Five miles northeast of the Washington Monument, the National Mall, and the U.S. Capitol, a narrow, garbage-strewn road leads to a place that resembles the end of the world. It looks like the aftermath of a tornado, a hurricane, or a Godzilla attack. On an open dirt field behind a barbed-wire gate, dozens of crushed refrigerators, some still adorned with magnetic calendars and pizza delivery numbers, lay stacked on top of each other like dominoes. Black birds hover over a mound of demolished bookcases, smashed cabinets, broken office chairs, and metal desks with dented, mangled legs. This debris sits in the shadow of a twenty foot pile of cracked bed frames, unhinged doors, stained couches, shattered television sets, collapsed wheelchairs, splintered coffee tables, and crooked, rusty bicycles. And within a few days, everything here — these heaps of once-valued relics from homes, offices, backyards, and bedrooms — will be gone, shipped off to be buried or incinerated. But in their place, new mountains of garbage will rise up and fill this landscape again.
The Fort Totten Waste Transfer Station, hidden half a mile behind Catholic University, serves as a central hub for solid waste in Washington. Garbage trucks haul 1,500 tons of trash in and out of here every day. Residents also come here to drop off bulky, oversized junk. Dozens of city workers man the trucks, scales, grapples, and loaders that keep the endless flow of trash moving out of the city. If the Capitol and the White House are the heart of Washington D.C., then Fort Totten Station is its stomach. And the people who work here — who see every day what Washington consumes, uses up, and throws away — may know the city better than anyone else.
Few people have seen more garbage in a lifetime than James Riggans, a 65-year-old operation foreman who has worked here for 41 years. It’s hard to tell if James is short, or just stoops a bit. Brown-tinted glasses partially hide his eyes. His face is lined with age, roughened with stubble and a salt and pepper mustache. He wears two things that declare his loyalties: a burgundy Redskins baseball cap and a blue D.C. Government sweater.
In 1966, James got his first job with the city, “throwing trash” as a sanitation worker, before being assigned to Fort Totten. “Back then, you had to have muscles,” James says. Looking out his office window at sanitation workers one-third his age, he shakes his head. Workers today, he points out, use trucks with mechanized lifts that do most of the heavy work. “They’d never make it back in those days,” he says.
James worked here in the 1960s, when the place was just a massive incinerator. He endured long, sweaty days, throwing garbage into blazing furnaces, breathing in smoke and ash. Many old friends and co-workers, perhaps not coincidently, have already passed away.
In his five decades at Fort Totten, James has seen people throw away almost everything. He’s watched people abandon boats, broken-down cars, and mobile homes. In a city where one in five people live in poverty, Washingtonians routinely discard perfectly functional computers, printers, kitchen appliances, fans, heaters, exercise machines, televisions, and bicycles. Department stores used to dump truckloads of overstocked bedding, power tools, and appliances here to clear warehouse space.
James was here the night three inmates from Lorton Prison were dropped off among with the trash. They escaped the jail and climbed into a garbage truck stopped at the adjacent waste facility. But their getaway was short-lived. The truck left Lorton and came to Fort Totten, only to dump them into a trash pit, along with a truckload of garbage collected along the way. Workers noticed the fugitives in their orange jumpsuits, screaming for help as they struggled to climb out of the pit. D.C. Police arrived minutes later to help them out.
John Carter, 43, the other operation foreman at the station, stands at the entrance of a storage bay — known as the “tipping floor” — joking with a few of his workers before sending them off to load their trucks. His job is to make sure everything passes through the station smoothly. Having worked here since 1984, there are few problems he hasn’t already seen.
The tipping floor is longer than a football field and looks like an airplane hangar. Massive yellow Caterpillar loaders, industrial machines straight out of a science fiction movie, rumble slowly across the floor of the bay past two stories of cardboard, paper, and collapsed boxes, a thirty-foot high pile of assorted bagged trash and loose garbage, and a massive stack of metal furniture, bed frames, and construction materials.
To John, getting rid of these towers of trash is a day’s work. At 4 a.m. every morning, trucks arrive and drop off tons of new garbage from around the city. “The challenge for me,” he says, “is to get rid of it”
John, once a running back for the Cardozo High football team, looks more like a lineman now, tall and heavy, with thick arms from years of physical labor. He wears a black skull cap, an inside-out black sweatshirt, dark jeans, two small silver hoop earrings, and a huge skull ring on his left hand, where he used to wear wedding rings from two failed marriages. His round, boyish face would make him look younger than he is, if not for the mustache and chin-beard, peppered with gray hairs.
In 1972, environmental regulations mandated that the station stop incinerating garbage and be re-tooled to serve as a transfer station. Until the station was fully rebuilt to better handle the storage, loading, and processing of trash, it wasn’t very efficient, smelled terrible, and sent foul odors into surrounding neighborhoods. Scattered garbage attracted unwelcome insects and animals. “We used to have seagulls as big as pit bulls around here,” John says.
John often gives a speech to his staff, especially the new employees, a pep talk where he hammers home the idea that their job is adversarial — it’s them against the garbage. “I tell the guys: ‘you’ve got to hate the trash!’” Trash is the enemy. If it isn’t gone by the end of the day, trash wins.
There’s no small irony that the man who gives speeches about hating trash has inherited it as a family business. As a boy, John often came here with his father, who worked at Fort Totten for thirty years. His mom used to warn him that if he wasn’t careful he was going to wind up at the dump like his father. She was right.
But John seems content with this fate. He doesn’t envy friends who hate their jobs, who toil away bored at keyboards all day. “This job,” he says, “you see where you make a difference. You see point A to point B. I know people that talk about their work, and they just feel like they’re going to a job every day, just to do time. I don’t feel like that. It’s always something different.”
In the corner of the office John and James share — a small gray room with phony wood paneling, cold fluorescent lights, and two metal desks littered with papers — several bright, abstract paintings lean against the wall. The canvases, salvaged pieces of wood cabinets and doors from entertainment centers, explode with splattered bursts of crimson, gold, and lime paint. They look like something a young Jackson Pollock might have done. John creates these paintings when work is slow. He calls them “recycled art.” Sometimes, when there are a few moments to spare from the business of getting rid of everything, it feels good to create something worth keeping.