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Close to the Ground

Photo by Peter Fletcher

Whether you’re a Hollywood local or a tourist from Winnebago, Minnesota, you’re bound to spot John Peterson on your way to Grauman’s Chinese Theater. He’s the fellow hunched over on his knees, intently rubbing the crap of a billion feet off the stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. His tools are a squirt-bottle of glass cleaner, a can of Brasso, a couple of rolls of blue rags and a pair of crutches. He drags himself and his gear, including the crutches, from star to star.

“I lost my right leg when I was 4 or 5 years old through natural causes — no accident or injury,” he insists, “and I didn’t give it up to do this.”

It’s no easy feat. Peterson looks as though he has been through his own little war, but still maintains a sweet glint in his eyes. His hands and knuckles are scarred and calloused from years of dragging himself across the pink terrazzo terrain. He rides the bus from his home in East Hollywood to work everyday.

“I was born in Los Angeles in 1949,” he says. “China became communist that year, and Russia developed its atomic bomb.” After traveling the States for some 10-plus years, he resettled in L.A. in 1973 and worked in the audio/video sale-and-repair game for the next 25 years.

In 1997, Peterson noticed that the Walk of Fame stars had been badly neglected and had fallen into disrepair.

“I decided to shine some of them up and see if the store and restaurant owners would like me to come and shine their stars.”

In 1999, California Street Maintenance created a full-time job for Peterson, and now he shines stars from 9 to 5. It’s not so much the unique work that Peterson enjoys: “It’s the people that I meet. Some are real nice and some are real weird. There’s never a dull moment — well, maybe an occasional dull moment.”

There are more than 2,200 stars on the Boulevard, and it takes Peterson two to three weeks to go down one side and up the other, polishing the brass placards until he sees his reflection. “I’m kind of like the guy who paints the Brooklyn Bridge — I finish one end and start over at the other,” he explains. “I haven’t taken a vacation because I’d come back and they’d be just like I discovered them after years of neglect.”

Lucky stars — Peterson not only keeps them shined, he is a font of information on the careers of the stars he loves and loathes. A mention of Guy Lombardo sets him off on a 15-minute tale of how he used to sleep near the bandleader’s star back when he was homeless. But he isn’t too happy with the Scientologists who don’t allow him to clean the stars in front of their buildings — they clean their own. “They’re a bunch of weirdos, and they probably think I’m spying on them,” Peterson says. “I don’t want to clean theirs anyway.”

As we crawl from Dorothy Dandridge’s star to Harry Belafonte’s, Peterson — or Mr. Star Shine to some — accepts a Coke from a girl at Joe’s Diner. They exchange not an utterance — not a glance. At 5 p.m., he shows up at Stefano’s Pizzeria, where a little white box containing his dinner awaits him as always. He sets his pizza out on the sidewalk and eats, while the passersby become less and less touristy as dusk descends.

“This is no place to be after dinner,” Peterson says as he chews. ”It’s like they let the animals out of their cages when the sun goes down.”

Peterson claims that he’s never been stepped on by a tourist, but quite a few have stumbled over him.

“They get caught up in the stars themselves or photographing the landscape and they don’t think they’re going to run into something in the middle of the road — it’s all accidental, they’re harmless.”

And no one knows better than John Peterson about getting caught up in stars.


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