For this anniversary issue, we decided we would reprint one of our all-time favorite stories from the past 25 years. There were so many contenders, but when it came time to make the choice, this piece, from the December 1990 issue, topped all our lists. The story grew out of letters that the late novelist Phil Troyer started writing to us shortly after he moved from Sarasota to a trailer park in St. Petersburg. The letters, which described his new home, tell a story of a classic Florida way of life-simple, modest and as touching to us now as they were when we first published them.
You asked me why a trailer park. Let me try to explain.
When I wasn’t living at home, I had always lived in sleeping rooms. I preferred them. They were cheap. And if you had landlord troubles or your neighbors were too noisy or you didn’t like them you could pick up and leave at a moment’s notice.
But I had always looked forward to one day living in a trailer. In 1979, my elderly father suffered a severe stroke. I moved home and helped Mother take care of Dad for seven years, doing odd jobs for spending money.
Mother promised that in return for helping out, she would see to it that I would someday have a nice used trailer to move into.
After Father died, Mother and I set out to look for a trailer for me in St. Petersburg, where it seemed she would be moving. Early one morning we crossed the Skyway Bridge and, armed with $20 worth of quarters, I went to a phone booth and began going through the Yellow Pages for possible trailers.
We looked at numerous trailers all over the city-north, south, east-including trailers that were impossible to get into, they were so stacked with stuff. We looked at trailers in family parks, where, close together, the noise from barking dogs and blaring music would have made living or thinking impossible.
And it alarmed us that the rentals were going up, up, up, jumping 10, 15 dollars a month per year.
We decided that a park owned by the trailer owners would be the most advantageous, because the home owners would set the rent and keep it low. Even then, the rent was more than I thought I could earn, and the home-owner parks permitted senior adults only, anyway.
We kept trying. We made 15 trips in all. We tried generally to attack each section of the city. Finally, we found three trailer parks in an integrated neighborhood, situated next to each other. Two were side by side.
At first, there was great uncertainty about taking me, because I was 51. But at the next park, the president talked to her lawyer and said that she would be willing to take me even though I was not 55, if the trailer would be registered in my mother’s name.
On a street lined with live oaks, pigeons cooing beneath them, squirrels chasing each other up and down the palms, we found a trailer in the $5,000 range and Mother took out her checkbook.
This is an old park. The trailers, mine included, are old, and there is very little space between them. A thin person could squeeze between them, though his clothes would be covered with a chalky white dust. It looks the way a trailer park should look.
"What home improvements do you plan to make first to that cracker box of yours?" is a common question asked in a friendly manner of the new owner of a used mobile home, especially in an old park with old trailers.
I’ll have the gravel carport paved. I can’t afford concrete, but someday I’ll have it asphalted. I don’t want a Florida room. To me, a trailer isn’t a trailer if it’s been added onto. I want to preserve the lines of my trailer. I want it to look like a trailer.
I’ll replace the window shades that the sun has made so brittle. I’ll replace the discolored stones of the planter at the front of the trailer and then plant green plants to hide the tongue of the trailer.
I’ll put new screen in my small lanai. The old screen has rotted. The new green screen they use now is quite attractive and adds more privacy, because it’s harder to see through from the outside.
But I won’t touch the interior. It is very popular around here, in trailers as old as mine, to rip out the dark wood paneling and replace it with sheets of vinyl or plastic to brighten up the place. My trailer is a relic and I want to preserve it that way.
I got off to an uneven start. How would you like to wake up in the morning and see tiny, white soldier termites crawling out of small holes in your wood paneling, particularly above your head? I thought I had pretty carefully researched the buying of a used trailer, but I slipped up. Before signing the check, I asked the owner when the trailer had last been termite-inspected. She responded, "It was tented three years ago."
I called in a termite inspector. Noting the damage done to the trailer and the number of pellets, he said that termites had been at work for at least four or five years. I phoned the owner: "I have termites. You tented three years ago? Any documentation?" "I’m floored," she exclaimed, and hung up the phone. Shortly thereafter, there was a knock on my door. It was the secretary of the board here at the park, informing me that the owner had phoned him and demanded that he "tell that boy to quit hounding me for papers, I don’t have any, they were lost."
