ST. PAUL -- The gardens and architecture of St. Paul’s Hamline-Midway neighborhood barely get a glance during Steve Dalbec’s daily walks.

Instead, Dalbec scans the gutters, the sidewalks and the street.

When he spots a cigarette butt, he leans over to pick it up. He does the same for a piece of broken Styrofoam, a bright-red Airheads Raspberry Lemonade candy wrapper and a takeout bag from McDonald’s.

He deposits them all in his makeshift trash can — a black Iron-Hold trash bag in an upside-down metal lampshade frame attached to his black leather belt — and heads on down the street.

“I’d rather do this than just walking because you get some exercise,” said Dalbec, who used to walk for miles daily when he delivered mail for the Postal Service. Now retired, he walks to keep in shape, and keep his neighborhood clean. And he catalogs what he finds.

“I’ve been to gyms and stuff, and that didn’t work. It just didn’t feel right — you’re not accomplishing anything. This is way better exercise. You’re bending, and you’re carrying weight because this will get real heavy sometimes,” he said.

Keeping a record

Dalbec keeps detailed tallies of his finds in a computer spreadsheet. So far this year, he’s picked up 5,368 cigarette butts and found $3.37 in 38 outings, or an average of 141 butts and 9 cents a day, he said.

“I get a lot of these,” he said, bending over to pick up a dirty Q-tip. “But you know what the worst things are? Those plastic flossing things for teeth. With the handles? I wish they wouldn’t make those.”

Steve Dalbec likes to keep a running tally of the trash he's collected on his walks in the Hamline-Midway neighborhood in St. Paul. John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press
Steve Dalbec likes to keep a running tally of the trash he's collected on his walks in the Hamline-Midway neighborhood in St. Paul. John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press

Cigarette butts and cigarette packs are the bane of his existence; he once picked up 634 cigarette butts in one day. “They’re smoking more now, I think, because of their nerves,” he said. “People don’t want to bring them in the house and throw them away.”

Members of a church in the neighborhood used to drop their cigarette butts on the ground until one of the elders saw Dalbec picking them up. “I picked up 400 that day, and most were at that church,” Dalbec said. “He stopped to thank me, and he must have said something … because all of a sudden, the numbers dropped way, way, way, way down. I may pick up 10 in the whole street now.”

Dalbec started picking up trash in early March 2019, and began recording the number of coins he found on June 1, 2019. “I told my wife I was finding a lot of money, so I wanted to keep track,” he said. “I found $1.75 that first day and $10 the next day.” The most he’s found in one day? $31 on Nov. 5, 2019.

He found $120.05 in 2019, “or an average of $1.11 a day during 108 times of picking up trash,” he said. “I like numbers.”

The return on investment hasn’t been nearly so good this year. “Last year, I found money almost every day,” he said. “This year, hardly any, and only a quarter today. It’s amazing. I think with all the people out walking now, they’re finding it.”

Another COVID-19 phenomenon: The number of rubber gloves thrown on the ground has exploded. He collected about 25 in total last year; he now finds three or four a day, he said. When he finds a rubber glove or a mask on the ground, he uses a plastic newspaper bag to collect it, ties it up and places it in his trash can.

Dalbec won’t pick up big items like TVs or tires — or broken glass or metal hangers. “I don’t pick up wires because I lost too many bags that way,” he said.

He hates plastic ballpoint pens “because they get run over and break into 200 pieces,” he said. “There used to be a lot more pens when school was in session.”

He has collected whole bottles of whiskey and beer, but has never picked up any drugs, he said. “I figure people don’t lose their dope.”

Take a walk with Dalbec

When Dalbec goes on his walks, he wears brown work gloves and carries a wooden stick with a sharp metal point as he traverses the blocks between Hamline Avenue, Lexington Parkway, Minnehaha Avenue and Charles Avenue.

The cloth work gloves are from Menards and he repairs the fingertips with blue painter’s tape.

