They Sweep Oak Bluffs Streets in the Dark and Sleepy Hours

By MANDY LOCKE

At three o'clock in the morning, Circuit avenue in Oak Bluffs belongs to Herbie Landers.

Slurred catcalls and police whistles faded hours ago to the swish of Herbie's broom sliding across the sidewalk. A handful of bartenders and waitresses, trudging home on sore feet, file past Herbie, offering a "good night" and a firm slap on his stooped back.

He barely looks up but mumbles a personal response to each, recognizing the late-night cast of characters from their voices. No time for fraternizing tonight. Four hours remain before the morning crowd flocks to Oak Bluffs' main street for coffee; four hours to erase signs of the summer night's debauchery.

In a single movement, Herbie shuffles his feet and sweeps a pile of cigarette butts, just as he's done for the past 25 years.

A few things changed in the last quarter century, though.

This 73-year-old native Islander didn't hunch over when he took the role of Circuit avenue's caretaker for the town highway department. When he started, Herbie's feet didn't ache with arthritis every time he stepped from street to sidewalk, and a well-worn bandanna didn't cradle his now nearly bald head.

"I fight everything that hurts to keep doing this - the stings and burns. Sometimes a glass of water feels like it weighs a hundred pounds," Herbie says four hours later, during a well deserved respite on a bench in front of Giordano's Restaurant.

Nearly a decade ago, Herbie's 42-year-old daughter, Margaret - who, Herbie explains, struggles with mental limitations - joined her father on the graveyard shift. Margaret is not on the town payroll. She simply knows that an additional broom on Circuit avenue means less work for her aging father.

Herbie and Margaret can't quite agree on how the father-daughter team became treasured nighttime fixtures along Circuit avenue.

"She needed the exercise," Herbie recalls as he leans against the bench.

"He needed a helping hand," Margaret explains with a timid smile the next night.

Either way, the two are quite a pair - each working around the other's limitations without breaking the rhythm of sweeping the heart of an Island town. Herbie hangs low on Oak Bluffs avenue while the crowds still litter Circuit avenue. Margaret stays in the thick of the action, shouldering past scantily clad, twenty-something women to push a paper cup into her trash pile. After the bars close, father and daughter work side by side, Herbie maneuvering between the parked cars, Margaret scooping up the neat piles of trash into a homemade dustpan.

Herbie's job is by no means all work and no play. He has a front-row seat for the Island's steamiest night scene and catches wind of the crowd's newest couples before most. Herbie is also on the A-list for all late-night Circuit avenue parties, and occasionally steals inside the bar for a Jukebox sing-along - always promised to be a slightly revised rendition of an old classic. Herbie is Circuit avenue's most popular guy - with nearly every passerby calling him by name and half the women showering him with a kiss on the cheek.

"Everybody says my name, and I wonder, ‘how do they know me?' " Herbie says, his voice breaking into a hoarse laugh.

But he doesn't run from the attention.

"When the women give me a big kiss - that makes my night," he says with a wink, adding, "My wife doesn't like that too much, though."

Instead of sleeping through the daylight hours after a long night of sweeping, Herbie tends his prized garden. Spreading across two house lots which abut his Laurence avenue home, the garden yields enough tomatoes to feed the Landers family and the diners at Linda Jean's. Every summer, Herbie sells nearly 1,000 ripe tomatoes to the Circuit avenue diner that slices and dices the home-grown produce into omelettes and sandwiches.

Herbie's sideline gardening only does a bit to enhance his summertime paycheck, but the occasional tip sweetens the laborious task and meager paycheck. The tips come as small as quarters, a few as large as $20 bills. Herbie confesses that Margaret brings in much more than him on any night of the week, which he attributes to her recent propensity to chat with the bar crowd.

"When Margaret first came down here, she kept everything bottled inside. Now, she's quite the talker," Herbie says proudly.

Herbie also has witnessed other breakthroughs in the last 25 years. Circuit avenue patrons, he admits, are much more likely to find their way to a wastebasket with a piece of trash than to drop it on the sidewalk.

"Three years ago, there was so much junk on the street, I could wade in it. Bottles and cans - they didn't give a damn where they put them. Now, people pay more attention to the streets. I guess they really like seeing the town clean," he explains.

"Yep, I guess we taught them a lesson with keeping the street so clean."

This 73-year-old has been at the business of sweeping streets long enough that he's witnessed the coming of a machine designed to do his job. A slick yellow machine runs through Circuit avenue on Herbie's mornings off, sucking all but the stubborn cigarette butt off the asphalt. The machine cleans the streets well enough. But the piece of equipment lacks Herbie's attention to detail and his unintentional ability to remind tourists to lighten his work by putting trash in designated cans.

But the day the big yellow street sweeper cruises along Circuit avenue every night of the week may be just around the corner. In addition to Herbie's painful arthritis, low blood pressure has been taxing the veteran street sweeper all summer. He's scheduled for a thorough doctor's exam later this month.

Herbie won't be easy to replace, says town highway superintendent Richard Combra Jr.

"Anybody who's been down around Circuit avenue at one o'clock wouldn't want the job of cleaning it up. People wake up in the morning and see the street all nice and clean. They don't wonder how it got that way. It's all Herbie," Mr. Combra says of his long-time sweeper.

Despite the toil of sweeping the busy thoroughfare, Herbie will miss the job. It's mostly the little things - the camaraderie among late-night workers, the live music that blares from the Ritz, the random tourist who stops to thank him. He'll long for Circuit avenue memories after he retires.

"I like seeing this place alive at night, and I like seeing it quiet. I love the work," says Herbie Landers, keeper of the streets.