The Coincidental Do-gooder

By Adam Granger


Years ago, I wrote a script for “A Prairie Home Companion” radio show touting a supposed new MnDOT program: Adopt-a-Highway Plus.

As a subscriber to this plan, you not only agreed to pick up litter on your assigned stretch of the road, but to do all other necessary maintenance, up to and including stripe-painting, road-grading and resurfacing. My tongue in cheek program encouraged you to “Do your part to help shrink our bloated highway department budget” and explained that commercial-grade equipment would be available for a reasonable rental and that MnDOT would even sell materials to you for “less than you’d pay in stores.”

In a case of my life imitating my art, I undertook a modified version of this program on my walking route last summer. It started innocently enough, with my picking up trash along my way, something that many people routinely do. But then I started noticing—and being increasingly irritated by—other blights, particularly graffiti, tags and stickers.

Over the ensuing months, I accumulated an arsenal of removal materials: chemicals, scrapers, rags and—for when removal isn’t possible—an assortment of institutional-colored spray paints. I removed or covered graffiti and stickers along the length of my walk route: Blake Avenue to Raymond Avenue to Energy Park Drive to the U of M transitway and then for a mile down the transitway.

I cleaned graffiti off of transitway signage, removed tags from the metal railing on the bridge over the railroad tracks, scoured paint off the stop sign on Robbins at Manvel, painted over tags on the Highway 280 piers, scrubbed spray paint off of the old stonework under the Raymond Avenue trestle and cleared all of the utility poles and signage along the west side of Raymond Avenue.

The railing on the steps leading up to the transitway from Robbins Street was so blighted that I simply repainted the whole thing. Some days, I took clippers and loppers and trimmed brush and tree branches back from the sidewalks.

I realize that there are questions of legality regarding my campaign. So, let me say that I did all of this in broad daylight, making no attempt to conceal my actions. I was seen cleaning, scraping, repainting and clearing by hundreds of people, some of them official.

One day, I had just finished painting over a small tag and turned to find, literally ten feet behind me, two police officers watching me from their car. I shrugged, spray paint can in hand, with a “cuff me” look on my face, and they smiled, gave me a thumbs up and drove off.

I know that there are city, university and utility personnel whose job it is to do this maintenance, but I doubt that I am putting anyone’s job in jeopardy by my scabbing. And anyway, I’ve created more work than I’ve saved these people over the past 30 years, prevailing upon them regularly to do bigger or more dangerous removal jobs, to which requests they’ve generally responded promptly.

An unfortunate singular exception is BNSF Railroad. The official word, straight from a supervisor’s mouth, is that budget cuts have reduced their bridge crew size, and they no longer remove graffiti from railroad property unless it is obscene or offensive.

Learning this, I took my extension ladder out one afternoon last August and, with my neighbor spotting me on the ground, climbed up and painted over a large white tag on the north face of the Raymond Avenue trestle. It had been bugging me for months!

Let’s get back to the title of this piece. Why coincidental? And why isn’t this just an 800-word pat on my own back? Adam the Great making the world a better place? Well, it’s coincidental because I’m not doing it for the world. All of the actions I’ve described have been strictly for my own benefit.

If, collaterally, others see the cleaning and clearing I’ve done, great, I’m very pleased, and you’re welcome. But I’d bet the farm that no one besides me has noticed.

I’m not meaning to sound like a beleaguered housekeeper here; on the contrary, the nice thing about my egocentric motivation is that it’s fine if no one else appreciates the results of my efforts. It’s not a thankless job; I thank myself every time I take a walk.

If you find yourself inspired by my coincidental good deeds, there are plenty of available slots in the Adopt-A-Walk-Route Plus program. Let me explain how the program works: Oh, wait. I just did.

Adam Granger is a musician, teacher and writer and 32-year resident of St Anthony Park. He last wrote in these pages about turning 70.

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