http://www.nytimes.com/2002/11/11/national/ 11HOLL.html?ex37979389&ei=1&enU6a524378c3e3fd Polishing Hollywood’s Image Starts From the Sidewalk Up
November 11, 2002 By CHARLIE LeDUFF
HOLLYWOOD, Nov. 10 – It is commonly said at cocktail parties and on the street corners of New York that Los Angeles is an insipid backwater, a lukewarm bath.
But for those East Coast jingoists who do not believe that Los Angeles is a tough town, consider the life of John Peterson, the one-legged star polisher on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
About once a year, the ragged punks along Hollywood Boulevard steal his crutches while his attention is focused down on the brass monuments of stars long forgotten. The punks apparently do this for kicks, and Mr. Peterson is left to drag himself along on his knuckles and stump, a bag of Brasso and rags and Windex in tow.
“What can I say?” asks Mr. Peterson, who calls himself a believer in the superiority of New York and its citizens. “Los Angeles is a decadent town.”
His is an essential job, classified in the “somebody’s got to do it” category. About 12 million tourists come every year to see the Walk of Fame and the footprints at Mann’s Chinese Theater. Tarnished, shabby stars would never do. They would only contribute to the already lackluster reputation of Hollywood Boulevard, the neglected stepsister of Times Square.
“It’s not my fault,” Mr. Peterson says to the interested observer, his face as wet as a boiled egg, the neon from a lingerie shop giving him a red hue. “It’s not your fault. Maybe it’s the San Andreas Fault.”
There are other unknown and under-appreciated keepers of America’s landmarks, people like Mr. Peterson who toil away in anonymity, working either free or for a modest hourly wage. Charlie DeLeo, the caretaker who was once Lady Liberty’s official Keeper of the Flame. Tony Palli, who keeps the pigeons from eating away the walls of the Corn Palace in South Dakota.
Their jobs are never done. For Mr. Peterson, it is akin to painting the Golden Gate Bridge. Finish one side, turn around and start all over again.
“A monkey could do this,” he says baldly. “But a monkey can’t give directions.”
He was raised in a small West Virginia town. As for the leg, it was bad at birth and amputated at 4. Don’t feel bad, he says. It kept him out of Vietnam. He made a first career as a television repairman. His first boss died, his second boss sold and the third boss did not see things his way.
He flopped out on the Hollywood Boulevard about four years ago. One of his coziest places to sleep was next to the star of Guy Lombardo, the man synonymous with Times Square. It made him feel good to be there, he said, remembering Lombardo saying, “Goodbye, goodbye, wherever you are.” It took him back to his boyhood in West Virginia and the memories of sitting around the parlor with dear old Mother.
“And actually, there is a shelter over his star in case it rained.”
He took to polishing the stars for spare change. One day, Kerri Harrington Morrison saw him. Instead of change, Ms. Morrison, the director of the Hollywood Entertainment District, bought him lunch and arranged the job. About $9 an hour plus benefits.
The lonely man is now off the streets. He keeps a lonely apartment on the east side of this lonely town, takes the bus to work and dreams of adventures on Broadway, New York, N.Y.
Unprompted, he adds it all up.
“They read books in New York,” he said. “They can’t even read traffic signs in L.A.”
The leaves are falling in Central Park, he knows. In the Hollywood Hills, the eucalyptus trees are beginning to stink like tomcats.
He improved on a Woody Allen line: “The only cultural advantage to L.A. is that you can turn right on red,” he said. “But you can do that in South Carolina. So what? You ever been to South Carolina? So what.”
One worries about Mr. Peterson’s health. He is 63 and worn. He wears a cap made greasy by polishing solvents, scalp oils and bus fumes. His mustache is overgrown and neglected, his knuckles are black and support calluses the size of brussels sprouts. He covers maybe a mile a day on his hands and knee and stump, and it appears that the good leg is starting to wear out.
The dirtiest star of them all, according to the star polisher, is that of Ronald Reagan. It is often stained with bodily fluids, gum, vegetable byproducts and snack cakes. “I don’t know why. People just seem to hate him,” Mr. Peterson says. “But I think he was one of the best governors we ever had.”
Low blood sugar, cleaning fumes and staring into the sidewalk day after day, hour after hour have strange effects on the mind. He begins to lose the lightning, so to speak. Any flaws in the terrazzo stars that surround the bronze plaques, Mr. Peterson takes as a personal attack. He insults the drag queens who question his ability, and the bubbleheads who step on his fingers. Usually by a quarter past 3, he is a crank.
As the sun is growing dark, a tourist notices a crack in a star and points it out to Mr. Peterson. “Look,” he says with a disgusted toss of his rag. “I’m not the engineer here.”
There are 2,207 stars on the Walk of Fame from Gower Street to La Brea Avenue, and none of them read “John Peterson.”
And he does not want one. “Just another plaque to clean,” he says.