DECATUR – danielray Pickrel thinks deep thoughts hunting litter while zipping from place to place on inline skates pulled by two mongrel dogs.
Pickrel, 59, a sometimes artist with a muse for creating a better world, looks like a poor man's Ben-Hur on downtown Decatur's sidewalks, harnessed to the trusty pooches and shoving the trash he finds into a refugee grass-catcher liberated from a lawnmower or a garbage can on wheels.
Pickrel says whether we go the dog and skates route or use some other form of locomotion, our society needs to create and incentivize people to do lots of basic tasks such as trash pickup. He says the job pool we have is disappearing, and yet many simple, socially useful tasks go begging and unpaid.
“When was the last time you talked to a telephone switchboard operator?” Pickrel asks. “We're in a big transition here, there is a whole big bit of the country saying we need significant change, and so we've got to look at how we create new types of entry-level jobs, like cleaning the curb.”
No one is paying Pickrel's litter-getting efforts, but he sees himself as an outlier, a man cruising the frontiers of opportunity to show what is possible. And he enjoys it, too, regularly heading out twice a day in his own neighborhood and downtown while hooked up to his trusty pooch propulsion units.
They are Repeat, a lab-mix from the pound who likes to repeatedly chase his own tail, and Earnest, a mix of who-knows-what that Pickrel found wandering down the middle of the road one day with his ribs showing.
Pickrel, who has skated and wandered all over the country, has always had a knack for doing rather unconventional things to engage his fellow man.
“Yeah, I'm a bit of an odd duck,” he says without apology. Once, he skated around Ohio, without dogs, while pulling a makeshift trailer with a van seat and a typewriter on it.
“My deal when I met people was, 'If you are willing to do a little bit of typing to talk about your experience, I will give you a ride,' ” he recalls.
That proved a hard sell at first but, after he was featured in a newspaper story, he was surprised how many stepped up to that moving typewriter.
Now he skates in pursuit of litter while exercising Repeat and Earnest, who love to run but have been disciplined to respond to his voice commands.
“People either question him or they ignore him,” says his mother Jeanette, 79, who explains that many of us don't know what to make of a philosophical trash hunter propelled by dogs.
“He's an interesting son, that's for sure,” she says.
Pickrel calls his twisting, jibing and doggone different trash pursuit “karmic hockey” and says it's as relaxing as it is fun. And whether one day he's joined by a new legion of litter hunters compensated by a newly created jobs program or not, he knows he's already laying down some positive karma.
“Sometimes, I'll be skating along, picking up trash here and there on the sidewalk and someone will come out of their house and they'll see what I'm doing, see my happy dogs, and they will pick up a piece of litter that's been on their sidewalk for a long time and ask if they can throw it in my trash can,” he says.
“I tell you, I'm good for a week after that.”