I had to come up with $325 for tenting. Before signing the contract with the pest control company, I insisted that no one was to walk on the roof-over, because I had been warned about the possible damage this could do. I was promised that the tenters would climb ladders and "just roll" the tent over my trailer, "soft as Northern Tissue." I moved out all my belongings. The tenters arrived, a crew of two. I was angry and dismayed to see one of them tramping around on the roof. I called the general manager to complain. He responded that they were short of crew that day. I demanded a written statement from him promising to pay for any damage that might occur.
So that’s where I stand on termites.
I was appointed crime-watch captain of my block, Fourth Street, and I thought it was a real vote of confidence until I discovered that the only other resident on my street at this time is an 85-year-old woman. She has made pets out of the lizards in her trailer. They actually eat out of her hand. She gives them chocolate milk to drink.
I played bingo the other night in the newly painted, still shiny chartreuse meeting hall. There was such a simple little bit of decoration on the wall, five maple leaves, each a different color, cut from construction paper.
I had never seen players use magnetic wands to sweep up their bingo chips after a card is played. Little plastic poodles glued to some of the chips made it easier for some of the elderly with arthritis to play.
The elderly lady seated across from me writes for True Confessions. In the ’50s and ’60s she wrote "a quarter-million words a year," earning $10,000 annually.
"They’re first-person stories," her husband said, "Of the ‘sin, suffer and repent’ variety."
She works from her trailer for a mail-order writing school, critiquing the students’ (she has 300) assignments.
It was announced before the last game that the jackpot was "over one dollar but under two."
First electric bill, month of August: $12.13, even though my noisy fridge runs day and night (don’t want anyone to think I don’t shower, because I shower daily, but don’t like hot-water heaters so go with "cold.")
The power company attached a box to my hot-water heater. I volunteered for this. When the light on the box is green, it means I have hot water. When the light is red, it means I have no hot water. My hot-water tank is shut off during peak times of city water usage daily, but no longer than for 25 minutes at a time. For this I receive a credit on my monthly bill of $4.50 or less. A beacon of some sort at the power company activates the box.
Dang it, I have to shell out for skirting and cement steps; new rule.
My neighbor a few trailers down is having a "garage sale." Since we don’t have garages and since our front lawns are quite small, she has stretched out a pink blanket on her grass upon which she has neatly placed rows of bric-a-brac.
The "park folks" are gathering in the meeting house on Thursday for Thanksgiving dinner. I had my heart set on going, but instead I will have Thanksgiving dinner with my mother in her retirement center.
However, on Friday the park is going to serve a Thanksgiving leftover dinner in the meeting house for $1.25 per person and Mother and I will both be there.
At our park, we all get hand-delivered to our doors at the beginning of each month a printed schedule of the daily activities that are to take place in the meeting hall.
Apparently our neighbors at the park next door to us are too busy or too cheap to follow our example. Instead, three or four times a day their entertainment coordinator sticks her head out of her trailer door and with a shrill blast on her bullhorn that rouses half the population of St. Pete, announces, "THERE WILL BE A SHUFFLERS’ MEETING IN THE CLUBHOUSE AT ONE O’CLOCK THIS AFTERNOON THERE WILL BE MEN’S CARDS AT TWO THERE WILL BE BUNCO AT FOUR COFFEE TEA AND BROWNIES WILL BE SERVED.
Am kind of in a mad rush. (Going next door for Bunco and brownies.)
We held a Welcome Home dance in the meeting hall for residents who had been away for the summer. The walls of the hall had a new coat of chartreuse paint, and the sawhorses that supported the table boards had a glistening new coat of yellow.
The room was lighted by glaringly bright fluorescent lights overhead.
The door of the women’s room had a paper plate with a hen turkey thumbtacked to it. The door of the men’s room had a paper plate with a tom turkey on it.
A lavish table was set with sandwiches, homemade cupcakes of all kinds and fruit punch-all donated by the residents.
The stems and feet kept falling off the plastic punch glasses as we carried them from table to chair.
