Shoveling road kill. Dodging traffic. It’s another day at the office for Rick Dionne.
Rick Dionne drives 40 miles twice a day looking for nasty metal scraps, blown-out tires and fresh road kill.
The tires and scraps go in the back of his truck. Dead animals did, too, once upon a time.
He used to bury little critters back at the office. Now Dionne and his Maine Turnpike crew just fling each body far enough into the tree line so it won’t get nicked by the mower.
That, he said, would be a bit gruesome. Then he offers a peek at a decomposing raccoon he tossed a few days ago. (Um, no thanks.)
“My boss before me had a weak stomach when it came to skunks or deer when they were really splattered,” Dionne says, hand on the wheel, eyes on the road.
He’d gag. Then the guy next to him would gag. A gag chain.
“Then we’d get in the truck and laugh about it.”
All a day’s work for the local turnpike foreman.
When he and the guys at the Auburn Maintenance Facility aren’t dispatching road kill, they fix guardrails and pavement, mow, plow, collect trash and pick an inordinate amount of underwear off the side of the road. (Really. Hypodermic needles, too. He can’t figure it out.)
He likes the work, most of the time. But motorists can be dangerously rude.
They don’t always slow down when he darts into the road after scraps and prey. The Greene man says it feels like the arcade classic “Frogger.” He’s the frog.
Once Dionne was painting striped lines in front of the West Gardiner toll plaza when a car driving through the toll whacked him on the butt with its sideview mirror.
“It launched me, just shooooooo! The guy never stopped,” Dionne said. He got covered in paint, but luckily, not hurt. He scraped himself off and kept going.
Dionne started his Turnpike career as a toll taker 20 years ago. His dad was one, too. Dionne thought it was boring, so he kept applying for maintenance. Eventually there was an opening that fit. He became a working foreman in 2002.
His turf is a 20-mile stretch of road, from the new Sabattus interchange to the New Gloucester tolls.
Do this job long enough, like him, and you’ll notice a definite seasonal trend to road kill.
Little things are most active in spring. Deer and moose are active now until June, driven out of the woods by the bugs, and then again in the fall, driven out of the woods by the hunters.
(Dead moose don’t get the tossed-into-the-woods treatment. They’re brought by loader to a pit off the northbound side of the turnpike.)
Of course, sometimes, nature is notoriously unpredictable.
“Couple weeks ago we went through a thing of beavers – more beavers than I’ve seen in my career here,” Dionne says. They died trying to cross the road in random spots.
Turkeys were crazy this spring too. Two bumped-off birds, feathered and cleaned, are in the office freezer to be guests of honor for the next office barbecue or going-away party.
On occasion, the men find themselves on the roadside having an inspired debate over an expired bit of something:
“That looks like a coyote.”
“No, that looks like a raccoon to me.”
Every spring, his crew has its own ritual: starting at one end of their 20-mile domain and picking trash to the other. They never quite finish, but he says they always try.
Two people working together can fill 40 trash bags a day, covering a mile and a half. Dionne will pick with them, too, a few hours at a time, around more routine office paperwork.
At breaks or before lunch, “We do like a tick inspection – OK, check me out!” he says. “We had a new record last week with Tom: They found 27 on him. He must have got in a nest of them.”
He and the crew find the strangest things on picking detail.
Sex toys. Loads of fast food packaging. Truck beds. A gun holster. Money (it’s etiquette to split money finds with your picking partner).
Dionne knows a man who started a rubber ducky collection with castoffs he found on the road.
Ever since 9/11, flags have been huge. They are put in their own collection bag and get destroyed in a formal ceremony.
This spring, the crew also gathered more than 2,000 bottles and cans. The crew returns them and puts the change in the office kitty, where they buy things like a microwave when it dies, or adopt a family at Thanksgiving. “We’ve had over $1,000 in it before,” he says.
(They don’t return bottles filled with pee – yes, those also turn up. They go in a special biohazard bag with the needles.)
During his morning drive on a recent Friday, Dionne pulled his truck over to check the progress of crew members who’d dug a pit to fix a light pole. They’d picked this area within the last few weeks. In easy sight, there was an Arby’s cup, Burger King fry sleeve, scrap of paper, two beer cans, four beer bottles and an athletic cup.
He laughs when it’s pointed out. “Work – it’s endless.”
He pulls over again when he spots a glint of metal that doesn’t belong on the southbound side of an overpass.
Dionne drives beyond the overpass and parks. He tugs on a bright orange vest, briefly grumbles about speeding traffic, the narrowness of the bridge and the distance to his prey – about 100 feet – and books it.
His first catch of the day:
A gnarled Old Town Canoe oar and piece of broken headlight.
Lost bungee cords are an everyday find. So, in warmer months, are tire shreds. (For the curious, they mostly roll off 18-wheelers whose drivers never notice.)
Among the crew’s responsibilities is keeping the Auburn and Lewiston park-and-rides in respectable shape. The trash cans get emptied twice a week.
“My big grief about that is people who bring their household trash here. That really gets me going,” Dionne says. “In Lewiston we’ve picked up treadmills, exercise bikes, TVs, VCRs, everything.”
He means it – everything.
Dionne and his crew used to find porn magazines in the trash cans of the Lewiston park-and-ride every week. Like clockwork.
Then, for years, nothing.
“Me and Steve did the trash” two Wednesdays ago, he says, pointing to a certain can. “That one there was filled with pornography books.”
There were titles like “Mature Babes.” Maybe someone was saving up.
Dionne says it’s funny how many things he’s found at work just when he’s needed them. He calls them “road treasures”: items brought back to the office no one claims. He found a 12-ton jack. His kids have bunches of sleds at home that likely flew unnoticed off the roofs of cars.
Once, he was in the market for a few small windows for his garage. Then he spotted “two brand spankin’ new windows, frames and all. Boom – they went in my garage. Perfect. Just when I needed them.”