By Timothy Fanning
53-year-old Pete Moran, sits in the driver’s seat of a Nissan Elgin Whirlwind street sweeper as it hugs the curb, tip toeing at five miles an hour. As he passes through a construction zone, dust kicks up like smoke before being sucked up into the sweeper’s tornado like vacuum. Moran rants about Bubba the Lovesponge’s most recent radio layoff, his hands flail off the steering wheel in sudden jerks of excitement. It is 4:35 am on a Wednesday, and in another hour, the sleeping Downtown St. Petersburg roads will be a stampede of rush-hour traffic.
Even with the Whirlwind’s ivory-white exterior and flashing orange warning lights, being hit by automobiles is a rite of passage for the Stormwater department, “We’ve all been hit at least once,” said Moran, “Sometimes I wonder if I’ve got a target somewhere on my truck.” Several years ago a medical delivery vehicle plowed head on into Moran. In the middle of a turn, his left wrist got snagged in the steering wheel, shattering the bones. Most sweeper accidents occur on highways and interstates, but since contracting out those jobs, there hasn’t been an accident in the past six years.
The 54 inch hydraulically driven extension broom and high-productivity suction nozzle sucks up anything from leaves, dirt, pollen, trash, recyclables, wallets, cellphones, keys, purses, and even guns (In certain neighborhoods of St. Petersburg, weapons are often ditched into the vacuum during a sweeping job.) In the yawning hours of the morning, Moran is often stopped by bicyclists, pedestrians, and motorists and asked if he had found their lost items.
Except for drunks sleeping on the downtown street curb and perhaps a disgruntled housewife or two coming out to complain about the noise, he is seldom noticed in his ten-hour shift.
Moran’s voice sounds like tires crunching on a gravel road. He is a short, middle-aged man, with thinning blonde hair brushed back across the top of his head. He is filled with no-nonsense solutions from anything about what not to do to get moles off of his ten-acre property in Pasco County to Donald Trump being a necessary buffoon for November’s 2016 election. Born in England, he moved to Florida when he was three years old, after his uncle, completely obsessed and sunburnt, came home from vacation in Florida and encouraged his father and mother to become U.S. Citizens. Moran returns to England to visit family often.
Once, while sweeping, Moran came upon a dead body lying in the street. “At first I thought he was drunk.” It is not uncommon to find drunks passed out on the curb on Monday morning or after holidays. His first impression was that the person was asleep. He called emergency services but by the time they arrived on the scene, the man was already dead. “On the phone they asked me to do CPR and I was like, ‘Are you crazy?’ I can’t help this guy!’” Now every time he finds someone sleeping on the curb, he checks to see if they are okay.
Other than the occasional morning where Moran has to compete with aluminum can collectors and dodging early morning joggers on Beach Drive, his job is stress free. Coming from a background in dangerous, high-risk bridge construction, he did not think he would like sweeping. But with a wife to support through nursing school and more children on the way, he stuck through it. Two years later, after struggling to adjust to the hours and boredom, he discovered that driving a street sweeper was the perfect job for him.
“People are always surprised when I tell them I actually love my job! I get to work in air conditioning and scratch my ass without someone telling me to get my hands out of my pants.” Aside from checking in with supervisor Scott Hubar twice a day for assignments, Moran is almost his own boss and is able to let his mind wander and reflect on anything from the recent Hulk Hogan sex tape scandal to being a horse owner, grandfather, and household handyman.
To pass the time over the years, he has built a routine around high-energy radio personalities and heavy hitting political commentators, which are as essential as his twenty-ounce thermos of WAWA coffee. (A passion, which would not have come to bloom if it weren’t for all the hours spent alone in his truck.)
For six years Moran has driven the Cadillac of street sweepers. The closed air controlled cabin helps to keep out the heavy smell of soggy dirt and the loudness of the sweeping machinery. But the trucks have their problems and break down a lot. They go into fits, like toddlers and throw up when they have had too much street debris. Washing the mechanics of the truck with reclaimed water also damages the components, and each truck has to be serviced every three or so months. But it is a necessary evil to adhere to St. Petersburg’s strict palpable water conservation policy.
When the massive metal collection bin (hopper) is full, the truck leaves long snake-like patterns of debris behind it. The truck lumbers awkwardly and heavy in turns. Spring is the Stormwater department’s busy season, on account of all the pollen and fallen leaves that accumulate over a day. According to Hubar, 1,700 yards of debris is hauled away to the incinerator every week. It is so bad that Moran has to dump back at home base about six times a day. To conserve gas and precious sweeping time, Moran has learned how to pack his hopper full of debris. Just like a gardener would stuff a black garbage bag full of leaves, Moran does the same with his truck. To do this, he accelerates, roaring the engine. He then breaks sudden and hard, sending the cab of the truck forward. He does this three to four times until he can tell, from experience, that there is enough room for more debris.
Moran dedicates the last thirty minutes of his shift to cleaning the truck with a fire hose. At shift’s end, he will often find and have to clean out dead squirrels and possums, swollen up like balloons, stuck in the gears of the hopper. Their bloated corpses sometimes pop, splashing guts and blood all over the place. Moran stands as back against the cement graphitized wall behind him. The water from the hose comes in clear and rushing, like a waterfall. It then slops out dark and muddy, like the melted leftovers of a Coca Cola slushy.
By the end of the shift, the ground around the truck looks like the Mississippi river bank. The inside of the hopper is fresh, damp, and reeks of reclaimed water. “There is nothing glamorous about what we do.”