A Sort of Sanctuary
Plenty of stout fellows and fair maidens have passed through Sherwood Forest, bedding down for a night or two in the pines. A few dozen call it home. Smack in the center of overpopulated, ultradeveloped Broward County, the one-acre tract of trees and bushes is a perfect place to hide in plain sight.
But there'll be no roasting of wild boars here, no hearty mead parties or elaborate schemes to thwart the Sheriff of Nottingham. These merry men are a band of underemployed homeless people, a few of them nursing serious illnesses, their lives dedicated to getting food, smokes, and drink (not necessarily in that order).
As most South Floridians cluster around dinner tables and Christmas trees, exchanging presents and good cheer, this loose-knit group goes about its desperate rounds of scrounging up a spare pack of cheap cigarettes or a couple of cans of warm beer.
The bucolic homeless camp has been up and running for two decades, denizens say. Through various permutations of bad luck, chronic alcoholism, job loss, divorce, mental illness, and fallings-out with relatives, the population is fluid yet remarkably similar from year to year. It's like watching the same endless reel of film with slightly different characters, scattered on the floor of this big cathedral of trees.
As with anything in life, though, things aren't as good as they used to be. At least, that's what the old-timers say.
"At one time, there was about 15 camps out here," says Billy D, remembering the golden Reagan years, when he first moved in. "Folks had TVs and lights, running 'em off of car batteries. We had a transformer to convert DC to AC. Even had a basketball hoop set up."
Sherwood Forest belongs to the City of Fort Lauderdale, which considers it "surplus property." The land abuts the city's precious well fields and pump stations west of Interstate 95. So the woods remain empty, untouched. With water issues looming in the future, Regional Planning Specialist Carl Shallenberger says, "We're not sure what we're going to do with it."
Like its namesake in Jolly Olde England, Sherwood Forest's communal structure provides a loose, occasionally effective safety net for the rumpled homeless people who stumble in. With assistance from a few benefactors and handouts from local businesses, folks get by. There's even a certain measure of pride that few street-corner panhandlers can claim. Living in the woods allows them a vestige of self-sufficiency and more privacy than a public shelter.
Bert and Billy D are quintessential Sherwood veterans. The tarpaulin-domed retreat they occupy is maintained by Bert, who, by the force of personality and the influence of his paychecks, has become the camp captain. Healthy and ready by 6:30 each morning to work with a yard-service firm or help out a buddy who owns a pest-control service, he usually brings the most cash into the camp. He's the toughest and fastest too. While the other residents abandoned the woods during this summer's hurricane onslaught for friends' homes or city shelters, Bert remained, even as a few trees were toppled. He and the campsite were battered but survived.
Under the gray plastic ceiling, Bert's big mattress sits a good foot off the forest floor, thanks to plastic crates pinched from a nearby Winn-Dixie. A sturdy three-man tent with a zipper and flysheet takes up one corner, while a plastic cooler, upside-down buckets, rickety lawn chairs, and a rusty Weber grill occupy the other. For close to 30 years, both men have spent time in these woods, temporarily finding purchase in the real world, always returning when times get tough. During that span, the Australian pines have grown taller and thicker than ever -- just a mile from the green fairways of the Fort Lauderdale Golf Club and the surrounding well-to-do neighborhoods in pleasant old Plantation.
Billy D disappears for months, sometimes years, at a stretch. But when he returned in early November after an absence, he was happy to find his old pal Bert. "When I seen him," Bert recalls, "I said, 'Man, I'm glad to see you're back -- but not back here. '"
Billy's impressed at this show of emotion, testifying, "Bert, you're the only person in this whole wide world who I can trust. And that's for real." He looks ready to choke up. "I was stayin' with a buddy down on 441," he allows. "But I'm stayin' here now."
Bert's latest forest stint has lasted three months. "Three months at a time is the most I've been out here," he says.
Bert, 45, grew up in Miami and attended high school in Hialeah, then ended up in the neighborhoods around Davie Boulevard and Highway 441. A string of low-paying blue-collar jobs kept him barely solvent, until drinking and crack-smoking derailed his dreams of owning his own business. Just a few months back, Bert was doing OK for himself, living with a girlfriend in west Fort Lauderdale.
