Mr. Trash

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Monday, June 9, 1986, Page 1C

Picking Up After Philadelphia

By Michael Capuzzo, Inquirer Staff Writer

The sun comes up over his Philadelphia, shining on his 25,000 city blocks, his 500 bridges, his fleet of 1,000 trucks, on the grim countenance of Harry M. Perks himself, who is rushing across JFK Boulevard, unhappy this morning with his empire, happy – at least – that nobody recognizes him as lord of this and all the streets.

Perks is the streets commissioner, boss of all the signs and streetlights on them, all the utility lines under them, all the bridges over them, of every inch of sidewalk under his feet.

But Perks, alas, is boss of the potholes and uncollected garbage as well, and the sun has come up over Philadelphia on another one of those days he wishes it hadn’t, to reveal 1,500 tons of garbage rotting in the streets, rumors of war over trash in Fishtown and hostile TV reporters pounding on the commissioner’s door.

It is 9:30 a.m. on a typical day in the life of Philadelphia’s top garbage man, and Harry Perks’ crisis is growing worse by the minute. Crisis is a word Perks orders up a dozen times a day, coolly, calmly, a cucumber of a word – “We’ve got a crisis here. No, that was yesterday’s crisis.” But Harry Perks is especially calm this morning. His conversation has not yet turned, as it tends to do when he is pressed about Philadelphia’s garbage, to black- humor metaphors of suicide and death.

“It’s a terrible problem,” he says, going up in a City Hall elevator to Councilwoman Joan Specter’s office to answer questions about the crisis. ”People are putting out trash faster than I can dispose of it. It’s the biggest crisis I face. It’s a no-win job.”

So why in heck did Harry M. Perks, 58, mild-mannered civil engineer, former corporate president, retiree, married to the same woman for 40 years, father of four sons and financially set for life, throw over golfing and sailing a year and a half ago to look for places to throw Philadelphia’s trash?

Why, Harry, why?

Money? He certainly made more than the streets commissioner’s $55,000 a year as president of Philadelphia’s Day & Zimmermann, an international engineering firm with 7,000 employees. Fame? Perks says he has spent a lifetime being a “low-profile” engineer and is unnerved by the 2 a.m. phone calls from the media, the beeper calling him out of weddings and movie houses, the TV lights and hostile questions that give him anxiety attacks. Harry, why? No time to talk. Harry Perks is rushing to City Hall to face questions he is paid to answer each morning:

Why are garbage piles growing up in the Northeast, Harry, and rats and dogs feasting? Why is Fishtown almost rioting to get garbage collected? What are you doing about sanitation workers under investigation, the Streets Department, in the words of one investigator, “out of control”?

Harry Perks doesn’t have all the answers. He looks up to a politically troubled mayor, down to a much-maligned work force and straight in the eye of a problem that no city has solved. Which, of course, was everything Harry Perks wanted when he accepted Mayor Goode’s appointment to manage the Streets Departments’ 3,500 employees and $145 million budget. Why, Harry?

“There isn’t much time,” he says.

It is 10 o’clock on a Wednesday morning – last Wednesday morning – and Harry Perks is dialing his black phone, trying to find somewhere to throw out Philadelphia’s trash. Next to it sits another black phone, which he never dials.

“That phone is the hotline. When that rings, I drop everything. It means it’s him (James S. White, the city’s managing director) personally on the line wanting to talk to me at that moment. It’s not often he wants to talk to me personally at that moment. Only during a crisis – about twice a week.”

The week’s crisis hasn’t been all over the news, like the crisis one April weekend when Perks had to authorize $400,000 in sanitation workers’ overtime to catch up, but from his seat in the Municipal Services Building, it looks like the worst crisis since he has become streets commissioner. The irony is only his to savor.

“I have a crisis every day nobody knows about. Recently, we had a tractor- trailer go off the road. The pin hooking the tractor to the trailer broke off. We inspected the trucks, and they were all in imminent danger of the same failure. We had 70 trucks out of service all weekend, and nobody even knew it. I count my blessings when nobody notices.”

These last two weeks, the crises crowded in on Harry Perks. An incinerator broke down. The paving of U.S. 322 in Chester County slowed the city’s trucks to Lanchester Landfill to a crawl. Four new Navistar tractor-trailers came over the hill to save the failing fleet, and two of the new trucks went down, leaking fluids. Worst of all, it was a beautiful Memorial Day weekend. Philadelphians were spring cleaning, gardening, throwing out dirt and garden hoses and old refrigerators. The city, which produces 2,800 tons of trash a day in February, and usually soars to 3,600 tons in May, disgorged 4,200 tons a day for a week following Memorial Day.

The six giant “pits,” where the garbage sits briefly until it is burned in two city incinerators or hauled to three landfills as distant as Baltimore, filled to overflowing. Trucks waited in line to dump, and didn’t pick up.

Last Monday, there were 140, six-ton loads of trash still on the streets, left over from Friday. By Monday night, it was 160 loads. By Tuesday, 260 loads. When Harry Perks came to work Wednesday morning, his city was like a big dog choking on a bone.

But Perks doesn’t have time for all that.

10:15 A.M. A top city administrator wants Perks’ evaluation of the morning’s headlines: South Philadelphia is rallying to fight to the death again to stop Mayor Goode’s proposed trash-to-steam plant. Perks listens for more than half an hour. “There are only four or five people I answer to. When one of them is on the phone, I talk as long as they want to talk.”

