Joey Powers was helping a woman in her late 90s clean out her house after the death of her husband when he stumbled across the cabinet of knives.
It turned out that the woman’s husband had worked as a coroner for the U.S. Army during World War I, and he’d used the knives to perform autopsies.
Though he says that the discovery was “a little spooky” at first, Powers uncovers fascinating odds-and-ends and historical mementos like that knife collection on a fairly regular basis, one of the perks of his job as a driver for the Fairfax branch of the California-based trash removal service Junk King.
“Especially in the D.C. area, there’s so much history, and so much that the older generations are getting rid of now,” Powers said. “Even though we have to let a lot of it go, it’s really cool to be able to take these little pieces of history and give them a little bit more life.”
Powers joined Junk King at its genesis, when his brother, Alex, and owner Daniel Graham started the franchise in 2010.
An Arlington native, Graham was a published novel author and ran a consulting business for scientists and engineers with his wife before deciding to open Junk King of Fairfax, a career shift inspired partly by his desire to help military veterans returning to civilian life after serving overseas.
Graham spent 10 years as an officer in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War era. Once he left the army, he noticed that, while officers like himself could often find white-collar jobs upon being discharged, the same opportunities for work weren’t available or being offered to returning enlisted men.
“I would watch these guys serve and kind of just get shuffled off,” he said.
Graham decided to start Junk King to provide steady employment to the younger veterans he knew who were returning to the U.S. from the Middle East, including Alex Powers, who served in Iraq with the Marines.
Raised in Springfield, Va., Alex Powers was working toward getting a college degree from George Mason University when Graham partnered with him. He’s now the general manager of Junk King.
Advertised on its website as the “top junk removal service in the Fairfax area,” Junk King lends its services to both residential and commercial properties in the Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. metro regions, offering to take care of anything that’s unwanted, from furniture and yard waste to construction materials and office cubicles.
Essentially, the company will take anything as long as it isn’t hazardous. Medical waste, for example, is one of the few things that Junk King won’t handle, though it can recommend people to other companies that do deal with those materials.
Junk King even does some demo work, taking out cabinets and demolishing hot tubs, anything that doesn’t require a permit.
“[If] the customer calls us up, we’ll get their problem solved,” Graham said, summing up the company’s whatever-it-takes approach to business.
Once its drivers finish a particular job, whether it’s hauling a single piece of furniture or cleaning out an entire house, they take the material to a warehouse that Junk King owns in Lorton. From there, everything is sold, repurposed, recycled or, as a last resort, burned at a nearby Covanta waste-to-energy facility, which converts solid waste to electricity.
According to Graham, Junk King is completely landfill-free, separating it from some other trash removal services.
Sometimes, the company donates its findings to the Salvation Army and other charities. Occasionally, when it retrieves historically significant objects, it will give them to museums, such as when Joey Powers donated a collection of photographs he found from the Alexandria area to the George Washington Historical Society in Mount Vernon.
“It’s not every single day that we’re running into priceless antiques or anything, but it certainly happens,” Joey said, prompting Graham to joke that his drivers might all turn into antique dealers someday.
Junk King boasts its drivers’ integrity as a chief selling point. They’re instructed to inform customers if they find something potentially valuable instead of trying to sneak it away.
“They’re honest guys, and if they weren’t, they wouldn’t last here,” Graham said, citing an example of when he managed to stop an Anacostia customer from throwing a print by Maxfield Parrish, an influential, early 20th-century painter, into the garbage can.
Junk King currently has five trucks with a sixth one likely coming in July, and Graham hopes to double that number in the next couple of years.
Though it varies depending on the specific demands of each job, the drivers normally work in teams of two. They start by surveying everything that a customer wants taken away before offering a price estimate, which is based on volume.
Joey Powers says that his work can be challenging and exhausting, requiring a lot of physical strength and the willingness to spend as much as 12 or 13 hours hauling trash and broken, old, even rotting or stinky furniture.
For instance, Joey spent the morning of our interview on June 2 loading about 7,000 pounds of roofing shingles into his truck.
All of the drivers at Junk King right now are men, though women have applied in the past and both Powers and Graham say they’re completely open to having female drivers.
“It takes a certain amount of toughness,” Joey Powers said. “It’s not like moving, where you’re picking up clean things. It’s all the stuff that people want to forget about that they make us move.”
Still, the job has helped Powers learn how to persevere through often undesirable circumstances. He also enjoys the mental challenges that the gig offers, since it takes a certain amount of teamwork and ingenuity to figure out how to move heavy, unwieldy furniture and objects from a house to a truck.
He recently took a job that required his team to disassemble an entire gym and move it out of a person’s basement, which is how he found himself hauling a stair-climber machine up a set of actual stairs.
“Well, you don’t need to join a gym,” Graham quipped.
“No,” Joey said. “We lift gyms.”