Talking Trash with Mike Dukakis

We heard the former governor has taken to picking up garbage on his daily stroll to work. So we tagged along and ended up getting schooled on life, the T, and the Boston of his youth.

mike dukakis picking up trash

Photograph by Webb Chappell

I meet Mike Dukakis at 8 a.m. at his home in Brookline, where he and Kitty have lived since 1971. He’s wearing white New Balance sneakers and flat-front khaki pants. He’s carrying a black bag with a Harvard Law School insignia on the side, from which he pulls a plastic bag. It’s faded and appears to have been reused so many times that it’s hard to tell the name of the store. Amazingly, it has no holes. As we walk, he will fill it up—twice—with trash.

Since his failed bid for president in 1988, Dukakis—who turns 82 on November 3—has focused on urban-planning issues, serving on Amtrak’s board of directors. He’s now a distinguished professor of political science at Northeastern University. He is also known to keep a can of paint in his basement to cover up graffiti he spots around Brookline. Today, as we stroll through the Emerald Necklace, we chat about his neighbors (“a young couple, both doctors, he’s Vietnamese American, she’s Korean American, two delicious five-year-old twin girls, Kitty is their third grandmother”) and his lingering celebrity (“If they’re under 30, they have no idea who I am. It doesn’t bother me at all”). All the while, he’s filling his bag with the things others have carelessly left behind.

What do you make of—

Keep going. [He bends down to pick up a plastic bottle near a curb, then grabs an empty envelope.]


I am trying to clean up the neighborhood. Go ahead. Continue.

Do you think we can still build parks like this?

Oh, sure. And we’re doing it, by the way. Lots of urban parks are being built all over the country, and here, too. Look at the waterfront, look at the HarborWalk, look at all that stuff. You couldn’t find the harbor 30 years ago.

Lady Walking: Good morning, Governor, how are you?

Dukakis: I am good. I am good.

Lady: Little history of the Muddy River going on here?

Dukakis: I am educating this young man on how Olmsted built this place. [He bends down to pick up a discarded cigarette box. You can hear his age in his voice when he bends over. I move to grab some of the other items he seems keen on picking up.] It looks so natural here. It was all engineered.

That’s the thing that strikes me about this place versus the Rose Kennedy Greenway, which looks like it was dropped in from space.

Right, this looks so natural.

This looks like you’re in the woods.

Yes. Now, in the not-too-distant future we’ll look at the Kennedy Greenway and figure it was always there. [We stop and look at some disk-shaped piece of plastic. It’s yellow.]

What is that?

That’s a very good question. Why would somebody leave one of these?

It looks like it’s a cone for training, for agility or something. I don’t know why it would be here. I am training for a marathon and I’ve seen those in stores.

Oh, are ya? Have you ever run one?

No. This is my first ever.

I ran Boston when I was 17. I was a high school senior, and one of my cross-country buddies named Buzz, we ran the thing. This was in 1951. We ran it in low-top Keds sneakers. There were no shoes made for it at the time. They had running shoes for indoor track, but not hard surfaces. [He bends to pick up more trash, looks at a small glass Absolut bottle, and shakes his head.]

We ran 26.2 miles in low-top Keds sneakers and didn’t do too badly. Three and a half hours. The whole town is out there. Kitty claims she gave me water at Beacon Street, but I didn’t know her at the time. It’s entirely possible. I was dying of thirst. We knew nothing about exercise science in those days. You never drank water while running a race, right? Here’s some advice: When you’re running 26 miles, drink water.

So, I was the captain of the tennis team. My tennis coach, who had been a world-class hurdler at Dartmouth, begged me not to run the race. I said, “Coach”—his name was Monty Wells, wonderful guy—I said, “Coach, you know we’re going away to school, don’t know if we’ll have a chance to run this again, we’re from Brookline, been out there watching the race since we were three.” And he suggested we run some preliminary 10-miler or 12-miler to discourage us. Ten or 12, that’s like falling off a rock. That’s fun. So we ran the Cathedral 10-mile and the Hyde Shoe 12-mile, these were all before March and early April. So we’d come back and say, “We had a fabulous time.”

So the day [after the marathon] we have our first tennis match, it was Malden Catholic. Not a tennis power. Ran the race, came home, had something to eat, slept for 12 hours. Woke up, hobbled to the bathroom, and my thighs had kind of locked on me, so [he laughs] on the top of the stairs on the second floor of the house, my mom is downstairs making breakfast for me. I literally can’t walk down the stairs. So I finally sat my rump on the top step and bounced down on my butt and had breakfast. I have breakfast, get into the car, drive over to the tennis courts, and we beat ’em 8–1, I don’t want to tell you who the one was. All I could do was serve and come to the net, I couldn’t move laterally at all. If the other guy hit the ball to either side of me, I was done.

You were done.

I was done. So it took me about a week to get back into playing form. It was a great experience. For three and a half hours, we were moving pretty well. In those days, you finished in the fifties with that time. Now I’d be 5,000.

Now you have guys finishing it in two hours.

Oh, yeah.

I am hoping, having never done this before, to finish it between four and five hours.

You’ll do fine. You look like you can do it. I was in pretty good form in those days. I’d run cross-country, I was a basketball player, and I’d train for seven or eight weeks and we were averaging a 6:50 mile for the first 10 miles—we weren’t fooling around. The Newton Hills were a bit of a problem. [By now we’re at Landmark Center, where a hodgepodge of construction is going on. Lots of trucks, excavation. Areas that haven’t seen sunlight in decades are now open to the earth.]

