Richard Preston and Charles  Franks Photo by Naomi Beth Marcus

Charles Franks and Richard Preston are 60-ish guys (Preston just over, Franks just under,) so the talk turned quickly to their knees. And another shared pain: Mission trash.

During a recent stroll along Folsom Street, the two commiserated and traded tips:

“I used to pick up by hand wearing gloves; I thought picking up trash would be good for my back, all that stretching and bending, but I cut my hand. So now I use a grabber that goes under cars. But, oh, my knee…” Preston, grimacing, admits he is facing knee surgery.

Franks grins with sympathy and reassures him, “Come on now, man! It ain’t no biggie, I got my right knee replacement awhile back, and now I can scoot down the street with my cart and my picker! “

Franks is a native son of Bayview Hunters Point, nicknamed “the Black cricket” by his grandma, who raised him, “cause as a baby I fell asleep on all fours, with my butt in the air.”

He has rebounded over and over, from periods of incarceration, homelessness and, recently, the death of his beloved wife, Ritza, to cancer, in 2019. He remains warm, funny, insightful and passionate. Especially about trash.

Every morning he takes his team of two, his picker, his cart and his broom, and does two shifts of trash collection, morning and evening, from 16th to 24th streets, along the Valencia/Mission corridor. He works for the nonprofit Downtown Streets Team and spent the pandemic as a volunteer picking up trash, for gift cards, on the very streets of his hometown, where he lived unhoused for a few years. In March, he was promoted to Team Lead and became a paid employee. 

Preston, born in Virginia, recently retired as Senior Trial Attorney, Office of International Affairs, in the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, where he handled extraditions. 

An avid hiker, he trekked the mountains in Chamonix, France, with his sons this summer.

These days, he hikes and extradites trash from the Manila Oriental Market (Mission Street near Alemany Boulevard), down Mission Street to 24th Street and all the side streets, “about two hours a day when I am in town.”

He and his wife, Judy, who retired as Deputy Chief in the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, moved to San Francisco in 2020 to be near their sons and grandkids. 

Preston explains, “We left D.C. and drove across America, stopping to see friends in New York, Providence, Montpelier, Chicago, Madison, Detroit. This was, hands down, the dirtiest city we had ever seen in America. I just never saw so much trash! I don’t know what it was like before the pandemic, but when we got here, there were simply tumbleweeds of trash, the winds blowing it everywhere.”

Franks nods in assent, “When I was growing up here, on Mendell Street, it wasn’t like that, I tell you. In those days, there were a lot more people working in the parks, cleaning the streets. I used to cut school ( I played left field for the Balboa High Buccaneers ). Me and Lorenzo and Boris would go out and sell weed, all three of us, up on Hippie Hill in Golden Gate Park. Roll 20 joints in the morning and sell them all by evening. We were so good, the cops never saw. But they got us for truancy, sat us in the patrol car couple of times, me and Lo, and drove us back to school. GG Park was clean then!”

“Well, I think the parks are still pretty clean, it’s the streets,” says Preston, “so we joined Vince’s group (Vincent Yuen, founder of Refuse Refuse), when he was doing the Mission.”

But there are a lot of novices. He imitates a finicky squeal. “ ‘Is this ok to pick up? Is THIS ok to pick up?’ If it’s on the ground, pick it up! Pick it all up! I say. I pick up food, books, wet stuff, dry stuff, stuff I can’t even identify.”

He takes out his phone to show Franks a proposal he wrote to Supervisor Hillary Ronen:

 “If Recology gave trash grabbers to each house with an account, we all could pick up loose trash near our residences before (and after) trash collection. The grabbers can be purchased for about $10-$15, but I think they should be purchased in bulk for far less and widely distributed, along with the bins. This could encourage dog walkers and people out on a stroll to carry them when they are out. “

Franks nods and grins like, yeah, that’s really gonna happen. 

“Well, my pet peeve is around the schools. I don’t think it’s right that kids have to step around broken glass and all the crap. So I pay extra attention around the schools, me and my team.”

Preston: “ I tend to be a lone wolf picking up trash. I listen to podcasts, I get in a zone, I don’t want people to get offended, so I wait for them to move on before I can pick up around them. And I don’t wear those reflective vests, I don’t want to give the impression that I work for the city. I like to be invisible.” 

At 6 feet and 6 inches tall, he is not exactly wrapped in a cloak of invisibility.

