The wayward bus -- a former cross-country coach that was discarded on a D.C. street when its driving days came to an end -- is littered with the remnants of parties past: cheap liquor flasks, the scorched ends of marijuana joints and a condom wrapper in the aisle.
The bus stopped near Henry Palmer's house in Northeast Washington about two years ago and never left. People still get on and off the abandoned hulk all night -- Palmer can see them from his bedroom window -- shooting up drugs and lowering the blue vinyl seat backs after they bring prostitutes aboard.
Palmer has been calling the Department of Public Works for two years, pleading that they remove the creaking silver vehicle that sways on its concrete blocks at the intersection of Meade and Minnesota avenues.
"I tell these city officials: 'You ain't doing nothing but leaving a trap out here,' " said Palmer, who has lived in the neighborhood for 37 years.
The bus is the source of just one of the roughly 2,300 calls District officials get each month requesting that abandoned vehicles be hauled off by one of the city's 25 tow trucks. Scores of cars and trucks are dumped in the city's parks, alleys, historic districts -- even a few near the White House and the Capitol, according to city towing records. When they are burned, stripped, undocumented, rat-infested, dangerous or simply dead, they are legally abandoned.
Many city officials say the complaints about abandoned cars have been at an all-time high in the past year. About 8,000 cars were impounded last year. But many more -- probably several thousand -- remain abandoned along streets, parks and river banks, officials say.
After nearly a year of analysis, the staff of the Department of Public Works and of D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), last week made public proposed legislation to expedite the handling of abandoned cars. Once a few remaining details are worked out, Schwartz said, she will present it to the full council, but no date has been set for the hearing.
The bill envisions a long-term strategy, nothing like the 2000 campaign by Philadelphia's Mayor John Street, who promised to tow 40,000 abandoned vehicles in 40 days. Street managed to seize 35,000 by opening a string of tow lots throughout the city. It all comes down to a place to put the cars.
In the District, there is only one tow lot -- Blue Plains -- which is at the remote southern tip of the nation's capital, next to the sewage treatment plant. And officials say that fervent "not in my back yard" resistance by neighborhood activists has made it all but impossible to create other lots.
As a result, progress toward clean streets can be measured by numbers that are heavily dependent on the 1,700-space Blue Plains lot -- how many hours before a car can be towed there, how long an owner has to reclaim a vehicle and the swiftness with which abandoned cars can be sold at city auction, said Leslie Hotaling, director of the District's Department of Public Works.
"It's like a food chain. Everything we can do is dictated by something else," Hotaling said.
The city must change not only its procedures on abandoned cars, Hotaling said, but also its entire mind-set.
"We've got to stop treating these like cars and property and instead treat them like junk, like crap, like trash," she said.
Most abandoned vehicles are about 15 years old, and the greatest single number involve Fords. City records show they've also towed Porsches, Jaguars, boats, a horse trailer and even a garbage truck abandoned with a full load.
Some of these are cars stolen for a night of joy-riding, then sent over a river bank the next morning. A short walk along Watts Branch, a creek that is at the heart of a fledgling environmental renaissance in Ward 7, shows the end of several joy rides.
A silver sedan with its nose in the water is along one stretch of the creek. A red truck suspended on a hillside by tree trunks above the water is at another end. The truck is also outside Woodson High School near murals painted by students that proclaim "Keep Our Park Clean."
"This is what some of our kids do when they're bored," said Rose Money, the neighborhood services coordinator for Ward 7. She said 73 percent of the calls from citizens to her office are about abandoned autos.
Other cars are used in a crime, then torched. "For a while, around Lincoln Park, people were calling me all the time telling me they woke up in the middle of the night to see flames at their bedroom windows from cars set on fire in the alley," said Council member Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6).
Then there is the practice of treating cars as disposable -- vehicles are often purchased for under $100 at the city auction and driven for a few days, weeks and sometimes even months before they break down or are booted for being unregistered. For many, it's cheaper than legitimate ownership or even public transportation.
No matter how they got there, the cars are breeding grounds for crime, police say. "You see it happen right in front of you. The cars attract crime. Drug dealers stash drugs in them. . . . Then kids go and play in them," said Lt. Nathan Sims, whose 6th District officers find crime scenes sprouting around abandoned cars. "Getting rid of them would help us curb crime a great deal."
