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The first thing you should know is that it doesn’t stink. Yes, it’s a mess. But the back yard of the Veazey Street NW house isn’t littered with fecal matter or decomposing bodies. It is, however, emitting some bad vibes.
“A bloody eyesore, and you can quote me on that,” says Walter Wells, whose own back yard abuts the mess. “It’s unpleasant for everybody who lives around it,” complains another neighbor. “It’s a fire trap and a health hazard,” steams Karen Perry of the local advisory neighborhood commission (ANC).
You might think from all the brouhaha that Mayor Marion Barry had relocated the Fort Totten dump to this sleepy suburbanesque street. The truth, however, is that Allen Berger is creating Fort Totten West on the front porch and in the back yard of his house.
It is a fright. Berger has compiled a mound of homespun clutter like you’ve never seen, even if you have a teenager. The front porch accommodates traditional porch amenities like chairs and benches plus, well, truckloads of items not designed for porch use: a recliner, trunks, baskets, lamps, cushions, blankets, a shovel, an exercise apparatus, and some sort of framed macrame. It’s an Appalachian still life, a monument to an individual’s inability to dispense with anything.
The more serious stuff usually ends up in the back yard: a pingpong table, grills, lawn mowers, stoves, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, propane and gasoline tanks, file cabinets, appliances, iron grating, toilets, chairs, desks, and all kinds of big, bulky toys. Berger stores his collection outside because his wife wants the inside free so her father-in-law and children can, like, walk around.
“This is a residential neighborhood; it’s not a junkyard,” argues Perry, who learned of Berger’s tastes in exterior decorating—early Pennsyltuckian by the looks of it—at an October ANC meeting. Wells brought his case against Berger before the ANC and furnished eye-popping photos of the pile.
In 1974, the Wellses left an immaculate neighborhood in much-maligned New Jersey to encounter this pollution. Walter Wells, 77, retired from his engineering job soon after, around the time that the Bergers moved in.
The piles of junk and accompanying tension have been building ever since.
“We’ve always tried to be polite about it,” says the grandfatherly Wells. “And they’ve always been very affable, very agreeable.”
It’s just that they’ve never done anything about it. Wells and wife Luella began seriously pressing Berger to clean up in July, but have seen no progress. Habits like Berger’s don’t die just because some neighbors don’t like the vista. His sluggishness in responding to neighborhood complaints, he says, may have something to do with his crippling attention deficit disorder—an affliction he blames for his inability to focus long enough to decide what should stay and what should go. Until he gets the momentum up to edit the junk pile, it stays. Besides, Berger says, his neighbors’ reaction to rusted metal and tarpaulins is driven by class considerations.
“I’ve gone to substantial expense for the sake of appeasing [Wells’] genteel sensitivity, out of neighborliness,” an agitated Berger says.
Whatever junk-ie Berger has done to appease Wells, he hasn’t done it to comply with the law. “The city told me that all I need to do is keep it 18 inches off the ground or on concrete, and I’m within my rights,” says Berger. “Now I’m thinking of bringing a whole ton back.”
If so, he’d better put it inside. On Oct. 7, an inspector from the city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) gave Berger 30 days to clean up the yard. (Berger later got a 30-day extension). “Despite their reputation, they got right on it,” says Wells, who called for the DCRA inspection.
Last week, DCRA spokesperson Janet McCormick reported that Berger would have until Dec. 12—a 7-day extension—to clean up the trash and debris on his property. “After that, we’ll go back to see if they’ve done it, and if not, we’ll clean it up,” says McCormick. The city’s tough words apparently haven’t motivated Berger, but his wife has responded by cleaning up about half the mess.
“Maybe I’m crazy, but there’s no reason to be granting extensions,” says Perry. “They keep sending inspectors out on the same thing over and over and over again, which is a waste of time. There’s no teeth to what they do.”
DCRA may just have to promulgate some special new regulations to tame the Oscar of this particular Sesame Street.
“Every item has its own history,” says Berger, articulating the core belief of the hardened pack rat. “Not a single one is tangible to the other….You ought to see the good, usable stuff people throw away in this city. If I throw something out, invariably the next day I talk to someone who needed it, or I find the part that I was missing.”
Berger is passionate about the flotsam in much the way some parents talk about their children, Supreme Court clerks discuss the law, or Capitol Hill beat reporters talk politics. “I have a collector philosophy,” he says. The philosophy has a nice practical dimension, he notes: “My friend Tgor got…[parts] from a washing machine someone had left by the side of the road—some copper wire, the mattress from a water bed thrown from a dorm….Next thing you know, we had a hot tub.”
Wells jokingly compares Berger to Homer and Langley Collyer, fabled New York recluses whose dead bodies were discovered in 1947 along with 120 tons of refuse it took the police three weeks to clear.
Like the Collyers, Berger has had a lot of experience as a “collector.” “I remember dragging stuff home as early as age 3,” he says. “It was an old phonograph, as big as I was.”
Junk is Berger’s raison d’etre, and there’s no doubt that he will pile up more doodads, gewgaws, knickknacks, and other crap in his back yard, all the while resisting calls to clean it up. His attention deficit disorder just won’t let him focus on the pile long enough to whack it down to a more neighborly size. His neighbors don’t really buy the detritus disability defense, though.
“He seems to be able to concentrate well enough on bringing that junk in,” snorts Luella Wells.CP