Every year around this time, Donna Peterson leaves her Santa Monica, Calif., home to board a plane for Baltimore and the Preakness. No, not for the horse race. For the trash.
Rising before dawn the day after the running of the second jewel in the Triple Crown, Peterson and her daughter Sandy Barnett head for Pimlico Race Course's infamous infield. There, with more than 100 other volunteers, they begin an annual mother-daughter visit by picking through the leavings of Maryland horse- racing's wildest party to raise money for the preservation of tropical rain forests.
Armed with rakes and trash bags and stoked by breakfast bars, the volunteers face dueling emotions: disgust at the level of human piggishness, and thanks for the fund-raising windfall it brings.
During the past eight years, volunteers from the National Aquarium, the Mid-Atlantic Reptile Show, the Nature Conservancy and other groups have collected more than 54,000 pounds of aluminum for recycling from the infield -- enough to purchase about 500 acres of rain forest in Costa Rica. Organizers said it would be several days before they knew this year's total.
"The great thing is the fact that people are willing to get out there between a quarter of 6 and 6 in the morning and take something as disgusting as you can imagine and turn it into something good," said Holli Friedland, program director for the reptile show, which coordinated the volunteer effort.
What do the volunteers find in this garden of morning-after excess, with its perfume of stale beer? The better question might be, what don't they?
A pair of beach chairs, twisted together like dying lovers. One mateless black sandal, kicking up its heel in the mud. Vodka in tiny bottles and fortified wine in large ones. Blankets and bagels, false teeth and fried chicken, sweaters and sheets. A deflated plastic pool, soggy with dew.
It's not a pretty scene. Surveying the sea of debris, Paul Baer of Towson, a claims adjuster for Allstate Insurance Co., thought back to his college-day visits to the infield with a twinge of regret. "Now I wish I'd been a little cleaner," he said.
Friedland's group joined about 25 paid workers and about 30 volunteers from Baltimore's Jerusalem Temple No. 4, who collected cans to pay for charitable projects.
"I can see one thing -- at least they had a lot of fun," said John P. Spencer, a retired firefighter and temple volunteer.
Like Barnett and Peterson, some volunteers come back year after year, several wearing safari hats to ward off the sun and echo the project's mission. They turn into amateur anthropologists, the silent evidence before them speaking volumes about the weather, the wildness level and the drinking habits of the day. They can tell how much contraband, now ownerless and exposed, made it past security.
"I can tell you there's a lot more beer cans than soda cans," said Larry Pollack, a volunteer diver at the aquarium who traveled to the cleanup from Springfield, Va. "Also a lot more plastic than before. People are drinking more water."
Those few treasures that survive the devastation intact, along with the fund-raising cause, make up the modest payoffs of the morning's work.
Pollack's prize was a box containing two pristine Preakness commemorative glasses -- "never touched by lips," he gushed, albeit without verification.
Some volunteers know each other not by name but by the item each collects. Take Baltimore entomologist Nick Spero -- better known as "The Marlboro Man" for the cigarette packs he collects for merchandise points at the yearly cleanup. "It's everything from Budweiser to champagne out here," said Spero.
Barnett, senior herpetologist at the aquarium, typically picks up a year's supply of pens, as well as bedsheets to use for hands-on exhibits -- and spare change, which she donates to the rain forest cause.
Jack Cover, curator of the aquarium's rain forest exhibits, has a "lifetime supply of nylon rope" for use in field work.
Friedland, who has found a $20 bill and a 14-carat gold necklace in past years, looks for intact plastic foam coolers. "We reptile people, we like those," she said. "Great for taking the animal to the vet."
Said Pollack: "When we have lunch together, it will be like Halloween trick or treat. We'll be saying to each other, 'What'd you get? I'll trade you.' "
For Peterson, the lasting treat is art, created by her daughter. Once she returns home to California, she knows she'll receive a gift from Barnett in the mail -- a collage of hand-picked infield garbage. Last year, Peterson got a bouquet of beer can pull-tops, black-eyed Susan swizzle sticks, discarded betting tickets and pictures from their week together.
"We have fun," said Peterson. "It's just amazing to me that people can be so dirty."
Pub Date: 5/18/98