Keeping the neighborhood clean, one street at a time

Mel and Hilda Case

If the streets of San Marco and San Jose sparkle more since the Coronavirus pandemic began, you can thank Mel and Hilda Case. 

Dubbed as “Neighborhood Angels” by some in the San Marco community, the couple spend two to three hours a day, six days a week, picking up trash as they walk for miles along Hendricks Avenue/San Jose Boulevard, University Boulevard and St. Augustine Road. 

“It’s amazing how much trash is thrown out,” said Hilda. Her husband agreed. “Even when we go back over the area a couple of days later, there are still bags full of trash that we pick up,” he said.

The Cases, who live in a riverfront condo in San Jose, began their quest to clean their neighborhood’s streets in March, at the start of the pandemic, when Hilda, who works as an insurance agent for WellCare, was asked to work from home. To get exercise during the lockdown, the couple decided to take up walking, but the daily constitutional became something more after a shopping trip to Wal-Mart. 

“When we got locked up with the virus we started walking because the fitness centers were closed,” said Mel. “We made our way down University [Bouelvard] dodging all the trash. It’s a way to get good exercise, fresh air, and do a little bit for the community.” 

“Mel said he was going to get himself a grabber to pick up all the trash that’s along San Jose Boulevard, and so he did,” Hilda recalled. “At first I was his spotter and would say, ‘there’s one, here’s one; get this, get that.’ Then I got jealous – he was having all the fun picking up that trash, so I decided I was going to get me a grabber, too.”

Now the couple embarks on separate routes each day with Hilda, who is 80, walking between two to three miles, while Mel, who is 78 and retired from the military, walking six to seven miles. “We cover about a 12 square mile area,” said Mel, noting he walks as far as the Jewish Community Center on San Jose Boulevard to the south and as far as San Marco Square to the north. The couple also strides down University Boulevard to Powers Avenue and travels down St. Augustine Road and Philips Highway, two streets that are exceptionally filthy, they said. 

A typical jaunt around the neighborhood can yield between three to six full bags of trash that they dispose of in dumpsters they have discovered along the way. Hilda said the most noteworthy and perhaps disgusting item of trash she has picked up is a diaper full of poop from the parking lot at Calico Corners on San Jose Boulevard. She also once found a $20 bill in that area that she gave to a lawn service man mowing Oaklawn Cemetery nearby. Meanwhile, Mel said his bags are usually full of liquor bottles, beer cans, cigarette butts, silverware, plastic utensils, take-out food containers, clothes, baby bottles, pacifiers, men’s underwear, used sanitary napkins, ladies tampons, condoms and once even a pair of ladies panties with a corn cob in them. 

“It’s kind of a shame how trashy people are. Around the bus stops is the worst. A trash can is there, yet the stop is littered with trash,” said Hilda. “But I must say I don’t find as many cigarette butts as I did when we first started. It was just amazing how many cigarette buts are out there. I used to just go along and pick all of them up, but now there don’t seem to be as many. I don’t know if people have quit smoking or what?”

Hilda said both she and her husband are fairly fastidious people, and she attributes her desire to keep the streets clean to her upbringing in Bloomington, Illinois. “I grew up living in a small town. My parents swept the sidewalk in front of their house. People there cleaned the gutters and the curbs, but that was back in the day. I haven’t been back there in a long while. Heaven only knows what it is like now.”

The couple said they appreciate all the horn beeps and “attaboys,” they receive from motorists passing by. “People pull over and thank us for what we do. One day a lady pulled over and asked if she could give us some trash bags so we wouldn’t have to use our own. That was really nice of her,” she said, noting there is one thing people in the community could do to help.

“The thing I really wish is when drivers come up to a stop sign where they are going to turn either left or right, especially on San Jose Boulevard, that they would stop and look to see if a pedestrian is trying to cross the street. I have almost been hit three or four times because no one looks except for the way the traffic is coming,” she said. 

And she also wishes that some residents would take more pride in their properties. “In some areas I wish people would get out and police their own yards. You walk along and see a nice green, mowed yard but then there are three or four cigarette butts there or wadded up paper wrappers from Wendy’s or McDonalds. I just walk up into the yard and pick those up,” she said. “But I wish I didn’t have to.”

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