Steve Dalbec meets with some Hamline-Midway neighborhood residents as he walks and picks up trash. John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press
Steve Dalbec meets with some Hamline-Midway neighborhood residents as he walks and picks up trash. John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press

Dalbec uses his trash stick, which an anonymous neighbor left outside his house one day last year, to sift through dead leaves and to dig items out of the dirt. On Wednesday, he used it to dislodge a green plastic cigarette lighter out of a yard on Edmund Avenue.

After about an hour of picking up trash, Dalbec leaned over to pick up a cigarette butt, and a Target receipt fell out of his bin. “That’s the sign that the bag is full, so now I’ll go home, and I’ll dump this,” he said.

His trash pickup route, which encompasses about 230 acres, is designed for efficiency — he needs to make regular stops at home to unload the garbage he’s collected. If his garbage can gets too full, he said he has permission to put bags in his neighbor’s bin.

His favorite items to collect? Plastics and foam packaging. “I like picking them up the best because they would otherwise get into the waterways,” he said. Nails and screws come in a close second. “I like getting those out of the street, so people won’t get a flat tire,” he said.

When he’s finished collecting trash, he hangs his hat, jacket and gloves out on the clothesline in the back yard to expose them to ultraviolet light.

Fixture in the neighborhood

Neighbors nod and greet him as he walks past.

Arielle Johnson, who lives on Thomas Avenue, was thrilled last week to find out that Dalbec is her neighborhood’s “mystery good Samaritan.”

“Now I know who to thank,” she said. “I’ve seen you around and have thought, ‘Wow, that is the kindest thing.’ Thank you so much. It makes such a difference. I pick up trash in our yard, and it’s, like, where does this come from? I don’t understand how it piles up so quickly and how little regard people have for their own garbage. It’s such a gift to our community, and we so appreciate it.”

Dalbec, 67, moved to the Hamline-Midway neighborhood when he was 8 years old. He graduated from Central High School in 1970 and served in the U.S. Army. He delivered mail for the U.S. Postal Service along University Avenue and other routes for 28 years, retiring in 2014.

He and his wife, Rita, live on LaFond Avenue. She’s the one who patches his jeans when the trash can rubs through the material; she said she “cannibalizes” other jeans and pads the area where the trash can rests. The couple got married in 1987 and have two grown sons: Paul, 30, and Andy, 27.

Between walking to work, delivering mail and walking his dogs three times a day, Dalbec estimates he used to walk 20 miles a day while he was working. “I liked being a mailman,” he said. “It was great exercise.” He said an older man along his mail route was his inspiration. “I’d see him picking up trash near Raymond and University avenues,” he said. “He’d walk by me two or three times a week, picking up trash. He never talked; he just picked up garbage all the time. I said, ‘Maybe, someday, I’ll do that.’ ”

He picks up trash from early March to late November. He generally goes out three or four times a week; he does not go out if it’s raining. “If you pick up boxes, they’re soaked,” he said. “All the trash gets really heavy when it’s wet.”

Others join the cause

Dalbec isn’t the only trash picker-upper in the neighborhood. Ioana Stoian’s 3-year-old son, George, started picking up trash as soon as he could walk, she said. He pushes a makeshift garbage cart in front of him and has his own trash pickup tool.

“He’s learned a lot about stormwater and the fish and where the water goes,” Stoian said. “We think that people could be a little more responsible. The only way to make change is to be the change. We try to help the environment.”

Dalbec is their hero, she said.

“We are in complete admiration,” she said. “We pick up a lot of trash, but Steve does it every single day. We’re not as efficient as he is. He really does so much for the environment.”

Everyone out walking should “pick something up,” Stoian said. “I obviously would prefer it if there wasn’t so much trash, but what use is it to sit around and complain about it? There is obviously a disconnect between the people who think that it is fine to just dump whatever anywhere and people who are raised to respect the environment. I don’t think George is going to go around neighborhoods littering stuff.”

Dalbec’s and George’s paths crossed on Wednesday morning on Charles Avenue. George, pushing his cart with a paper Target bag in it, stuck to the sidewalk; Dalbec took the gutter and the street.

“I would be happy if people staying home and walking everywhere now would start to pick up trash,” he said.

But what if there weren’t any left for him to pick up?

“That would be fine,” he said. “That would be just fine with me.”