"But she wanted to try to own me,'" he growls. "She bought me everything I needed -- a 52-inch riding mower, a nice backpack, everything brand-new." One night, Bert felt like heading down the street to JT's Lounge, a West Davie dive, to meet a buddy and knock back a beer or 12.
"So I told her, 'Gimme $20 -- I'm gonna go out drinkin' with Mike. '" And she opens up her purse, gives me five bucks. I said, 'Man, that's not even gonna get me to the corner store.' So she ended up throwing me out. Like I said, I've been back here about three months. Since about '85, '86, I've been workin' here, workin' there, stayin' here, stayin' there."
As darkness drops like a thick quilt, Bert accidentally sets his can of Natural Ice Light atop a twisted pine root. With a sad, wet fizz, beer spills onto the ground between his feet.
"Man," comes Billy D's disappointed whisper, "that's alcohol abuse right there."
The forest, with its shady groves and pine-needle floor, provides a measure of comfort to the healthiest among its denizens. But there's no telling what's coming at you from around the corner.
Luck has spared both Bert and Billy from the worst perils of street life. Earlier this year, though, another long-time Sherwood vet named Big Mike was felled by a combination of cirrhosis and melanoma. During Mike's final days, as a big, nasty tumor on his back was sucking the life from him, Bert would take him behind a warehouse off Old Peters Road and help him bathe with a hose.
"We tried to get him to a hospital," Billy remarks between puffs of his generic cigarette and sloppy pulls on his warming beer, "but he was so hardheaded, he wouldn't do it." Today, in a strange tribute, a massive rubbish pile marks Big Mike's old campsite. "I still have Mike's radio and light," Billy sniffs. "A few things to remember him by."
Billy and Bert talk matter of factly about the way death came for another friend almost 20 years ago -- a Sherwood resident they called Cowboy. Billy was nearly asleep in his bottle of Budweiser at a nearby bar when someone came up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder. "You got a buddy outside?" the stranger asked. Billy focused his crossed eyes, yawned, then remembered Cowboy, passed out in the parking lot. "Someone had bet him he couldn't drink a whole bottle of Mad Dog," he recalls with a shudder. Cowboy won the wager.
"Well, he's dead," announced the stranger. "No, no, he's not, man," Billy slurred. "Every time he gets drunk, he just passes out. We'll pick him up when we leave." But the man continued: "No, dude, he's dead -- cold as ice."
Bert and Billy stumbled outside, where, sure enough, Cowboy had indeed succumbed to alcohol poisoning. "Plus, he was sniffin'," Bert says sadly. Back in the day, huffers could buy a can of Transmission Go at the gas station for a buck, soak a rag with it, and kill brain cells aplenty.
Hard living has taken a toll on most of the forest's inhabitants. Through an alcoholic or chemical haze, it's often tough for folks like Bert and Billy to remember exactly what happened to whom and when. But 46-year-old Billy is acutely aware of how tough it is to get back into sheet-metal work when your tools are long pawned, you can't bathe or wash clothes, and you have no address to write down on an application. "If you live on the street," he laments, "they think you're a drug addict, an alcoholic, or a thief. But it ain't like that."
Billy's education ended halfway through high school in Crooks, Texas, just west of Texarkana. "I knew I wasn't never gonna be no doctor or lawyer," he says. "But just before he died, my daddy said to me, 'Baby boy, you're gonna do all right in life, long as you learn to deal with assholes. '" That's why, after scrounging up work in Dallas and Shreveport for the past several years, he's content to be back among friends.
"We'd rather sit here than be out there," says Billy, waving his smoke at the whooshing traffic on Peters Road. "Nothing but a bunch of dumb shit out there."
"A whole bunch of dumb shit," concurs Bert.
Cassandra Spears, 32, has been in Sherwood Forest almost a year now, after getting thrown out of a nearby apartment. This warm November afternoon, she's chatting with Paul Bark and his girlfriend, Sue Benson, in a parking lot off Old Peters Road next to a row of warehouses.
Cassandra nervously twirls one of her black-gold braids around her finger. "I had friends who tried to betterfy me, but not no more," she explains. "They say, 'We already done what we could, and you just keep getting back into the same situation. '" Her "situation" -- exacerbated by mental illness and minor brushes with the law -- means living in the woods.
