OAKLAND -- With his signature railroad cap, broom and dustpan, Michael Lydon is easy to spot on Piedmont Avenue, especially because he's one of the few people out and about when the sun is just rising and most shops are closed.
He's also the busiest, sweeping up cigarette butts, candy wrappers and any other piece of litter he comes across.
It's a job he has been doing -- without pay -- since 1979.
"You're out in the fresh air," the 69-year-old said as he swept a crushed paper cup from the gutter outside Fentons Creamery. "You're doing something positive. How could anyone not want to do this?"
His walk, which can begin as early as 6 a.m., takes him up and down both sides of Piedmont Avenue, from Pleasant Valley Road to West MacArthur Boulevard. He empties his dustpan in the street's garbage cans along the route.
On a recent morning, the Rev. Tim Johnson, a Catholic priest at the Church of Saint Leo the Great, was the first to greet Lydon.
Johnson, carrying hand weights, was out for his morning exercise.
Then a woman wearing earbuds said hello as she jogged past. "She's trying to lose weight," Lydon whispered, before pausing outside Starbucks, where a customer inside had knocked on the coffee shop's window to get his attention.
"Hey there," Lydon said as he pointed at the man, waved and continued cleaning the street.
Litter accumulates more in some areas than others, Lydon said. Bus stops and benches are particularly bad, and some merchants never sweep the sidewalk outside their shops.
"Others do a good job," Lydon said. "But they are only cleaning in front of their own business. They are not doing the whole street."
Dick Stone, the owner of the Continental Hearing Aid Center on Piedmont Avenue, accompanied Lydon for about a block as he headed into work.
"Mike is not just an institution on Piedmont Avenue," Stone said. "Mike is the avenue."
Lydon began cleaning the busy shopping street simply because it needed to be done.
His father, an Irish immigrant who died in 1983, tended the gardens around Saint Leo's church. Sometimes Lydon would help him.
"There would be garbage on the sidewalk and in the bushes," Lydon said.
"It was pretty bad, so I picked it up. Then I just started cleaning more and more of the street."
Lydon began going out every day, rain or shine, before he would leave for his job at KTVU, where he worked as a program director.
He retired from the television station in 2007 after 38 years. His efforts caught the attention of the Piedmont Avenue Merchants Association, which in 1985 enlisted him to help create its "Clean Sweep" program.
It now employs two people who pick up litter five mornings a week.
Lydon, who manages the program, still goes out on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The association offered to pay him, but he declined the offer.
"I told them to forget it," Lydon said. "I said they could use the money to promote their Halloween parade and other activities."
Outside of a stint in the U.S. Navy, Lydon has spent his entire life in the Piedmont Avenue neighborhood.
He lives alone on Entrada Avenue, a cul-de-sac off the street, in the same house where he grew up.
Along with picking up litter, Lydon maintains the planter boxes in the plaza across from the Piedmont Theatre and tips off city officials about graffiti.
He also spearheaded the drive to restore the clock on the tower of the triangular building at 41st Street and Piedmont Avenue that was once a depot on the Key Route system of street cars.
A restaurant sign covered the clock until 1993, when Lydon and others raised about $5,000 to restore it.
'It's pure altruism'
"Mike is truly an unsung hero," said Valerie Winemiller, of the Piedmont Avenue Neighborhood Improvement League.
"It's pure altruism. There's no glory, no financial reward and a very, very long-term commitment."
In June 2008, then-Oakland Councilmember Jane Brunner proclaimed Lydon a community hero of her district.
Over the years, he has received other accolades from the city, as well as from the state Senate.
But Lydon said his true reward is a tidy Piedmont Avenue and seeing the smiling faces of his neighbors as they start their day. "Everybody says hello to me," Lydon said.
"Everybody says, 'How are you doing, Mike?' It's therapeutic. It's good for the soul. How could you ever stop wanting that?"
Reach Peter Hegarty at 510-748-1654 or follow him on Twitter.com/Peter_Hegarty.
Claim to fame: Has voluntarily swept and picked up litter on Piedmont Avenue since 1979
Quote: "You're out in the fresh air. You're doing something positive. How could anyone not want to do this?"
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