There was a commotion outside, so Jack Colhoun climbed out of his easy chair, where he had been watching TV, and went into his back yard. There he saw that the junk pile three doors away, at 1440 C St. SE, was throwing up black smoke.
The mountainous and ever-changing pile, which appeared more than a decade ago, has become a wince-inducing neighborhood institution on its street in Lincoln Park. At its largest, some four years ago, its tip reached 1440’s second-floor windows. Now, with flames rising from the pile, its devoted tender, Craig St. Jamada, was running around in the foul smoke, pulling out car parts.
“He knew he had gas tanks back there,” says Colhoun, a 58-year-old writer. “I saw one of them….It was the sort of gas tank made for a vehicle.”
In two minutes, firefighters pulled an engine into Kings Court, the alley behind the row of houses. They leveled their hoses at the severed front half of a van that was crawling with flames and quickly put out the fire. The blaze had totally consumed the vanbut made no real dent in the pile’s mass.
A few days later, Colhoun put in a call for fire inspectors, hoping they would report unsafe conditions to the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which could fine the property owner. “I felt a line had been crossed,” he says, noting that the future fires could move down the row of houses to his own property. “I could be critical of myself for not calling sooner.”
On June 13, a fire inspector visited 1440. He later called Colhoun, who recalls him saying: “We can knock on the door, but if they don’t let us in, there’s nothing we can do about it.”
That the knock went unanswered is not surprising, says Colhoun, given that the house has been vacant for years. The front of the building suggests as much: The window is boarded, and the porch supports its own, smaller mass of junk, including a fake-hardwood desk with its rubbish-filled drawers scattered about, a gas grill, a Supercan, and a bike U-locked to the porch railing, its foam seat rotting. Neighbors think St. Jamada lives in Maryland, and the only sign of his recent visitation is a note stapled to the door: “You have taken All that you are going to get. The Owner 3/31/03 P.S. I’ll be watching for your next move.”
According to Nate Smith, an investigator at the Fire Marshall’s office, the department did Colhoun a favor just by coming out to check on the house. City property records list 1440 as an occupied single-family home. And the way D.C. law is structured, says Smith, the department has no authority to inspect single-family homes unless invited in by the residents. “We don’t have jurisdiction unless there’s an issue of eminent domain, or the building is on fire…[or] they’re conducting a day-care business or something.”
After fire investigators bowed out, Colhoun was left to stare at St. Jamada’s landfill, which over time has experienced various tidal changes. “In the last 12 years, this is probably the least amount of junk that’s been out there,” says Colhoun. The yard accommodates plywood sheets and fence sections, car tires and mufflers, wooden ladders, kitchen fixtures, lengths of plastic drain pipe, unidentifiable bits of twisted metal, stacks of 5-gallon drums, and an overturned Vertical Accent exercise climber. There’s also a brown Chevy Explorer, along with blue tarps masking lesser mounds of debris.
“Shit, this is positively neat,” says Jim Myers, who lives on the same block. In the late ’90s, says Myers, the pile’s height neared 20 feet. “Sheets of plywood sorta became walls, and the thing loomed over the city: a nightmare Capitol of junk.”
St. Jamada, who has an unlisted number and did not respond to written interview requests, does not consider his accumulation trash. In April, two men pulled a pickup into Kings Court and began to load up pieces from the pile. Colhoun watched as St. Jamada, alerted to the heist by a neighbor’s phone call, first attempted to block the alley’s exit with his own car, then took off in pursuit when the thieves drove over discarded mattresses to escape.
Colhoun says that, since the junk fire, he hasn’t seen St. Jamada tending his pile, work that involved rearranging rubbish, dismantling carsand, he says, setting small fires.
“I would be out in the back doing yardwork, and I’d hear him breaking kindling and bigger wood, and then I’d smell smoke,” says Colhoun. “I think he does it to keep the insects and the bugs away.” CP