City Paper is not for tourists
Damn! Can you believe that?” yells Can Man, staring ferociously into his side mirror at a missed parking opportunity. “Passed the place, and she just whipped her ass right up in the way. I had a clear shot!”
Can Man throws his truck into reverse and backs it up Arlington’s South Four Mile Run Drive, finally stopping at Advance Auto Sales. Passing motorists swerve, but don’t honk or scream. There’s something about a pink pickup with what looks like an outhouse strapped precariously to its top that lets you get away with these things.
While he waits for an auto-shop parking space to open up again, Can Man, aka South Arlington resident Arthur Smith, explains his name.
“I used to pick up cans…four or five hundred pounds of cans [on a single run],” he says. That didn’t last, however, and now his name’s sort of obsolete. “See, cans were selling for 42 cents a pound, but then it went down all the way to 18 cents. See, everybody was doing it. Ain’t no more money in it.”
So around four years ago, Can Man switched to auto parts. He has a dozen stops along Four Mile Run where mechanics stash old rotors, mufflers, radiators, batteries, even engines for him. When he accumulates a good-sized haul of metal from these and other caches, he unloads at junkyards in Maryland, D.C., and Virginiawherever operators are offering the best cash payout that day.
The woman at Advance Auto pulls out, and Can Man maneuvers into her place and hops out. But there’s no bounty here this week, so he’s back in a minute, tattered plaid jacket, layers of compacted epidermal grease, mumbling motor mouth, and all. The pickup lurches back into traffic.
Though retired and in his mid-60s, Can Man rules the local scrap-metal market with a big iron fist. He’s perhaps the biggest unregistered solo collector in the Washington area. He’s definitely the most visible. Other collectors, he says, “try to do the same thing. They see me doing it; they copy it. But they ain’t set up like I’m set up.”
How he’s set up is like something out of a Mardi Gras parade. His garishly painted pickups (one ’60s model and two from the ’80s) are true monsters of the road, each sprouting a towering plywood pen and festooned with a catchy slogan”VER VER POOR LITTL CAN MAN,” “VER VER VER POOR POOR LITT CAN MAN,” or a variation thereof. Down-home advertising aside, the trucks are hauling beasts: They can (and do) carry 6-ton loads.
“Whenever I see him,” says Dave Johnson, manager of Spectrum Auto Painting and Collision Center on Four Mile Run, “I say, ‘There goes the richest man in Arlington.’ He’ll go, ‘No, no! Po, po…lit!’”
Besides metal, Can Man takes batteries, tires, and other items that Johnson’s shop can’t throw away. He has no real rivals in the area, says Johnson. “There’s one other guy who’s of shady reputation….He’s lost his car and lost his license, and he’s going around wheeling a cart.”
Each of Can Man’s trucks went through a basic transmogrification. First, Can Man replaced the cab’s back and truck bed with steel plates. Then he welded vertical channel arms to the bed and onto these built a plywood exoskeleton. He fitted ladders onto the vehicle’s sides so he could reach the top of the payloads. (The scrap mounds can rise 11 feet from the ground.) On the cab of one of the newer trucks, he positioned a V-shaped plywood mount to improve the aerodynamics.
He also changed the tires from 4-ply to 10-ply after one of his rims crumpled and flew off. “Regular tires,” he says, “with all that weight, they get smashed, and the pressure rides the rim. I didn’t know that.”
The altered trucks sometimes make driving a chore. For instance, Can Man’s trying to get to an unregistered auto shop at the top of a hill, but he’s afraid one of the two engines in his stern will topple out. “They’ll fine you for that,” he says. So he takes a slightly more circuitous route. Grating sounds come from behind as the engines butt heads.
Reaching the hilltop, he climbs out of the pickup and walks behind the private shop to collect a rusty bucket brimming with rotors. Then, fanning away some bamboo, he uncovers some mufflers that the shop operator has stashed for him. It’s a nice hit: Including the stops before Advance Auto, he might make the $300 that he says marks a good week’s work.
Though he’s hauled scrap for as long as he can remember, Can Man once hauled in a paycheck as well. He did construction jobs in D.C. and Maryland for 32 years. “I used to dig ditches, put piping in the ground,” he says. “I got 20, 30 feet into the ground with a pick and shovel.”
He retired eight years ago because of parking issues.
“You try to park in D.C. It took all your pay!” he complains. “I had to be in town at 4 o’clock, because there’s only a few places you can park without paying, and if you didn’t get there early you didn’t get them.”
Now Can Man draws Social Security and fills his hours “from dark to dark” hauling scrap. “Working for the man standing on top of you?” he scoffs. “I ain’t doing it no more.”
The last stop of the day is at a Chinese takeout, where Can Man picks up an order that Fedora Smith, his wife of 42 years, placed an hour and a half ago. “She hates [the work I do],” he says. Even so, he’ll use the trunk of her Toyota Corolla later in the day to transport some nasty, oily axles. Can Man says he doesn’t like to use cleaning fluids on his scrapor his person.
“I love dirt,” he says. “I’ve been dirty all my life.” CP