10:58 A.M. The Commerce Department calls. A foreign manufacturer wants an audience for his miracle plan for garbage disposal – pyrolosis, cooking garbage at high temperatures without oxygen to produce gas and oil and carbon. Perks has heard about this miracle before. “It’s theoretically possible,” he says, but unproved. “We’ll talk to anyone about trash. But it’s a one-in-a-million shot.”

11:05 A.M. A phone call from a landfill. Can it handle 100 packed trucks a day for seven days, Harry Perks asks, “so I can dig my way out of it?” Doubtful.

“I’d slash my wrists,” he said recently, “if I didn’t think there was enough greed in the world to find somebody to take Philadephia’s trash.”

Do we have a crisis yet?

The headline from Waste Age magazine taunts Perks from his desk. The magazine has sat there for three weeks. He hasn’t had time to read it. ”Philadelphia is a fine case in point,” the story says. “Without a plant or a landfill, the city is in constant trash turmoil. . . . ”

Sometimes, Harry Perks feels like a hurricane forecaster who can only issue warnings, with even less understanding of the gathering storm. He can’t control all 2,400 of his sanitation workers. He can’t control the unions, the City Council, the environmental groups, the whims of out-of-state landfills. He can’t control the development of technology. He can only study all the blips on the screen and guess. He checks the weather. He looks at the holiday calendar. And each morning he looks out from his office window, eight stories above the nation’s fourth-largest city, and envisions more than a million people scraping coffee grinds and egg scraps and putting out old sofas, and hopes it will add up to 5,000 tons fewer than last week.

This is the science it comes down to: “Maybe it will be less this week,” he says, “because it was big last week.

“I only know it’s going to get worse before it gets better. The nightmare is we’ll get shut out of one of our disposal locations and we’ll tell people, ‘Don’t put your trash out. We can’t handle it.’ ”

Harry Perks is sitting over a club sandwich and iced tea on the 19th floor of One Penn Center, at an Urban Club dining room, big-boned, 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, distinguished-looking in his pressed olive suit, horn-rim glasses, nervously folding and unfolding a corner of the green-and-white place mat.

He skips lunch all but twice a month. He says the pressures are not getting to him.

“Nothing creates more pressure than profit and loss,” he says. “You make mistakes in the business world and millions are at stake.” Fold, unfold. Fold, unfold.

Why did you do it, Harry?

“I was naive,” he says. “I thought I could accomplish something.”

Before he took on Philadelphia’s trash, Harry Perks was an American success story. He was born the son of a New Jersey printer, who died when Harry was 3. When nobody else in his family went to college, Harry Perks got a bachelor’s degree from the Citadel Military College of South Carolina, then a master’s in civil engineering from Yale University. He worked his way from draftsman to president of Day & Zimmermann. He was wooed to public service in the ’60s, as an administrator building 40 new Philadelphia city schools, part of the “Ivy Mafia” reformers who cleaned up the school system.

Sometimes, Harry Perks gets down, realizing that he is risking his record as a doer of the undoable, his squeaky-clean reputation in the dirtiest of jobs. “The noose is tightening,” he said recently.

But a chance to make a bigger impact than even a corporate president, to ”benefit far more people,” keeps him going. Philadelphia’s garbage is the biggest challenge of Harry Perks’ career.

“Trash disposal is one of the biggest jobs facing the country,” he says. ”Think about it. I was intrigued. I was intrigued the way a doctor would be intrigued by an epidemic. I’m an engineer, and I thought I could contribute. I still think I can contribute. That’s what keeps my enthusiasm up.”

1:33 P.M. Back at the office. Perks smiles nervously at his secretary. ”Take a deep breath,” he says to himself.

A Channel 3 camera crew blows in, rearranging chairs. Harry Perks blinks and sweats into a TV lamp.

Enter reporter Tia O’Brien.

“Well, commissioner, doomsday for trash in Philadelphia.”

She sounds like a prosecutor. Harry gets defensive. “These kinds of things go on all time,” he says of the Fishtown demonstration.

“If it (a trash-to-steam plant proposal) doesn’t get introduced in the next couple of weeks,” he tells her, “I’ll dive out that window.”

“That would be a national story, commissioner. . . . Are you sure,” she asks, “you want this job?”

Later, Harry’s wife, Gladys, calls. She’s been shopping for antique furniture for their new condo. Harry Perks’ voice softens. “Bye, Peaches,” he says. He cracks his first smile of the day.

3 P.M. He is driving a 1981 black Ford Fairmont, the commissioner’s car, to inspect the pits at the East Central Incinerator, at Spring Garden Street and Delaware Avenue.

“I think I have the right tools and the background,” he is saying, “but fact is, I haven’t solved it and fact is, I may not solve it, and that would be terribly disappointing to me.”

He stares into the great roaring pit by the Delaware River, a vast opening 100 feet across and 40 feet high, overflowing with garbage bags, TV sets, air conditioners, old newspapers, egg cartons, the rotten fruit and hellish stench of Harry Perks’ empire. Giant crane mouths slowly lift the trash into the inferno, making but a tiny dent in the mountain. Trucks are waiting, waiting to dump.

“Oh, God,” Harry Perks says softly, his voice lost in the crane’s dinosaur roar, “that’s depressing.”

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