Some people are into fast cars or sleek aircraft. McKinley Page has nurtured an obsession with a more mundane vehicle: the street sweeper.
Page, who goes by Kenny, is arguably the world’s most enthusiastic devotee of the machines, and he has been obsessed with them since his first glimpse of one as a child nearly 50 years ago in Newark.
He says the noise and movement of the brushes captivated him.
“I sat there, for maybe a good 25 minutes, just staring at it, watching it, and from there, then, the fascination was there,” Page recalled of seeing his first street sweeper when he was 4 or 5.
At an age when most young men were saving up for their first car, Page worked multiple jobs as a teenager to buy his own dream ride: a used Elgin Street King sweeper, which he still owns. He used it to clean the streets of his Newark neighborhood when city workers failed to make the rounds.
“I would take my machine and sweep around the whole area, for free,” Page said. “I would work two jobs just to, you know, clean it up, and people would clap sometimes, I mean, they liked what I did.”
If street sweeping machines were the objects of his affection, the companies and engineers that made them were his personal heroes.
In a reply letter dated Nov. 21, 1972, an official from the Illinois-based Elgin Sweeper Company thanks Page for the multiple fan letters and hand-drawn images of street sweepers that he sent company officials, and he shares his lament over the Elgin Street King being discontinued.
“Yes, McKinley, I am afraid the Elgin Street King has gone down in history with the zeppelin, the electric motor car, horse-drawn fire truck and all the other things people no longer make,” reads the letter, signed by Jack F. Bryson of Elgin. “But we sure agree with you that it was a beautiful street sweeper to look at.”
Before saving up to buy his own sweeper, Page was well-known to the sanitation workers in Newark and several neighboring towns as the strange little kid who would follow their street sweepers around on his bicycle.
After he bought his own sweeper and embarked on a one-man campaign of vigilante cleanliness, Page also became well-known to the police.
Patrick Donnelly, a retired police officer from Woodbridge, recalled meeting Page more than 25 years ago when Donnelly was riding in a Newark squad car with a friend who wondered why a young man was driving around in a rough area of Newark on a street sweeper that didn’t match the paint colors of the city’s fleet.
“We pulled him over. He didn’t have his insurance card, so we put him in the back of the radio car until we checked him out,” Donnelly said. “He was just driving around, sweeping streets for nothing, for the city of Newark, so we told him: ‘Get back in your sweeper. Have a good time, just don’t hit anything, don’t get into an accident.’ And I’ve known Kenny ever since.”
Donnelly is one of Page’s extended circle of friends who have formed an acting troupe that is working on getting scripts produced about Page’s life and other topics. Several members of the group met on the set of the 2008 movie “Be Kind Rewind,” starring Jack Black and Mia Farrow, which was filmed in Passaic and in which Page was an extra.
Now, when not concentrating on his acting career, Page scours flea markets for broken toys to use for parts in the hundreds of elaborate street sweeper toy models that he created: miniature replicas of the different sweepers used by sanitation departments in towns across New Jersey.
And after moving recently to Bethlehem, Pa., Page introduced himself to the town by sending the mayor one of his handmade models — an exact replica of the city’s street sweepers.