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Retiree finds new calling as Suffolk hamlet's (reluctant) cleanup guy

Mel Silverman picks up discarded items along Route

Mel Silverman picks up discarded items along Route 112 in Coram on June 16. Credit: John Roca

He's the Coram cleanup guy — but he wishes he didn't have to be.

For more than 20 years, Mel Silverman has been quietly picking up litter and trash along the Brookhaven hamlet's highways, his own solitary effort to leave his corner of the world better than he found it.

"It’s just sad that I have to do it," said Silverman, 73, a substitute teacher at Ward Melville High School in East Setauket who taught in New York City public schools before retiring.

"It just boggles my mind," he said, recalling the cups, bottles, bags and even dead animals that he has collected and discarded. "The cops, they gotta start ticketing people."

He works alone, usually on weekends, he said. He dons a pair of gloves, grabs some bags and walks for an hour or more, typically along state Route 112 and nearby roads until he fills enough bags.

It started innocuously enough more than 20 years ago when he returned home from a trip upstate and noticed garbage collecting on the side of Route 112, the north-south highway that runs from Port Jefferson to Patchogue.

"I drove my wife home and said, 'I’m going back,' " Silverman said. He's been doing it ever since.

"Sometimes I found money," he said. "It’s God’s way of saying, 'You’re doing the right thing.' "

Besides pennies from heaven, Silverman's efforts were rewarded earlier this month with a certificate of appreciation from grateful Brookhaven Town officials. Councilwoman Jane Bonner, who made the presentation, said Silverman exemplified community pride.

"The world needs more Mels," said Bonner, who represents Silverman's neighborhood. "Here’s a man that rolled up his sleeves and saw a consistent problem that we see all over — litter — and he decided to address it. … If everybody just did that, if everybody just took care of where they live, if they stepped outside and took care of a little bit of where they live, the world would be a nicer place."

Silverman had somehow managed for two decades to work so quietly that some Coram residents, even civic leaders, had no idea what he was doing.

"I have seen places cleaned up and I was trying to figure out how they got cleaned up," said Erma Gluck, president of the Coram Civic Association. "So now I know. This is great."

"It’s a wonderful thing and much appreciated," she said. "It’s so disheartening to see that people just throw things out their car windows."

Silverman agrees. In the past year, in addition to the usual mix of fast-food wrappers and beverage bottles, Silverman has seen pandemic gloves and masks that simply were tossed aside when they no longer were needed or wanted.

"It just bothers me when I see all this garbage in the street," he said. "Even when I was working I would see garbage and I would pick it up. Maybe I’m crazy."

Or maybe not. Either way, Silverman revels in his relative anonymity, even sometimes when he gets mistaken for a vagrant.

"Sometimes they think I’m homeless," he said. "They offer me doughnuts."

Mel's greatest hits

Coram cleanup man Mel Silverman's observations about litter and trash are a mix of despair and deadpan humor. Here's a sampling:

  • “Instead of all these red light cameras, they should have litter cameras.”
  • “Even the day I came back from getting my letter of appreciation, I came back and there was all this crap and empty boxes. I said, 'Where does this stuff come from?' ”
  • “All these stupid things you see on TV, I said to my wife, 'Maybe they’ll make a reality show about me.' ”
  • “It’s like Confucius says, 'A small march starts with the first step.' ”
  • “I said to my wife, 'If we ever move, I would like to come back in a week to see what it looks like.' ”

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