For Ed Colfer, it’s been the same story nearly every day for the last 50 years.
Grab a garbage picker and a few plastic bags, and take a walk around the neighborhood. Like clockwork, a new dusting of litter will have appeared overnight around Rhawnhurst or other Northeast Philadelphia neighborhoods. And, one by one, Colfer will pinch the crumpled wrappers, cigarette butts or whatever else may line the streets that day between two plastic claws, place them in his bag, and move on to the next discarded item.
He’s half a century into this daily routine and will celebrate his 80th birthday this week. And he has no plans of slowing down.
Colfer’s Rhawnhurst home has a view of the back of Rhawnhurst Elementary School. Decades ago, Colfer was bothered by graffiti that appeared on the back of the building – he didn’t want to wake up every morning and see a “graffiti Bugs Bunny” from his porch, he recalled. So he went over and scrubbed the building clean of the vandalism.
“I must have painted that building there over 200 times,” he said.
It was the start of his daily routines. Focusing at first on removing graffiti, he drove around the city with 8 gallons of paint in the back of his car in case he happens upon vandalism while out and about.
“I ruined three cars that way,” he said with a laugh. “But it was for a good cause.”
He served as block captain for several years and would request trash bags and other supplies from City Council, enough where they asked what he was doing with all of it. In 2006 the city awarded him a citation recognizing him as a Hometown Hero for his efforts.
“He’s modest, but he’s spent practically his entire life cleaning,” said Allison Kane, his daughter. She recalled driving with him as a teenager in one of his “anti-graffiti” cars. He would pull over and clean stop signs or any other vandalism that may have had the misfortune of entering his line of view.
Kane said she’s lost count of the number of times someone has told her they saw her father cleaning trash around the neighborhood that day.
Today, he’s retired from graffiti removal, focusing on litter – which recently includes an influx of discarded masks that people toss into the street when they’re done using them.
About to cap off his eighth decade, he could still fill a garbage bag of trash on a given walk.
“I’m way over the line. I know that,” said Colfer, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease that can restrict airflow from the lungs and make walking difficult.
He has a specific routine that has always made his outings solo – oftentimes when he and his wife go out, she’ll go in the store and he’ll stay outside and clean.
He walks several different routes, but mostly commonly walks a few blocks along Castor Avenue. He’s a common sight to business owners along the street like Peter Tsoflias, who owns Pete’s Auto Services Center on the 7800 block of the street.
“I’ve been there 42 years and I’ve known him since I came here,” Tsoflias said.
On the same walk, he’ll greet Rachel Gabay at Jerusalem Israeli Gift Shop and Lynn Biddle at A Step Ahead Preschool, both of whom will come out to greet and thank him.
“He’s out here all the time,” Gabay said.
Despite his efforts, Colfer said the state of the neighborhood has only gotten worse over time, with graffiti becoming a more common sight.
But he couldn’t imagine stopping this early.
“I’ll keep doing this as long as I can,” he said.
Here’s to many more years. ••