The contents of Washington's attics, basements, closets and garages are currently on view in the city's alleyways, as residents respond to the city sanitation department's fourth annual "Big Sweep" program -- a kind of packrat amnesty.

Ward by ward, workers are picking up the unfixable, the unwanted and the unloved.

One day this week, sweeping through two dozen alleys in Northeast, city workers collected air conditioners, broken bicycles and exercise equipment, large and small televisions, couches without pillows, pillows without covers, legless chairs, window fans in boxes, bowling balls in carrying bags, 1968 bowling trophies, unopened cans of pipe tobacco, half-filled paint cans and stereos missing their knobs.

Also: aluminum lawn chairs, bar stools, charcoal grills, humidifiers, refrigerators, stoves, dishwashers, clothes dryers, lawn mowers, window screens, bed frames, box springs, mattresses, back doors, screen doors, sheets of glass, lamps, clocks and kitchen sinks.

A department spokeswoman said that in April, the first month of the spring cleanup, city workers collected 1,456 tons of bulk trash.

Leroy Briggs, 40, is one of the 23 men working in the alleys. After 19 years on the job, he said there is no gold to be sifted from the city's detritus.

"Junk is junk," said Briggs, as he and 27-year-old Maurice Jackson struggled with a rain-soaked blue carpet and an old refrigerator that had been left out back of a house in the Brookland neighborhood. "The best thing I ever found was a usable tire. There are very few surprises, mostly just junk."

David Dougherty, supervisor for the operation, said what looks like junk to Briggs might well look like something useful to someone else.

"Rich or poor, people throw stuff away that doesn't work or they don't need," said Dougherty. "We notice that people who get air conditioning throw away screens and fans. They throw away bicycles that only need a new seat, or a charcoal grill that is missing one part."

Dougherty is careful to make the distinction between the department that conducts the regular weekly trash pickups (Solid Waste Collection Division) and his department (Division of Streets and Alleys), which is responsible for bulk trash and cleaning the streets and alleys.

"We are the guys who take care of the big stuff in the alleys, and we are the ones who clean up after the festivals, the demonstrations, the inaugurations, the state funerals, the evictions and the Fourth of July," said Dougherty, a 26-year veteran of the department. "We are the invisible guys who see it all afterwards when the streets are knee deep in trash."

Briggs and Jackson found a blue, floral print couch underneath a pile of books, clothing and newspapers behind one house. They removed all the small items for collection later by a compactor truck and took the couch; their job is to haul off the big things.

"All that rain we had just makes this stuff heavier," Briggs said, as the two men struggled with the sofa. "We figure we're just carrying water. It must add 20 pounds to everything we pick up."

This week marked the end of the yearly cleanup for Ward 5, which includes most of Northeast. The operation has already completed Wards 1, 2, 6, 7 and 8. Workers expect to finish Wards 3 and 4 by mid-June.

This year's cleanup is taking longer than expected, said Joe O'Donnell, chief of street cleaning.

"Every year we get the word out to more people, and it takes us longer to get through the wards," he said. "I never can figure out why everyone saves everything up for this spring cleanup. We do this in every alley seven other times during the year for little cleanups, but they don't get the publicity this one does."

O'Donnell said that his department estimates that one-third of the city's residents are aware of the "Big Sweep" program. But because his staff was recently cut by 44 percent, O'Donnell said, he worries about the implications of a better-informed public.

"If we had 100 percent cooperation, we wouldn't be able to collect it all," said O'Donnell. "But I tell my people that bulk trash is our number one priority. People do their half of the job -- they get it out to the alley. We will do our job and pick it up."