Jared Gordon no longer needs an alarm clock. From the 10th floor Dupont Circle apartment he shares with his wife and kid, he has no trouble hearing his daily wake-up call. First there’s the hydraulic swoosh, then the shrill grinding of gears, and then that unmistakable chirp of a large truck in reverse: beep…beep…beep. The racket usually goes on for around five minutes—just long enough to pick up the dumpster in back of his apartment building, empty it into the truck, and slam it back into place.

A recent transplant from New York, Gordon chose to settle in Dupont Circle because he liked its commercial-residential mix and vigorous street life. He just didn’t bank on a trash truck dictating his morning routine.

A city noise ordinance bars private trash haulers from operating in residential areas from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. Like most city regs, it is flouted every day. Complying with the rule can mean getting snared in rush-hour traffic and all sorts of other hassles. So garbage crews go to great lengths to have the streets to themselves. Gordon says trucks sometimes wake him up as early as 4:30 a.m.

Since the city does little to force compliance with the ordinance, Gordon is doing some policing of his own. One morning in mid-October, he jumped out of bed and raced down to the street to confront the Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI) crew that had shown up at 6 o’clock to empty the trash. He got to the scene just before the crew was about to bolt.

“You’re not supposed to come before 7 a.m.,” Gordon recalls telling the crew chief. The guy shrugged, says Gordon. “He told me that if I got the other trucks to stop, then ‘I’ll join you,’” Gordon remembers. Helpless, Gordon left an angry message on a BFI answering machine and rang up the cops, who promised to send a cruiser to log the complaint. They never showed.

Plenty of other city residents wake up with bags under their eyes for the same reason as Gordon. According to James Hauser, a noise inspector with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), residents from all wards have complained about the problem. Most of the calls, however, come from high-density areas like Georgetown, Shaw, Logan Circle, Adams Morgan, and Dupont. “I think people are just so frustrated and discouraged,” reports June Hirsh, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans’ director of constituent services. “I think nothing can change….I’m as ignored as anyone else.”

Cruising around Dupont Circle before dawn in his sports utility vehicle, Frank Hornstein has the streets to himself—almost. As he darts in and out of alleys, he’s looking for trash crews out to beat the rush. “It’s really weird,” he explains. “It will be very quiet, and then you see [the trucks] all over the place.”

Hornstein, a member of the Dupont Circle Citizens’ Association, has been on volunteer trash detail for nearly six months. After waking up to the rumble a few times from his apartment and fielding numerous complaints from neighbors, he decided to take action. “There’s no way we can sleep,” he says.

So, almost daily, he maintains a garbage man’s schedule, rising early and hitting the streets. His tools of trade consist of a cup of coffee and a pen and pad—to take down all the vitals on offenders, including tag number, location, time, and company name.

By 6:10 a.m., Hornstein stumbles onto an A.W. Stevens and Sons truck parked outside the McDonald’s on 17th Street. The hauler feigns ignorance at his apparent violation. “I’m on my breakfast break,” he says, holding up a sausage, egg, and biscuit sandwich as evidence. He’s still in violation—the ordinance says you can’t even enter a residential neighborhood before 7 a.m. Hornstein writes him up.

Next stop, 18th Street. Hornstein spots a hauler barreling down the block. He decides to give chase, cranking his four-wheeler into high gear. “Let’s do it,” he exclaims. Within seconds, Hornstein gets hung up at a light. “Come on, light,” he fumes. It’s no use; the driver gets away. By now, about 6:15 a.m., there are plenty of trucks in sight.

Hornstein pulls onto 17th and follows a Waste Management Inc. truck for kicks. He wants to see where it will end up. The truck finally stops along Swann Street NW, next to a dumpster. Hornstein knows they’re not joyriding. He waits. They wait, too.

Finally, the driver gives up. He says he has pulled over not because of the dumpster, but because of Hornstein. “What are you following us for?” protests hauler Jason Jones. “We can call the police.” He says Hornstein’s tailing activity constitutes harassment.

Maybe Hornstein has won this round. The trash hauler gives up the standstill and drives off.

Just before 7 a.m., and after a few more truck write-ups, Hornstein spots a new culprit: a James Taylor truck is carrying out a P Street NW apartment’s trash. “Good morning,” Hornstein jokes before jotting down the particulars.