Now here’s what’s happening here. Ever since we started paving over the city to accommodate the automobile in the 1950s and ’60s, a lot of these places were turned into roads to speed up traffic. I hate to tell you what would have happened if all of those plans had been implemented. We had a massive, massive battle for 10 years over the so-called Master Highway Plan, which among other things would have brought six highways into the city. The highway engineers said you have to build something called the inner-belt highway: eight lanes, elevated, ugly as sin. From the Southeast Expressway, up to what is now Melnea Cass Boulevard, 3 feet from the MFA, I am not kidding you, right by the Emerald Necklace by Simmons and Emmanuel, right through here, right through Brookline, across the Charles River, smashing its way through Cambridge, right through Central Square, and hooking up with 93 again in Somerville. And that triggered the anti-highway movement, which I was deeply involved with. It took us 10 years, but we finally killed the damn thing, and transportation laws were amended so states that didn’t want to use that interstate highway fund could use it for public transportation. So instead of highways, we built about $3 billion of public transportation construction. The modern T today is a result of that.

I am fascinated by the idea that we were going to build a highway all around the city.

It was conventional wisdom at the time, had to do it.

But why?

That was just the thinking: had to accommodate the automobile. So there were a few of us and we got louder and louder and said, ‘This policy just won’t work.’” [We come across oil-absorbent pads. Without missing a beat, he hands me his trash bag.]

Hold onto that for a sec. [He uses both hands to pick up garbage on the sidewalk. Cars are zipping by us and occasionally people point or wave. He’s so focused on the trash on the ground and relaying this story that he doesn’t seem to notice.]

Can you imagine the city today? With all those highways? Of course, the T was a basket case. If you think it’s got its problems today, you have no idea how bad it was. I use to take it from the Longwood station into town and it would break down three days out of five.

So it was worse back then than today?

Terrible. Terrible. Nobody was blaming me for it after I was in [office] immediately, just like they shouldn’t blame Baker now, but after three or four months it was “Hey, Dukakis, what’s wrong with the T? Why don’t you do something about it?” So after a month of this I went up to the motormen and I said, “What the hell is the problem? Why are we always breaking down?” They said, “They’re not replacing the pans.” I said, “What’s a pan?” [He laughs.]

They said, “It’s a piece of metal bolted underneath the works on the bottom side of the car that keeps snow and ice out.” I said, “They’re not replacing them?” They said,“No, they’re waiting for new cars. They’re not replacing them.” If you want to know what’s wrong, ask the guys who are piloting the trolleys; they’ll tell you.

Then I went to [Mayor Kevin] White: “I need a top-notch CEO to run this system.” He put a great team together, a guy named Dave Gunn, best rail guy in America. Kid from Melrose. Only grad from Harvard Business School in 50 years who wanted to work for the railroads. Hey, there was no stoppage of service during the Blizzard of ’78, I can tell you that.

What do you make of the news that the T needs $7 billion to be in a state of good repair?

Well, I am not the technical guy on this thing. Seven billion, five billion, you know, they’re talking about between now and 2040, there’s a certain amount of maintenance you need to do on a system like that. That’s just regular stuff. The last thing it should mean is we stop doing anything else, because there’s a lot to do. [We’re across from Emmanuel College, and there’s a steady stream of garbage strewn about the area. Lottery tickets, Marlboro packages, Gatorade bottles, some glass nips. Dukakis is not happy.]

You know, North Station has a problem, and they’re already spending money to acquire property at North Station for expansion, none of which would be necessary if you connected the two stations. If you connected the two stations, the congestion would disappear. There’s one for you.[He points me to a pile of lottery tickets and a plastic bottle.]

What did you make of the Olympics?

I was for it. If done right it could be terrific. What do I mean by done right? Make sure any public money was used for long-range, permanent public infrastructure, like the kind we’re talking about now. The rest of it needed to be raised privately. I thought, “Look, I am Greek, for God’s sake. This is the Athens of America.” [He picks up a can, crunches it down.]

Fun story about picking up litter. Last fall, the Emerald Necklace Conservancy decided to raise money by making me a lifetime trustee. It was a nice excuse to raise money. We raised about $250,000. During the two weeks before the event in November, I picked up three pieces of litter: one was a dollar bill, one was a 10- dollar bill, and one was a hundred-dollar bill. Sometimes it isn’t about cleaning the place up, sometimes it’s about making money. So I presented the chairman of the board with $111 and said, “Put it in the name of anonymous donor.” [He stops to pick up another can.]

Ugh, I just cleaned this place yesterday.

You might need another bag, Governor.

Fortunately, there’s another barrel up ahead into which I will empty this.

Why do you do this?

I love this city. I can’t stand living in a dirty city, and let me tell you, in my youth, this city was filthy. Filthy, dirty, declining. It goes way back. Let me tell you about the Franklin Park Zoo when I first became a legislator. God, it was a disgrace. I mean, an absolute disgrace. I don’t know if you’ve been over there lately, but it’s a hell of a lot better. There was just massive civic neglect. Massive. People wanted to get out of cities, cities were declining, it was all about the suburbs. So, you know, a lot of us worked like hell to bring these cities back. Lowell was the first of the gateway cities, where [the late Senator Paul] Tsongas and I spent a lot of time, and today it’s a great success story. Going up to Lowell in ’75, I had been governor for a month, I met a young city planner named Frank Keefe, who walked me around town telling me that we could restore those mills and turn them into housing and high-tech and so forth. I’ll never forget walking around in the slush in ’75. You really had to be a man of faith to believe that you could do it. But we did it! [Dukakis bends down to examine a bike lock.]

That’s a bike lock.

I think we’ll leave it there. Maybe somebody will come back for it. If it had been a hundred dollars, I don’t think I would have left it there. [While we’re talking, a bicyclist almost clips us as we cross a street near Northeastern. Dukakis shouts after him, in the most polite way possible: “It’s a red light, my friend.”]

He had headphones on.

These guys are gonna kill themselves.