The first phase of any solution has to come with the process of towing and disposing, Hotaling said.
When an abandoned car is towed off the street, the District must hold it for 45 days before disposal. Because city auctions are held every other Tuesday, that time is often extended by another week or two until that vehicle goes on the block, said Adam Herringa, the senior analyst for Public Works who authored a study of the issue along with colleague Phil Heinrich.
Herringa compared the process in the District to that of other similar-sized municipalities and quickly found that other cities disposed of cars more expeditiously. In Philadelphia, Seattle, Detroit and Cleveland as well as in neighboring Montgomery and Prince George's counties, the cars were held for 30 days or fewer. Only Pittsburgh had a longer wait period, according to the study. Those extra days crowd the Blue Plains lot -- which rarely has openings for more than a few dozen cars.
Limiting that window to 14 days for abandoned vehicles and 28 for all others -- the time frame in the legislation proposed by Schwartz -- would help them move those cars faster.
Ironically, city officials concede their own role in the problem. The District's auction has a minimum bid of $25. That would seem a great incentive to move the cars, but for some, a car for less than $100 is seen as disposable transportation and worth a few weeks of reliable service until it is again left abandoned on the street.
"We would see cars -- the same cars -- over and over again all the time, cars that have been with us before. We've towed something that still has our impound lot's writing on the windshield," said Mary Myers, spokeswoman for the Department of Public Works.
They also see drug dealers buying them to block an alley, thwarting routine police patrols or pursuits for a few dollars. "There are several blocks and alleys I know where you can count on this over and over again," said Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1). "And then you'd watch the car deteriorate day after day. [Abandoned cars] enable crime and become magnets for more crime."
For a minimum bid of $25, it's also cost-effective for scavengers to buy a car, strip it of parts, then leave it abandoned again. "We see cars stripped and abandoned right outside the gates of the auction lot," Hotaling said.
So the city tried to raise the minimum bid to $500, double that of Philadelphia, the next-highest bid in a comparable city. "We weren't selling anything with that price," Herringa said. Public Works officials lowered that to $200 recently and are urging the council to impose a stiff punishment -- up to a $5,000 fine and a year in jail -- for anyone who buys a car for scrap and abandons it again.
In New York, a junked car can earn its last owner a $1,000 fine. In the District, most abandoned cars are ticketed for parking in one spot for more than 72 hours -- a $15 fine.
Hotaling wants the last documented owners of abandoned cars to be hit with new fines -- $250 for a first offense, $500 the second time and $1,000 the third time an abandoned car is traced back to the same person. An additional $100 fine would be levied if that car is harboring rats or solid waste, according to the legislation Schwartz is sponsoring.
These fines also would apply to abandoned cars left in plain view on private land, an often unnoticed problem Hotaling wants to target.
Ward 7's Money finds plenty of private lots stacked with junk cars. Even on private property, such hulks draw crime and harbor rats, she said. On one of last week's especially cold days, Money talked to David Fields, who had two rusting cars on the private lot across the street from his home in the 4900 block of Astor Place.
"They belong to my son, and I told him he's got to get rid of them," Fields told Money. "I know they're not supposed to be here."
Hotaling supports changing the law so that cars such as those on Fields's property can be towed within seven days of notification. Now, land owners have 90 days after notice to move derelict vehicles.
Schwartz, though, is more cautious.
"I think seven days is a bit short. What if you got a car you're going to work on in your yard and you go on vacation?" she said. "I think 30 days is more fair. Government tends to go to extremes, and we have to be reasonable about this."
The change to 30 days would also help target other private property offenders in Money's ward -- the lots belonging to small mechanics or chop shops -- where cars are stripped for parts.
When she drives along the grassy median near Merritt Elementary School, Money shakes her head and points out at least three rusty, immobile vehicles outside a small mechanic's shop in front of the school. One is the scorched skeleton of a minivan that is filled with dozens of tires.
"Kids can still play in something like this and get hurt," she said. "These are crimes against our community here, not just environmental crimes."
The car in foreground, off 51st Street NE, sits without a license plate and with its tires held in place by blocks.