It's not yet 9 a.m. as John Peterson cautiously steps off the westbound 780 bus near the intersection of Hollywood and Highland and crutches his way to a stretch of sidewalk a couple blocks to the east. After lowering himself down to the ground, Peterson pulls from his knapsack a spray bottle of Brasso, a household glass cleaner and a sturdy rag. He wears a plastic, athletic-style protector on one knee.
Peterson sprays the cleaning fluid and carefully wipes the charcoal-and–coral pink terrazzo surrounding a brass Walk of Fame star, taking off a layer of street grime. Then he dabs metal polish onto another rag and works the brass plaque with gusto.
“You'll find dirt, chewing gum, graffiti,” he says. “But graffiti is usually done on a blank star with no name.”
People have more respect for stars emblazoned with the name of a celebrity, no matter how unknown the performer is today. This one belongs to Faye Emerson, a 1940s and '50s TV and movie actress who once was married to Elliott Roosevelt, son of President Franklin and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
It was homelessness that led Peterson to Hollywood Boulevard — but it was changing technology that first put him on the streets. Peterson went to a private technical school for TV repair back in the early '70s, and held that job for around 25 years in Los Angeles before the industry tanked, throwing him into financial crisis.
“In around 1996, I saw the writing on the wall,” Peterson says. “They were converting from analog to digital TV, and the analog sets were getting cheaper because of fast production in China and other foreign countries. So people would just throw those things away and would buy a new one.”
Peterson fell into homelessness, finding refuge from the elements under a store overhang along Hollywood Boulevard's tourist district. But he soon developed a casual arrangement with nearby retail business owners.
“The merchants started to pay me a few bucks to clean the stars in front of their business,” he says. “So they wouldn't look dirty and tarnished by comparison.”
Those celebrity stars, embedded in a few famous stretches of Hollywood sidewalk, are an important part of our city's international entertainment mystique, but their consistent washing had not been a priority.
See also: I Was Arrested on Hollywood Boulevard
Peterson changed that. And in 1999, his informal arrangement with local business owners became official when he was contacted by the Hollywood Entertainment District, which is funded through fees paid by retail landlords. Thanks to its efforts, Peterson was hired by CleanStreet, the vendor charged with keeping Hollywood spiffy.
No longer homeless, Peterson now travels five days a week by bus from his East Hollywood apartment to the tourist strip of Hollywood Boulevard, painstakingly making his way along the sidewalks between La Brea and Vine.
“You have good days and bad days, just like anything,” he says. “Mostly it's pretty good.”
In addition to his salary, he also draws tips from tourists.
He wasn't a showbiz fanatic before he started working on the boulevard. But he's read up quite a lot since.
“You go on Vine Street, just below Selma, on the east side, and you find Felix Adler, Del Lord and Jules White,” he says. “And you think, who the hell are these guys? But if you watch the Three Stooges, you find them on the credits.”
In an average workday, Peterson will thoroughly clean 80 to 120 stars, but it's “semi-variable,” he notes. “Because you have different blocks, they're not standard-sized. Some have 48 stars, some 64. The long ones, like between Hudson and Cherokee — 123 stars.”
A sun-beaten man at 63, Peterson is missing a leg just past the knee. He declines to talk about it. He doesn't like to talk about himself much at all. Sharp, eloquent and quick-talking, he prefers to speak of his beloved Hollywood, as fired up on wonky specifics as any city council or mayoral candidate.
“This boulevard has potential to be a world-class tourist resort,” he says. “But it's just not going the way I'd like to see it. The Chamber of Commerce appears to be living in a world all their own.”
Ideas? He has a million.
“This Chamber of Commerce needs welcome singers,” he says. “They could give directions to tourists and discount coupons, like $2 off to the Wax Museum. These things are come-ons, only a small percent of them are actually used, but it brings them in the door.”
A workman in a CleanStreet truck pulls up to the nearby curb, and he and Peterson exchange shouted hellos.
“The city of L.A. sweeps the street one night a week only,” Peterson says. “It needs to be done the other six nights a week.”
Then he's back to more ideas for Hollywood: “One thing to go in would be a Hollywood History Museum, that would be interactive, with digital technology, and incorporate the history of the Walk of Fame itself.”
Local street characters and shopkeepers alike know Peterson and say hi, but he tries not to make a lot of conversation on the job. He praises a pizza place owner west of Highland, who occasionally hands him a free soda and lets him use the bathroom.
When it comes to the homeless street scene he once was a part of, however, he takes a philosophical view.
“There's the guy in the wheelchair with the sign and the cup, he just sits there, lets the sign do the talking for him. That's OK, I can live with that,” he says. “You don't want people getting in your face, threatening, following, anything like that.”
When it's time for Peterson to catch the bus home, the arduous process of pushing his crutches against the sidewalk to rise onto his one good leg takes a couple minutes, but he manages.
A random piece of trivia pops into his mind: “Did you know that if viewed from high above, the Walk of Fame is laid out in the sign of the cross?”
It's true — the Vine Street portion being the crossbeam.
“Myrtle Beach, S.C., was the very best example I've ever seen of how to run a Chamber of Commerce,” he says, working his way toward the bus stop. “The potential is not being developed the way I'd like to see it. That's the bugaboo.”
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