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    They put on their bright yellow vests a couple minutes after 8 a.m. “These smell good,” one woman says. “You must have washed them.” Five African-American workers — four women, one man — trade smiles in the One West office on West Broadway. The nonprofit that focuses on revitalizing west Louisville has contracted with a cleaning service; four days a week, these workers patrol several blocks north and south along the West Broadway corridor, from around 12th Street to 29th, armed with trash grabbers that look like something you’d find in an As Seen On TV store.

    Terri Phoenix tucks trash bags into her white belt and adjusts her stylish tortoiseshell glasses. The 66-year-old retiree didn’t want to lose her mobility sitting at home, so she started walking a couple miles a day on the treadmills at the YMCA. When she heard about this gig, she figured she might as well get paid to do all that walking.

    They’re just up from 18th Street when she and Dawn Ellington, 52, cut across Broadway. A lifelong Louisvillian, Phoenix grew up just south of Broadway in Smoketown's Sheppard Square housing project, where regular inspections and a scrupulous mother taught her the value in cleanliness, she says. Phoenix met Martin Luther King Jr. in town — “Very down to earth,” she says — and witnessed the 1968 riots in west Louisville, partly sparked by King’s assassination. She takes a beer bottle from the ground, pours it out, tosses it into one of her bags and nods over at the construction site for the new YMCA. “Gonna look real nice,” she says, pinching a Styrofoam cup with her grabber. “It’s nice to see all that pride coming back to the West End.”

    Phoenix and Ellington have some theories as to where it went. “We’ve lost our morals,” Phoenix says. She mentions a woman she knows whose 12-year-old daughter beat her up. “Not in my house,” she says. Ellington nods along, a bandana tied around her forehead. Phoenix talks about teenagers getting pregnant, young parents failing to instill her two favorite virtues: respect and discipline, words she uses about as often as “the” or “and.” The two share an admiration for the olden days of spanking kids. I ask them if they get frustrated with cleaning the same streets over and over. “I wish they would be more conscious of litter, so we could clean something else,” Ellington says, a golden tooth gleaming in her mouth. Phoenix isn’t so hopeful. “I look at it this way,” she says. “If they didn’t keep dirtying it up, I wouldn’t have a job.”

    The two have happened onto some interesting scenes on their cleanups. They saw the manager of a McDonald’s refuse to serve unaccompanied minors on a school day, only to incur the wrath of their mother. “When you use a lot of curses, I learn something about your vocabulary and intellect,” Phoenix says, remembering the woman’s tirade. Another time, they saw a man brandishing a brick toward a smaller homeless guy Phoenix recognized. “Aren’t you all tired of all the killing?” she asked him, calming him down. When the homeless guy kept trying to pick a fight, Phoenix shouted at him: “Get out of here or I’m gonna take the brick and hit you!”

    A couple hours into the day, the two take a break in the shade of a tree outside the Louisville Urban League headquarters. When Phoenix was a kid, she says, she had to put cardboard in the soles of her worn-out shoes. “I knew then I didn’t want to live like that,” she says. “I wanted a house, a car, a new pair of shoes a week.” So she’s been working just about her whole life. And she got most of what she wanted, too, though she sold her house and moved back to Sheppard Square in 2014. Ellington recently visited her at home, and Phoenix tried to get her to take some of the new clothes she’s never going to wear. No joke, they say: There are some 113 pairs of shoes in her closet.

    This originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "Talking Trash." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Cover photo: Pexels.com

    Dylon Jones's picture

    About Dylon Jones

    Dylon Jones is an award-winning poet and essayist based in Louisville, Kentucky, where he serves as web editor of Louisville Magazine.

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