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On a sweltering June midafternoon, Carlson Klapthor is breezing down the 400 block of Kenyon Street NW on his bicycle when the appearance of a peculiar manhole in his path prompts him to squeeze his brake. “There’s a void in the road!” he exclaims as he swings around. “I can’t let it go by.”
Klapthor rests his mountain bike on its kickstand and approaches the manhole. There’s a small gap between the asphalt and the manhole cover. Klapthor falls to one knee and peers down. He stares deep into the void. When he looks up, his ruddy face is solemn. “These voids can be really deep. I’ve seen them go down 30, 40 feet….A truck will come and knock that thing clean off,” he says, gesturing toward the manhole cover.
He’s already speed-dialing the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA). The employee who answers seems nonchalant about the problem; Klapthor is friendly but firm. He doesn’t hang up until the employee promises to do a test the next morning to find out if it’s a WASA problem. If it’s not, Klapthor will
call Bell Atlantic, the company that installed the manhole.
Klapthor, 41, is more than just a concerned D.C. citizen. He’s a Ward 1 NIMO—a neighborhood infrastructure maintenance officer. For the last few years, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) has been trying to overcome its legendary reputation for inefficiency. Three years ago, director Dan Tangherlini created the NIMO position to have frontline reps to be the eyes and ears of the department. Although there are 29 other NIMOs, Klapthor is the only one who undertakes his tour of duty on a bicycle. And Klapthor is also the NIMO who helped a DDOT cartographer design a map of Ward 1 that depicts every alley and street, as well as all the street and traffic lights, on each block. Since February, Klapthor has been printing out chunks of the map and taking them out to the field with him. “It doesn’t help to make one nice wall map. You want something you can draw on and wrinkle up,” he says.
Each day, at the beginning of his shift, Klapthor’s supervisors hand him a list of places to check out. This list is based on construction permits, calls for service placed to the Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ Citywide Call Center, and “hot-spot” targets. When he first started, Klapthor says, DDOT had a huge backlog of calls for service. These days though, they’ve lessened considerably on his beat.
“It’s a younger man’s job,” he says one afternoon, as he sets out from DDOT headquarters on 14th and U Streets, sucking on ice water through a tube connected to the hydrator pack on his back. He also wears a helmet and a day-glo orange vest that says DDOT on it. The weather can be punishing and the streets steep. But Klapthor isn’t trying to speed through his workday. “I’m trying to go slower because [that way] I see more,” he says.
Klapthor has huge calves and a baby face that he’s dressed up with a blond goatee. He grew up in Capitol Hill, went to college in Oregon, sold renewable energy in California, and returned to Southeast to live in the house where he grew up. He joined DDOT as a NIMO three years ago, when the position was first created. But although the job was advertised as a biking one, DDOT didn’t get around to supplying him with a bike until last December. A veteran of San Francisco’s Critical Mass rides (during which cyclists ride on city streets together in a show of solidarity against cars), Klapthor was getting worn down doing the job on foot until he received the bike from DDOT. “He tends to do his job a lot, or all the time, in a way,” says his wife, Lucinda Klapthor. “When we’re out and about, he’s always looking for cuts [in the road] and taking notes.”
Klapthor combines a cat burglar’s grasp of the alleys and byways of Ward 1 with a clairvoyant’s knowledge of the invisible gas, water, electric, and trolley lines underneath the streets and sidewalks. “Hey y’all,” he calls out to some construction workers on 18th Street NW. He brakes and chats with them about the void that they’re fixing. This time, it’s a shallow one that was caused by the trolley tracks below the asphalt. Riding further up the street, Klapthor points out all the patchy bits of asphalt running up and down the middle of it. Underneath are the conduit boxes used to operate the trolleys. “That’s how you can figure out where the tracks are,” he says.
Then he veers into the alley on the west side of Champlain Street NW. The developer PN Hoffman is building a massive set of luxury condos there. The alley is in bad shape; part of its foundation has sunk in. Klapthor finds a Hoffman foreman and tries to work out a deal: DDOT will fix the foundation if Hoffman will repave that alley, as well as the parallel one on the other side of Champlain. Klapthor emerges with a partial victory; Hoffman will probably fix both, but not until September. According to Klapthor, the alley is also one of the worst rat harbors in the district. “I would only come here in a car at night,” he confides.
Sometimes, Klapthor does get called out in the middle of the night. Usually, it’s when a tree blocks a street or a steel plate shifts. During Hurricane Isabel, Klapthor was part of the team of first responders.
But most of the time, his job calls for day-to-day vigilance rather than midnight heroics. On the south side of the 1300 block of Columbia Road NW, Klapthor slips into an alley and takes an inventory of its lights. According to his map, seven lights ought to be in evidence. Klapthor rides up and down twice but counts only six. The problem lies at the far end of the alley; a streetlight has been taken out, although its base still remains. Klapthor hypothesizes that it got knocked down in a traffic accident and the problem was never reported. Inspecting the base closely, he says that it probably happened a long time ago, because of all the rust. He jots this down on his clipboard.
He also wants a massive tree that is obscuring another light trimmed. Klapthor can determine the wattage of the lights with one upward glance. Pointing out that each streetlight costs about $10,000, Klapthor says that Tangherlini calls them “upright Toyotas.” But Klapthor believes that even his alley map isn’t enough to ensure that they’re maintained properly. He is creating a numerical system to denote each and every streetlight. “Right now we kind of have it, but it’s not as uniform as I would like it,” he says.
Like the butler of a grand mansion who knows the inventory of every room by heart, Klapthor, who refers to signs and streetlights as “public furniture,” takes his charge seriously. “Nature can heal itself,” he says. “A broken sewer pipe is not going to correct itself. It’s a messy, dirty job that most people don’t even think about. The infrastructure of the city is always wearing out.” CP