Joanne Sullivan: Dot Ave's Ms. Clean

By 
Catherine O'Neill
Dec. 18, 2007

Joanne Sullivan keeps Dorchester Ave.- from Freeport Street to Columbia Road- tidy. Photo by Bill Forry

It's hard not to notice her, or her work, if you have eyes.

I don't know what's more amazing, the obvious pride and enthusiasm she has for a job most others would scoff at, or how clean Dorchester Avenue is from Burger King to the intersection of Columbia Road.

I'm talking Disneyland clean.

Joanne Sullivan has blown me away since the day and hour she took up the "hokey" stick for Boston's Public Works Department in 2005. And after several conversations with her over the last two years, I know it's not just how she cleans and maintains her section of the Avenue that's amazing. I'm convinced she's got the whole thing figured out. All of it.

It's as if the pulse of her section of the avenue beats in her heart.

"People think I'm crazy," she said as she sat in my car, worried about trailing in dirt in. Meanwhile, a woman was pacing up and down outside the car by the rake I made her abandon. 'She's waiting for the packy to open. Poor thing's an alcoholic," she said with no judgment.

Sullivan doesn't have to look at her watch to know what time it is. The pitch of the hum of the traffic is the only clock she needs. We probably wouldn't have been grid-locked last Thursday if someone had consulted with Joanne.

She reads the obituary section to track Murphy Funeral Homes wakes so she can make sure she's more attentive to that section of Dorchester Avenue as a show of respect to the deceased and their families.

So it's not hard to figure out why Tom Murphy, whose business has been on Dorchester Avenue since the '30s, made a personal trip into Boston City Hall last year when there was a possibility that Joanne would not be made a permanent employee.

"Before Joanne started, I went out every morning and swept the outside of my business," said Murphy. "I simply do not have to do that anymore. She's unbelievable. I see her on her days off get out of her car and pick up trash, and because she lives in the neighborhood she does that all the time. She takes such pride in her job."

Murphy went on to say, " It's just not my business, it's all the businesses on her route. We've had street cleaners before, but never one like her."

Coleen O'Donnell of Coleen's Flower Shoppe put it simply: "She's the best worker I have ever seen."

Joanne has been spotted on major holidays that usually involve some kind of turkey emptying trash buckets (there are no solar-powered ones on her route). "Keeping ahead of it," she says. Now there's a revolutionary concept. As if it were the only logic in the world.

She braces herself for Fridays. She knows that the people who have missed their regularly scheduled pick-up will dump their trash in her buckets. And she's ready. She has figured out that she finds more trash and has better access to it when there are fewer cars, so she's out there when the sun comes up. When she sees that you are amazed at this, she looks at you funny and talks about how it makes sense.

"I don't want the superintendent to be mad at me if you write this" she pleaded. When asked her opinion of her superior, she replied with awe, " He gave me his cell phone number and told me if I ever needed anything to call him directly, and every time I call him he's here in a second working alongside of me, picking up the trash right with me."

"I wish I had 40 more like her," says Joe Canavan, Superintendent of Public Works for the city, in a recent telephone interview. "Joanne does the job like they did it 50 years ago, with pride."

Most people and businesses on her route don't litter any more. She's a one-woman business improvement district. She had a moment of pride recently when she saw a school child pick up trash before she climbed up into her apartment in her three-decker. Another shocker, I know: children emulating adult behavior.

In this technological age, where everything is made easier - golf balls go farther, GPS track bus drivers and snow plow operators - there is a City of Boston employee who reigns over a part of Dorchester Avenue with the same tools they had over 200 years ago: a rake, a broom, and a barrel. And she reigns supreme.

Merry Christmas and best wishes for a healthy New Year. Catherine O'Neill's column appears weekly in the Reporter, although she will be on break for the next three weeks. See you in January!