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Agnes Taylor reached the point where she dreaded venturing into the basement of her home on Chevy Chase Parkway NW. Thirty-four years in her spacious town house had spread all kinds of detritus, memorabilia, and furnishings across the basement floor. Each trip to her storage area or the washing machine was like training for a SWAT team.
The real killers, though, were the ladders. Taylor’s husband had spent his entire career as a roofer and sheet metal worker. And, like any honest-to-goodness roofer, he had gathered ladders like sunburns. “They really got in my way,” says Taylor. At 77, though, her husband had long since slung his last shingle. Time to boot the ladders.
Disposing of the wooden beasts wasn’t a simple chore for the Taylors. They didn’t have the wherewithal to cart them away by themselves, and neither did any of their neighbors or close friends.
Unless, of course, you consider the District government a close friend. The Taylors do.
On Dec. 5, Agnes Taylor called the city’s Department of Public Works (DPW) and asked for a special bulk-trash pickup to clear away the ladders. Decades of cynical anti-D.C. government sentiment generated by the local papers and ingrates all across town had trained Taylor to expect a fat, surly, moss-backed bureaucrat on the other end spewing contempt through a partially masticated York Peppermint Patty. Taylor got a less publicized treatment.
“The [DPW] lady was courteous and kind and very good about helping me,” recalls Taylor, who was told that a crew would stop by the following Thursday.
It did. Moments after DPW employee Wendell Anderson and his partner Jerry Hellams pulled up alongside the ladders, Taylor popped through a second-story window dressed in her nightgown. “Could you please pull that little cart to the top of the driveway?” she asked. “We couldn’t get it up there.” The workers wrapped up the job in about three minutesprobably 56 percent faster than their private-sector counterpartsand left behind a thankful Taylor. “They’re wonderful. Put that down,” she demands. “I’ll tell anyone.”
She’ll have to tell the 539,999 other D.C. residents, not to mention the handful of suburban journalists who drive into the District each day just to bash it. To be sure, there’s plenty to bash. The D.C. government does suck. Every day, clock punchers at D.C. agencies, perhaps taking their cue from the financial control board, pick up Potsie Weber-era telephones and tell taxpayers, can’t help you, wrong number, try another slothful bureaucrat, bye.
But all the snot-nosed journalists who have caught D.C. workers with their hands in the till, all the community goodniks who have complained about police response times, all the overheated yuppies who bitch about the entrance fees at Francis Pool, and all the concerned parents who holler about the roof at McKinley High are dead asleep when Wendell Anderson gets up for work.
“I get up at about 4 a.m.,” says Anderson, as he guides his shoddy DPW flatbed truck up Wisconsin Avenue en route to the day’s first pickup. Anderson and Hellams arrive at the DPW truck yard in lower Georgetown at 6:45 each morning to pick up their work orders, check the oil in the truck, and hit the road. Today they have 18 scheduled pickups.
The pickups are pretty straightforward: a couple of mattresses here, some discarded rugs there, a rusted washing machine, and some old chairs. Residents generally do their part by leaving their items in their alleys, and the DPW guys dutifully throw them into the truck. Generally.
But when things go wrong on the bulk trash beat, it’s the residents who screw over the governmentnot the other way around. Anderson recalls the time he felt a stiff shove from behind as he was loading an item onto his truck. An irate homeowner was pissed that Anderson couldn’t take his trash. “I explained to him that he had to make an appointment and then we’d come by,” says Anderson. “And he said, ‘Use common sense, [the trash] is right here.’ And I’m telling him common sense tells me to do the job right.”
Later that day, after picking up the Taylors’ ladders, Anderson and Hellams pull up to a stately home off Connecticut Avenue for a pickup. The homeowner told DPW that she’d leave a couple of mattresses and other household items out front. Sure she would. There’s nothing there. She stiffed.
According to popular local myth, the shunned workers could be expected to take a big, arching piss on the woman’s front lawn. Or at least knock over her supercan and flick their cigarette butts onto her front porch. Instead, Anderson fills out a handy little form that he hangs from her doorknob. The message? Call back and we’ll come by tomorrow. That’s right: If you stiff DPW, they’ll put you at the front of the queue the next day.
Good luck trying to get that treatment from the private-sector guys. You’re better off turning your front lawn into Sanford & Son’s than dealing with Waste Management Inc., for example. “You would have to purchase a roll-off container and establish an account with us,” says sales rep Dina White.
And if the D.C. bureaucracy is a bloated jobs program, what does that make Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI)? According to an anonymous BFI drone, a “company supervisor” must stop by your house to survey your bulk trash before quoting a price for hauling it. “We can either send a supervisor or just take it away and then bill you later,” says the worker. But what if it’s just a king-size mattress and box spring? “I’m sorry, we’d have to send one of our supervisors.”
And if the D.C. bureaucracy is unaccountable, what does that make Israel Services, a Maryland-based hauling service? “I’d have to charge you at least $65,” says Israel. Boy, that’s comforting. Imagine getting that line from your auto mechanic. And what’s your last name, Israel? “It’s Israel. Israel from Israel Services,” responds Israel.
Over 7,300 D.C. households have been spared the hassle of dealing with Israel and his big-business competitors since last June. Assuming Israel’s bargain-basement price of $65 for each pickup, DPW has provided nearly a half-million bucks’ worth of prompt, courteous service to its constituents.
And to make it all happen, DPW must do extraordinary things that scum-sucking skeptics never thought possible. First, approximately 20 people must show up for work each day: crew members like Anderson and Hellams, a dispatcher, a scheduler, and supervisors. Then they actually need to know what on earth they’re doing. For instance, the scheduler needs to know how long the work backlog is, so that she can tell residents when the crews will be showing up. And the supervisor must assemble the work orders so that the crews aren’t crisscrossing all over town.
Finally, the crews have to lift and heave. At one stop, Anderson and Hellams encounter a problem: A resident has left the remnants of a torn-down fence for them, and several of the fence poles are way too long to fit in the truck. Supervisor George Adams comes along and drags one of the poles to a nearby telephone pole. He and Anderson stand at opposite ends of the fence pole and proceed to wrap it around the telephone pole. After the men push at both ends, the pole breaks. “There’s always a way,” boasts Adams. “That’s what 30 years of experience will do for you.” What are the chances Israel from Israel Services knows that trick?
Last winter, the city installed an attractive red brick sidewalk and granite curbs along a hollowed-out stretch of Massachusetts Avenue NW. The revamped streetside became the only pleasing sight against a backdrop of crumbling houses and trash-strewn fields. Yet the Washington Post wrote a story bashing the District government for the project. What was the point, asked reporter Vernon Loeb, of sprucing up a block that showed almost no signs of life and harbored only street people? (Hint: Maybe the makeover will attract investment.) The only lasting point was that even when the D.C. government does a good job, it gets hammered.
Anderson and Hellams don’t have to worry about anyone slamming them for putting in an honest day’s work for the benefit of D.C. taxpayers. They show up on time, pick up bulk trash, and go home. “I love my job,” says Hellams.
The enthusiasm is spreading. Northwest resident Phil Greene, for one, has good things to say about Anderson and Hellams. “Everything’s perfect,” says Greene. “I got rid of my pool table and my mattresses. Everyone should move back, and all is forgiven. Life is good again.”CP