John Middleswarth has a daily routine that would put most walking clubs to shame.
The 62-year-old awakens at his Sycamore Street home about 4 a.m. and hits the streets to pick up trash with his dog, Franklin, by 5. He zig-zags his way through Zebulon’s downtown grid – down Poplar Street, up Vance Street and Arendell Avenue back to Sycamore; then west to Wakefield Street and up to Gannon Avenue, which takes him to Hardee’s and then back toward home again.
After seeing his wife off to work about 7 a.m., Middleswarth goes back out to hike Barbee and Wakefield streets, Primrose Place and Silver Street. He treks the extent of Barbee Street Extension, hangs a right, and follows Mack Todd Road to the Scotchman before a loop back around Pony and Hospital roads.
On Tuesdays, he adds the East Gannon span to Walmart to his route. On Wednesdays, he’ll head west to Little River Park, an open space he has history with.
Never miss a local story.
“It’s in my blood,” Middleswarth said of staying active. “I worked 37 years in the same position as a truck driver. For eight (years), I was an operations manager at a Raleigh terminal. Back about three years ago, though, I began having heart trouble.”
His medical conditions created liability issues that led him to step away from the career he loved.
The notion of collecting Social Security disability benefits, however, did not sit well with Middleswarth. Eight or so hours of sweeping up any litter he encounters while covering 10-15 miles of most prominent roads in town every day is, as he sees it, earning his keep.
“You can understand why that just drives me insane,” Middleswarth said. “I can’t just sit here and not feel good about myself. So what I’m doing in an around about way is earning my government paycheck. When I get out and do this stuff, it makes me feel good about myself.”
‘I love Zebulon’
There’s plenty of evidence Middleswarth loves the town he’s lived in for 35 years.
After the Zebulon Jaycees disbanded, leaving no one to maintain what is now Little River Park, Middleswarth took it upon himself in 1985 to improve and maintain the space until it was adopted into Zebulon’s park system about five years later.
“I walked through and said, ‘It’s a crying shame someone doesn’t clean this up and make it a beautiful park,’ ” he recalled. “A little voice in the back of my head said, ‘Well, what’s the matter with you – why not you?’”
Middleswarth, who has also been active in the town’s litter sweep campaigns over the decades, started his latest beautification project last summer after realizing he could do more than just walk the streets.
“I love Zebulon. I can’t stand litter,” he said. “It worries me out. It really irritates me to see it.”
Zebulon Commissioner Curtis Strickland obtained a safety vest from the town to help keep Middleswarth, his neighbor, visible to motorists. The town has also provided trash bags, Middleswarth said.
“It’s just amazing,” Strickland said. “You don’t see people in too many places do something like that. It’s one thing to get the trash off the streets. It’s great for people to see someone doing something great for the community. I hope people will see that and may think twice before littering.”
‘All kinds of things’
The job comes with a thumbs up from Middleswarth’s doctors, despite wearing on his feet and sometimes forcing him to take breaks to cool down. He makes a daily stop at Mr. G’s on Wakefield Street for a honey bun to keep his sugar levels up.
He can be found carrying pickers and two buckets, one for trash and one for recycling. In the bed of his truck are bins for separating cans, bottles, cardboard and trash to take to the Wake County convenience center between Wendell and Zebulon.
Middleswarth estimates he drops off a total of ten 33-gallon trash bags at the facility twice a week.
He’s found bad things and unsightly things along his way. He’s also found a good bit of money, including a $100 bill.
There is one thing Middleswarth will not do, despite going as far as combing through the trash at the Gannon Avenue car wash to pull out recyclable items.
“I don’t pick up dead animals,” he said. “I draw a line on the dead animals.”
His most bizarre discoveries have both been at the car wash – a wheelchair and a brand new pair of youth crutches that he aims to donate.
“I find all kinds of things. Some things I don’t care to discuss and other things that are just disgusting,” he said. “But I got these little industrial litter pinchers and I said if I’m going to walk, I might as well do something productive.”