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The Excalibur

Agency: Metropolitan Police Department (MPD)

Make/Model: 1988 Mercury Cougar

Top speed: 100 mph

Odometer reading: 21,808 miles

Sound system: AM/FM stereo with cassette deck

Cupholders: none

Special features: extended frame, U.S. and U.K. car club symbols attached to grill, dramatic spare tire placement

The MPD seized the Excalibur from a drug dealer in the mid-’90s and decided to enlist it in the war on drugs. So they put a prowl-car paint job on the pimped-out kit car, with the legend “Seized from a drug dealer” painted under one of its windows. The theory was that showing kids the car that had been seized by the cops would teach a valuable lesson about the consequences of drug-dealing. Many kids, however, seemed to focus on the fact that the drug dealer had been able to afford the Excalibur in the first place. Eventually, the MPD painted over the words. These days, the Excalibur is trotted out about once a month, mostly for parades and public functions, often with Chief Charles Ramsey inside.

DC 11 Mobile Command Center

Agency: Emergency Management Agency

Make/Model: 2002 Freight Liner XC Series, converted by North American Catastrophe Services Inc.

Top speed: 60 mph

Odometer reading: approx. 2,000

Sound system: AM/FM stereo with CD player

Cupholders: one

Special features: night-vision capabilities, weather station, 100-gallon fuel tank

During the Tractor Man standoff in March, the Mobile Command Center hosted the MPD, FBI, Secret Service, and Park Police, among others. There was room for everyone, thanks to the fact that the vehicle’s sides can slide out an extra 13 feet when it’s parked, creating space for seven workstations and more than 30 people. A conference room in the back features a large-screen TV that shows images from a camera mounted on a 30-foot telescoping mast. The camera can scan the immediate surroundings or zoom in on a license plate two blocks away. The center also includes a restroom, a microwave, a coffeemaker, a water purifier, a refrigerator, multiple telephones, and broadband-wired computers, and it can theoretically support a crew for up to two weeks. “People ask if we’re ready for anything,” says Brian Hubbard, D.C. Emergency Management Agency director of operations. “We’re ready. This is the state of the art. But we don’t broadcast it.” One caveat: Because of all the expensive equipment on its roof, drivers are not permitted to drive the vehicle under bridges.

The Unimog

Agency: Department of Transportation (DOT)

Make/Model: 1986 Mercedes Unimog

Top speed: 50 mph

Odometer reading: 11,169 miles

Sound system: none

Cupholders: none

Special features: knuckle boom crane, air compressor, retractable lighting tower

A tractorlike multipurpose vehicle with 32 gears and 20-inch wheels, the Unimog can be used for everything from plowing snow to trimming trees to pretty much whatever the DOT can think of. “It’ll pull anything you want,” says Bill Vreeland, who has been driving the machine since it was acquired, in 1986. “If you put it in low low [gear], you could get out and take a piss on the side and it wouldn’t move but a foot.” Robert Marsili Jr., DOT chief of street and bridge maintenance, jokes that “you could probably drive the thing straight up the Washington Monument.” Everything sits at odd angles on the Unimog; the crane comes out of the side, and the lighting tower seems to rise up out of nowhere. It also takes a little practice to drive. “It’s got big coil springs underneath it,” says Vreeland, “so it wobbles a lot. The first time you drive it, you feel like it’s gonna tip over. You get used to it, though.”

The Skatemobile

Agency: Department of Parks and Recreation

Make/Model: 2000 Dodge Ram 3500

Top speed: 80 mph

Odometer reading: approx. 10,000 miles

Sound system: AM/FM stereo with cassette deck

Cupholders: two

Special features: picture of roller skates painted onto van, built-in shelves to hold skates, large removable speaker and generator

On June 30, the Skatemobile is scheduled to emerge from its winter slumber and begin making three to four stops a day at recreation and community centers around the city. The vehicle is packed tight with more than 100 pairs of skates, which kids—and some adults—eagerly strap on when the Skatemobile arrives. “You ever seen the kids run to the ice-cream truck?” asks James A. Berry, one of the regular drivers. “That’s how they run to the Skatemobile.” Berry uses cones to transform a section of asphalt into a skating rink and pulls a large speaker out of the vehicle to play music for the skaters. The Skatemobile is a 20-year tradition in the District, but this vehicle is new; last year, the Department of Parks and Recreation replaced the old, bulky utility truck it had been using as the Skatemobile with the modified Dodge Ram in use today.