Flashing a sweet smile as she fidgets with the straw of a fast-food cup, Cassandra suddenly turns sunnier. "I make, like, $40 a day goin' to work at Ready Labor," she stammers. "But I just spent my last $25 to pay for shoes. I'm out of money now." Her forehead creases with concern. Dirt-stained sweat socks poke through her sandals.
Last month, Cassandra was temporarily invited to share Bert's camp -- and his bed -- but she ended up under her own blue plastic sheet, several yards away. "Bert kicked me out," she says. "And then he took me back. Then he kicked me out again."
Paul chuckles. "You ever see that show Survivor? She was voted off the island."
"I can go back," Cassandra continues, "if Bert says so. He's the leader of the camp."
"Oh, he's the leader now?" Paul asks sarcastically. Insisting he's the one who actually built the big shelter back in the woods that's the current Sherwood HQ, Paul claims, "I had the camp first. I let Bert move in with me."
A multitattooed man with an angry-looking scratch across his red nose, Paul says he quit the forest several months ago. He'd spent enough time sleeping under the pines. Raising a scarred, meaty hand up to his eyes to fend off the setting sun, he laughs and says, "I like camping all right. I just didn't like camping that long." He wears a tomato-stained apron with a T-shirt and shorts underneath.
Around the corner comes Mario Aivazian, the cherubic, wisecracking owner of Mr. D's Pizza, where Paul washes dishes part-time. The hole-in-the-wall joint, unchanged since its mid-'70s inception, is an Old Peters landmark. Paul and Sue, relaxing in a pair of beat-up resin chairs, are nursing cans of Natural Ice Light, the forest's high-alcohol beer of choice. Mario spots Cassandra speaking to a reporter. "Don't bullshit him, Cassandra," he says, throwing a quick wink in the writer's direction. "Tell him the truth!"
Ever since he took over running the pizza place a quarter-century ago, the vagabonds of the forest have known that if they really need help, they can always come to Mr. D's. Some will offer to sweep the parking lot for a sandwich or a slice. Some, like Cassandra, have come to expect handouts.
"They come in when they have no money," Mario explains, "because they know I'll never refuse them.
"What goes around comes around. I've been a giver all of my life. Still, it does wear thin on me at times," he sighs while counting out a customer's change. Occasionally, he feels taken advantage of. "It does hurt me a little bit," he admits. "They can confuse your kindness for weakness."
Mario's easy laugh and snappy wit are infectious. Born to an Armenian father and Turkish/Italian mother in Jerusalem, Aivazian spent his first ten years in Beirut. He moved to Lebanon, he recalls, on a visa issued by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. At that time, he fondly recalls, the beautiful Mediterranean city was called "the Riviera of the Middle East."
He emigrated to America in 1975 at age 11, unable to speak a word of English but fluent in Italian, French, and Arabic. After graduating high school in New York, he took a job pumping gas. A year later, he ended up in Broadview Park, renting a small room in the inexpensive neighborhood. "I came here with nothing," he says. "And I mean nothing." One night in 1981, while washing his last few T-shirts at a Davie Boulevard laundromat, he got a much-needed job offer. The pizza place up the street was looking for a delivery driver one day a week.
The owner of Mr. D's, Billy DelGrasso, put him to work. The first night Mario delivered pizzas, he came home with $50 in tips. "I was the happiest guy in Broward County," he beams. Within a few months, his pay crept from $4 to $4.50 and finally to $5 an hour. DelGrasso soon promoted him to manager. "I was running the place," he says, "but I didn't know how to make pizza. I learned the hard way."
After a few years of 80-hour weeks, he bought the place in 1986. "For very, very little down," he explains. "I didn't have a pot to piss in." But he did well enough that two years later, he was able to buy a small home in Broadview Park. Still, Mario remembers his humble beginnings and the way DelGrasso gave him a chance.
All these years later, his short curls now showing more salt than pepper, Mario is still returning that favor.
Mario admits some don't understand his generosity. "People get mad at me, because it doesn't come back to me. But it doesn't have to."
Paul and Sue rely on Mario for help getting around, as well as money and occasional meals. The rides are especially important, now that Sue can barely walk -- spider bites on her feet recently became infected and abscessed, and wearing shoes is out of the question. "I never saw one bite me," she says, "but they sure did." Still, with an upbeat smile and a small chug of beer, Sue insists she manages to get around OK. "I just limp," she says. "We walk real slow," Paul adds.
