It’s 11pm in Monterey and all is quiet. The summer crowds have gone home for the evening, and the only lights that remain on come from the trees that line the streets of downtown.
Then a very faint whirring sound pokes through the silence. It grows louder and louder by the second. Suddenly, a street sweeper roars around the corner, orange and white lights flashing.
Leroy Thrash, the sweeper’s driver, has just begun his shift.
Sure, the rest of the world is already in bed, but to him, that’s the beauty of his hours. The streets are virtually guaranteed to be clear and silent until the end of his workday, when the morning commute begins.
“I like having the streets to myself, once all the drunks and the crazies are gone,” Thrash says.
The average human’s day-to-day life is surrounded with people and noise, making this workday– in which the only sound is the hum of an engine and the only people in evidence are the police who patrol the streets, their voices barely audible on the scanner near Thrash’s steering wheel– a definite departure.
Thrash has fashioned a mantra of sorts for this existence, one which he repeats three times in the first hour and a half of his shift: “I don’t bother nobody, nobody bother me.”
AN INTOXICATED MAN RAN UP TO THE SWEEPER, SCREAMING THAT THE BRUSHES HAD SWEPT UP HIS WIFE.
When he finishes his work in the morning, Thrash steps out of the public’s way and takes to the golf course around 8am or 9am, where he rarely encounters crowds.
“I play every day if I can,” Thrash says. “Usually I go four or five times a week– plus the weekend.”
Clearly street sweepers on the night shift don’t function the way most people do, but the city of Monterey wouldn’t function very well without them.
“They are our eyes and our ears on the street when the town sleeps,” says Hans Uslar, Monterey’s deputy public works director.
Thrash seems to enjoy helping out in this way. As he steers, he scans the streets for people who look like trouble. If someone looks threatening, he tips off the police. Or, he says, “I’ll hear something about a robber on the scanner, and later I might see the suspect they were looking for.”
The enthusiasm Thrash brings to work goes above and beyond expectations in other ways, Uslar says: “He’ll come by and polish his street sweeper when he’s not working. He’s that kind of guy.”
Thrash believes his dedication to the job is what brings him satisfaction. For those who do the same job and grumble about it, he says, “it’s a boring job because they don’t enjoy it. For me, it’s not boring because every day is different.
“Life is what you make of it– it’s the same with this job.”
Thrash may sometimes go out of his way to help the police, but as his mantra indicates, he typically keeps to himself. He is satisfied to glide up and down the roads uninhibited and unaccompanied.
“It takes a special person to come out here and do this every night and feel good about yourself,” Thrash muses loudly over the din of the large brushes spinning against the pavement. He says a street sweeper must be independent, trustworthy and alert– unlike some of the drivers he encounters.
“A woman on a cell phone ran into me once, and she said she didn’t see me,” says Thrash. “I’ve got all these flashing lights! How much more visible can I be?”
Thrash has survived other encounters. Once, an intoxicated man ran up to the sweeper, screaming that the brushes had swept up his wife.
“You wouldn’t know how many strange people are out here,” Thrash says, shaking his head.
Thrash prefers to block it all from his mind and focus on the things that make him happy: his sweeping, his golf, and the occasional sound of jazz that recalls his New Orleans roots. As long as he knows he makes a difference in Monterey citizens’ lives, he doesn’t need anyone else to know.
“All those little things people take for granted– it all happens in the middle of the night when nobody’s looking,” says Fred Meurer, Monterey city manager.
Even those who happen to hear Thrash driving by their houses in the middle of the night will probably forget he was there by the next morning; the sound of the motor and the brushes dims as suddenly as it crescendos. Before locals can jump out of their beds and peek through their living room windows, the flashing lights have rounded another corner and the street is silent again.