One morning a couple weeks ago, fate guided me south along Tujunga Avenue to the on-ramp for the westbound Ventura Freeway. The view here reminded me of those old "Keep America Beautiful" ads: fast-food wrappers, beer cans, yellowed newspaper, foam cups, broken glass--a landscape so obscene it would move Iron Eyes Cody to tears.
And at the top of the on-ramp, I thought I spotted the culprit.
Not Bette in the flesh, but rather the Caltrans sign that advertises the fact that the singer-actress who bills herself as the Divine Miss M has promised to pick up trash along this two-mile stretch of freeway.
Bette, it seemed, was letting us down. I wanted to guide her to this spot. I wanted to point to the mess and say, "Bette, what gives? Did this stuff blow in on the wind beneath your wings or what?"
Joel Fonseca, however, says I shouldn't be so hard on Bette Midler.
"That whole section of the 101 is a trashed-up freeway. It's a tough spot," says Fonseca, coordinator of Caltrans' Adopt-a-Highway program for Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
Ms. Midler's stretch through Studio City is difficult, he says, because "you've got all those interchanges there, a phenomenal amount of traffic. The sections that have a lot of on- and off-ramps are tough, because there's so much litter. People get backed up and there goes their McDonald's wrapper, their coffee cups, out the window."
You know who you are. Don't you understand that back seats are an excellent place to put the garbage? Scofflaws risk $1,000 fines, yet they act as if the roadways are extensions of landfills. Or maybe they really think they'll spot Bette Midler cleaning up after them.
Actually, though you'll have a tough time finding Bette, you might find Joel Fonseca wiping out some graffiti if you know where to look. Fonseca is a little like Ty Sperling of the Hair Club for Men. He isn't just coordinator of the Caltrans program, he's also a participant, tending to a sound wall not far from his home in south Los Angeles County.
Through Fonseca's office, more than 550 companies, groups and individuals have agreed to undo the work of slobs and vandals. Many, such as Ms. Midler, hire crews to handle the work and some do it themselves. For their trouble, participants receive two things: a measure of psychic satisfaction and a token of public recognition in the form of those familiar Adopt-a-Highway or adopt-a-wall signs that are such a curiosity to motorists.
Bette Midler, who has said she became involved simply because she loathes litter, remains the most celebrated participant in the adoption program. Many signs recognize companies including movie studios, car dealerships and this newspaper, and many represent community organizations such as churches, "graffiti buster" groups and fraternities. Some note the efforts of families and individuals who share Bette Midler's loathing for litter, but not her fame.
A few always inspire double takes. Driving west on the Simi Valley Freeway in Granada Hills, you may spot a sign noting that a two-mile stretch was adopted by none other than the FBI. Who would litter here?
And part of Topanga Canyon Boulevard has been adopted by the Elysium Institute, which means nothing unless you know that Elysium is a nudist colony. Caltrans, Fonseca said, would insist that any nudists who wish to make a political statement while cleaning the highway should still obey safety regulations that require them to at least wear helmets and bright orange vests.
Comedians have suggested that people who are interested in adopting children might consider adopting a freeway first. There is a similarity, it seems, between freeways and orphans. Fonseca has a waiting list of parties interested in the Ventura Freeway. But there are a few forlorn stretches of the Foothill Freeway in Sylmar that nobody seems to want.
Fonseca says he won't entrust his freeways to just anybody. Many parties, he says, express interest until they learn that they are expected to clean the roadway monthly, or more often in some areas. Some groups, he says, have been dropped from the program for their failure to live up to the bargain.
That's what I was thinking when I saw Bette Midler's on-ramp a couple weeks ago. Some journalists bring down Presidents, governors, senators. Maybe I could bring down Bette Midler's sign.
But by the time I cruised by Monday morning, there were six orange plastic trash bags waiting for pickup. There was some litter on the shoulder, but not much.
Maybe somebody tipped her off.
Scott Harris' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Readers may write to Harris at the Times Valley Edition, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, Calif. 91311.