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'There is a Santa Claus': One man cleans up the subway, ahead of schedule

By Dan Miller danmiller@pressandjournal.com
Posted 4/6/17

It was like magic. A few weeks ago, the subway under the railroad tracks in Middletown was full of trash and debris. It was an ugly mess.

By 11 a.m. Wednesday, April 5, all that was gone. Every …

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'There is a Santa Claus': One man cleans up the subway, ahead of schedule


It was like magic. A few weeks ago, the subway under the railroad tracks in Middletown was full of trash and debris. It was an ugly mess.

By 11 a.m. Wednesday, April 5, all that was gone. Every bit of trash. No more plastic bottles, no paper.

Phil Bennett, who lives on Ann Street, had planned to do a cleanup of the subway starting at 11 a.m. that day. But by the time he got there, it had already been done.

Standing in the stairway going down into the subway was Dave Lidle, who bears a distinct resemblance to Santa Claus. Lidle listened for a few minutes as Bennett and this reporter tried to figure out who had done the good deed.

Maybe it was Amtrak, because the borough says Amtrak owns the subway and is supposed to be responsible for it. Or maybe it was the borough, which at times in the past has cleaned up the underground passage that runs along the route that Catherine Street would take if the railroad tracks did not cut it off behind Karns.

Then Lidle let everyone in on the secret. He came down to the subway at 7:30 a.m. and cleaned up all the trash, all by himself.

Having seen how bad the subway looked a few weeks ago, it was hard to believe that just one person could do that — especially a 68-year-old man.

But it’s true, Lidle said, adding “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

All by himself

Lidle and Bennett didn’t even know each other until they met at the top of the subway stairs April 5, after Lidle had done his work.

Lidle had seen the front page article in The Press & Journal on March 22 about Bennett’s plan to clean up the subway.

“I marked it on my calendar,” said Lidle, who lives on East Main Street. “I came down this morning and I saw how bad it was. So I spent three hours down there cleaning it up.”

He picked up enough trash in the subway to fill three contractor bags and two large trash cans. He wanted to get rid of the four big tires that someone dumped in the subway a while back, but he can’t do that by himself.

Bennett and Lidle came up with the idea of using the tires for flower pots. “We’ll show them what tires are for,” Lidle said.

Lidle didn’t plan on doing the whole clean up by himself. He started, went for a while, took a break every once in a while, kept going, and the next thing he knew, it was done.

“It’s the right thing to do, you know. It’s helping out where I can,” said Lidle, a Vietnam veteran who grew up in Hummelstown but has lived in Middletown for the past 45 years. That’s also how long Lidle has been playing Santa Claus.

During the three hours he was down there probably at least a half dozen people or more walked through the subway. Most of them were elderly people with carts, on their way to Karns or on their way back.

“A kid walked by and said, ‘Are you thirsty? I’ll go to Karns and get you a soda,” Lidle said. The kid came back with a soda.

When he finished around 10:30, Lidle went home to take a shower because “I was filthy.” He came back just before 11, expecting to find Bennett and a bunch of people helping him.

“I thought for sure other people would be here to help out,” Lidle said. Instead, it was just Bennett.

“You are the only guy,” Bennett said.

Strangers to friends

Now, two men who were strangers are now friends. They’re also a team. Bennett said cleaning out the trash is just the first step toward making the subway what it should be.

The walls need sandblasted and repainted. The steps on both the Catherine and Karns sides need repaired.

Something needs to be done about the lights. There are four fixtures attached to the ceiling, but only one of the fixtures works. That makes for a dangerous situation.

“Nobody wants to walk through that tunnel at nighttime when it’s dark. It’s not safe,” Lidle said.

Bennett worries about the Dumpster at the top of the stairs on the Karns side. Someone could easily hide along the Dumpster and prey on someone coming up the stairs. Video surveillance cameras would be a good idea, but that would have to involve whomever owns or is responsible for the subway, Bennett said. He also wants to clear away some of the mulberry bushes that when in full bloom also obscure the view on the Karns side.

There’s alot of work yet to be done. Lidle said he’s in it for the long haul.

“We need help right now keeping it clean every day. That’s our biggest thing,” he said.

Drug paraphernalia such as syringes and hypodermic needles have been found in the subway, borough resident and former councilor Rachelle Reid has said.

However, Lidle said he did not see any drug paraphernalia while he was scooping trash out of the subway.

Before the subway

As Lidle and Bennett were making their connection at the top of the stairs on the Catherine Street side, they were approached by an elderly man wearing a green baseball cap.

The man, who did not want to be identified, talked about how people used to be able to drive over the tracks until 1948, when the underground subway opened.

“My great uncle worked for the railroad,” the man said. “He used to sit on a wooden chair (by the tracks). He knew the schedule and when he knew there was a train coming he would stand up and hold up a sign until the train went past and then cars could drive over.”

"We've tried"

One of the residents who went down through the subway while Bennett and Lidle were there was Teri Over. She was happy to see what had been done.

“I think it’s wonderful. It looks nice down there and I hope it stays this way. I know it won’t, but I hope it does,” Over said. “I’ve cleaned it up a couple of times. There’s a kid named JP down the street, he’s cleaned it up. We’ve tried. We’ve tried.”

Bennett, a professional singer, laughed when told he might have gotten more people out to help had he promised free entertainment. Then an idea came to him. He may arrange to have a jazz group of his friends come out to do a show as part of an upcoming subway fix-up project.

One thing that Bennett and Lidle couldn't figure out is that boards were attached to the stairs going up to the Karns lot, presumably to stop further deterioration.

The work that was done to the subway steps was done by Amtrak, said borough Public Works Director Greg Wilsbach.

Wilsbach said that Amtrak pays the electric bill for the lights in the subway to the borough, further evidence that the property is owned by Amtrak.

Amtrak has not responded regarding whether the railroad owns the subway property or is responsible for it.