Morningtime. Grand Chute, Wisconsin. It’s cold in America’s Dairyland. Last night it got down to negative 4 degrees. Tomorrow night it’s supposed to drop into the negative double digits.
The streets in Outagamie County look like iced-over freezer shelves, and the Starbucks has resorted to serving coffee on a stick.
Grand Chute is a smallish town about half an hour south of Green Bay. The place is chock-full of nice people, good food, an Old Navy, and a shipload of Lutheran churches—in a six-mile radius there are over 30 Lutheran congregations. That’s a lot of hotdish.
Our story today, however, takes us to one of Grand Chute’s residential areas, on Stewart Avenue. A two-mile street lined with modest split-levels, ranches, and dated brick homes.
It’s nothing fancy. It’s your all-American neighborhood. Think: blue-collars and working-class Packers fans who bleed green and Schlitz.
Visit the street in the early morning and you won’t see much activity. Maybe a schoolbus, a couple Fords idling, mailboxes topped with snow, and a scant few plastic-wrapped “Post-Crescent” newspapers in the driveways of those who still care about the printed word.
But if you pay close enough attention, you will see the trademark of suburbia itself lining the curbs.
The green garbage bin.
The waste-management bins are everywhere. It was garbage pickup yesterday. The multitudes of plastic bins parked by the road this morning are empty. Which means someone has to walk them back to the house. Uphill. Through the snow. In sub-zero temperatures.
Enter Dick Pontzloff.
Dick is your quintessential old guy. He’s 75 years old and he dresses the part. He wears saggy sweatpants, oversized parka, stocking cap, and even though it’s barely above zero, he doesn’t wear snow boots. Instead he wears lace-up Merrell boat shoes á la Jimmy Buffet.
Each morning at 8 a.m., the bootless old man comes pedaling down Stewart Avenue, whistling a happy tune. He dismounts, unfolds his kickstand, then totters to the curb. He grasps the handles of the empty garage can, then wheels the receptacle back from whence it came.
Immediately, the morning air is filled with the unmistakable rumbling noise of a mobile plastic bin.
Then, when Bootless Dick finishes returning the bin to its owner’s stoop, he shuffles back to his 10-speed, hops on the saddle, pedals to the next house and does this all over again.
“When I retired, I got sick of doing nothing,” Dick told WFRV Local Five. “So I started going around and picking up garbage cans. Not just certain ones, everyone’s.”
For months now, nobody in the neighborhood has known who was returning their trash cans. It was as though Stewart Avenue had been visited by the Trash Can Fairy.
“It was so strange,” says Melody Luettenegger. “All of a sudden our garbage cans were just showing up. We have such a long driveway, and I’m like, ‘Maybe the garbage company is bringing back our garbage cans?’ I asked my husband, and he’s like, ‘No, I’m not bringing the garbage cans up.’”
And so it was, early one frigid morning, Melody decided to take matters into her own mittens.
She staked out her own driveway, accompanied by her sidekick, internationally famous sleuth and master of deduction, her 9-month-old son Mason. It was like an episode of “Starsky and Hutch,” only with a stroller.
Melody and Mason waited in the biting cold until they saw Dick wheeling up on his bike.
Dick pumped his brakes. They locked eyes. She smiled at him. He smiled back.
Then, Melody presented a small gift to Dick; her way of saying thank you. Little Mason also contributed his thanks by sincerely drooling on himself and trying to eat his own foot.
Dick claimed his act of goodwill was no big deal, but Melody begs to differ.
“He doesn’t even realize how nice of a gesture it is, and how much we appreciate it.”
Dick is from Wisconsin, and he claims he enjoys the negative-degree weather. He says he enjoys returning all these garbage cans to their owners. He says he likes doing it for the exercise.
I mean no disrespect, but I’m calling flag on the field. If a guy wants exercise, he buys a treadmill and eats a CLIF bar. There is something more going on here.
And sure enough, when he’s pressed, Dick gladly comes clean and shares with the world his straightforward philosophy in life.
“Just be nice to all people. It’s just what you gotta do.”
This columnist, for one, agrees, and sincerely hopes that someone is nice enough to buy Dick a pair of snow boots.