Sometimes, it takes a fender-bender to reveal the mixed-up, multifarious soul of South Florida.
On Friday, May 7, an unidentified woman who was talking on her cell phone while behind the wheel (according to one account, at least) ran a red light at Harrison Avenue and 19th Street in Hollywood. Call her the dragon slayer. She collided with a 1981 AMC Spirit owned by Bob Fannon. "About five dragons were killed and one injured," says Fannon, whom you might recognize as the gray-haired, ponytailed mensch with a unique way of pimping his ride. He tools around town either in the Spirit or on his 1985 Honda Gold Wing motorcycle -- both of which are covered from bumper to bumper with toy dragons. The motorcycle alone sports 34 three-dimensional dragons, three dragon license plates, two air horns, two American flags, and an assortment of dragon stickers. The car, with a few less toys, is adorned with stickers that read, "I brake for dinosaurs."
Tailpipe has been reading too many headlines lately. How's this for a predictable end to our story: "Dragon Man Flames Motorist after Mobilosauris Scrape, Leaves Heap of Smoking Cinders in Street"?
For a guy with a fixation on scaly, fire-breathing creatures, though, the 50-year-old Fannon is as mellow as a Key West sunset. He won't even speak unkindly about the woman who, he says, caused the accident. (The Hollywood Police Department had no record of the collision, although Fannon's car did show substantial damage -- $600 worth, he says.) "She wants to take it to court and all this happy stuff," Fannon says with mild irritation. "She ran the red light. It ain't gonna solve nothing by getting mad. The average person would rip her head off, but I don't play that."
Fannon's Hollywood neighbors describe him as "a really cool guy" who's outgoing and friendly to children. When neighbor Monica Tillman first saw his vehicles, "I thought it was some type of religious thing or something." But it's not. Nor is it a money-making scheme, a cult symbol, or a method for picking up chicks. The man just likes dragons. "A hundred and 40 to 160 million years ago," he says, "they dominated the world." And that's cool. Fannon claims no interest in dragon fan clubs or in playing Dungeons & Dragons and has no problems with relationships or jobs due to his hobby. He was first intrigued by the creatures when, at age 10, he attended the 1964 World's Fair in New York and wandered through an exhibit about Tyrannosaurus Rex. He didn't start decorating his vehicles with them, however, until he moved to Florida 20 years ago.
Fannon extends the theme into his Hollywood apartment, where four inflatable dragon rafts, plus scores of dragon and dinosaur toys, hang from the ceiling. Hundreds more are perched on shelves and occupy the entirety of his kitchen table. His detailed drawings of dinosaurs hang on the walls, videos like Gremlins and Reign of Fire line the crowded shelves, and a comprehensive collection of -- aw, that's so sweet -- Land Before Time VHS tapes sits on the side of the bed.
On his scrupulously ordered desk are two tiny black-and-white security monitors set up to keep an eye on his bike and car. Anyone ever try to crib the dragons? "No, they figure anybody who would drive something like that must be crazy," he says with a decidedly nonthreatening smile.
After what looked to be a slam-dunk by a developer, Fort Lauderdale's Historic Preservation Board showed some spine during a May 3 meeting. The board seemed set on green-lighting the demolition of two notable Sailboat Bend homes to facilitate a condo project -- until it was shamed into doing the right thing by Veronica Sazera, a strident mother of two from the neighborhood. The homes -- built between 1918 and 1920 -- were square in the sights of developer Gus Carbonell, who wanted the lots for a two-story, nine-unit condominium.
Promising the neighborhood association had given him the go-ahead after he'd "accommodated their concerns," Carbonell's presentation was praised by one of the board members ("You've done a really good job here") and even a resident from the block ("I have no objections whatsoever").
But when Sazera strode to the podium, her voice shaking with rage, the tenor changed from shoo-in to shunted. It didn't hurt that her 18-month-old daughter straddled her hip and her 8-year-old son sat in the back doing his homework. "Nine years ago, I appeared in front of you to put up a picket fence in my front yard, and you wouldn't let me!" she said, seemingly ready to bust into tears. "Now you're going to let them build all these condos? I trusted the neighborhood would not be sold out! I thought the board would protect Sailboat Bend from this! It isn't right to put condos in Sailboat Bend -- no matter how pretty they are! I feel like crying, I am so disappointed in this board!"
The preservation board members stammered and shifted uncomfortably, particularly Chair Margi Glavovic-Nothard, who tried to calm Sazera's hysterics. "No decision has been made," she said. Then Sazera's neighbor Richard Locke told of having a townhouse rob him of views and of privacy. He didn't want to see it happen to anyone else. "They are totally incompatible with everything designed into the historic ordinance," Locke contended.