A rather heavy woman asked a thin man to dance. In front of everyone, the thin man’s neat yellow slacks began to slide down his hips as they did a fast fox-trot. The woman reached behind the man, grabbed his belt and pulled his pants up, holding onto them throughout the dance. There were smiles all around the room; the woman holding up the pants smiled, too. When the dance ended, she walked the man back to his table, still carefully holding onto his pants.
A very pretty woman in her early 60s wearing a green party dress with a swatch of the same material thrown over one shoulder, asked me to dance. I am a poor dancer. She was an excellent dancer. It was a slow dance. I suddenly realized that I was carrying her hand in mine as high as a subway strap, and I lowered our hands and pressed hers to my shoulder. I had forgotten how good it felt to have my arms around someone, and theirs around me, on the dance floor.
An elderly man got up and by himself did some disco steps. And then with a complete lack of self-consciousness, he did an imitation of James Brown dancing. He danced remarkably well.
Mobile-home parks must be budget-conscious. The elderly woman at my table remarked on the one-man band, made up of trombone and piano with a mechanical thump issuing from his tape recorder. "He’s a lot better than those two clowns we hired last year."
I ate a homemade cupcake and remarked how good it tasted. I didn’t know that the woman seated across the table from me had baked them. She beamed and said, "Now that we know you’re a bachelor, a lot of us are going to be cooking for you."
The dance ended abruptly at 10, and everyone jumped up and folded his chair. The women hurried to the sinks and counters and the men cleared the tables. One of the men, who had tried to help the women, complained to me as he stomped out, "These women think you have to SOAP a coffee urn. Hell, all you have to do is rinse it out."
The dance was fun, because I felt more at home with people than I did at the potluck supper or the bingo game.
I was sent home with a large basket full of sandwiches and cupcakes to put in my freezer.
I felt especially good because, when I left, for the first time people waved good-bye and called me by name. I finally felt I was getting acquainted.
I found, lining one of the drawers in my trailer, some old issues of the newsletter that was published here until several years ago. I thought the following item was charming.
"MAILMAN BRUNO THANKED. Our U.S. mailman for the past 18 years, Bruno, and his wife were Guests of Honor at our Tuesday potluck, and the Park Folks turned out en masse to applaud and cheer. Following the supper, our Park Chairlady read a very complimentary paper about our Bruno, thanking him for his long and courteous service delivering the mail. Then she presented him with a bag marked U.S. Mail, which had been cleverly designed and made by some of our Park Ladies. It contained small envelopes from many Park Folks in appreciation of his fine service. (Bruno reports $325 received.)"
Another item from the newsletter: "All news of sickness or of a death in the family should be promptly reported to our Good Cheer Lady."
I helped my friend and elderly neighbor, Dan, make the weekly trailer-to-trailer newspaper pick-up. In the early dawn, he towed the park trailer behind his old Dodge ("117,000 miles and leaking oil from every seal") to Paper Stock Dealers in St. Pete, where our haul weighed in at 1,120 pounds. The $8.48 received in payment will be divided between the recreation and the entertainment fund. Specifically, it will help gloss the shuffleboard courts and will help fund our next ice-cream social.
Dan, a big, two-fisted man, told me about his days as a shrimp-header in the Gulf waters. He said a good shrimp-header can pick up four shrimp in one hand in a single swipe, heads up, one between each finger, and with a brushing motion he showed me how quickly he could behead them, then toss the shrimp over his shoulder. He imitated for me the "moaning and groaning" of the "captain" in a mocking tone of voice: "Oh, you got a pile of 300 shrimp headed here, ‘n’ damn you, boy, here are two with the heads still on," or "The other guy’s got a full bucket of shrimp headed, how’s come your bucket is half empty?"
Those fingers that plucked a shrimp’s head off with such dexterity now do the most beautiful weavings on a loom that you could imagine, using the complicated "over-shoot" stitch. He also makes wonderful reproductions of old woodworking tools.
Several blocks from us is the beginning of a rather tough neighborhood. I heard some shooting one night as I was lying in bed and heard something hard smack my roof-over. Towards morning we had a heavy rain, and when I got up, I found a steady dripping of water on my kitchen floor. My elderly neighbor Tom and I climbed up to the roof and found a hole the size of a dime and as round as if it had been drilled. "That’s a bullet hole, pal," he said. "Prob’ly winged its way over here from Big Bayou, isn’t the first time."
