.Talking Trash With the San Jose Litter Ladder

The true story of the Litter Ladder, San Jose’s animated anti-litter rap

When inspiration struck, Rick Stanton was driving the backstreets of South San Jose counting every piece of graffiti he could find.

“It was just weird,” he says. “I literally pulled the car over, turned off the engine, got out a piece of paper and pencil and started writing. I wrote the whole thing in like half an hour.”

The piece he was working on that day, as he cataloged the city’s graffiti, wasn’t exactly music, or poetry, or film or spoken word, but it incorporated all of them. It was a public service announcement. The message was simple: Littering is not cool. He even had a name for it. The Litter Ladder.

In the pantheon of San Jose iconography, the Litter Ladder occupies a hallowed spot near orange sauce, the Tully Chuck E. Cheese and Chili-Finger Wendy’s. For a generation of locals, it is synonymous with San Jose itself. Originally aired on Comcast in the mid 2000s, the PSA features four animated San Joseans rapping about their varied relationships to littering. Now viewable via YouTube, the video has inspired many passionate comments (and one off-the-rails remix).

“This feels like it should really be a well-known meme and it’s like an existential punch in the gut when I realize that only people from San Jose know what this is,” reads the video’s top comment. Another one simply states: “This ad was the highlight of my youth.“

But back when inspiration struck Rick Stanton, he had no idea what any of this would look like. All he wanted to do was get across his idea of the four types of people when it came to littering.

LITTER-ALLY

As the head of the city of San Jose’s anti-litter program, Rick Stanton saw the problem like this:

“There’s four types of people. People who litter, people who throw their own trash away, people who [when they] walk by litter, pick it up and throw it in the trash can, and people who will actively pick up litter and throw it away.”

Stanton had inherited his role as the city’s chief Anti-Litter officer following his successful run as the head of the city’s Anti-Graffiti program. During his tenure throughout the late ’90s and early 2000s, it was estimated graffiti in the city was reduced by somewhere near 98%. Part of the success was due to a procedure he implemented, the one he was carrying out the day he wrote the Litter Ladder.

“Once a year, our staff would drive every street in the city and count every tag,” he says. Once surveyed, they could clean up and then quantify the lasting effect.

“The first time I think we counted 87,542, something like that,” Stanton says. “A huge number. The last year I was there, seven years later, we counted 129 tags.”

Impressed by the results, then-mayor Ron Gonzales bestowed him a new role. He was no longer head of the city’s anti-graffiti program. He was now head of the city’s Anti-Graffiti-slash-Anti-Litter Program.

For Stanton, the issue of litter clearly came down to educating youth.

“We thought we could get the message across that not only could they stop littering, they could start picking it up and they could tell their parents not to [litter],” he says.

Parked behind a car dealership off Capital and Pearl, Stanton wrote down his concept. The next day at the office, he approached his coworker, Paul J. Gonzalez, and told him his plan.

“I talked to him and said, ‘Let’s do a Litter Ladder.’”

At the bottom of the ladder was Littering Lucy, the unabashed trash-thrower who announces herself in the immortal couplet: “I’m Littering Lucy and I don’t care / I’ll throw my trash anywhere.” (In the PSA, Lucy shrugs cynically as she tosses an applecore on the ground.) One rung up from Lucy is the self-sufficient Toss It Tom, proclaiming his intent to throw away his own trash. Keep It Clean Jean comes next, promising to “pick up trash that’s in my way.” Finally, there’s All-Star Stan, who goes out of his way to find and properly dispose of litter.

“He had the names first,” Gonzalez remembers. “He said, ‘You’re the artist. I’m gonna let you go with it.’”

“I wrote the words but I didn’t have the beat, because I don’t have any musical talent,” Stanton says, laughing. “But the words flew. They flew together really well.”

HEY, THAT’S ME

This February, Paul J. Gonzalez completed his 200th mural project. The lengthy piece depicts local wildlife across a serene and colorful landscape and spans a full wall at Empire Gardens Elementary in North San Jose. Currently, he’s finishing another mural, this one at the Valley Water building in South San Jose.

Gonzalez has been an artist for as long as he can remember. His work first appeared in print when he was just four years old, in a photo of him drawing on concrete with chalk.

“My mom was really artistically inclined. She had me at 18, so she didn’t have any money but she would draw all the time and take me to museums and things,” he recalls.

Gonzalez had a fondness for comics and superheroes, often incorporating them into his artwork. On occasion, he’d cosplay as the 1960s Batman. But back in the early 2000s he played a more civilian role, working as a Community Activity Worker with the city’s Anti-Graffiti/Anti-Litter program.

When his boss, Rick Stanton, told him about his idea for the Litter Ladder, he started working on character concepts right away.

“I was just learning digital art at that time. I only knew Photoshop,” Gonzalez says. “We were thinking, the characters need to be relatable, and we needed diversity.”