In the end, the board voted 6-2 against the project. "I don't want to toot my own horn," Sazera said later, "but I think there's enough development. There's a lesson here -- I thought the board would protect the neighborhood, but it's not. Pretty soon, they won't need a historical board, because it'll all be new townhomes. If I wanted to live in Weston, I would have bought a house in Weston!"
Sazera's not dancing in front of any "Mission Accomplished" signs yet; Carbonell can still seek to overturn the board's decision. "But I'm not going to stop fighting," she says. "I'm going to make it very uncomfortable for them." You gotta love an idealist seething with righteous indignation.
Screech, Bang, Ka-ching
Tailpipe's all in favor of dressing in tacky clothes, drinking lots of hard liquor, and throwing around money like rice at a wedding. But did the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino traffic have to throw up so many obstacles to its grand opening the other day? Just getting to the front door put Tailpipe through the sort of bumper-to-bumper mess that makes you realize the value of your bumper. In the 15 minutes it took to crawl the three-quarters of a mile between Griffin Road and the State Road 7 entrance to the new monolith, Tailpipe swerved around one two-car mashup, then passed an accident that had coughed a Taurus fender onto the sidewalk like a huge watermelon rind. No time for patience here! There's money to be lost!
The hoi polloi were piled against the ropes near the casino entrance while tribal officials and civic honchos took turns giving one another self-congratulatory pats on the bottom. Around noon, after an hour of waiting, a 24-year-old woman with a belly like a beach ball managed to wriggle to the front of the line, duck the ropes, and take a precious seat in a row of chairs. Meanwhile, casino employees clad in black, realizing the potential Pamplonian stampede they faced, began clearing space for the blockaded hordes. One worker whose nametag read "Sophia" approached the young woman from behind.
"Can I take these chairs?" she asked. "So people don't knock you over?"
The young woman -- who provided her name to Tailpipe as Shana (long pause) Smith of Miramar -- stood and aimed her imposing tummy at Sophia.
"Oh!" the chair mover said. "I'm sorry!"
"Change your mind?" said Smith, who is eight months pregnant. She wore a red-and-white-checked maternity dress and puffy white sneakers. "My friends said I was crazy coming down here," she said after taking a different seat. "I love to play cards."
Around 12:15, someone made the humane decision to step aside, and the gamblers walked with surprising calm to thousands of not-quite slot machines and began divesting themselves of their earnings. The wait for commemorative pins was 60-people deep. The fervor nearly dwarfed the surreality of the evening's chi-chi, invitation-only, poolside party, which featured multiple stilted Elvis and Kiss impersonators, with imitation Marilyn Manson rockers hoisted on chains to drum sets 15 feet above the sidewalk. If you listened closely enough, above the din of the beautiful people gorging on jumbo shrimp and lighting one anothers' cigars, you could hear the sound of a giant cash register ka-CHINGing inside the lilac-lit casino.
Smith played poker until 4 a.m. and left with half of the $200 she brought to play.
"Down a hundred for being inside a casino for 17 hours isn't bad," she said afterward. "I'm sure my baby wasn't happy with me. But the chairs are so comfortable."
Jose and Rita Santos and their four kids, ages 6 to 16, live in a quiet, $350,000 house in a secluded section of Hollywood. Many of the neighbors don't know they have probably America's premier jockey living nearby. And the family likes it that way. "I've been here for a long time," Rita says. "It's very peaceful, and I just don't want to be bothered."
So the family was particularly embarrassed last year when the Miami Herald printed a story by Frank Carlson and Clark Spencer alleging that Santos had cheated to win the Kentucky Derby. Now, Rita says, "We just want to put it behind us."
Unfortunately, a $48 million libel lawsuit filed by the family and Sackatoga Stables, 2003 Derby winner Funny Cide's collective owners, on May 4 in Kentucky is likely to do just the opposite. The suit, which is dated exactly one year after the photograph at the center of the controversy was published, is sure to cost the Herald some money.
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The newspaper made a mistake -- a bad one -- by falsely alleging that Santos acknowledged using something called a "cue ring" to make his horse, Funny Cide, move faster. Fact is, he never said any such thing. And he won fair and square. The Herald did a follow-up story and a correction (six months after the incident) to try to cover itself.
But hey, both Executive Editor Tom Fiedler and then-Managing Editor Mark Seibel were out of town (and weren't consulted) when the story was published. Carlson, who allegedly misled his editors about his information, still works for the paper on a freelance basis.
So there's likely to be a lot of fireworks before this one is over. And the guys who pushed the lawsuit won't get the attention. Rita, Jose, and the kids will. "We've chosen to move forward with Sackatoga Stalls," Rita says. "The decision [to file the suit] was based upon them."
-- As told to Edmund Newton