We had three trailer break-ins the other night while we were gathered at the meeting hall for a potluck supper. My friend Hank said they pry open a window to get in. They don’t try the jalousies because the glass breaks and makes noise. Instead they hoist a small boy through the little bathroom window that each trailer has. He runs and opens the front door for entrance and the rear door for a fast exit. Cash, jewelry and credit cards were taken. Three trikes were taken the same night by thieves who used bolt-cutters.
A scrappy 80-year-old woman in the next block turned on her bedroom light to discover an intruder who had cut a screen. She fought him all the way to the window, through which he did a nose dive.
Attended a dance in the meeting hall last night with a hundred other park folk, most of then French Canadians.
The French-speaking Canadians are in the majority at the trailer park and a good many of them speak no English. "How do you talk to your neighbor?" I asked Dan in frustration. "Find yourself a live-in dictionary."
I felt such warmth, felt I was among friends. As crime-watch captain of Fourth Street, I have the pleasure of escorting the widows who come alone back to their trailers as the night wears on.
I’ve been enjoying evenings on my bicycle looking at old trailers. A 1963 Rockwell, as solidly built as a battleship, has a wonderful skylight, and Philippine mahogany paneling. It has never needed paint.
I was invited into a trailer that was custom-built in Texas in 1953. It is much taller than your average trailer to begin with, and the front top-half, as stately as the prow of a ship, is higher yet: It is a three-step-up kitchen. The woman who owns it told me, "It’s higher than all the other trailers in the park, and when I’m cooking, I can look out my kitchen window and see all the way to the lake."
We have a number of 1930s McDonald (pine-tree-palm-tree logo) trailers in our park. They have the S-configuration in front and wraparound glass windows at each front corner. The original McDonald is white with the trademark wide pink stripe that runs all the way around it.
Security bars that extend outward and cost $1,000 to install on each window of a 1973 Villager have a very handsome effect. It’s the only trailer I have seen with window bars.
Of course we have a lot of modern trailers in the park, too.
The trailer park across the street has a trailer that has been spraycreted; it’s very odd-looking.
I’ve been visiting and photographing at my peril, a derelict trailer park nearby. On both sides of a rutted road there are crumbling trailers with shacks, sheds and roofs added on, so that only the front end of the trailer shows.
Old trailers with exotic names like First Lady, Blazer, Golden Dolphin, Pine Tree, Pal, Flame, New Moon (eagle-wing-with-half-moon logo). Long-haired men are monkeying with the gear-box of an old Harley. A fighting cock crows. Snarling dogs are staked everywhere. Two rusty community washing machines sit in an open shed.
We had a Christmas party in the meeting hall and were asked to bring a wrapped gift with no name on it.
The tree was brightly lit. All the tables and chairs had been shoved back against the wall, so that facing us at the front of the room was the table where we left our gifts as we entered.
A basket was passed and we each drew a number. The man who drew number one was sent to the table to select a gift. He had to stand there and unwrap it in front of the group, then hold it there for all to see, amidst exaggerated ooohs and aaahs, laughter and kidding.
My hefty friend Dan was number three. He jumped up, went straight to what looked like a bottle of wine, unwrapped it and raised it aloft with glee.
But the rules of the game were that if, after you selected and unwrapped your gift, it was not something you wanted and someone else before you had claimed a gift you’d rather have, you ran to their table, snatched away their gift and left yours.
A present could be taken away from you only three times.
Dan had his heart set on keeping the bottle. Friends of his returned the bottle to him, having left the gifts that they had drawn with the latest bottle owner.
Forty-five minutes later, they were getting closer to my number. I was at the tail end, and I dreaded having to go up to the gift table.
Suddenly, the meeting house door opened and in walked my friend who writes sentimental greeting cards for a living. She had apparently decided to come at the last minute; the gift she dropped on the table was in a Sucrets tin, not wrapped. She looked disconsolate. Where was her husband?
