Hakim Sharif-el keeps a picture of himself next to Mayor Anthony A. Williams hanging at home. The shot, along with a certificate of appreciation, was his reward for taking third place at snowplow driving in last year’s Department of Public Works and District Department of Transportation Equipment Roadeo. “It’s right on my wall with my GED,” says Sharif-el, a 57-year-old operator of DPW vehicles. “It’ll probably be the only thing I will to my children.”
Sharif-el is back again for the 2003 Roadeo, staged on Saturday in Lot 7 of RFK Stadium’s parking grounds. The early-morning clouds have finally broken, and the contestants mill around in their work uniforms on the expanse of hot, black asphalt. Some dance to a selection of funk and blues tunes blasted across the lot by union VP Reggie Harper.
It’s important to compete, says Sharif-el, both for his pride and for his country. D.C. is the standard-bearer for public maintenance across America, he says: “By you being the nation’s capital, you can set the whole agenda for the entire nation.” The winners of today’s Roadeo will move on to the American Public Works Association’s regional competition, to be held later this month in Chantilly, Va.
The D.C. Roadeo, in its fifth year (it ran from 1988 to 1990, then was resurrected in 2002), is pretty much the polar opposite of a buckin’-bronco rodeo. The event is not open to the public. The only cheering fans are DPW workers, their families, their bosses, and the odd bootleg-CD hawker or shoe vendor who wanders in from the flea market across the lot. This is partly to prevent accidents. “If you just open this thing up,” says Sharif-el, “people will start wandering around, meandering through things, and somebody could get hurt.”
The emphasis on safe riding is also disappointingly unlike the situation at a rodeo, where the potential for danger is the main attraction. There will be no goring at the steely bull-heads of front-end loaders at this Roadeo. There also will be no drunken or methed-up buckaroos: A drug-and-alcohol test is a contest prerequisite. People don’t even fall off their machines, like the riders in traditional rodeos, because they are required to wear seatbelts.
The Roadeo encompasses contests for street sweepers, backhoes, tow trucks, front-end loaders, bucket trucks, four-wheeled snowplows, six-wheeled snowplows, and trash trucks. Each vehicle type faces a different challenge. Street-sweeper operators, for example, must weave through large blue drums representing cars, while trying to keep their brushes within 6 inches of a “curb” of traffic cones. Bucket-truck workers must change a light bulb in a stoplight mounted on a parking-lot lamppost. Backhoe operators are supposed to pick up an arm-sized steel pin with their rotating claw and drop it into the tiny opening at the top of a traffic cone.
The spectators stay a respectful distance away from the action, sitting on Jersey barriers on the perimeter of the lot or eating catered barbeque under a tent. Their distance really isn’t necessary: In each contest, the operators are aiming less at speed and flourish than at safety. Even though the biggest danger on the Roadeo’s courses is knocking over a cone or barrel, the contestants operate as if they were cruising real, hazard-laden streets.
“It’s not about how fast you can go. That’s for kids with little toy trucks,” says Sharif-el. Rather, it’s about turning radiuses, mirror checks, and taking ‘er slow and easy to prove to Roadeo judges that you’re not a liability to the city. And Sharif-el has no problem driving extremely slowly. He says he’s developed a light touch with the gas pedal while working DPW jobs around schools. “If the speed limit’s 15, I’m going 8….Even when I go home at night, I get in the slowest lane possible.”
Safety, however, does not preclude a little showing off. Jerry Moser, a 13-year DPW vet, loudly proclaims his skills before climbing into a front-end loader poised in the center of the lot. “I was a pro when I was born,” he says. “I think I’m the best that is, the best that was, the best that will ever be.” When he gets into his loader, he makes the big machine bump up and down like an L.A. lowrider. Then he races off under a black plume of exhaust to pick up gravel and heave it into a dump truck. True to his word, Moser gets first place.
The Roadeo, says Steve Gales, a 50-year-old plow driver, is a much-welcomed reward for working in the bleariest hours of morning and the worst weather imaginable. For one day, the workers get to showcase their skills to a large group of people who, even if they’re not a stadium crowd, at least aren’t speeding commuters or sidewalk second-guessers.
Though he gets a lot of love from citizens whose driveways he plows, Gales says the DPW’s work is largely taken for granted. “I was out there this winter, kicking butt,” he says. “[People] don’t understand the true value that we play. We could cause a shutdown, literally a shutdown.” Gales says poor work in the past may have caused people to assume the worst about the department. “But this is a brand-new day for DPW,” he says. “The equipment is different. Our fleet is three times as large.”
Only five years ago, the department lacked sufficient money and good equipment. Some vehicles were sitting unused in storage lots. A few of these previously neglected machines are on display for passers-by near the entrance to Lot 7: a tiny yellow Bombardier snowplow, the size of a golf cart, with only 120 miles on its odometer, and a Unimog, a multi-ton, refurbished German military truck, with a grapple hook sticking out of its top and a monstrous, single-bladed snowblower fixed onto its front bumper. The feds bought the all-purpose Unimog for D.C. in response to the 1982 Air Florida crash. Now the city is using the truck to rip up phone booths that lack permits.
Eyeing this equipment is Nathaniel Gorman, a 48-year-old tow-truck driver who’s worked at the DPW for 19 years. He signed up for the Roadeo thinking he was going to be driving the six-wheeled snowplow on which he’d performed his walk-around testa pre-Roadeo, judged safety inspection of vehiclesand was disappointed to find himself behind the wheel of another tow truck.
Still, he placed first in the contest. He did so by backing up to an unoccupied car, hooking it with his crane, and hauling it into a marked zone of the lot several hundred feet away. Gorman didn’t even have to step out of his truck: He timed his reverse and capture of the car by listening to a familiar series of clunks. “You can work the equipment, or work yourself physically,” says Gorman. “When you do it so long, you just sit in [the truck] like me.”
Gorman says he was the first to operate a cradle-crane tow truck in Georgetown. He laughs at the younger competition at the Roadeo. “I’ve forgot more than they’ll ever learn,” he says. Triumph in the tow-truck contest, he says, pales next to his proudest achievementin 1992, he towed 38 cars to the old waterfront impound lot in Georgetown in less than eight hours.
“And there wasn’t no going to court,” he says. “You had to go down to K Street and pay.” CP