Not long ago, 45-year-old Sue lived in a single-wide down in the Lazy Land Trailer Park, in Broadview Park's southeast corner. She worked as a waitress at the Horizon Diner in Plantation and, like Trudy, tended bar at JT's Lounge. But the nasty insect bites meant she was unable to stand for more than a minute and couldn't work for almost two months. Subsequently, she lost both jobs, couldn't pay rent on her trailer, was forced to give up her beloved dogs, and then had her old van -- and all her belongings inside it -- stolen.
Reliving her descent into homelessness is visibly painful. She changes the subject several times before spilling her tale. Born and raised in Lombard, Illinois, Sue's first speedbump in life was a pregnancy at age 16. She got her GED, worked as a nurse's aide in nearby Wheaton, and started college with an eye toward a physical therapy degree. But the pay was skimpy and the hours long, and she found waitressing was a better fit for a single mom.
"I couldn't turn down the money," she says. "I regret not finishing college, but it's too late now." She met a "long-haired Georgia boy," got married, and became passionate about guitar-playing and songwriting. But in 1999, her husband succumbed to cancer at only 39 years old. Sue was devastated. She tried a move to Nashville to chase her musical dream full-time, but that ended in tears too. "Too many people trying to do the same thing," she explains.
Her son, now 28, had moved to Fort Lauderdale, and she came here in 2003 to be close to him. But he couldn't stand Sue's new boyfriend. "He was from Georgia too, and he really reminded me of my late husband. I was just trying to bring him back." An abusive alcoholic -- now in jail for leaving Sue with bruises and stitches -- he helped Sue blow through $30,000 they had at this time last year. Buying the trailer and the van took most of it.
Through all this misery, the things Sue regrets the most are the loss of her books full of songs she wrote (tossed out during her eviction) and the fact that she's lost contact with her parents. "I'm so embarrassed to have to tell them I don't have an address," she says, her green eyes trembling with trouble. But despite the hardship, Sue looks young and lucid enough to pass for a toddler-toting, SUV-driving suburban mom. Clearly, she's not cut out for this.
When he isn't drinking, Paul works, trying to make enough money so that he and Sue can find a real place. Yet with all he's survived in his 54 years, homelessness would seem an easily surmounted hardship. While growing up in upstate New York, the 6-year-old nearly drowned one summer's day while trying to swim across a lake. Then, seven years later, Paul's older brother accidentally shot him with a high-powered deer rifle while goofing around. "He had just bought it from an Army surplus store 13 days before," Paul recalls gravely. "It cost $13. He had 13 bullets for it. And the date was Friday the 13th."
The bullet passed between the ribs in his back and came out through his stomach. A jagged scar and dimpled holes mark its explosive exit. Yet Paul remained unafraid of guns, and as soon as he healed, he went out hunting. One day, he shot a duck -- and was aghast to discover it was a mother with a nest full of eggs. He carefully took the eggs home and, under a heat lamp, hatched them in an old aquarium. "Those baby ducks thought I was their momma," he says proudly. "They followed me around everywhere I went." Snakes and cats and owls, even a woodchuck, would become adopted during his teenaged years. "My mom never knew what she was gonna find when she'd come home," he says. "I wanted to be a veterinarian, but I never came through with that."
Instead, Paul stopped attending school after eighth grade. He drove trucks, operated heavy equipment, worked on a demolition crew. About 25 years ago, he briefly relocated to Fort Lauderdale, landing in Broadview Park, where he first met Mario. Back then, he recalls, the region was home to "riff-raff and punks, runnin' around stealin' stuff." So he moved to Virginia, helping his brother build tobacco sheds, then became a dog breeder, raising and selling Labrador retrievers. He got married up there, but that didn't work out. And when his wife left him, he says, she took everything but his last $5. He scraped by, occasionally living in the woods outside Richmond, until last year, when he and an acquaintance decided to look for work in South Florida.
They'd been in Fort Lauderdale less than 24 hours when his buddy ran a red light on Commercial Boulevard and BSO pulled them over. The vehicle, it turned out, was stolen. His friend was wanted on various warrants and promptly arrested. The car was towed, with a drunk, wobbly Paul and his clothes left on the side of the road. That night, he crawled into the woods next to I-95 and passed out. Since he'd learned about Sherwood Forest during his visit to Broadview Park years ago, he headed there soon after.
