A Group of Montpelier Residents Spruces Up the City, One Cigarette Butt at a Time | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice


A Group of Montpelier Residents Spruces Up the City, One Cigarette Butt at a Time


Published May 8, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.

The Trash Tramps sorting through their findings - COLIN FLANDERS ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Colin Flanders ©️ Seven Days
  • The Trash Tramps sorting through their findings

The time had come for another meeting of the Trash Tramps, a group of retirees who have made a weekly hobby out of picking up Montpelier's litter. They stood outside the local senior center, hard to miss with their five-gallon buckets, arm-length metal tongs and neon traffic vests. A sign-in sheet revealed their chosen "Tramp names."

Here was Penny Lane, a former city employee, and Sanitation Sue, a retired physical therapist. Here was C. Moore Buttz, Sister Sludge, Perky Pickup and Tots for Trash. And here was Eileen Dover, aka Anne Ferguson, the 73-year-old leader of this gang of do-gooders.

Before heading out, they formed a circle for their usual ritual. They raised their tongs toward a dreary sky. They've adapted a quote from a 19th-century Unitarian minister, Edward Everett Hale, as a sort of civic-minded Serenity Prayer. They recited it now in unison.

"We're only eight, but still, we are eight," they said. "We cannot do everything, but still, we can do something. And because we can't do everything, we'll not refuse to do something we can do."

They pointed their tongs toward the pavement and added their own lighthearted motto: "This work is beneath us."

The Trash Tramps have met like this almost every Tuesday for close to a decade — rain, snow or shine. They have picked up enough cigarette butts to fill the Statehouse Dome, plus innumerable beer cans, rubber bands, needles, plastic shards, and whatever else they find wedged between cars or stuck in bushes. It is slow, tedious work, and there's always more to do.

That might discourage most people. But the Tramps have come to embrace the endless nature of trash picking, finding not only a sense of community and purpose but also a religious experience of sorts — succor for the soul.

"Sometimes, when the world is spinning out of control, if you can just do something, like pick up a cigarette..." Ferguson said as she bent down to pluck a butt off the pavement. She pointed to the spot she had just cleaned. "There. That's change. It's not big and not momentous, but it's something."

Ferguson, who worked 25 years for the Vermont Department of Health, came up with the idea for the weekly outings after learning that a friend of hers had started picking up trash on daily walks. As for the name, Ferguson said with a shrug, "It's just funny."

Both the city and its trash hauler, the Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District, appreciate the Tramps' work. The city has provided vests and allows the Tramps to use its dumpsters. Grants from the waste district helped them upgrade their buckets and tongs.

Eight to 10 people show up most weeks. There's no age requirement, but almost all the regulars are between 55 and 85. Some have been forced to hang up their tongs because of health issues; newcomers usually learn about the Tramps at the Montpelier Senior Activity Center, their de facto headquarters. Regulars can earn a set of "golden tongs" — salad tools that Ferguson paints yellow and inscribes with the recipient's Tramp name.

Gearing up in the senior center ahead of last week's gathering were Donna Casey and Nona Estrin, two of the newest Tramps.

Casey, a 68-year-old former city staffer, grew bored with retirement and saw in the Tramps a chance to be active, meet people and do something good for the environment. "It checks all the boxes," said Casey, who chose her Tramp name, Penny Lane, after finding a coin on her first outing.

Estrin, 83, had wanted to join the Tramps for years but never made the time for it. This winter, she told herself, "If I don't do this now, I never will." Six months later, she's hooked. It's good exercise, she said, squeezing her trash grabber.

Estrin had been going by an old nickname, but as the sign-in sheet was passed around, she finally declared her Tramp name: Trashy Duck. She said she was inspired by the arrival of this reporter, who, at Ferguson's urging, came up with his own moniker — Elmer Crudd.

After their opening ritual, the Tramps split up and set out across Montpelier.

Anne Ferguson, aka Eileen Dover, picking up a dirty bottle - COLIN FLANDERS ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Colin Flanders ©️ Seven Days
  • Anne Ferguson, aka Eileen Dover, picking up a dirty bottle

Ferguson, pulling a little red wagon filled with three buckets, cut a path through a gravel parking lot near Shaw's supermarket, stopping every few feet to scoop up litter: a lone black winter boot, a mud-filled water bottle, a carton's worth of cigarette butts.

Strolling along, Ferguson explained that her spouse, Nancy Schulz, aka Sister Sludge, has helped her approach the work as a Buddhist might: by leaning into the meditative aspects. She sometimes gets so lost in the rote act that she fails to notice it's 3 p.m., when the Tramps are due back at the senior center. That's landed her in the "doghouse" a few times, she said with a grin.

Ferguson now carries a watch in her pocket, though she still sometimes struggles to call it quits. Running behind last week, she couldn't resist waiting for a break in traffic along Main Street so that she could run out to pick up yet another discarded butt.

"The world's going by, and you're caught up in picking up litter," Ferguson said, her wagon rumbling over the gravel. "You come out of it, and you're just like, Whoa, that was cool."

Ferguson hung a left onto Langdon Street, where she spotted Schulz scooping up a bunch of cigs along a curb.

Schulz, who started another local cleanup group known as the Graffiti Removal Infrastructure Team, or GRIT, two years ago, knows a thing or two about finding the Zen zone. She has dabbled in Buddhism and, at one temple she attended, told the abbot of her plan to begin a daily practice of picking up 100 discarded filters. Don't, the abbot replied, unless with each butt, you thank the smoker for leaving it there.

Schulz dropped the idea like a spent cigarette.

"I'm not that evolved," she said with a laugh, squeezing between two parked cars to grab yet more cigs.

Back at the senior center parking lot, the Tramps gathered all the butts they'd collected into one plastic bag. As Ferguson explained, they contain fiberglass, which can be shredded and recycled for use in other products. Since 2021, they've collected 250,000-plus butts and shipped them to Terracycle, a New Jersey recycling company.

Ferguson balanced the bag in her palm to estimate the count. "Twenty-five hundred," she said with satisfaction.

As they sifted through the rest of their haul, they took stock of unusual finds. "Who got the shoe?" someone asked. "I did!" Ferguson replied. "I said, 'Let's give it the boot.'"

Ferguson said she never gets upset by cleaning the same places over and over again. And if any of the Tramps ever do, she will tell them that it's time to take a break. "Because the anger is only going to hurt you," she said. Her advice: Approach each day without any expectation that things will be as you left them.

A Buddhist monk couldn't have said it better.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Zen and the Art of Trash Collection | A group of Montpelier residents spruces up the city, one cigarette butt at a time"

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