She crossed the room and sat down next to me. "Number 38," "Number 39," "Number 40," were called off by the emcee. I tensed. Suddenly, my friend turned and whispered to me, "I want my box back. It’s that tin container with a rubber band around it. It’s an expensive earring. When your number is called, take my gift, and then whatever gift I get, I’ll exchange with you."
I agreed. "Number 41" was called.
When I got to the table, I reached for the tin, but then I wavered. I wanted to help my friend, but I was afraid I’d be razzed if I held up an earring.
"I’m sorry," I said, when I returned to the table with my gift, an ashtray.
"That was a gift from my husband on our last wedding anniversary," she said. "I was mad at him tonight. What will I do?"
I ended up with a cooking thermometer. My sad friend ended up with a can of shoe polish, black, and a pair of tan shoelaces.
Dan, my stout friend, lost his coveted bottle of wine and ended up with a box of blue note cards with a shell motif and a printed message that said, "Thinking of you."
Greetings to you from the Big Bayou Badlands! Here’s the latest news from the crime-watch block captain of Fourth Street.
Mrs. R. reported to me yesterday that she heard footsteps after dark in her gravel carport, then on her doorstep. She froze as she watched the doorknob turn. She began barking like a dog, then called out, though she is widowed and lives alone, "George, get the gun and kill the sons-of-bitches." She heard footsteps running down the pavement, looked out and saw a man and a small boy, the team who work this place. Sick to her stomach, she spent the rest of the night on the couch in her living room. She’s teaching her elderly friends how to bark like dogs.
The woman who lives behind me got up one morning furious at her husband for leaving his dirty hanky "plumb in the middle of the kitchen table." He protested that he hadn’t. As it turned out, a burglar had entered the trailer the night before as they were sleeping, removed the man’s pants from the bedroom and took them out to the kitchen so that he could more quietly empty the pocket change. The prowler left the husband’s handkerchief on the table. Estimated haul: 50 cents and a disposable lighter.
A sonic boom from a jet that strayed in its course 50 miles out in the Gulf shattered 25 toilet bowls here in the park. Mine, "Tuffy by Beneke," remained intact.
I volunteered to pick up garbage for a number of elderly women. Some nice shows of appreciation have come my way: a plastic Cool Whip container full of popped popcorn; frozen homemade soup; six pairs of boxer shorts that had belonged to the deceased husband of one of the women. I get phone calls, much appreciated, to check up on me if my car remains away a little too long.
A little elderly woman, bent over her walker on wheels as she pushed it up the street to her trailer, called out to me, "I went to the Health Fair today and the doctor says I don’t have no cholesterol."
We’re having an infestation of yellow four-inch grasshoppers, as big around as a cigar. A woman of 90 was telling me how she awoke one morning to find "about 300 of them" in the street in front of her trailer. How you get rid of them, she explained to me, gesturing, "is to pick them up by the hind legs, throw them to the pavement to stun them, then step on ‘em."
Hot here. Even the ants and roaches in my trailer park nap. So does Hobo, our park mascot, the cutest little stray mutt you’ve ever seen. He lives under a vacant trailer.
I’ve been learning some laundry-room etiquette. Yesterday when I did my laundry, I had three of the four washing machines loaded and the only dryer as well. I heard some sharp words spoken in French by two Canadian women, and then an empty bleach bottle was hurled past my nose. It hit the wall and dropped into a trash container. I said to one, who speaks some English, too, that it’s a lot better to do your laundry once a week than to let it all accumulate. She replied, pointedly, "K-reck, Lot 418."
I’m glad to be in a mobile-home park that rates no stars, particularly because the maintenance fee is much lower. The four- and five-star parks I visited with their expensive, late-model mobile homes and broad yards, their swimming pools and fancy clubhouses, seemed much too manicured, immaculate, unfriendly.
Though we rate no stars, we have a sense of community. People visit with each other out in the streets. And our old trailers have character, though they are parked so close together.
I can hear bathroom activities in the trailer next door. I can hear my neighbor drop his shoe as he goes to bed at night. But sounds from trailer to trailer are friendly noises; I’m getting used to them.