Cindy starts just after dawn, pulling on her plastic gloves and grabbing her trash bag and preparing to do something that’s easy to contemplate but harder to complete.
She’s not complaining about her neighborhood or her city. She’s not wishing it were better or hoping that someone else makes it so.
Cindy Tefft is changing her ’hood. She’s changing it one meeting, one email and one trash bag at a time.
“Who else will?” she asks.
Cindy lives and operates a small business near 72nd and Dodge Streets, which means her neighborhood happens to be near the intersection that Omaha regards as its epicenter. If we were playing a giant citywide game of tag, 72nd and Dodge would be home base. (Related: A giant citywide game of tag is a really good idea.)
But our home base has problems — problems visible when you zoom by in a car but far more obvious if you live or work near here, as Cindy does.
The Crossroads Mall is half-abandoned, and efforts to redevelop the area have stalled. The intersection is scary to cross on foot, with roaring traffic and unpainted crosswalks.
Homeless Omahans and panhandlers often crowd the intersection, shaking cardboard signs asking for money and sleeping under trees and bushes.
And the area is dirty. Really dirty. Trash piles up around the grimy bus benches, in the cracked parking lots and on the sidewalk and the curb itself.
This last problem is why, roughly three times a week, Cindy starts her morning by putting on those plastic gloves, grabbing her trash bag and heading out from her business, Crossroads Massage Clinic.
I walk along on a recent weekday, struggling to take notes and keep up with Cindy’s brisk stride. We walk east on Farnam Street past the 20’s Club, which features female dancers, where Cindy picks up a flattened beer can. “Lots of beer cans here and sorry to say it, used condoms, too,” she tells me.
We hang a left on 72nd toward Dodge, and Cindy points out the worn bushes favored by the area’s homeless. She has befriended a number of the men and women who ask for money and asked them politely to throw away their food containers and pop cans. Several now bag their trash and hand it to Cindy when they see her.
At Dodge we cross 72nd Street on a faded crosswalk that Cindy has repeatedly asked the city to repaint. (No luck yet.) We reach the bus bench on the south side of Dodge near 71st, where Cindy explains the bus bench dilemma. On one hand, the benches are great, she says, if you are waiting for a bus and want to rest your weary feet. On the other hand, the trash can here is always overflowing, making it about the least appealing spot to rest your weary feet.
But Cindy is nothing if not persistent. She has placed many calls to Metro transit, which oversees some bus shelters, and many phone calls to Omaha’s Parks and Recreation Department, which tends to oversee the benches themselves. She now knows whom to call when she sees an overflowing trash can, or a particularly nasty bench.
And when her calls didn’t completely solve the problem, she created a new solution. She bought three giant trash cans with money she found while picking up garbage, and then she installed them near the area’s dirtiest bus benches.
Today she glides by and picks up a Diet Pepsi bottle half-filled with tobacco, and an Almond Joy wrapper, and a Target bag, and a Dunkin’ Donuts cup and many other things.
We turn around and walk west on Dodge. In front of Do Space, Omaha’s digital library, a man stops her and asks what she’s doing.
“I’m picking up trash,” she says.
“Why?” he asks.
“Because I want the city to look a little better,” she says. He smiles and thanks her.
Making the city look better isn’t just about picking up trash, Cindy thinks. It’s about allies, too. Do Space and many other businesses in the area have joined a neighborhood business alliance that Cindy helped start. Now they meet and discuss ways to beautify the area, ways to put pressure on the city and ways to get uncooperative businesses to clean up their buildings and parking lots.
“One person has a hard time getting things done,” Cindy tells me. “But what about a group?”
We keep walking west on Dodge, toward 76th Street, past a Natural Light can and a used needle and another bus bench. There is a pile of trash around this bench, and the bench itself is covered by a glass roof that’s been shattered.
Cindy picks up the trash, all of it, and makes a mental note to call the right people about the busted glass.
I note that it looks pretty bad at this bus stop. “It actually looks pretty beautiful today,” Cindy says.
A bus driver slows at the stop, opens his door and waves at Cindy. The bus drivers like her, Cindy says after she waves back. They appreciate what she’s doing.
Then we head south again, completing this rectangle back toward Farnam. She picks up an empty pack of Pall Mall cigarettes and notes that several of the businesses here, including the Nebraska Furniture Mart and Lowe’s, have responded to her requests about keeping their parking lots clean. Today, the Lowe’s parking lot is all but spotless.
Moving on, Cindy picks up more cans, more fast-food wrappers, more plastic bags. And before I know it, we are back where we started.
We have walked for 45 minutes. We have covered roughly 10 blocks around 72nd and Dodge. And in that time, Cindy has picked up an entire giant trash bag’s worth of trash.
It’s a light day, she says. Usually she fills two. In one memorable week last year she picked up 200 gallons of trash.
But the point, to me, isn’t the volume. The point is this:
Far too often we think we can’t make any difference. We succumb to the idea that we are but a single person in a metro area of nearly one million, a single person in an angry and divided country, and what can one person really change?
Cindy does not think like that. In the past few years she has formed a business alliance, cajoled several neighborhood businesses into cleaning their own parking lots, fought through city bureaucracy to ask, again and again, for city services she thinks the neighborhood deserves — and she’s received much of what she has asked for.
She has befriended her neighbors and rallied them to her cause of the beautification of 72nd and Dodge. She has befriended the panhandlers and persuaded some of them to beautify their small areas of the city, too.
She has advocated for change, everything from laws about when and where you can ask for money to more social services for the homeless to the elimination of problem bus benches.
She has done all that, and she has picked up trash, too.
Today, 72nd and Dodge is undeniably a little cleaner, undeniably a little better, because Cindy Tefft is looking out for it.
So, no, it isn’t just the garbage. It’s the underlying idea.
It’s the idea that Cindy thinks she can make a difference. It’s the idea that she knows she can.
“There is still a little bit of nostalgia for 72nd and Dodge,” she says. “But today it’s kind of like nobody actually likes it, though. It can be such a difficult place! But it’s my place.”
She’s talking about our home-base intersection, but she could be talking about Omaha, or the country, or the world. She’s talking about herself, but she’s talking to every last one of us, too.