Hornstein forwards his homemade citations to Department of Public Works (DPW) sanitation inspector Tom Day, who can use the information as proof of a violation and fine the scofflaws. If the company is a first-time offender—most are not— Day simply issues a warning. After that, the fines kick in, starting at $75 and doubling with each offense, to a maximum of $2,000. In the past month, Day has issued 20 fines and expects some companies to reach the $2,000 mark soon.

Day says the biggest violators include BFI, Waste Management, Aragon Corp., and Garcia’s Inc. Most drivers, says Day, don’t hesitate to violate the ordinance because enforcement over the years has been so spotty. Lately, however, DPW has informed concerned citizens of the ordinance and solicited tips on tracking down the violators. As a result, the fines have begun stacking up.

Day’s office shares jurisdiction over the trash noise ordinance with DCRA and the police department. “It seems like it’s coming up more and more, because people know where to report this,” Day explains.

Still, policing trash trucks is an uphill battle. Between obstinate companies with fleets of 20 trucks and unlicensed trash haulers, Day and other officials say the problem is far from over. James Aldridge, a DCRA administrator, says trash companies see the early-morning shortcuts as minor violations.

“It’s just like a speeder,” Aldridge explains. “As long as the police are not around, they speed. What they are aware of is that we are out there. We are writing citations. The industry is becoming aware of that fact.”

To the dismay of sleepy downtowners, Aldridge and Day don’t get a lot of help from the one city agency that’s on the street all day—the police department. Third District Sgt. John Kutniewski insists his guys have more pressing business than quality-of-life infractions. “It’s not a priority for me,” he explains. “It’s a secondary nuisance. I don’t devote officers full time to this….Most of the action comes from citizens.”

To hear the haulers tell it, disgruntled residents are hearing things. “Our trucks don’t go into residential areas before 7 a.m.,” insists Ron Adolph, division manager with Waste Management. “Our trucks don’t operate until 7 a.m. My statement is clear.” Adolph says he is not aware of receiving any fines.

Adolph’s stonewalling is nothing new to activists like Hornstein, who has heard every possible denial from the haulers. Calvin Smith, BFI’s director of market development, also says his company complies with D.C. code—for the most part. “It’s possible,” he says of allegations that his crews perform early-morning drive-bys. If it does happen, he says, blame rests with the drivers. In a clever display of waste-hauler spin, though, Smith insists predawn pickups are a favor to residents. “You are caught between noise and odor; it could be a problem,” Smith argues. In other words, if they don’t come before dawn, residents may get a different sensory wake-up call—a noxious trash smell.

Robert Smith, operations manager for Bowie’s Inc., says, “I think that we are doing the best we can to stay out of residential neighborhoods, but we have to pick up trash.”

Smith adds that some drivers need to get to their alley pickups before they are blocked in by parked cars, and some need to beat the traffic rush. Residents, he insists, would much prefer the noise over getting their cars scratched by trucks or spritzed by hydraulic hose leaks. And any noise is better than rats. “You have a major rat problem. I’ve known guys who have got bit by rats,” he says.

Apartment dwellers, nonetheless, don’t worry too much about rats and foul odors while they’re sound asleep. Stephen Snell, a Logan Circle resident, says the high-rises along Vermont Avenue NW add a sound-room amplification to the noise of the trucks, which awaken him every morning. He has just started his own trash-truck journal, the beginning of a campaign similiar to one he headed in the ’80s on Capitol Hill in which, he says, he would simply call the offending company’s president at home at the time of the offense. After a few wake-up calls, the problem would go away.

This time, Snell is taking a more cooperative posture, writing to and calling his tormentors’ flacks during business hours. Fresh from his first call to BFI, Snell is hopeful: “I’m very positive,” he says, showing off his journal and computer matrix of apartments and dumpster locations. “I may be naive.”

Gordon would agree. Aside from his confrontations with BFI crews, he has raised the issue with DCCA, and brought it to the attention of control board Chair Alice Rivlin. Still, the trucks are winning. If the noise doesn’t stop, Gordon is threatening to file an injunction against the company and a civil suit. “These people are in continuous violation. These people shouldn’t have a license in the city,” Gordon protests. “It can’t be more simple than that.”CP