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The Mop Squad : Summer's End Is When Vacation Begins for the Beaches' Trash Brigade

September 17, 1988|LAURA KURTZMAN | Times Staff Writer

It was enough to test the resolve of even the most seasoned groundskeeper. Thousands had packed the beaches for one of the hottest Labor Day weekends on record--and what they left behind was not a pretty sight.

The crowds were so thick that in some places park workers couldn't get through with their trucks to empty the trash cans. And they might as well have forgotten about cleaning the public bathrooms, where a full-scale guerrilla war was in progress.

When it was all over, county cleanup crews, who care for only about a fifth of Orange County's beaches, had hauled tons of trash in about 2,000 bags and taken in an all-time high of $18,000 in quarters from beach parking meters.

"Everything was trashed," said Paul Edgerton, the park ranger who supervised the cleanup most of that weekend. "It was mobbed. I couldn't believe it."

Like most of the 19 county groundskeepers who earn their bread by cleaning up after the vacationing hordes, Edgerton could honestly say that he was glad summer was finally over. And with it, the messes, crowds, squabbles and vandalism that keep park workers occupied from June to September.

During the summer, the coastal division of the county Environmental Management Agency for Harbors, Beaches and Parks devotes most of its employees' time to cleaning the beaches and parks.

The agency spends about $17,500 a week in salaries alone.

With the help of a handful of female inmates--most of whom are repeat drunk-driving offenders--and court restitution workers, maintenance crews work 10 hours a day, seven days a week.

"At first, you're flabbergasted that the world can be that dirty," said Virgil Hamilton, who came out of retirement 1 1/2 years ago to become a county groundskeeper.

"The 'graffiti in the brown' gets a little sickening sometimes," he added, trying to allude genteelly to the fearsome messes groundskeepers find in the public bathrooms. "You think, 'My God, I have to touch that stuff?' "

Curiously, groundskeepers say, the worst of it is usually in the women's bathrooms.

"We have a little survey," joked Miguel Aguilar, a 21-year-old who works part time to put himself through college. "The women win all the time."

Aguilar wouldn't hazard a guess as to why that was. But his supervisor, Steve Bonhall, an eight-year veteran on the job, offered up one theory: "They spend more time in there."

But it is not just the unpleasantness in the bathrooms that can get a groundskeeper down. There are also the burdens that come with authority, or at least the appearance of it created by the maintenance workers' tan uniforms.

Aguilar says he is always getting complaints from outraged adults who want him to punish those who break the rules.

"They come up to you and say, 'Why are kids drinking on the beach? Why do people throw trash all over when they see trash cans? Why are people walking their dogs, when there are signs all over the place?' "

"A lot of times, they think we're police officers," he said. "They think we should give out citations."

And then there are the bratty kids who relish the opportunity to taunt anything resembling an authority figure.

"At certain places, people are really rude to us, like Salt Creek" Dawn Mages said. "They'll throw trash in front of you and say, 'Here, pick it up.' "

By the time they've been on the job a few months, most park workers say, the beach is the last place they would go on their day off.

"It's my work, so I don't come down here," Aguilar said. "I guess you get sick and tired of looking at bikinis, and you get sick and tired of looking at kids and the waves. You start dreaming about them."

Although they avoid the beaches when they're not working, groundskeepers say they still can't help noticing trash wherever they go.

"It's pretty bad," said Joanette Willert, a groundskeeper for 2 1/2 years, "when you get your day off and you find yourself picking up trash. Or you stare at somebody else, give them the evil eye if you see them littering."

But the job has its good side. Come winter, groundskeepers spend most of their time on such projects as gardening and building irrigation systems. Some even get to indulge their creative talents. Willert, for example, a former graphic artist who quit "because I got tired of being behind a drafting table 13 hours a day," now crafts the sand-blasted wooden signs for all the county's beaches and parks.

And all year-round there are always friendly people.

"I've gotten lots of compliments," Mages said. Those, she said, come mostly from the older people and the eccentric regulars who frequent the beaches and parks.

Mages said she knows one woman who parks her car in the Dana Point Harbor parking lot, then spreads birdseed on her roof for the pigeons. Another lady has taken it upon herself to feed and entertain the ever-multiplying army of stray cats that live at the harbor.

Some groundskeepers, like Hamilton, even manage a philosophical attitude about the messes themselves.

Seated on a wooden fence near some public bathrooms he had just helped clean, Hamilton smiled a little and said: "We figure if they didn't make a mess, we wouldn't have a job."

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