The Secret to ST. FRANCISVILLE’S Litter-free RoadwaysBy Anne Butler
If your idea of housecleaning is to sweep the room with a glance, you’re not alone. And travelers passing through Louisiana’s littered landscapes must assume this attitude extends to our roadways as well. But drive through the little rivertown of St. Francisville, LA, and it’s a whole different matter—clean and not a piece of trash in sight, at least not for long. Because, you see, St. Francisville has a secret weapon in the war against litter, and his name is Eric Schneider.
The chief statewide litter enforcement agency in this Sportsman’s Paradise is the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, which last year issued 914 citations for littering, an act of negligence that costs state taxpayers some $40 million a year and can be hazardous to the health of wildlife and disastrous for the environment---an orange peel, for example, takes six months to biodegrade, a plastic bag ten to twenty years. Convictions for littering carry fines from $175 to $1,000, plus hours of public service in litter abatement programs. The St. Francisville municipal code has ordinances against littering (Section 11-23, Code 1979, #8-3005 states “No person, while a driver or passenger in a vehicle, shall throw or deposit litter upon any street or other public place, or upon private property,” and there are other sections prohibiting truck loads causing litter, littering in parks or bodies of water, on vacant or private properties). Additionally, local law enforcement agencies and the parish District Attorney have joint initiatives to control the litter problem.
The LDWF hotline at 1-888- LITRBUG provides witnesses with an opportunity to report violators, and so does Litter-Bug.org, where specifics are posted like “I-10 eastbound near Perkins Road exit, Baton Rouge, white Lexus, lady threw out Styrofoam box of food and coke can, 5:15 p.m., October 8, 2011,” and often even contain license plate numbers to aid in enforcement. Shame on the lady in the white Lexus, whose fast-food packaging and beverage container are among the four most common litter items, the other two being cigarettes and candy/snack packaging.
It is interesting to note, however, that this site has not one single posting for St. Francisville, where the streets are startingly clean and litter-free. And that, according to longtime mayor Billy D’Aquilla, is largely thanks to Eric Schneider. “We get compliments daily on the cleanliness of the town,” the mayor says, “and that is due to Eric’s dedication. Since he was hired in April 2000, he has been one of the best employees the town has ever had. Eric is ideal for this job because of his personality.”
That personality includes a sly sense of humor that stood him in good stead when he and his late mother, a gifted artist, moved from New Orleans to St. Francisville to join an older brother who is a local physician; as one of few Tulane supporters in a hotbed of LSU Tiger enthusiasts, Eric took a lot of good-natured ribbing, but he learned to respond in kind and refers to himself as the town clown, a mischievous twinkle brightening blue eyes above a big bushy moustache. He also has unending supply of patience and a sharp eye for detail that lets no speck of litter escape his bag as he trudges along his set route with such dedication to consistency that the mayor says you can set your watch by him. That eye for detail is matched by an incredible memory. “I was born on January 26, 1953,” says Eric, “at 12 o’clock noon. It was a Monday, and I was a month early. That was the only time I was ever in a rush!”
Eric’s day begins at 6 a.m. at Town Hall, when he raises the flags and makes coffee for employees before setting out on his appointed rounds. Other than a few pauses to catch his breath and spread a little cheer chatting with shopowners along the way, he walks and picks up litter along every single street and highway in St. Francisville’s town limits---along US 61, along LA 10, and along a number of hilly streets through the little town’s commercial and residential districts--- and neither sleet nor snow nor dark of night stays him from his appointed rounds. At 4:00 quitting time he goes home and walks some more with Dottie, his Jack Russell terrier.
On busy four-lane US 61 he contends with lack of shoulders and careless drivers whizzing along talking on cellphones; on other wooded roads he keep a sharp eye out for snakes. Unless it is really pouring, he doesn’t let a little drizzle stop him, and his trusty wide-brimmed straw hat protects him from the blazing sun. He probably walks more than a dozen miles a day, slow and steady, and wears out two or three pairs of steel-toed shoes every month. He fills three or four large garbage bags with litter daily; when he first started the job, in areas that had never been cleaned before, he was gathering a couple of truckloads a day.
It must remind him of The Myth of Sisyphus, doing the same thing over and over again, picking up more and more fast-food wrappers and beer cans, but Eric sometimes finds useful discards like tools and brooms, even preserved flowers he transferred to a family gravesite. His strangest pick-up was an entire lady’s outfit---dress, shoes, stockings, panties---all laid out flat as if the wearer had miraculously wafted away and left her earthly trappings behind.
At age 59 (sixty in January), Eric contends with a club foot, two bad knees and a bad back, but he’s got a lot of love in his heart and says it’s God’s will to keep him going. “I LOVE my job,” he says, “and I give a little lagniappe to people, too; people love that. You want help, I’m there for you, moving boxes, talking to the tourists, anything; we’ve been seeing a lot of Russian tourists lately, and I don’t speak Russian, but still we manage to communicate. If you’ve got love in your heart, you must share it. If you’ve got hate in your heart, well….”
The love Eric has for his job and his town is returned. Several years in a row he was nominated for the town Public Service Award; he was also nominated for the prestigious Chamber of Commerce Community Service Award. One local admirer even composed a poem entitled Here’s to Eric, its opening lines “We’re proud of our Ville, We like when people say, ‘Your town is so clean. How do you keep it that way?’”
Lynn Wood owns Birdman Books and Coffee, one of Eric’s regular stops along with the library, Council on Aging, and tourist center. She says, “He comes in here every day exactly at 11 a.m. and always has a wisecrack; anyone in here is going to get spoken to and teased.” Lynn’s father adds that it is Eric’s persistence and consistency that is so admirable, especially since it is an effort for him just to walk. Retired horticulturist Walter Imahara and Assistant District Attorney Mike Hughes, Birdman regulars, express admiration for Eric’s work ethic and dependability, while realtor Becky Landry adds, “And he makes a good pie!” Besides entering the local pie-baking contest, Eric is a devoted patron of the library and a voracious reader; in the door pocket of his truck currently is Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield.
As a year-round tourism destination with its National Register-listed downtown historic district and Main Street community, St. Francisville needs to look clean and attractive at all times, and Eric Schneider certainly makes a significant contribution toward that goal. Slow and steady, like the fabled tortoise that beats out the rushed hare every time, Eric contributes to his community through his stolid persistence and daily toil, spreading a little cheer and love along the way.
The nearby Tunica Hills offer unmatched recreational activities in unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking, birding, photography, all especially enjoyable in the cool weather. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some fine little restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from Chinese and Mexican cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups. A third-Saturday community marketplace fills Parker Park with homegrown arts and crafts.
For visitor information, call St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873 or West Feliciana Tourist Commission at 225-635-4224; online visit www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities) or www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com.