It’s eight-thirty in the morning. Dense fog and a deep, soaking mist. Cold, and getting colder. I’m walking around with my little Fujifilm X10, shooting manually because the fog and mist completely bitch-slapped the autofocus and light metering. Not many people on the street; not many people are stupid enough to be outside in that weather.
And I see this guy. He’s got a short broom — looks sort of like a modern version of an old-fashioned besom — and a long-handled dustpan. And he’s sweeping up trash off the street. At 0830 hours, in the cold, foggy mist. I shoot a couple of quick frames, thinking to myself “This poor bastard must be miserable.”
I keep walking, he keeps looking for trash and sweeping it up. I nod to him and smile and say “You’ve got a cold morning for it.” He smiles and shrugs and says “I don’t mind so much, long as it’s doing this…” and he waves his hand up and down, like a karate chop “…and not doing this.” He waves his hand back and forth like he’s polishing a table. “Yeah, least there’s no wind,” I say.
His name is Kent. He’s been keeping the city streets clean for nearly three years. He says it’s not a bad job. “I like being outside. I get to meet people, walk around, don’t have to stay in one place.” He’s learned which business owners are nice, which ones ignore him like he’s not there, which ones are rude. He won’t identify any of the rude ones.
Kent says there’s about a dozen folks cleaning up the downtown area. He thinks most of his co-workers are pretty good or okay; a couple are lazy and some complain about the weather, but mostly they’re good people. He knows that most of the people he meets on the street don’t appreciate what he does, but he says clean streets sidewalks make the city a better place. He won’t say his job is important, but it’s clear he feels like he’s doing something worthwhile.
We talk for about ten minutes. We could have talked longer, but it’s obvious Kent feels he should get back to work. Sidewalks aren’t going to clean themselves, are they. I ask if I can take his photo. Kent sort of shuffles his feet, but nods. I take the shot, show it to him, and he grins. He tells me to stay safe; I tell him to stay warm. I go back to walking around, shooting photos; he goes back to picking up trash.
When people complain about their taxes — when they talk about cutting taxes and reducing the size of government — they’re talking about folks like Kent. Every single working day, regardless of the weather, this guy is out there making his city a more livable place. He’s making a meaningful contribution to the common good, which is a lot more than most of the folks complaining about their taxes do. Kent might not be comfortable saying his job is important, but it surely is.
And you know what’s really cool? You probably have somebody like Kent working in your city too. These folks don’t just exist in John Prine songs, you know. So take note of the people out there, and be sure to say hello to them.