This being spring, the season of renewal, the idea was to be a good citizen, clean the block, rent a truck, and haul the trash to a designated sanitation site.
Or so Celia Pretter believed. "I thought I was doing a community service, doing this all nice and legal," the Mount Airy horticulturist said. She wanted to help, "given that the city is in crisis and has no money for schools."
But logic quickly took a backseat to red tape, time was wasted, officials were phoned, funds were squandered, and, truth be told, emotions flared and unkind words were uttered. Ultimately, the mission failed.
It's a Philadelphia story.
Pretter and her neighbors spent Sunday discarding junk on the lovely, narrow street she has lived on for almost two decades. She dedicated hours to bundling the waste under tarps on a U-Haul pickup truck rented for the express purpose of making several trips to the Northwest Sanitation Convenience Center. Pretter covered the $95 rental. She explained, "I love my neighbors."
When Pretter arrived early Monday at Domino Lane and Umbria, a Streets Department employee told her she couldn't unload the waste because she was driving a commercial truck.
Let us take a moment to process this.
Professionals tend to have their own commercial vehicles. Renting a U-Haul on a regular basis would prove costly and foolish for a business. U-Hauls are typically rented for noncommercial purposes.
While the Streets Department does not allow vehicles weighing more than 6,000 pounds to use the center, the Ford F-150 she rented weighed less than that.
For an hour, Pretter said, she watched several trucks with ladders and paint cans and toolboxes - trucks that looked pretty commercial - enter the site and discard waste. Proof of residency is required to drive onto the lot, but at least one of the trucks had Jersey plates, Pretter said. Not one had "U-Haul" plastered on the sides.
Pretter became irate. She thinks the place might be better named "Inconvenience Center." She called her city councilwoman (a staffer at the office was helpful) and the Streets Department (ditto). An official even drove out to speak to her. But, no, she could not unload the trash from a commercial vehicle. City rules.
To use a perplexing Streets Department slogan, they failed to "unlitter" her. And, yes, calling workers "jerks" and "idiots" wasn't the smartest move, especially as she thinks her neighborhood trash collectors are "great and hardworking." But she was frustrated.
Streets Department officials dispute Pretter's claim that commercial trucks were discarding waste at the site. I have no doubt they believe what they say. I also have little doubt that Pretter saw what she saw.
What kind of vehicle would Pretter have been allowed to use to haul trash onto the site? Her personal vehicle, officials said.
Again, let us consider this.
How much trash could Pretter possibly pack into her Subaru Outback? And why would you put trash - filthy and often stinky - in the trunk of your family wagon, which has only so much space?
Each week, the city allows residents to put out four trash cans or eight bags, as well as two large items (such as a love seat or table), as long as they're not "white metal" (sanitation-ese for appliances) - far more refuse than can fit in a Subaru Outback.
So what is the purpose of the city's three Sanitation Convenience Centers?
"Someone might have missed a trash collection," Deputy Commissioner Donald Carlton told me, "or wants to get rid of a couple of bundles of wood." (Just don't bring them in a rented pickup.)
Who does that? In Philadelphia, people tend to dump their stuff nearby, not drive miles to a convenience center.
But Pretter was willing to use the center. She realizes she should have checked the Streets website or phoned ahead. But she wasted hours and $95, only to bring her trash right back to the Mount Airy block where it started.
If your block is considering spring cleaning, Carlton advises calling the department's customer service line, 215-686-5560, two weeks in advance.
As for why the city maintains these convenience centers, I still have no idea. To borrow from the city's trash slogan, no good deed goes unrubbished.