Franks, on the other hand, works closely with his team. They are a trash ballet, crisscrossing Valencia at an angle, do-si-doing around each other, trailing their round carts like little cabooses. But they’re selective, he notes.

“One homeless Latina lady, we call her Mama Cuba, I never take her cardboard: that’s her mattress. You know how hard it is to find good, strong cardboard? I been on all-day hunts for good cardboard to sleep on, when I was on the streets, come back to find it gone. Oh man, your heart just sinks.”

Preston asks, “Have you had any luck finding cash on the street?”

Franks: “All the time, all the time. We regularly find bills: twenties, fives, lots of ones.”

Preston: “Me too, I found $350 total, even a hundred dollar bill. My wife looked up the serial number to make sure it was legit.”

Franks: “I think it’s from the dispensaries, ’cause people pay in cash and they might be a little, you know, spaced out. A lot of our route is high-end retailers as well, so there’s always money on the ground.”

They see the same people littering, day after day. The city needs more anti-littering campaigns, Preston says. 

Franks looks skeptical. “There is no way to tell a homeless person what to do or not do with their trash. If you are out there on the streets, you going to sleep where you lay your head. So I just pick up around them, they know when we are coming through. The city should provide port-a-potties and trash cans for homeless.”

On the other hand, he notes, “I get ‘thanks’ all the time. Proprietors. Pedestrians. Mariah, who manages a lot of condos on Valencia. She asked if we could pay attention around her building, ’cause of homeless encampments around the back alley.” Franks brightens as he adds, 

“I am going to be the best man at Mariah’s wedding, I only know this family six or seven months, since I been helping around her building. Her fiancé and her got many friends, but I am going to be the best man. It’s a real honor.”

“I agree, it’s satisfying, the smiles and thank-yous,” says Preston. “I’ve met lots of my neighbors. Plus, I have all the coins I need for the parking meters.”

Franks gestures to his bike parked nearby, “Me and my Cadillac here, we don’t have to worry about that.”

Franks has lived for most of the pandemic at a Navigation Center, but his case manager is working on getting him housing, maybe in Polk Gulch. “ I can’t wait ’til I have my own space again.”

Preston shakes his hand, “Good luck. Judy and I are going to take a break and go to France for a month. See you in June. “

“Wow, how can you? I mean, how can you just pick up and go to France? Have a good time, man. Me, I am a California kid. Everything I want and everything I need is right here. I am going to stay right here and fight the trash!”

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10 Comments

  1. Great to have guys like these two to do the City’s work. The only way to get the City to pick up trash is to bribe the head of DPW. Like everything else in in this town, if you dont got the cash, you got the trash

  2. The unsung heroes of every community. Thanks for writing about their service, Naomi.

  3. I can’t believe you did a story about people collecting trash and you didn’t declined the most notorious trash picker/recycler of them all: you husband Colin! Haha

  4. Along with one or two other neighbours on our block of Shotwell street I have never stopped doing this trash pickup as part of my dog walks. It’s really good to hear there are others. I am 60ish as well, born in Burlingame, by accident, raised in San Francisco from day one, I am back in the hood after living in various neighbourhoods in the city. The Mission has always been the most littered. My beloved mother was a pioneer in this brigade of street sweeping. she kept picking up leaves and trash well into her 80’s. She’d get up at 6, a habit from working an early shift and sweep, pick up cans, trash, not only on her side of the street but across the street as well. The best I’m doing to keep up her mission is pick up the trash on my walks, usually using a discarded plastic shopping bag. I also use a blower on our side of Shotwell street on street sweeping days. as we say in Spanish , “algo es algo, something is something”. I hope others will find this article enlighting and use their walks like these guys do.

  5. Thank you Charles and Richard!!! And everyone else that is a fellow trash picker. I’ve been doing it for a little over a year and started Refuse Refuse (https://refuserefusesf.org/), I can tell you that you are not alone, there are thousands of people who have volunteered and we can hope to make them habitual trash pickers. Keep up the good fight everyone!

  6. As admirable as this effort is, it is absolutely ridiculous that a city with a budget as large as SF’s has to rely on volunteers to keep the streets clean. Other cities around the world have no trouble doing this with way fewer resources.

  7. Such an odd couple 🙂 Very nice story. My husband bought a trash picker and he’s out there too, and he’s in his thirties. I can picture him in his 60s still out there 😂

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