He put his news skills to work building out his relatable, diverse group of San Joseans, most of them people he knew in real life. Senior citizen Toss It Tom was based on fellow Anti-Litter/Anti-Graffiti employee Rob Boyles. Gonzalez based All-Star Stan on himself (“kind of medium-toned Mexican-American”).

Littering Lucy was first based on his sister, then on a friend “who always had this sour face. She always had this little weird frown. She didn’t care. She became Littering Lucy.”

Armed with Gonzalez’s artwork, Stanton had big ambitions for his concept. He also had some rare funding. Due to his success running the Anti-Graffiti program, the department received an estimated $16,000 for promotions from the city’s General Fund. Inspired by the 1970s “Keep America Beautiful” campaign—which featured Italian-American actor Iron Eyes Cody as a Native American man brought to tears at the sight of litter—Stanton approached the local Comcast corporate office.

“I contacted them and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this concept that we really like. We want to get a PSA made.’”

HERE’S MY RHYME

The “Litter Ladder” aired on Comcast for years, but by all accounts, the recording flew by before most of the actors knew what had happened. On the day vocals for the commercial were recorded, a small group walked from the Anti-Graffiti/Anti-Litter office on Woz Way over to Comcast’s no-longer-existing downtown office. Once there, they found a full recording studio complete with a vocal booth and mixing board.

Among the city employees with Gonzalez that day were office administrator Adriana York, Rob Boyles from Anti-Litter and Gordon Castro from Anti-Graffiti. As York remembers it, she didn’t attend the recording with the intent to perform at all.

“I kind of went along for the walk because I was just being nosy,” she says.

York was an office specialist who had come to the Anti-Graffiti/Anti-Litter Program from the city’s home recycling program. While she was busy being nosy, someone suggested she might try out for one of the voices. Though she had never acted before, she took the suggestion calmly.

“I wasn’t [nervous] because I didn’t take it seriously,” she says. “I just kind of ran with it.”

At the Comcast studio, York read for the role of Littering Lucy. The process went quickly, each take followed by a little advice from the Comcast producer.

“I was trying to put more emphasis on the word care,” York recalls. “I changed a little bit and they were like, ‘Yeah, it’ll work.’”

Before she knew it, she was done. It was only later that she realized she had the first lines in the commercial. Littering Lucy is the first rung on the ladder.

Monika Rose, Gonzalez’s girlfriend at the time, was also in the studio. Her experience was similar to York’s. Rose came to perform the role of peppy, proactive Keep It Clean Jean—though once she started, she wasn’t sure if she was auditioning or recording the actual voice.

“I was sort of go-with-the-flow,” Rose recalls. “I was not really sure if they were going to keep the voice or if it was just ‘let’s audition.’”

She gave the part a couple of takes. Before long, the producer said they were ready to move on to the next.

Even after leaving the studio that day, Rose wasn’t sure if she was actually in the commercial. But then when she saw the finished product, there she was. Her performance fit the character well. Gonzalez—now her husband—had based Keep It Clean Jean on a young Monika.

“It was sort of like my child self,” she says, with wonder. “I’m not really sure what photos he may have seen of me, but it was me in pigtails. I just kind of went back to that moment. How would younger Monika sing this song, or do this jingle?”

As a working artist and consummate self-promoter, Gonzalez had modeled All-Star Stan on himself. The character wore goggles, kneepads and a shirt emblazoned with a star. Working for the Anti-Graffiti program, Gonzalez often wore goggles to shield his eyes from sprayed chemical solvents and kneepads for those get-down-and-scrub jobs. The shirt was also something he owned.

“I had just bought that star shirt from Urban Outfitters,” he says.

As the model for All-Star Stan, Gonzalez went in expecting to perform the character, but the producer at Comcast objected to his deep voice, saying he sounded “too much like Darth Vader.” When Gonzalez saw the final commercial, he was shocked to hear the voice coming out of All Star Stan—it was the Comcast producer himself.

“The guy who edited and created the commercial, we hear the video, and he put his voice on there!” Gonzelez says with a laugh.

Multiple records requests to both the City of San Jose and Comcast revealed no information about this mysterious producer. City public records requests were answered with “no responsive documents” and additional requests revealed “no additional records.” Comcast, likewise, apparently has no record of this deal for airtime across multiple channels with the 10th largest city in America.

The same mysterious Comcast producer who voiced All-Star Stan also appears to have written the song’s wonky music, its slippery record scratch and schoolyard “So Wat’cha Want” style beat. Whoever this person is lives on in great San Jose infamy.

Gonzalez impersonates the sound of the opening record scratch.

Whoocha-whoocha-whooch,” he mimics, laughing. “It’s like, ‘we’re trying to relate.’ Whatever. But it’s cool.”

