Scrubbing The Walls

Gaetano Russo, a Costa Mesa maintenance worker, removes graffiti from a business wall in an alley on Thursday. (SCOTT SMELTZER, Daily Pilot / November 1, 2013)

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It's about 6:10 a.m. Thursday and 52 degrees in Costa Mesa.

Gaetano Russo has already been on the clock for 2 1/2 hours.

The skies are still black when his work truck approaches a side gate at the Santa Ana Country Club. He parks the Ford F-350 just off Newport Boulevard, the thoroughfare's two lanes empty at this time of the morning.

Like a responding police car or fire truck, he turns on the emergency lights. They go flashing about the scene conspicuously.

But Russo is here for a different kind of urgency: quickly ridding Costa Mesa of graffiti.

The 52-year-old city maintenance worker knows the turf like few others, street by side street by alleyway, block by block and wall to wall. It comes with the job of graffiti abatement, work he has been doing with quiet humility and genuine passion to better the community for a good portion of his nearly 27 years with the city.

"I'm just doing my job, moving on," he says. "I don't look at it like, 'I'm doing a good job; somebody's gotta tell me.'"

He may not expect to hear praise, but Public Services Director Ernesto Munoz has plenty to give Russo.

"Gaetano is one of the Public Service Department's most outstanding long-tenure employees," Munoz wrote in an email to the Daily Pilot. "His commitment to ensuring the city is maintained graffiti-free is unmatched."

At the country club, someone has tagged the dark green fence canvas with white spray paint. His solution? Cover it with dark green spray paint.

Russo grabs some from his well-equipped truck and applies accordingly. The can hisses over the hum of the 55 Freeway behind him. About a minute later, the problem is solved.

Moments before, he had removed graffiti from a tree just down the way. In that case, he used a pressure washer.

"That's easy money," he says before starting the task. "Won't take long."

Throughout the initial hours of his shift Thursday — the twilight time of Halloween, when most trick-or-treaters are still fast asleep — most of his jobs are "easy money."

They're generally cleaned up within a minute or two or three, whether by spray paint, paint applied with a brush, pressure washing, sandblasting, scrubbing or a combination thereof.

The scrubbing, fortunately, is effective after letting applied chemicals "work their magic." Then he can wipe the graffiti target clean.

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'Like it's my city'

Russo grew up in Naples, Italy. He met his wife there while she was on vacation. She's Italian-born but grew up in the U.S.

Eventually he made his way across the Atlantic Ocean to "try out America." He got his citizenship and never looked back.