But he left the trees this summer, ending up a few miles south along the New River canal. There, Paul noticed a manhole-cover entrance hatch under the belly of an I-595 highway ramp. When he hoisted himself up inside, he discovered a roomy, 12-by-15-foot tube stretching almost a mile, all the way to the Florida Turnpike. It offered protection from critters and this summer's treacherous weather. "I figured if that bridge was gonna blow," he smiles, "everybody in town was gonna blow away anyway."
"I won't go in there," says Sue, shaking her blond hair, gray roots poking out on top. "I don't care if it snows in Fort Lauderdale, I'm never going up there." At its highest point, Paul claims, the ramp is 100 feet above the interstate.
Elevated on massive concrete pillars, flyovers and ramps soar high into the sky. It's under one of these airborne overpasses that Paul and Sue now make their home.
"We've got a high-rise condo!" Paul chortles. "We even have a swimming pool at the country club next door! We can fish and catch crabs in the canal, watch the traffic all day if we want, and see all the jets come in."
High above the water, atop a concrete embankment beneath a highway bridge, the pair maintain an open-air studio apartment of sorts, with a neat bedroll, tidy bags of clothes, a bean-bag chair, a row of neatly arranged shoes against one wall, and even an area rug. A few weeks ago, a contractor installing lighting for Florida Department of Transportation stumbled upon their setup early one morning.
"He said, 'Sorry to be comin' right through your living room,'" Paul recounts.
As the worker secured an electrical conduit to the bridge's underside, Paul asked the man a favor.
"Hey," Paul said, "as long as you're doin' that, can you put an electric socket in? We've got everything else up here!"
The booming of tires inches above their heads is deafening, but Sue says, "You get used to it." As a heavy tractor-trailer hits an expansion joint with an earsplitting volley of CHUNK! CHUNK CHUNK!s that reverberate with migraine-inducing intensity, though, she adds: "Well, that you never get used to."
It's early evening again. In the distance, red taillights from one sloped highway ramp momentarily merge with a trail of oncoming headlights from another. A slowly descending airplane casts a moving, twinkling reflection in the river below. It's a beautiful urban landscape, but as Paul taps a smoke out of a nearly empty pack, he groans, "We're tryin' to get out of here."
Tired after her third month of living on the street, Sue is in full agreement with that. "I didn't plan on being here this long," she says wearily. "I have asthma, and I'm not used to this crap."
Paul would love to write a book about his life. "I think folks would want to hear about the people living out here," he continues. "They want to know, 'What do people do out there on the street? How do they survive? Do they fight? How do they amuse themselves? When are they sad?'"
Down on the footpath below is where he first spotted Sue, months ago, walking her dogs along the canal. He leans over and kisses her hair, making Sue smile proudly. His scraggly cheek rubs against her soft face.
Love can strike anywhere, even in a lonely piece of undeveloped land west of I-95.
"We're gonna be newlyweds someday," Paul promises as Sue blushes. "You can even meet someone under a bridge and fall in love."
Most of today's crop of forest dwellers can do better than sell newspapers on street corners. Norman, 43, a tall, slouching scarecrow with picket-fence teeth, scraps of stray whiskers, and thinning hair the color of a tobacco-chewer's beard, reluctantly awakens early to join up with a roofing crew. Sometimes, anyway. "It only pays $100 a day," he mopes, "which is what I was making ten years ago."
This morning, however, he's on his way to Plantation General Hospital. His wife, Trudy, is due to be discharged today after recuperating from leg surgery. Phlebitis laid her up a few weeks ago, Norman explains. And he recently banged up his ankle badly while falling from a scaffold. The twin minidisasters drastically limited their income and led them to Sherwood's woodsy embrace.
By the following afternoon, Trudy is recovering on the mattress under the tarp shared by Bert, Billy, and Norman. Picking up the last slice of a Mr. D's pizza, Trudy calls for one of the dozens of stray cats who roam Sherwood Forest and tosses a slice of pizza to a small, skittish, gray feline crouching near the tent. The cat pounces, wolfing down the meat and cheese with ravenous determination. As soon as she recovers, Trudy predicts, she'll return to work as a bartender at JT's Lounge.
