Kevin Haggard had his game face on.
The Pendleton man cruised along Court Avenue in his power chair looking for garbage, his trash picker at the ready. A cigarette butt in a sidewalk crack caught his attention and Haggard headed that way. After skillfully grabbing the butt, he deposited it into a plastic bag hanging from his chair and beelined to a Styrofoam cup in a flowerbed. His chocolate Chihuahua, Selma Jean, sat on his lap, unfazed by the constant change in direction.
If you meet Haggard for the first time and ask him what he does, he’ll likely say, “Hi, I’m Kevin Haggard and I clean the city.”
He picks up trash every day, sometimes for as long as six hours, beautifying the downtown core, the Pendleton Riverwalk and various parks. As he works, music drifts from his cellphone. On this day, he cruised to “King of the Road,” followed by “Yesterday,” by the Beatles. Selma, in her pink collar, seemed to enjoy the tunes.
Haggard has Parkinson’s disease and a severed sciatic nerve in his left leg. He can’t walk and his hands shake. Health aides help him with his cooking and cleaning. Despite his uncooperative body, he needs to be useful.
“I can’t do much, but I can pick up trash,” Haggard said.
And so he does.
He figures he puts more than 2,200 miles on his power chair annually and goes through several sets of tires. He buys the highest-end trash picker at Zimmerman’s Hardware and figures each one lasts about 200 miles. The tough rubber tips eventually wear out. His chair is maintained once a year.
The 55-year-old started picking up garbage a few years ago after he noticed a lot of discarded plastic on the parkway. The sight bothered him.
“I saw that stuff every day going into the river and the storm drains,” he said. “I started picking up trash on the levee and in the parks.”
Eventually, he ramped it up. On warm days, you might find him out for six hours — three in the morning and three in the afternoon. He charges his chair in between. Haggard takes special care with the storm drains, meticulously fishing out tiny pieces of plastic and other trash that might otherwise end up in the river. He finds a diverse array of items, including nasty stuff like hypodermic needles. The fire department, he said, gave him a biohazard container in which to put them.
He doesn’t earn a paycheck, but Haggard finds reward in what he does.
“An 8-year-old boy came up to me and said, ‘Hey, mister, thanks for taking care of the environment,’” Haggard recalled. “I started crying.”
As he made his way along the route on Monday, people greeted Haggard with warmth. Among others, he interacted with a woman out with her dog on the river walk, business owners, a police officer driving by and three homeless people chilling at Stillman Park. A guy with a tat sleeve bumped fists with Haggard as he passed by.
Nathan Smith, owner of Pendleton Cell Repair, worked on Haggard’s phone for free as a thank you for cleaning cigarette butts and other refuse from the business’s rock garden.
“The rock garden as you can imagine gets kind of trashed,” Smith said. “Kevin Haggard is appreciated.”
“It makes me happy to do it,” Haggard said, “and it makes other people happy too.”
He admits he wasn’t always such an upbeat, giving guy. In 2000, he finished 27 years in prison for assault and burglary. He doesn’t gloss over his past.
“I was the guy your mom warned you not to be around,” Haggard said. “I didn’t like the person I was when I got out of prison and it’s not who I am these days.”
He broke off, spotting a bright yellow plastic guitar pick lying on the ground and made a beeline for it. Somehow he grasped the wafer-thin item with the trash gripper and flipped it into his bag. Next came a half-full can of beer, which foamed out onto the sidewalk. He put the can in a different bag to return for deposit.
“Just got my daily wages,” he said. “That’s my payday.”
If someone is considering messing with Haggard because of his vulnerable physical condition, think twice. His taser and bear spray are close at hand.
“I had to use the bear spray once when a kid pulled a knife on me,” he said. “I ran him out of the park and called the cops. I started bringing a taser after that.”
Other challenges include inclement weather. He occasionally finds himself bogged down in muddy ground.
Despite the occasional hardships and the tiring pace, Haggard said he doesn’t plan to stop his routine any time soon or even take the weekend off.
“Nobody has a day off from throwing trash down,” he said, “so I don’t have a day off either.”
Contact Kathy Aney at email@example.com or 541-966-0810.