With a Hopper - Not a Handgun - Larry Lieswald Cleaned Up L.A.'s Streets
Sweeping can be an action-packed, crime-fighting adventure.by Belinda Chambers
I've always assumed that the life of a street sweeper operator is pretty 'ho-hum' - driving the same ol' route every night, sweeping up the same ol' stuff. I've even pondered how sweeper operators manage to stay awake while lumbering through streets and parking lots, lulled by the constant drone of their sweeper's engine and the rhythmic 'whoosh' of its brooms.
Then I heard about Larry Lieswald - 'Street Sweeper Extraordinaire.' Last June, Lieswald was featured in a Los Angeles Times article, touted as a more-or-less 'modern day Zorro' in disguise. It seems Larry has had more than his share of excitement in the wild world of sweeping. I was asked by the editor of American Sweeper - who was intrigued by the Times article about Lieswald - to do a follow-up story on this noteworthy character.
In 1965, Lieswald began his seemingly unassuming sweeping career as a 'flusher.' "Back in those days," Lieswald explained, "we'd just push everything out of the alleys with water. Then, whenever they needed a sweeper operator, I'd do that, too." Sounds uneventful, all right, you might think. Well... think again. Then read on, as Lieswald recounts some of his incredible adventures, and describes his experiences with the dramatic advancements in sweeping technology over the past 33 years.
"The sweepers I operated were Mobil broom machines," begins Lieswald. "When I first started, they were strictly single-engine units. The same engine ran both the sweeper and the brooms. Once you got the sweeper going with the brooms down, you pretty much had to stay in that same gear all night. You couldn't shift gears, because if you'd step on the clutch the brooms would stop. Then, they went to dual engines. That was a definite improvement. It kept the brooms running a lot better and it made driving the sweeper quite a bit easier."
During his 33 years of sweeping experience, Lieswald operated a wide variety of models, and developed a few favorites, despite their quirks. "We tried every engine. We had Ford-omatics in the first ones. And we tried Chrysler 318 engines, then Chrysler's slant six engines. The last one I ran had a 150 Cummins power plant, which is the same engine they put in the Dodge pickups. Those also had an Allison transmission. That was a real good setup. You could raise the hopper up and dump into a truck. But you had to be real careful of the electrical wires, and be parked on a level surface.
"As far as I'm concerned, the best system they ever had was a little Perkins diesel for the rear engine, and a Ford straight-six gas engine for the front. I thought that was the best sweeper Mobil ever made. Their drawback was that they had a bottom-dump. They dumped down on the ground, and we had a 'butler loader' [front-end loader] load it up. The problem with a bottom-dumping machine is that you can never get the street clean wherever you empty the sweeper. With the heat, our dump spots would always draw flies by the next day. What made it even worse is that where I swept, there were a bunch of winos. We'd sweep up human waste and everything else. It was really bad. We got so many complaints, they decided to make a sweeper with a hopper that would raise up and dump right into the dump truck.
"On the later dump models, they had brakes that would engage automatically when the hopper was up. But on the first ones they came out with, when the hopper was raised, there was no brake. Once we had a guy who raised the hopper and dumped it, but forgot to lower it again. He took off for the yard and hit an overpass. It tipped the truck over and totaled it."
Lieswald's sweeping route included the alleys in what might be described as the 'less desirable' side of Los Angeles. Consequently, he's swept his share of less-than-desirable garbage. "I've swept up guns and knives - just about everything. I've swept up objects that I had to back off of. Sometimes, it's real dark and you can't see that well... I had to be careful not to run over the prostitutes and their customers... Once, I scooped up a bag of robbery loot dropped next to a curb... Another time I swept up a gun that was used in a fatal shooting. I had to help the police find it in my hopper."
On occasion, Lieswald also found himself faced with the challenge of dealing with airborne debris. "When I worked down there around the winos, I had things thrown at me like you wouldn't believe. There was this one guy who had been in Vietnam. He was having a flashback or something, and he thought I was trying to shoot him. He threw a great big porcelain doll at me. She hit the windshield, busted it, and came right through it.
"One night a carload of vandals started throwing rocks at me. Then they made a U-turn and headed straight for me like in a game of 'chicken.' I had a big steel bumper on my 15-ton sweeper, though, and I pushed their Dodge Coronet backward about a mile before they got away."
