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Trash guard is on duty

July 13, 1997

By VANDANA SINHA

Staff Writer

Jim King says he's a perfectionist, and it's no wonder.

He will break out the hose and wash his 14-year-old car in the dead of winter to avoid the chance of even a spot of rust. He cleans - and polishes - the back elevator of Hagerstown's Potomac Towers apartments, where he lives with his wife, Betty.

And he will not drive his electric scooter past a lone dead leaf or twig on the side of the road without scooping it up and dumping it in the garbage bag he keeps hooked on the handlebars.

Despite a stroke that paralyzed the left side of his body in 1992 and has kept him confined to a motorized scooter, King's daily routine for the past three years has involved riding alone around the Potomac Towers grounds collecting and disposing of trash.

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And he won't leave a spot until every inch of leaves, branches, rocks, newspapers, candy wrappers, soda cans, cigarette butts and even car parts is completely cleared from Baltimore Street to Potomac Street to Lee Street.

He volunteers his time to keep his residence clean, he said as he watched a scrap piece of paper fly by in a strong gust of wind.

"That probably blew in from the street. But I'll get it," he said confidently, leaning back in his electric scooter.

"Once I get started, I don't usually stop unless something happens. It could go up to six hours," said King, who is in his mid-60s.

But five hours and four trash bags each day is average, he said.

"It's amazing how much trash you can end up with in five hours," including 1,000 to 1,500 cigarette butts a day, he said.

He can grasp anything from a notebook to a hairclip with what he calls a reacher - an arm-length, white stick that opens like claws on one end when he squeezes the handles and on the other, like a pair of tongs.

That's not all. In the basket at the front of his scooter, he's armed with a whole host of supplies, including kitchen-size trash bags, a couple of rags, a water bottle, a cellular phone in case of emergency and a pair of grass clippers that he uses to wrench out weeds in the Potomac Towers front gardens.

Before he became disabled, King was a retired Air Force aircraft engineer, real estate company general manager and gardener extraordinaire, he said.

"I did the gardening and took care of the flowers." Even now, he said, he has lots of plants in his 830 Potomac Towers apartment. "That was my pride and joy - doing gardening."

With the inspiration of his wife and his religion, King said he's got the better of the ailment that hospitalized and immobilized him in 1992.

"I've lost the best part of my strength. But I don't dwell on it. I don't let it get me down. I don't even think about it," he said. "I don't want people to do things for me or think of me as an invalid."

Instead of an invalid, onlookers see King expertly maneuver his scooter forward and backward with his electric gears and steer it deftly around corners and roadblocks without mishap.

They see him slowly travel the sidewalks, his eagle eyes perusing the roadside for wayside trash and later searching zealously for a Diet Coke can he had overlooked earlier in the garden's dense shrubbery.

"How'd I miss that? Where, where is it?" he asked as he twisted abruptly in a frenzied search for the can. Two minutes later, the aluminum culprit was inside his trash bag, and he was moving on to his next venture.

"It just irritates me to see people littering and abusing things," King said. "It gives me satisfaction to do this, and be able to do this. I take pride in my neighborhood."

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