A happy warrior, always ready with a smile and a greeting, Ann Rose patrols her piece of North Squirrel Hill, searching out every last piece of litter. Fueled by a couple of steaming mugs of French Roast, the legendary Trash Lady of Shady Avenue moves at warp speed -- a dervish in Rollier's work gloves, her mixed-breed collie Murray at her side.
At 8 a.m. every morning, seven days a week, Rose beams as she picks trash off the sidewalk, out of bushes, from the gutter.
"I feel so lucky to live in a community where I can walk to places," says Rose, a spry sexagenarian. "So I'm trying to pay a little bit back. This is my entry fee."
Anchored by Forbes and Murray avenues, Squirrel Hill stands at the crossroads of numerous traffic arteries and bus routes. Home to students, a magnet for shoppers and restaurant-goers, the neighborhood is high-traffic ... and high-throwaway.
"A little litter is a good thing," Rose says, surprisingly. "It means there are people with money to spare, places to go. If a place is litter-free, it may be because there aren't those things that attract people to a community."
Rose fills three full bags during her hour-long patrol. "I've collected the Mount Rushmore of trash," she says. "I hope in the afterlife I don't have to face the trash I've thrown away. That would be distressing."
Many moons have passed since the Fairmont, W.Va., native took her degree from West Virginia University and moved to the big city. After snagging a job as a Mellon Bank teller, she picked up a Pitt teaching degree and taught high school English -- first in Swissvale, then in Shaler. By the time she retired in 1996, after 27 years of faithful service, she had migrated to Squirrel Hill.
Her trash-gathering started small: "I would go out and pick up stuff in front of my house," she says. "Like so many things, it grew."
As her role expanded, she covered a square block: South Negley to Wilkins to Wightman to Solway. It took her 10 minutes, "and no one ever said I was a nut case."
Rose now follows a route covering Wilkins Avenue between Wightman and Shady, then all of the cross streets up to Beacon.
Considered as Urban Archeology, the trash Rose picks up says a lot about a city, through what it throws away.
"You can tell the age and affluence of the people who leave trash," she says. "Lip gloss and candy wrappers mean that it was a big night for young people. Cups from Coffee Tree -- people a little better off. And so on."
Her favorite discovery is what she calls "the Squirrel Hill Party Pack: an empty pizza box, an empty vodka bottle and an empty pregnancy test kit."
She pauses. "Bus service must really be slow these days."
"In the summer," Rose adds, "underwear is the theme." Bras are fairly commonplace, though Rose fondly recalls the one she found hanging trophy-like on a mailbox.
When she finds valuable lost items, like digital cameras and wallets, she returns them. She plops lost letters in the mail box. Once she found a half-case of beer. "Well, why not?" she asked herself -- and took it home.
Rose takes an interest too in the neighborhood's waifs and strays. She found particularly poignant the well-groomed, rosy-cheeked woman she once spotted outside the Coffee Tree -- a former nurse who wound up sleeping on the street.
"She didn't want help," Rose says. "She just wanted to be left alone." She pauses. "She was there for a while, then disappeared." Another pause, a bit longer. "I worry about her. I think about her every day."
More to her liking are the many cheerful greetings and conversations -- even the occasional odd question, like the geezer who asked her if she was working off a drunk-driving conviction. Or the awestruck child who looked up and said, "When I get old, I'm going to pick up garbage just like you."
Occasionally, Rose is given things: gift certificates, for example, to Pamela's or Coffee Tree. One woman took photos and gave them to her. "I treasure them," she says.
"Doing this," Rose adds, stooping to tweeze a cigarette butt out of a sidewalk crack, "you see how kind and generous people are."