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The Street Sweeper's Night Shift: Story of a Sweeper Operator in Berkeley

by Jonathan Jones, October 14, 2003 12:34 PM

BERKELEY - "For eight hours a night, the streets of downtown Berkeley belong to Adrian La Placa."

Forty minutes before midnight, the 51-year-old La Placa pulls into an empty parking lot of the City of Berkeley's Public Works.

From 11:30 p.m. to 7 a.m., he works as a city street sweeper in downtown Berkeley, combing the streets from University to San Pablo, from Shattuck to Telegraph in a giant $200,000 vacuum cleaner.

As a street sweeper working the night shift, La Placa knows all the dirt.

And throughout the 22 years he has worked for the city, La Placa has taken it all in: the Doritos and McDonald's wrappers, the strung-out women roaming the streets, the cigarette butts, the shady figures standing on corners, the broken bottles and glass, the dead squirrels and barefoot men soliciting donations with coffee cans.

"Nothing fazes me anymore, I've seen it all," said La Placa as he weaves in between cars, tickling the curb. But then he takes a step back. "Well, maybe not all. But I feel like I've seen everything a little closer."

Since he became a single parent 20 years ago, La Placa has worked nights. La Placa says he works the night shift not only because it pays more than the dayshift but also because he doesn't have to follow around parking attendants pasting tickets on the cars that block his path.

"When you give tickets first, people get ticked off," he said. "You end up getting cursed at a lot during the daytime, but I try not to take things personally."

In the early morning hours, La Placa methodically spends his night squaring up the streets as if resurfacing an ice hockey rink on a Zamboni.

Sometimes, it appears as if he is looking in three directions at once, checking the side mirrors for on-coming cars, making sure the sweeper underneath is down and working, and keeping his eyes out for parked cars in front of him.

"I like being a public servant," he says. "This job has been good to me." It's also given him a glimpse of the city streets seldom seen by others.

In addition to witnessing sex acts and drug use, the sound of the on-coming street sweeper can cause people to dash out to grab choice cigarette butts or half-empty soda bottles before the sweeper does. Cats jump off ledges and tear across the road. Dogs bark and growl at him as if wanting to fight.

There are the drug dealers who have been standing on the corners for so long that they now wave to him as he passes. There are the same few prostitutes who try, unsuccessfully, to flag him down, and the mentally ill who wander around soaking wet after a storm.

And then there are the fraternity boys, who knock over trashcans and newspaper vending machines, making his job harder than it has to be.

"You don't have to look very far to see people with more problems than I do," La Placa said.

In his early days with the city, La Place pushed a hand-broom. He recalled one night working after a Grateful Dead show at the Greek Theater when Deadhead called him a pig because he "worked for a paycheck rather than the people."

"I work for 120,000 people," Le Placa recalled retorting. "How many people do you work for?"

La Placa is more than willing to talk about the FCC rulings on media conglomerations, the war in Iraq, Osama bin Laden, or organized religion. But most nights he is alone, listening to an MP3 player, consumed in his own thoughts.

"You have a lot of time to think out here," he said. "Sometimes that's good, sometimes it's bad. If you're having problems with your girlfriend or something, you have a lot of time to think about it."

Before sunrise, La Placa will have put 40 miles on his sweeper, collecting more than 1.88 tons of trash. He shudders to think what the streets would look like should the sweepers ever go on strike.

"All that little stuff adds up," La Placa said. "But that's how much will not be washed into the Bay. This is what I can be proud of. These streets are clean because of me."

This story was written by Jonathan Jones as part of reporting he did for the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Jonathan Jones now covers religious, ethnic, and cultural issues for ANG Newspapers. He can be reached at

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