On a walk with Michael Dukakis as he picks up litter

The former governor and 1988 Democratic presidential nominee says it makes his day when somebody says, ‘Now you got me doin’ it.’

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee, empties a grocery bag of trash that he collected on his two-mile walk to Boston’s Northeastern University, where he is a professor.

On his two-mile walk to work, the distinguished professor crosses a playground, whips a crumpled plastic grocery bag out of his canvas briefcase, and plucks a tissue – a used tissue – off the ground.

You stifle the “ew!” if you want to keep up with his brisk pace. It seems like a low-impact task for a man who served 12 years as the governor of Massachusetts and was the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee, but that’s not how Michael Dukakis sees picking up litter.

This is going to be a two-bag day for the octogenarian. That is, by the end of his daily constitutional from his Brookline home to Northeastern University in Boston, he’ll have filled two bags with the detritus of the people.

Mr. Dukakis was nominated 28 years ago this summer to run against George H.W. Bush. It may have been his last election campaign, but Dukakis – who serves on the boards of seven organizations and teaches public policy – stumps on earnestly for an array of civic causes. One of them he takes very personally: litter, and its close cousins, graffiti and billboards.

The former governor’s picking up of trash is not part of any organized effort. “It’s unconscious. I can’t go by the things without picking them up,” he says, with a tilt of his iconic, now salt-and-pepper brow.

Indeed, Dukakis’s litter radar didn’t slow his full-throttle commentary in a recent Monitor interview that took place during his locally legendary trash-collecting walk to work. His monologue, delivered along the Muddy River promenade through Boston’s Fens parkland and Longwood hospital district, included cybersecurity; his wife Kitty’s policy advocacy of electroconvulsive therapy for depression; colorful (unprintable) descriptions of climate change deniers; and some famous admirable “guys” – “this guy Olmsted” who created Boston’s Emerald Necklace park system, “this guy you’re walking with” who cleaned up and preserved that park system, and Alexander Hamilton: “The guy ... pushed for infrastructure!”

As the former presidential nominee started his walk on a muggy morning, inevitable candidate comparisons came to mind. Could you imagine Trump, either of the Clintons, Gore, or George W. walking two miles to work every day, let alone bending to lay a bare hand on a Slurpee cup? OK, maybe Jimmy Carter.

The direct cost nationally of litter cleanup to business and government was estimated at $11.5 billion a year, in a 2009 study of litter habits prepared for Keep America Beautiful and funded by Philip Morris USA. Indirect costs associated with litter damage – such as clogged waterways – are harder to calculate.

Littering is a crime of stealth, and Dukakis himself says he’s rarely caught anyone in the act. However, picking up trash can have a ripple effect, he says.

“I’m a big fan of the ‘broken windows’ policing theory: It’s not just enough to chase lawbreakers, but you want to create a sense of social order in communities. Because when you start letting [broken windows, litter, or graffiti] happen, a lot of other things happen,” he says. “If the place is clean, people are less inclined to mess it up; if it looks like a dump, what the hell.”

He adds, “It doesn’t hurt if people see incumbent mayors and ex-governors cleaning the place up. And you hope that others will be inspired to do the same.... What makes my day is when somebody comes along and says, ‘Now you got me doin’ it.’ ”

Walking his ‘green’ talk

Dukakis unapologetically walks his “green” talk in many ways. In recent years, he’s devoted some Sunday mornings to driving around and painting over graffiti on postal collection boxes. He’s known for using Thanksgiving turkey carcasses to make soup for his family and a local senior center (last year he received 26 on his front porch and one in the mail; two remain in his freezer). And he wears a pair of Kitty’s castoff Prada sunglasses, recycling them because they’re “the best sunglass lenses I have ever worn.”

Twitter lights up every few months with new sightings of Dukakis’s handiwork. One 20-something a few years back tweeted: “On a dreary workday morning, few things make me happier than seeing Michael Dukakis pick up litter along his walk to work.”

Last summer, lawyer Sarah E. Godfrey wrote to The Boston Globe about an encounter with “a nice old man ... picking up garbage at the train station on his way to work.” She complimented him as a “good citizen,” and he turned and asked, “How many ex-governors do you think go around picking up trash at train stations?”

“I laughed, and ... asked if he had, um, actually served as governor of Massachusetts,” she wrote.

His response: “Yes, for 12 years!”

Beyond the novelty of a former governor picking up litter, though, is an unseen army of like-minded people, says Jeff Kirschner, founder of Litterati, an app for trash-conscious people that maintains a “live litter count.”  

“There are people like Michael all over,” Mr. Kirschner says. “They feel empowered that they can make a difference.... They’re not looking for a pat on the back. It makes them feel good because they’re doing something that affects, in a positive way, all of us.”

Many others, he adds, think, “It’s not my responsibility” or “I didn’t put that there” or “Someone is paid to [pick it up]” or “That’s too gross.”  

Getting students on board

The idea of civic responsibility is something Dukakis contemplates. He recalls an encounter with a gaggle of students next to the Muddy River, with trash all around them. He told them about the efforts to keep the park clean and asked if they’d pick up the trash. They bristled, “We didn’t do it!”

Dukakis replied: “ ‘I know ... but you’re standing in it. I didn’t do it either, and I used to be the governor, and I pick it up.’

“I must say, since that time, I’ve found very little litter at that spot,” he says.  

As he walks, his grocery bag expands with litter: cigarette cartons, yogurt cups, Dunkin’ Donuts napkins, flattened cans and water bottles, and numerous hospital gloves. (“Why would somebody working at a hospital throw these things in the street?” he gripes.)

“You have no idea the transformation there [has been],” he says at several points along the walk. Parts of the Emerald Necklace over the years have been threatened by highway construction and pollution – both of which Dukakis takes credit for heading off in his gubernatorial administrations.

Taking a long view on progress

He can be grouchy about the litter, but when asked about progress on that front, Dukakis hauls out some optimistic professorial perspective: “Don’t accept conventional wisdom.”

Though he means that to encourage his students to think outside the box on social issues, he suggests it also applies to the current state of the nation: Things are a lot better on all fronts than we might believe, he says, present political apocalypticism included. “At the ground level” where people live, life is better even if “Washington is kind of dysfunctional,” he says.

“Just look at [Boston] itself, the progress we’ve made,” he offers. “The city I grew up in was racist, anti-Semitic, angry, declining, deteriorating: It was not a fun time. I was around in the ’50s; there was a guy named Joe McCarthy running around who made Trump look like a minor-leaguer.

“When people say to me, ‘You haven’t seen it so bad,’ I say, ‘I sure have seen it a lot worse.’ ”

He says his grandson can play tennis today at the area’s Longwood Cricket Club, where Jews like Kitty were not allowed to set foot when she was a teen. He recalls no public outcry over closures of Charles River beaches because of pollution when he was a kid here. And trash, he says, was so thick in some places that it had to be raked.

But couldn’t someone shrug off Dukakis’s comments with the same observation, that all things are relative?

“That’s probably true,” he admits, smiling. Progress, he says, on any front, including litter, results from “one of the great things about humans: They’re never satisfied.”

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