By Elizabeth McGowan
It’s 8:12 on a rare early September morning where autumn’s welcome crispness has temporarily outmaneuvered summer’s tortuously humid grip. Tom Jamison and Ulises Solorzano, their stomachs full and their 24-foot box truck empty, idle on Route 1 in Hyattsville waiting for a stoplight to flash green.
In that brief minute, an older woman with a pixie haircut at the wheel of an oncoming blue Subaru wagon, spies the distinctive black block “Community Forklift” lettering above the truck’s cab. She smiles broadly, raises her right hand and flashes the two men a peace sign.
Jamison and Solorzano both grin. And wave back. In unison.
That’s pretty much how the duo has done everything since they embarked on their new green careers as part of the Forklift’s five-man donations team in late August. It’s fortunate they clicked because their jobs are all about teamwork. They’re side-by-side from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. every weekday negotiating the alleys, side streets, major thoroughfares and traffic jams of the metropolitan Washington, D.C., region in their quest to stop at donors’ homes to pick up and haul away the mountains of castoff treasures that are the Forklift’s bread and butter.
“I couldn’t do this without Ulises,” says Jamison, as he steers the truck toward the first pickup of the day in a College Park neighborhood. “We work smart together.”
“Tom’s a very good listener and I’m a very good talker, so we complement one another,” Solorzano chimes in as he simultaneously consults a digital map he’s called up on his tablet computer and a detailed paper printout on a clipboard listing the half dozen stops they’ll be making that day.
“Tom has to concentrate on the driving,” he continues. “I have my ways to navigate our route. I direct him and he never says ‘I know better.’ Instead, he thanks me. It feels good to have a partner like that, one who appreciates your knowledge. So far, we haven’t gotten lost. And we’re always on time.”
They are indeed punctual as Jamison gracefully positions the bulky truck next to the curb on a curvy Calvert Hills street designed for streamlined passenger cars. Joy Melnick, an office worker for the federal government whose first name matches her upbeat personality, practically cheers their arrival. Contractors are renovating most of her house after an enormous oak tree crushed it during a storm almost a year ago.
“The guy who is helping me pick my paint colors told me not to throw anything out,” Melnick explains as Jamison and Solorzano start loading shower doors, a sink, a kitchen stove and a clothes hamper onto the truck. “He said I had to give it to Community Forklift.”
Before climbing back into the truck, Jamison hands the homeowner an invitation to the Forklift’s Pirate Party and tells her they hope to see her at the Edmonston warehouse on Sept. 28 for the event.
While Jamison attends to paperwork—meticulously recording mileage, time spent at the house and filling out a detailed donation form for the customer’s tax records—Solorzano chats up a pair of on-site contractors, touting the benefits of buying surplus and salvage building supplies from the Forklift.
“I like to break the ice,” Solorzano says about his endless—and bilingual—efforts to promote Community Forklift. “This job is hard work. But customers appreciate it when we take the time to make them feel like they are our friends.”
On the trip to their next pickup in Kensington, it becomes clearer how the two Prince George’s County residents ended up sharing a bench seat in the Hino 268 diesel-powered truck.
Before coming to the Forklift, Solorzano was a technician specializing in hydraulic systems at government buildings. Although he excelled at it, he didn’t find it very rewarding. He’s grateful he followed his wife’s advice to apply for the job opening she spotted at the nonprofit.
“At the Forklift, I’m not just doing a job, I’m interacting with people and doing something for the community,” Solorzano says. “I told my wife that I’m working very hard and I feel some muscles that I’ve never felt before, but it’s for a good cause. My co-workers are such good people.”
As a 20-something, Jamison realized office work wasn’t for him because all he could think about was fleeing the incessant buzzing of the fluorescent lights above him.
“I’ve worked outside most of my adult life,” says Jamison, who has farmed, raised perennials and operated a drilling business. “I like physical labor.”
Being able to stoop, bend, lift and think on their feet is a prerequisite for the donations crew—especially when Jamison and Solorzano reach the roomy Deoudes household on a leafy street in Kensington where half a dozen radiators of all sizes and colors are lined up in the driveway awaiting them. Some of these behemoths can weigh at least 600 pounds. In the first half of this year alone, the Forklift has accepted almost 16,000 pounds of radiators from donors. That adds up to roughly the weight of two adult African elephants.
This is the sort of situation where the two have learned to maximize the assets of the carts and dollies—the constant companions that can preserve their knees and backs.
“We know you shouldn’t try to be a hero,” Solorzano says while punching the button to activate the lift at the tail end of the truck. “It’s important to lift things the right way.”
The almost balletic rapport between the partners really shines when they are loading, toting and battening down awkward, cumbersome and gigantic objects such as radiators, subzero refrigerators and clawfoot bathtubs. It’s as if a sixth sense kicks in. Like a second baseman who knows exactly where to position himself to cleanly field a toss from his off-balance shortstop, Jamison and Solorzano can instinctively read each other’s bodies well enough that few words need to be exchanged.
Nicholas Deoudes is so impressed with their execution that he hands them each a bottle of cold water. He explains that he’s grateful to have found a place that will reuse and recycle goods that no longer fit into his 1902 house. This is the first time he has connected with the Forklift, even though he read about the nonprofit’s mission in a long-ago newspaper article he had saved.
“And if we ever move, and believe me, this place is getting really big for the two of us,” Deoudes says, “we’ll be calling you again.”
As they load up with more and more goods at each stop, Jamison and Solorzano acknowledge that their Forklift supervisor, donations coordinator David McDuff, is spot-on when he refers to each truckload as a Rubik’s cube. It is indeed a puzzle to balance and tie down all that is collected each day so it rides smoothly and safely.
“Each place we stop can be an adventure,” says Solorzano as he and Jamison approach a Silver Spring neighborhood of pre-World War II houses. This is an instance where their job descriptions go beyond driver, navigator, weightlifter, contortionist, ambassador and outreach specialist.
Sometimes they have to be therapists, too.
At a home near the center of the block, they greet longtime Forklift donor Nancy Traubitz. She has lugged a pile of donations to the curb because she and her husband, Dick, are preparing to sell their 1938 home and move to a retirement facility.
“Of all that’s here, this is what’s hardest to part with,” Traubitz says, pointing to wooden, handcrafted chicken crate marked as the property of “G. Baker.” “But we just can’t take something like that with us.”
The “G” stands for Gerald, her father. Back in 1937, her parents used the $25 her mother was given as a dowry to buy five such crates made in Brightwood, Va., so the newlyweds could launch a poultry business.
“You can’t find many of those anymore because they’re all made of wire now,” she says. “All of my friends who are searching for interesting things, I drag them to the Community Forklift.”
Jamison and Solorzano both give her their undivided attention. They smile and nod and thank her profusely. Then, ever so gently, they secure the family heirloom in the back of the box truck before thanking Traubitz and heading to their next stop.
The next day the crate will be on the Forklift’s warehouse floor, waiting to be noticed. Soon, just the right buyer will admire it, see the possibilities and lovingly scoop it up—and then delve into giving it a second life as a one-of-a-kind coffee table.