On the Inner Harbor, an unusual attraction

Trash: The city's garbage skimmers draw stares as they scoop refuse from the water

June 15, 1999|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

If you're going to collect garbage for a living, this is the place to do it -- out here where the gulls cry, and the brown Inner Harbor water laps against the bulkheads like a lullaby. In fact, when a summer morning blows in blue and soft across the masts and the condos, such a task can seem more like pleasure than work. At least for a while.

That's true even when you're piloting one of the city's six slow and ungainly garbage skimmers, a noisy contraption that looks like a cross between a tractor and a Zamboni ice groomer.

But be forewarned. Whether trawling for rockfish or for refuse, any waterman's job soon becomes a chore, if only by repetition.

Then there's the weather.

Whenever a thunderstorm scours the basins of the Jones Falls and the Gwynns Falls, the leavings of sloppy people from Highlandtown to Reisterstown roar your way on a boiling current the color of coffee, sluicing into the harbor as fast as if someone had turned on a big spigot at the city dump.

"When that happens, you know it's going to be dirty everywhere," says David Booker, 39, as he eases his skimmer away from the Department of Public Works dock in Canton.

The gully washers bring dead animals -- dogs, cats, fish and sometimes bigger creatures.

"I haven't found any bodies yet," Booker says, "but some of the other drivers have. Just last week, or maybe the week before, there was one down by the Rusty Scupper."

Tires and trees

Then there are the tires, enough to outfit a parking lot full of cars, and now and then a floating refrigerator, buoyed by its insulation. And trees -- "I mean, big trees," Booker says.

There is also the usual deluge of plastic bottles, Styrofoam cups and chip bags. A single storm can wash into the harbor up to 20 times as much trash as in a normal week.

Booker has been doing this job for a little more than a year, piloting the boat and working the controls of the conveyor-belt "wings" in front that scoop up the refuse and carry it to the hold. Riding along this morning is Robert Campbell, to make sure that all the moving parts keep moving.

"I'm from Long Island, New York," Booker says, "and my father had friends that fished all the time, so I knew a little bit about the water."

One of the most important things he knew was that boats don't have brakes. He stops and turns this one by pulling at a row of levers that control the propellers on both sides of the stern.

This morning is one of those nice ones -- a cool breeze and sunny skies. Thursday's rain was soft, so the going should be light.

He cruises past the new marinas at Canton, directly across the water from the cranes of the Maryland Port Administration. As he nears the inner reaches of the harbor, a flotilla of water taxis fans out about a hundred yards away to the starboard side. In the near distance on the port side, cars roll along Key Highway and the Domino factory looms like a brick colossus.

There are a few rules of thumb in this trade, a few laws of the garbage sea: When the tide is high, the trash heads out. When it's low, the trash heads in. Watch the wind in the flags along the shore -- it will tell you where trash is liable to be piling up.

When Booker reaches the bulkheads of Harborplace, he uses the wings like the sides of a bumper car to guide the craft along, jostling to scoop up all he can.

"What I'm doing is what we call `running the wall,' " he says.

On the sidewalk, two women with a boy gripping a Beanie Baby lean out for a better look, gawking.

"We're kind of like a tourist attraction," Booker says. "When we're out on a Saturday, you'll see people actually stop to look and totally watch what this thing is doing. Sometimes, they'll take a picture."

Goodwill ambassadors

Occasionally, they're also ambassadors of good will, tossing retrieved baseballs, footballs and basketballs to children along the shore.

As Booker steers toward the harbor's two huge tour and party boats, the Bay Lady and the Lady Baltimore, a boy on the deck of a moored sailing yacht, the Cassandra II, stares while eating his breakfast. Within a few moments, the Lady Baltimore's bow is looming as blue as the sky, towering above the dwarfed garbage boat.

Riding nearby are Leonard Johnson, 41, and Abe Lindeman, 48, in a more conventional-looking boat. Also from the Public Works fleet, it can ease into corners and under bridges that Booker's bulkier craft can't negotiate.

Johnson is at the helm, while Lindeman nets a few pieces of trash at a time.

They head beneath a pedestrian bridge linking the National Aquarium to the Hard Rock Cafe.

Music plays loudly. People on the second floor of the Barnes & Noble Booksellers stare down, coffee cups in hand.

Lindeman nets a few bags, cups and cans as a bunless hot dog and a dead fish bob past. Then a bright yellow rubbery object floats by. It's a condom, and Lindeman is asked if they get many of those.

"Oh yeah," he says. "But that's the first time I've seen a yellow one."

Pub Date: 6/15/99

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