"I'll bounce back," says the pretty, pudgy blond, her voice soft and sorrowful. "I just need to take a few days to rest." Trudy, who grew up in nearby Hollywood, says that frequent camping trips with her family as a kid helped her prepare for the rigors of forest life.
Swinging her legs off the bed, her face tightens with a painful grimace. She reaches out an unsteady arm. "Bert," she says, "help me stand up."
"You want me to get you a crutch?" he asks.
"Well, I can't walk," she says.
"Then let me go grab the crutch," Bert says, his tall frame suddenly popping open like a jackknife blade when he stands up, his head grazing the tarp stretched out above him. "Just hang on -- it's holding up the tent."
"Well, don't do it then," Trudy sighs. "Hold up the tent. I'm all right."
"It'll only take me a second, woman!" Bert barks sternly.
"I said don't worry about it," Trudy says meekly. "Holdin' up the tent is more important."
"Whatever," replies Bert, back in his chair. "Just don't get any blood on my mattress." Trudy collapses back on the bed. Even in the dim half-light, it's obvious the bedsheet's thread count is well under the standard 250.
Billy tilts his head back and lets a quarter can of Natural Ice Light slip down his throat. "Can I get a smoke, Bert?" he asks his friend.
"We just got one pack, you know," cautions Bert, tossing a cigarette to Billy. "And we got that one only by the skin of our ass, remember?"
As sunset dies and the light becomes unreliable, a rustle in the pines a few yards away has Bert suddenly shh-ing his fellow campers. He wraps a beefy mitt around a thick stick leaning against a tree next to his chair.
"Oh, I'll whoop 'im," he threatens, "whoever it is."
But the noise doesn't belong to the approaching footsteps of a stranger. More likely, an opossum or a raccoon is prowling, Billy believes.
After a long moment or two, Bert returns the stick to its resting spot.
"I don't give a fuck who walks in here," Bert announces, "as long as you're straight up, act decent, and respect the ladies. If not" -- he picks up the stick again for emphasis -- "you're gonna get your head split."
No one speaks for several minutes, until Trudy's tiny voice breaks the silence.
"All right," she says. "I have to get up."
A few weeks later, Sherwood Forest's crew has thinned a bit. Norman and Trudy have moved to a hotel on the State Road 7 strip, where a small room rents for $300 weekly, paid for from Norman's roofing work. Billy D has found construction work and a new place to bunk with friends. Bert is sleeping in the tent. "What else you wanna know?" he says angrily, without getting up. "Not now, man. We're resting. Come back later." He does say, however, that Cassandra's sloppiness forced him to evict her again. "Just because you live in the woods, you don't have to leave shit lyin' around. So I told her to get to steppin'."
A couple of hundred feet away, Cassandra is alone, lying on her bedroll on the ground. Torn rubber gloves and plastic grocery sacks keep her tarp tied between two trees. Aimlessly, she stares up at the treetops high above. The pines squeak and creak as they blow in the wind. Everything Cassandra owns is strewn at her feet -- clothes and old books, a few cans of food, an opened box of spaghetti. "I would take this up to Mr. D's and ask him to cook it," she admits, "but I'm too embarrassed.
"I see myself as havin' a hard time," she says sadly. "I'm depressed. I can't tell anyone where I'm stayin' at. I told my daddy I was stayin' with friends." Her feet, clad in the same sweat socks, rest on a fallen log half-buried in pine needles. Visitors are wise not to stray far from the crude network of paths; without an organized latrine system, stray newspapers in the camp may contain unpleasant surprises.
"I take care of myself," she says, sitting upright now, the sparkle momentarily returning to her brown eyes. "I got deodorant. I go to work. It's just that -- I have to call this home." She points to the trash- and cigarette butt-strewn forest floor. "I lost my history when I came here."
And on top of all that, she says, there's the season, which she's trying not to think about.
"I don't even feel like it's a holiday," she says, lying back against everything she owns in the entire world. "Really. I don't feel anything."
Exhausted because she has to get up at 4 a.m. to catch a bus to work, Cassandra still manages a statuesque poise, and she's unflappably polite. She refuses a stranger's offer of money with a sad smile. "I've had setbacks. But I'm friendly. I don't do drugs. I just hope God's gonna bless me.
"I'm trying real, real hard, but I'm having the roughest life of my whole life right now."
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