City Paper is not for tourists
The District offers plenty of secluded areas where city employees can take their dump trucks or police cruisers for a nap. There are the wilds of Fort Dupont and its surroundings. There’s Buzzard Point, an industrial hive where nobody ever goes. And would anybody ever find you if you hid out on Queens Chapel Road NE?
The corner of 17th and S Streets NW in Dupont Circle, however, doesn’t even make the slackers’ Top 100. It’s a busy intersection trod by all kinds of pedestrians who obsess over the destination of their tax dollars.
Yet at this hot spot, a white-and-orange Department of Public Works (DPW) dump truck, No. 34-1534, sits idle every weekday morning. In the cab, its similarly idle driver can regularly be found inside, leaning peacefully against the cab’s window for hours at a stretch. Sometimes he arranges sheets of newspaper into a makeshift sunshade.
One warm, late-April morning, at about 9:30, a landscape crew fires up lawn mowers and weed-trimmers at the neighboring triangle park. But the crew’s noise and two-cycle fumes don’t bother the driver. He seems to be out cold. Occasionally, a person carrying a briefcase or dressed in a pantsuit glances at the driver, but mostly no one notices.
At about 10 o’clock, an orange street sweeper appears on New Hampshire Avenue NW. He pulls up behind Truck 34-1534. In the climax of a mating ritual of sorts, the sweeper’s nose swings into the air, pauses over the truck’s bin, and dumps its load of dirt, trash, and tree pollen. To get every last thread of pollen, the sweeper thrashes its snout against the truck.
There’s no ignoring that kind of racket. The driver’s reverie is over. He has a brief conversation with the sweeper driver before they part ways. The dump-truck driver starts the engine, backs the truck up, and pulls into traffic. Truck 34-1534 circles the park and heads east down S Street.
The driver’s squatting ritual doesn’t look like an ideal investment of city money. In fact, though, it’s an integral part of the District’s program to keep our streets clean, according to James Bullock, who runs the DPW’s street-cleaning operations. The department’s dump-truck jockeys haul all manner of waste to the city’s Fort Totten dump. Part of that job is waiting to haul.
Bullock says the city has eight or nine of the 10-ton-capacity dump trucks out on any given day working with the city’s 41 sweepers.
After the trucks leave the DPW yard at South Capitol and I Streets SE, they scout the sweepers’ routes for larger chunks of debris, such as tree branches or mufflers. Then the drivers, who earn between $14 and $18 per hour and hold commercial driver’s licenses, find a place to wait while the sweepers complete their routes.
Bullock offers a better term than “waiting”: “We like to think of it as being strategically located. Especially in the morning…you’re better off staying there than trying to maneuver through Dupont traffic….If they insist on moving about—we get calls on this—they tie up traffic.”
As for how drivers spend their break time, Bullock says the department has no explicit rules, but it does “encourage common sense.” Bullock acknowledges receiving complaints from the public about underutilized drivers but reports that he hasn’t gotten any recently. Sleeping, he says, is not encouraged, though “on a hot day, if you’re sitting in traffic, you’re going to get drowsy.” A more productive use of time, he suggests, would be cleaning the truck’s windshield or performing a safety inspection.
On a chilly May morning, the driver of Truck 34-1534—his first name is Thomas—is inspecting the Washington Post Metro section, which is propped up against his steering wheel. He’s listening to WTOP at high volume. The windows are up, and the heat is on inside the cab.
“You see that sweeper down there?” asks Thomas, who’s driven a DPW truck for five years. A flashing yellow beacon is barely visible blocks down S Street. That’s one of his sweepers, closing in on the truck.
A coffee mug sits on the dash. Thomas—an affable, mustachioed guy, dressed in a light-blue uniform shirt with his name on one side of his chest and a union patch on the other—says he’s 68 but looks 20 years younger.
If the sweepers are running, he’s here at 17th and S by 7:30 a.m. every weekday. If not, he’s hauling mulch or salt or something else. Now it’s nearly 10 o’clock. Thomas left the DPW yard three hours ago, and his first sweeper has already emptied its snout once. After it unloads again in a few minutes, he’ll drive a few blocks, to 14th and Swann Streets NW. If he’s lucky, the next sweeper will be waiting for him, instead of the other way around.
Thomas estimates he spends two-and-a-half hours waiting in his truck each day, most of it in the morning, here at 17th and S. His time-management strategies are simple: “Read the paper, listen to the radio, watch the people,” he lists. “What else is there?” Catching a few winks doesn’t make the list.
The sweeper inches closer down S Street. Thomas’ wait is almost over.
Asked about concerns that he’s relaxing on the taxpayers’ dime, he responds, “The thing that gets me, the people always making complaints, they’re who raise hell when the streets aren’t clean.” CP