Sadly, Gordon Castro, voice of the iconic Toss It Tom, passed away in 2011, shortly after retiring from the city. Energetic and motivated, he’s remembered for his passion for dirtbiking and his grandchildren.

“Gordon was such an awesome person,” York says. “He was a super hard worker, worked for the city for [27] years. It’s nice to hear his voice when you see the commercial.”

CLIMBING THE LADDER

Olivia Angharad moved to Delaware from San Jose in 2015. Originally, the move was for school, but after graduating, she stayed in Wilmington to teach English.

“It’s nice,” she says. “Everything’s so close together. It’s like a little scaled-down San Jose where I can walk everywhere I need to go.”

There is one thing, however, that she has not been able to do since moving.

“My friends and I used to quote [the Litter Ladder] to each other,” she says. “I think at one point either my middle or high school did a parody of it on the announcements for environmental week. I would get it stuck in my head but then would realize the friends I was around in my new town wouldn’t know it.”

Back in its initial run, the “Litter Ladder” PSA aired on at least two Comcast channels, though its creators disagree on whether it was Animal Planet and Nickelodeon, or Animal Planet and Cartoon Network. Since neither the city nor Comcast could find any documentation of the PSA’s existence whatsoever, the question remains open.

But another segment of San Jose youth experienced the Litter Ladder outside their TV sets, live and in-person. Far from settling for just a television campaign, the office of Anti-Graffiti/Anti-Litter created thousands of Litter Ladder bookmarks and posters, distributing them to local elementary schools, some of which even witnessed special Litter Ladder assemblies.

“Littering Lucy would walk in from the back with a bag of trash, ‘I’m Littering Lucy,’ throwing the trash. The kids went nuts! They’d be booing her like she was evil,” Stanton says, laughing. “And she hammed it up, too, she was awesome.”

Naturally a brunette, York wore a blonde wig for the role. At the end of the assembly, Gonzalez would walk in as All Star Stan, wearing the same star shirt from TV. He had been learning to juggle and would show off his skills on stage, juggling multiple pieces of trash on the way to the garbage can.

“You’d have thought he was Stef Curry or something,” Stanton recalls. “Incredible decibels coming out of that cafeteria.”

JD Bennett saw the Litter Ladder assembly in person while attending Washington Elementary in downtown San Jose.

“I vividly remember seeing All-Star Stan with his blue shirt with the red star, he had the kneepads on, the goggles, everything,” Bennett says. “It was crazy. The whole cafeteria was full of kids.”

Prior to the assembly, Bennett had seen the commercial repeatedly on TV. As Stanton recalls it, Comcast would sometimes use the PSA to fill unsold commercial spots.

“They were showing that commercial a lot,” Bennett says. “Everybody knew about it. We were actually pretty excited to see the people. It really did make me want to throw my trash away and do my part.”

LITTER LESSONS

It’s difficult to quantify the impact of the Litter Ladder on San Jose’s real-life litter. While Rick Stanton was able to physically count each piece of graffiti he found on his yearly drives, litter comes and goes with the wind.

“How do you measure litter? It’s there one minute, gone the next,” he says. “I’ve struggled with that myself.”

Anecdotally, he says, in the years following the Litter Ladder, the office did notice an improvement in litter across 100 identified problem sites in San Jose.

“Who knows whether the Litter Ladder had anything to do with the litter on those sites, but our numbers did get better as far as rating those sites over time.”

Whether or not it solved the issue of litter citywide, the PSA’s rhymes and imagery continue to live on in San Jose. When local influencer Sanjosefoos reposted the PSA to Instagram earlier this month, it had been eight years since the video originally went up on YouTube. Despite the passage of time, the response on Instagram was much the same as it had been on YouTube.

“OMG!!!! The reason I’m an All star Stan as an adult,” commented one user beside a crying laughing emoji.

“Lmao any time I see someone litter I automatically think Littering Lucy,” wrote another.

The actual Littering Lucy experienced something similar recently. While playing Two Truths and a Lie at a family mixer, Adriana York announced she had voiced the character in the immortal PSA. Revealed as a truth, her daughter-in-law couldn’t believe who she was now related to.

“She was like, ‘What! I had no idea! That really inspired me!’”

“You don’t really know what’s going to have an impact,” Paul J. Gonzalez says. “When this whole thing started off it was just a really simple concept. I think it just had the perfect rhyme, so kids got it.”

Perhaps the best part of the Litter Ladder is its acceptance. Rather than condemning bad actors or threatening viewers with fines and repercussions, it lets everyone speak, followed by a simple question: Where are you on the Litter Ladder?

“Maybe they could dust that off and run it again as a PSA,” Rick Stanton says with a laugh. “I have Comcast now. I’ll start watching cartoons again.”

Mike Huguenor
Mike Huguenor
Arts and Entertainment Editor for Metro Silicon Valley. Musician and writer, born and raised in San Jose.

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