddenly, a pile of torn-up sofas and a chair.
Matt waits in the truck while Luther, Charles and the fourth man study the situation.
"You know how to stack?" asks Charles with a sort of vacant grin.
"Course he don't know how to stack," Luther says sharply. "How's he gonna know how to stack? You git up there an' stack yourself."
Luther and Charles are not getting on well this morning. A slight drizzle and mild cold further dampen spirits.
Of course the load has to be stacked correctly, because nothing is supposed to fall out the back while the truck is in motion. Also, proper stacking permits a larger haul. So Charles stacks while Luther and the fourth man look for a place to grab the sofas and chair that are literally falling apart in cottony gooeyness in their hands.
At the next stop, Charles approaches a hot water heater leaning against a wire fence. Reaching to grab a hold of it, a shaggy mutt bounds up from behind the fence, snapping at Charles' hand. Charles jumps about three feet into the air, dancing away in circles, examining the end of his arm. He narrowly escapes with his hand intact.
There's no guaranteeing that the junk will be where it's supposed to be. We spend what seems like hours of frustration patroling the alleys, Matt holding the pick-up form in his lap, looking for a refrigerator that-if the form is correct-has mysteriously vanished.
"You see a stove there?" is Matt's refrain.
As if in compensation, however, residents neighboring a particular pick-up point will come out the back door when the truck arrives. "Can you take that mattress?" asks a young man of 12 or so. Later a man in his scivvies lumbers out into the yard. "How we supposed to git hold of you people, anyway? I trued, but they always give me the wrong number."
A woman in her bathrobe asks if we can't remove the washing machine in the nextdoor driveway. She thanks us with a dollar bill.
The truck fills up quicker than one might expect. In it are assorted pieces of furniture, a toilet, a sink top, one hot water heater, a set of metal cabinets, sofas, arm chairs, rotted lumber, a few boxes of linoleum floor tile and a broken screen door. Charles wraps the tailgate chain around a final, verminous-looking couch and Matt sets a course for the dumping site.
Matt must drive clear across town to dump his load of junk. The metal stuff, it was found, fouls up the compacting equipment at Ft. Totten. We head down to the station at New Jersey and K in Southeast Washington. "Here's where we get our rest," says Matt.
Indeed, there is a line of refuse trucks, albeit a short one, already waiting to unload. They are the big ones, and with only two compactors in operation, there's plenty of time to stretch, walk around the plant, or just sit in the truck smoking, listening to the radio and talking about the Redskin's lost playoff hopes.
Finally, a berth opens up and Matt backs in. The morning's work spills into the compactor as the truck bed tips skyward. Crunch go the refrigerators. Crack goes the hot water heater. Screech, scrunch, groan. The piston-like movement of the compactor deals with them all as if they were paper toys. So much for load number one.
There are a million trash stories in the big city. This has been just one of them.
About 200 calls for special junk pick-ups come into the District's Solid Waste Management Administration each week, said special assistant Ann Witt. And that, she said, is "only about a third of what's really out there. For every item called in, we pick up three." Many people don't call in. Either because they don't know about the service, or because, in the maze that is the District administration, they never locate the right office.
The service, however, is available to almost every District resident. The only exceptions are commercial business and buildings with more than three dwelling units.
Ideally, special pick-ups handle only nonburnable items. "Anything that can burn," said Witt, "can be put out on the second collection day-either Thursday or Friday," depending on the area. After the call is made, the trash men should be around to pick it up within a week.
In Alexandria, said Harry Dodson, assistant to the director of sanitation, pick-up can be expected usually the day after you call. In Arlington, everything is taken on the regular trash day. But here, as in Fairfax, it is a good idea to call at least one day ahead to assure pick-up. (Fairfax County will take whole automobile engines, as well as fenders and hoods. But no car doors.)
The situation is quite different in Montgomery County, where the job of trash collection has been contracted out to private firms. Customers must deal directly with the collector-United Disposal Corp., or Browning, Ferris Industries. Browning, Ferries will make special trips for appliances. But expect a $15 charge for the first item and $10 for each item after. Household furnishings Browning hauls only on a four-times-per-year basis. And the charges still apply.
In this case, it's probably cheaper to find a friend with a pick-up truck and haul the stuff yourself to one of the local landfill areas.
When disposing of your junk, remember: Wood (including Christmas trees) should be cut in four-foot lenghths and bundled.
You will probably have to make other arrangements for getting rid of your junked car, blocks of cement, buckets of dirt, boxes of explosives, barrels of acid and containers of caustics.
Take doors off refrigerators, or strap them shut, or lay them face-down.
Loose items must be in plastic bags, boxes or suitably containerized.
Some areas have special pick-up days for newspapers, leaves and ashes.
Call ahead. People who don't call throw the collection schedules out of whack, causing delays and annoying neighbors.
The numbers for more information are: 751-5130 in Alexandria; 558-2321 in Arlington; 339-5600 in Fairfax; 468-4145 in Montgomery; 952-4744 in Prince George's; and 727-4828 in the District. CAPTION: Picture 1, 2, no caption, By Tom Allen-The Washington Post