Lieswald believes Los Angeles has made significant improvements in crime prevention since the not so good-old-days. "It got so bad when Police Chief Gates was in charge, that the cops said they weren't supposed to arrest anyone because the jails were all filled up. Crime was running wild because the crooks knew they could get away with anything. They'd break into buildings that were protected by iron bars, by hooking a chain to their pickup and ripping the bars right off.
"I had a flat tire one Sunday night out on Sunset Boulevard. I blew a back tire out and couldn't even move. I sat there almost all night waiting for a tire truck to come. While I waited, I watched drug dealers exchanging thousands of dollars of cash right in front of me. I don't know how the heck they knew who was buying drugs and who wasn't, but they'd let certain cars go by, then get out in the middle of the street to stop other ones. The dealers would threaten you by telling you that if you didn't buy drugs from them, you'd be dead by morning...
"We put radios in our trucks, and no one was allowed to leave the yard without one. And, of course, the crooks would break into our yard and steal the radios. Then we had to be careful what we said over the radio, because they might be listening."
But, more recently, under the authority and direction of former police Chief Willie L. Williams, and current police chief Bernard C. Parks, the cops have gotten a lot tougher and more aggressive, and the crime rate is down said Lieswald. "When [Williams] was hired, he put a stop to that right away. Things changed in about 2 or 3 weeks. He got all the drug dealers off the street... Things have gotten so much better... in terms of crime and everything else."
The "everything else" Lieswald refers to includes major improvements in technology and environmental awareness. Recycling initiatives have greatly reduced the numbers of bottles and cans tossed into the street. High-rise office buildings have ended their tradition of tossing millions of calendar pages out office windows at year's end. Even the new, thinner glass bottles don't slice through sweeper tires like the heavier soda pop and liquor bottles of yesteryear.
But the newer technology presents its own set of challenges, Lieswald reports. "We had a lot heavier stuff to sweep back when I first started. There were real tin cans. Then, as the years went by, they came out with plastic bottles and styrofoam cups. You have to drive an awful lot slower, or else the wind will blow them away before you can get to them."
On the positive side, advances in sweeper technology are having a significant impact on the reduction of maintenance and repair. "In the old sweepers," explains Lieswald, "we used to break the gutter brooms off if we hit something. They didn't have the movement - it was more of a solid unit. There was a little bit of give, but the housing used to break all the time. Sometimes, if you hit something, it would twist the drive shaft off, and you'd have to put a new one in. Then, they came out with the shear bolt arrangement that would shear 2 bolts off [instead of breaking the broom]. But the bolts would also shear off whenever the broom bristles would get short - you didn't even have to hit anything to make it happen!
"Then they came out with the hydraulic drive brooms, and those were quite a bit better. They ran smoother and didn't need near the maintenance. With the old drive shafts, we'd have to keep the universal joints greased constantly, or they'd get hot and burn up.
'Burned up' is exactly how Lieswald felt one night when he was accosted at gunpoint by several men as he climbed down from his sweeper to clean debris out of its brooms. "I grabbed the guy's gun and he pulled the trigger twice, but it never went off," reports Lieswald. "Then they took off running down an alley. I chased the guy with my sweeper and was going to run over him, but I grabbed the wrong lever when I tried to raise the rear broom and the brakes went on."
On another night, Lieswald helped rescue a knife-wound victim. The wounded man jumped aboard Lieswald's sweeper to escape from his attacker. When the assailant started to follow, Lieswald quickly raised his brushes, 'put the pedal to the metal,' and drove the victim to safety while radioing the police and an ambulance.
That wasn't Lieswald's only claim to fame as a bona fide hero. During the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, he was one of many who were asked to help clear the streets so firefighters could respond to arson blazes. "We got a path cleared down the middle of Broadway," recalls Lieswald. "Buildings were burning everywhere. It was real scary."
Yet, scary or not, Lieswald once again answered the call to help his fellow man. No wonder the city of Los Angeles will miss him. Lieswald retired in June, and plans to spend much of his retirement on motorcycle trips with his wife of 38 years, Beverly, a special education teacher who also retired in June. An indication of their motorcycle hobby is found in their email address, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Observing Lieswald's engaging smile, his appreciation for beautiful sunrises, and his insistence on wiping down his sweeper after every shift (not to mention mixing his own washer fluid) might lead you to believe he's just your average mild-mannered street sweeper guy. And, that's just fine with Larry. You see, he never told his wife about all the scary 'superhero' stuff. She'll just have to guess why World Sweeper has inducted Larry into the Power Sweeper Hall of Fame. You can keep a secret, can't you?
This article is reprinted from American Sweeper magazine, Volume 7 Number 1.
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