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PALM LATITUDES

CLOSE-UP : Mr. Sandman

August 22, 1993|Ellen Alperstein

For a man with a job, Melvin Knowles spends a lot of time at the beach. In fact, of the 86 miles of L.A. County coastline, he knows 30 by heart. Those are the miles he has maintained--raking, sanitizing and contouring sand--during his 27 years as a heavy-equipment operator for the County Department of Beaches and Harbors.

"I started driving farm tractors on a Louisiana cotton farm when I was 16," says Knowles, who has worked around Venice Beach for the last 15 years. "It excites me to put my skill together with the tractor's skill."

Knowles' favorite assignments, contouring and carving, require bulldozing. To protect county structures and parking lots from storm damage, he constructs sand berms in the autumn and removes them in spring.

In summer, he's pretty much occupied from 5 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. with cleaning up after the public. The sanitizer, actually a modified potato picker, scoops and sifts two to four inches of sand, depositing the litter in a bin. "We not only take the trash out of the sand, we also level the beach off for a good finish. The sanitizer makes it look nice."

The worst days, trashwise, are the July Fourth and Memorial Day holidays. But things seem to be improving.

"I notice more people putting their trash in a can," Knowles says. "It seems like people are more aware, and recycling has helped." He seldom finds aluminum cans anymore, but reports a notable increase in condoms. Which is good news. Sort of.

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