Those bright orange trash trucks that roam the streets of Washington, and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties really do bear the inscription “Tikkun olam – Repair the world.”
But Tenleytown Trash owner Barney Shapiro is rarely asked how a Jewish man ended up running a trash company with Jewish values. Instead, “most people go, ‘You don’t look Italian,’” Shapiro, 63, said during an interview last week in his District of Columbia office.
Shapiro didn’t grow up wanting to be a trash truck driver. He has a degree in dramatic literature and composition. “I’m qualified to become a world-renowned playwright,” he laughed.
While he hasn’t written a play in some 40 years, the lifelong District resident founded Tenlytown Trash and has spent almost 20 years overseeing a company that has grown to 60 employees, 27 trucks — the trucks are painted orange in honor of his beloved alma mater, Syracuse University — and an annual gross income of $6.5 million. His company collects trash and recycling materials at 467 apartment units and a dozen housing developments.
Since he opened the company in December 1997, Shapiro has been involved in all facets of the business. He drove a garbage truck regularly until four years ago.
He even removed a large dead deer from someone’s driveway one Thanksgiving several years ago.
Now, he’s more of an office person, although he drives a truck every Christmas for clients needing 365-day-a-year service.
“It’s a simple business,” he said when asked what he likes best about his job. “I pick up your trash. You pay me.” Work doesn’t hang over his head when he goes home at night. “We work to task, have a daily route and we’re finished when that is done.”
However, he is quick to add, “It is not easy work.”
It’s also dangerous. “Safety is a significant issue,” Shapiro said. “Employees do get hurt.” The industry, he added, has a high workers’ compensation rate.
In an effort to keep his company growing, Shapiro hired Hallie Clemm as Tenleytown Trash’s chief operating officer. Clemm, whose first day was last week, happens to have the maiden name Shapiro, but the two are quick to explain their names are quite different. Barney pronounces it “sha-PIE-ro” and Clemm says “sha-PEER-o.”
She previously was the solid waste management deputy administrator for the D.C. Department of Public Works. Although she’s been in the business 30 years, she said, her new position “is challenging for me. I am learning new things.”
Clemm, who belongs to Temple Emanuel in Kensington, has “thrown trash. I have thrown recycling.” However, she isn’t licensed to drive the big trash trucks, she said.
“It’s not easy work. It’s not glamorous work,” she said, but she enjoys it and admires her co-workers.
The people who collect trash “are wonderful, salt-of-the-earth, good people that deserve a ton of respect for what they do every day.”
As for the people whose garbage Tenleytown Trash collects, Clemm has this advice: Keep the trash out of the recycling bin, “particularly your leftover lettuce and pizza crust.”
Shapiro isn’t worried about getting that word out. Instead, he prefers painting messages on his trucks. In addition to the oft-heard Washington plea, “Taxation without representation is tyranny,” there are movie and other quotes painted on the trucks. Among them are “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli” (The Godfather), “Nobody puts baby in a corner” (Dirty Dancing), “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” (Shakespeare’s Henry The Sixth, Part 2 ) and “The pump don’t work ’cause the vandals took the handles (Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”).
Though the sayings vary, on each truck, spelled out in blue letters, is Shapiro’s firm belief in tikkun olam.
Audrey Lyon, executive director of Yachad, a Jewish nonprofit organization that performs home repair work for the needy, appreciates that Shapiro is quick to pick up the group’s trash and provide dumpsters at no charge.
“Without Tenleytown Trash, Yachad could not do what we do,” she said. “They never charge us anything, and they usually make an annual contribution. They completely understand the concept of giving back.”
Shapiro “is like an unsung hero,” said Lyon. “We couldn’t do our work without him.”