The Bookmobile

Agency: Public Library

Make/Model: 1991 Ford B600 Diesel

Top speed: 55 mph

Odometer reading: approx. 32,000 miles

Stereo system: AM/FM stereo with cassette deck

Cupholders: two

Special features: wheelchair lift, built-in wooden cabinets, ample headroom

Access to the Bookmobile is limited to the disabled and people 50 and older—those who might otherwise have trouble getting to the library on their own—and the vehicle’s contents reflect its clientele, with about half of the 2,500 or so titles available in large print. The Bookmobile makes two or three stops a day, usually at retirement homes, and its patrons are well-aware of its schedule. “When we pull up to the stops, they’re out there waiting,” says Angelisa Hawes, senior-services coordinator for the library. When the Bookmobile is late, Hawes says, the regulars greet her with raised eyebrows, wry smiles, and index fingers pointed at their watches. Many of the clients have been coming for years, and they’ve gotten to know the staff; some regularly regale Bookmobile employees with stories of their children and grandchildren. As for the vehicle, driver Bernard Harrison says that it’s fairly easy to maneuver, despite its unruly length. “It’s just like driving a car, only you don’t have a rearview mirror,” he says, smiling. The library used to have two bookmobiles, but budget cuts eliminated both in the ’70s, leaving the library without such a vehicle until the early ’90s.

Recruitment Humvee

Agency: D.C. Army National Guard

Make/Model: 1986 Army High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle

Top speed: 70 mph

Odometer reading: no odometer

Sound system: AM/FM stereo, nine-disk CD changer, eight speakers, five amps on back of vehicle

Cupholders: two

Special features: Built in PlayStation 2 capabilities, television screen in trunk, custom paint job

The D.C. Army National Guard brings this tricked-out, military-issue, 8,200-pound Humvee to sporting events, concerts, and high schools in order to attract kids to the Guard. The vehicle is “mobbed all the time,” says recruiter Maj. Shawn Pindell, thanks in no small part to its powerful sound system and four built-in television screens, on which potential enlistees are invited to watch recruiting videos and play combat games on the PlayStation 2. Patrons can climb into the vehicle to peer up through its round moon roof, installed in a space that housed a machine gun before the vehicle was converted for recruiting two years ago. The Humvee lacks air conditioning, and it rarely emerges in the rain, thanks to the electronics and delicate paint job. It’s also, as Officer Candidate Stephen Sykes says, “a combat ride”—seats are standard military issue, tiny and hard, and the interior has few of the modern conveniences that affluent H2 consumers have come to expect. “You better have your seatbelt on when you’re driving it,” says Pindell, “’cause the doors are liable to fly open on you.”

The Weed and Seed Van

Agency: MPD

Make/Model: 1998 International, outfitted by LDV Inc.

Top speed: 70 mph

Odometer Reading: 9,221 miles

Sound system: none

Cupholders: none

Special features: microwave, desktop computer with attached printer, dual front-chamber fans

This is kind of a low-fi version of the Mobile Command Center, complete with conference room in which to process arrestees, desk space at which to work, wooden storage cabinets, and a computer terminal on which the police can run tags. Its size and visibility may be its greatest features. “It’s basically a deterrent—we take it to a location where we have high crime so they know there’s an officer on the block,” says Officer Pierre Lesesne. Comfort is not a priority: The restroom is out of order, the refrigerator doesn’t open, and the coffee pot is nowhere to be seen. (There is, however, a copy of the Star Wars—Special Edition video sitting in an open drawer, as well as a VCR and small TV on which to watch it.) The U.S. Department of Justice gave the vehicle to the MPD in February 1999, as part of a national crime-prevention program. Maneuvering the massive van around the District’s streets requires both a chauffeur’s license and a generous supply of patience. “It drives,” says Officer Ernie Davis, “like a Winnebago.”

“In Your Neighborhood” Customer Service Van

Agency: Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA)

Make/Model: 1986 Grumman Olson Diesel 6.2L

Top speed: 55 mph

Odometer reading: 89,425 miles

Sound system: none

Cupholders: none

Special features: oversized sliding window, AC/DC current converter, artificial turf on floor

The DCRA purchased this postal truck, along with two similar vehicles, at a public auction last year. The agency then converted it into a kind of modified ice-cream truck, with a sliding window through which workers distribute information about building permits, landlord/tenant issues, vacant properties, and other DCRA business at community events such as the Mount Pleasant Festival. One impediment to the information sharing: Befuddled passers-by often don’t know what the agency does. Agency spokesperson Gwen Davis says administrators are thinking of addressing that problem by adding a swing-out television, which would constantly be playing a DVD of The DCRA Story. CP