You don’t notice him, until you do. And then you can’t help but see him.
He’s at Lake of the Isles every morning, every day of the year. Well, almost.
He does take a day off now and then to see his grandchildren (he’s got six of them), or when it’s really cold. “My threshold is about 5 above,” he said.
Once you’ve spotted him, you realize how much he stands out.
He’s tall — 6-foot-4 — and lanky, with a tall man’s loping stride. While he looks younger than his 70 years, his ensemble — baggy sweatpants and a white hoodie — show him to be an veteran runner, unlike some of the younger runners who race past in a flash of Spandex, pounding neon shoes and blaring headphones.
Tom Cousins isn’t about speed.
He averages a 13-minute mile, often rambling off the running path down to the edge of the lake or across the parkway, even into the yards, fields and woods on the other side. It takes him more than an hour and 30 minutes — maybe 40 — to zigzag his way around the lake.
That’s because Cousins doesn’t just run, he also picks up trash. Lots of it.
For the past 25 years or so, he’s been the unofficial trashman of the lake.
“If I see trash, I pick it up,” he said.
When asked why, Cousins talks about his father, whom he calls “a very ethical man.” He tells a story of a trip to the family cabin in Detroit Lakes and how his father refused to let Cousins and his siblings spit sunflower seeds out of the window of the car. “He really cared about the environment.”
Cousins, too, cares about the environment, in general, and Lake of the Isles, in particular.
“It’s a beautiful place,” he said. “It shouldn’t be full of trash.”
Cousins ended up at Lake of the Isles almost by process of elimination.
He started running in 1974, when he was still working full-time as a trailer engineer and salesman. “I used to run in Bloomington way back when, but it was boring. There weren’t any people to watch, and there are hills. Hills,” he said, “are a killer.”
He switched to the city lakes, taking a couple at a time.
“My knees started getting sore three or four years ago, so I cut it back to just Lake of the Isles. There are people to watch, there are trails — and it’s just beautiful.”
Every day for more than two decades, he’s been making his slow, unsteady progress around the lake, stopping to pick up the junk food wrappers, the beer and pop cans, empty containers for energy drinks. He brings his own plastic bags (the ones from the Sunday paper) and, in summer, fills three a run. Thursdays, for some reason, are the trashiest days at Isles.
In winter, there isn’t as much litter, he’s noticed. But there also are fewer garbage cans, so he carries what he picks up with him.
Of course, there’s money. He usually hauls in about 10 bucks a year. When he finds checks or IDs, he sends them to their rightful owners.
He’s become a known quantity, a fixture, who’s greeted by name by the dog-walkers, the regulars, the people who live in the neighborhood. They call out a hello as he lopes, stops, stoops, then lopes along again. Sometimes they thank him. Sometimes they offer him money (which he doesn’t accept) or the occasional Starbucks gift card (which he does, but only reluctantly).
“I don’t want people to give me stuff,” he said. “That’s not why I’m here.”
The Bloomington man is there to run — something he hopes he’ll be able to do for a long time. And to pick the place up a bit. Combining the two works oddly well for him.
“Stopping to pick up the trash gives me a little handicap,” he said, “but I also get to stop.”
More important, being the keeper of the lake allows him to do a little something for the lake he’s come to love.
“It’s just a way for me to give back,” he said. “It’s just something I do because it’s the right thing to do.”