The woman sounded panicky and apologetic. "I forgot!" she hollered from the second floor of her North Baltimore rowhouse.
What she forgot was to lug her ancient console television out the front door so it could be hauled away by the city's bulk trash pickup service. And now here was the big green city truck, idling outside on Oakland Avenue.
Larry Eley, the easygoing 38-year-old crew chief, gazed up at her from the walkway. He wanted her to know there probably wouldn't be a next time. "This," he said, "might be the last pickup." Hearing that, Quinay Dent raced downstairs and pushed the TV over the threshold and outside, where Eley stood waiting in the spring sunshine.
For decades, Baltimore residents have been able to get rid of all manner of junk — sofas, refrigerators, toilets, Christmas trees, even the occasional boat — by calling the Department of Public Works. But now bulk pickup appears headed to the budget dump. Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake has proposed eliminating the free service to help close a $121 million shortfall.
Barring a rescue during City Hall budget deliberations, bulk pickup will be a memory come June 30, the end of the fiscal year. Apart from worrying about his job, Eley, a burly 11-year veteran, predicts more city residents will resort to illegal dumping, especially those without a car or the cash to hire a hauler.
"The streets are already pretty bad," he said Thursday morning, before making his rounds with two co-workers. "And if they cut bulk out, where is everybody going to have to put their stuff but on the street?"
Gillrath Boyd, a member of the crew, put it this way: "I think it's going to be a mess around the city."
Residents have been able to phone in requests once a month for up to three items, although the department encourages donating, selling or recycling. Everything picked up is taken to the trash incineration plant on Russell Street, except for stoves and other "white goods," which go to United Iron and Metal on Wilkens Avenue.
All told, the service costs the city about $1.1 million a year, with six three-person crews making 300 stops a day, on average. Eley says he has not heard anything about his fate. Public Works spokesman Bob Murrow said while all 18 positions would be eliminated, "our goal is to try to transfer as many of those employees as we can to other positions" within the Bureau of Solid Waste.
For Eley and the other bulk pickup crews, the workday starts at the Public Works compound in Highlandtown. Just after 7 a.m. the green trucks roll out, each carrying a printout of where they're headed that day and what they can expect to find.
Thursday's schedule had Eley's crew bound for a stretch of North Baltimore around York Road and Cold Spring Lane. For several hours the truck plied the streets and narrow alleys, with Eley and Gary Pearce up front and Boyd – distinctive in a floppy hat – riding up top with the junk.
The first stop, in the 500 block of Wyanoke Ave., produced …nothing. The fridge that should have been on the street was nowhere to be seen. This is known as a "not out," because it's, well, not out. Eley left a flyer on the doorknob saying a pickup had been attempted.
A few minutes later the men ran into a different problem in an alley. They could see their target — a table and chairs — but the items were behind a wooden fence bearing a "beware of dog" sign. Eley said opening the gate was definitely not an option.
"Oh, no," he said. "If it says 'beware of dogs,' we don't do dogs." He was laughing now. "No dogs at all."
Before he could knock on the door, a neighbor offered to call the homeowner, Martha Saunders. Moments later Saunders emerged, apologizing for not having put the stuff out. Pearce walked a big tabletop to the truck, and then the hydraulic lift noisily raised it to the cargo area and the waiting Boyd.
Technically Saunders had five items — the table and three chairs (instead of the two she called in) as well as a halogen lamp that was not on the list. But Eley said the crew doesn't enforce the three-item limit if the haul is reasonable.
That flexibility pleases Saunders, who says she has called bulk pickup three times in the past year. A retiree on a fixed income, she said she had no other way to get rid of things. Not only has she had to make room since her daughter moved in, she's also been trying to "feng shui" her home, requiring her to cast off certain items.
"I know there are much more important city services than bulk pickup, like police and fire," Saunders said in an interview, "but if the city can keep them, I'll certainly appreciate it."
The next stop took the crew to a battered paisley couch lying in an alley, its cushions askew and its legs broken. In seconds, it was on the truck.
The day was unfolding in typical fashion, Eley said, but there are exceptions. His oddest pickup was a fishing boat a few years ago, he said. He's fuzzy on the details but recalls somehow getting it onto the hydraulic lift and carting it away.
No bulk pickups are being scheduled for after May 31, even though the fiscal year doesn't end for another month. One reason, Murrow said, is that union contracts require 30 days' notice for employees affected by layoffs.
For reasons that are not clear, the volume of bulk trash picked up citywide has been dropping since 2006, when 4,514 tons were collected. Last year's total was 3,096 tons, and the haul so far this calendar year — 854 tons — is on an even slower pace.
Despite the drop, the department says bulk pickup remains popular. "For the ordinary citizen, it seems to be a real important service that they really like and don't want to see go away," Murrow said. "When we go out to community meetings, it's one of the first questions that comes up."
The crew rolled on, from Wyanoke Avenue to Rose Hill Terrace to E. 41st Street to Belgian Avenue. Along with a few more not-outs were the following: a cat scratch post, an old Trinitron TV with knobs, a metal chair, a vacuum cleaner, a toilet (with the seat helpfully taped down) and a white artificial Christmas tree, jammed into a box.
A second toilet would have wound up on the truck, but the owner had merely put it on the back porch. Even when there's no canine threat, Eley said, he can't go more than 3 feet onto someone's property, partly to avoid mistakenly taking the wrong item — the new grill rather than the old one, say.
Often it's painfully evident why an item has been tossed. But what about the perfectly functional girl's bike, with its white tires and the stickers on the purple frame saying "electric stardom" and "sassy 'n sweet"?
Eley had no idea. Nor did he know what became of the upright freezer he spied in an alley. It was on the list for pickup. But by the time the crew got there 20 minutes later, after knocking out another job, it had vanished.
By the end of the shift, the crew had more than a ton of stuff in the truck. At the Russell Street incineration plant, the scale gave the day's tally — precisely 2,620 pounds.