Roger McFayden slurps a spoonful of Honey Bunches of Oats from a Tupperware bowl. He eats ferociously, as if it were his first meal in a while and perhaps his last. His skin is like plastic wrap pulled tightly over his knotty bones. The hollows of his cheeks cave inward, and his sunken eyes apparently retreated long before his recent 54th birthday. "They say this is a crack house," he says through a mouthful of cereal. "You know, some of these assholes do use crack. I'm the only person in here not on crack. I'm on heroin."
It started after a hip injury during a construction accident a decade ago. McFayden got hooked on painkillers, which soon weren't enough, he says. Now he lives in a trailer patched with plywood, with blue tape and aluminum foil over the windows. Every inch is covered in a film of grime that smells of rat dung and death.
"Do you want to see my stash?"
McFayden jumps up from his folding chair and puts his bowl of cereal on top of the TV. He steps out into the driveway in front of his trailer. "Where the fuck is my van?" He shakes his head. "Oh, well. It will be back. I keep it in my van."
He's no drug dealer, McFayden insists. No way. His stash is only for personal use. Maybe some of the guys who live with him, maybe they sell drugs. Maybe sometimes it's even in front of his trailer.
"But I can't control those guys," he says with a world-weary shrug.
Back in the trailer he glances out to see one of his cohorts rifling through the storage shed of a trailer next door.
"Look at that. Look at that right there," he says, pointing through a hole in the aluminum foil, as if the sight confirms what he has been saying. "This is how he justifies his existence, by stealing stuff and bringing it back to me." True enough. As McFayden talks, the burglar parades each item he retrieves from the storage shed before the boss: a box of garbage bags, a pair of electric drills, a doorknob, a tire pump, and finally, two bullhorns. McFayden gives each an appraising once-over.
"You could get 42 bucks for that, maybe," he says of the bullhorns.
But, hey, what can one unassuming junky do? McFayden has long since rid himself of his do-gooder impulses. It's every man for himself now. McFayden doesn't encourage his acquaintances to steal from his neighbors. He doesn't discourage it either. It's really just none of McFayden's business. What about maybe getting implicated in a burglary? What about the possibility of getting evicted? It'll never happen here at the Tropical Trailer Gardens Mobile Home Park in Lake Worth, he says.
He's got official sanction.
"You know," McFayden says, "I'm the maintenance man."
Like McFayden, the Tropical Trailer Gardens has deteriorated nearly to death in its half-century of existence. In the 1950s, it was a slice of Lake Worth paradise that Canadians daydreamed about during their workdays. They parked mobile homes as close as they could to the shuffleboard courts and kept gardens between silver bullet-shaped trailers. By the time Hurricane Jeanne came along in September, the park's only attribute was the cheap rent. Jeanne took away the park's last bit of dignity. It left most residents without power, some without a septic system, and the Tropical Trailer Gardens degraded completely and finally to third-world status.
Since September 25, 2004, when the power went out, residents have begged, pleaded, and then demanded that park owner Wes Cox fix the place. He responded by serving them with eviction notices, telling all the grousers to get out by June, even if they had to abandon the trailers they own. Now, more than four months after Jeanne, residents of the park are still living like victims of a natural disaster. They still eat food out of coolers, shower without hot water, bake when the temperature rises, and freeze on cold nights.
The three dozen or so residents who can't afford to leave have since sought help from the government, from city code enforcement officers to the governor. What they've learned is that Florida law offers little protection to the residents of mobile home parks. While state law forbids park owners from denying utilities to its residents, the statutes spell out no punishment. It's a loophole that leaves the park's indigent residents with little hope that things will get better. In Florida, the conventional notion that trailer park residents round out the bottom of society's heap, ignored by greedy landlords, preyed upon by petty criminals, has actually been written into law.
The residents' only hope now is a slow-moving civil suit. They huddle conspiratorially, like bettors waiting for a long shot to come in, talking about what they'll do with their winnings.
Most of those who remain at the park have some kind of Social Security, disability checks, or pension that pays the $270-a-month rent. That's not true, however, for Al, who says he's a full-fledged master electrician. Enticed by the cheap rent, he lives in the back of the park in a travel trailer. He declined to give his last name, but on a recent afternoon, Al volunteered to tour the park's substandard and half-working electrical system. "See this?" he asks, pointing to a bit of plastic pipe coming from a meter. "That's plumbing pipe. And this?" He grabs some bright blue piping that bends under his grip. "This is smurf wire. None of this stuff should be outside."
Al points overhead to the wires hanging loosely between poles over the trailers. Some are crooked and others frayed. Extra lengths of wire are wrapped around poles. They connect to rusty meters often barely clinging to the utility poles. "You want to see something truly frightening?" he says. He sticks a pair of pliers into the base of a utility pole. The pliers sink to the handle in the rotted wood. "There's nothing left of these things. They collapse and you got some real problems."
In the park's laundry room, Al decides it will be easier to look for electrical lines that match up to code. He can't find any. The coin-operated washers and dryers are powered with exposed lines that run along the walls. "The owner of this place did this as cheaply as he could," Al explains. "He just wants to take in money and put nothing in. He's a typical slumlord."
In fact, Cox is an extraordinary slumlord. Most owners of dilapidated properties make enough repairs to keep local code enforcement inspectors at bay. Cox? He does nothing, residents say.
Cox declined to speak for this story, saying: "Everything I say gets misquoted, so I'll say no more." Old-timers at the trailer park say Cox once lived there while playing guitar in the house band of a cruise ship. Back then, Bill and Patricia Lowman ran the park and lived in a clapboard house at its entrance. Bill Lowman maintained a respectable trailer park community for retirees in the quiet neighborhood west of Interstate-95 off 7th Avenue North in central Lake Worth. His best friend was the brother of Rodney Romano, now mayor of Lake Worth.
"Bill was a good guy," Rodney Romano recalls. "But he had post-traumatic stress disorder from the Tet offensive in Vietnam. He came back and drank himself to death."
Just a couple of doors down from McFayden live Jenine and Paul Cote, who have spent 18 winters at the park. They towed a trailer there right after Paul Cote retired from the prison system in Montreal, and since then they've watched the place deteriorate. Outside their neatly kept trailer recently, they washed sand from their feet after a beach trip and remembered the park's heyday, when the Canadians would play bridge and go to the beach together.
"When we first came here it was all old people," Paul Cote said with a wide smile and a thick French accent.
"Senior park, senior park," added his wife.
"Then came those people with the drugs. Everything changed."
After Bill Lowman died, his widow married Cox and put him in charge of his former neighbors. He has done well financially by managing the park. Cox charges about $270 for each tiny lot for a trailer, while seasonal renters pay three times that. Cox has also rented trailers for $600 a month. McFayden says Cox told him he made $188,000 in 2002 when the park had about 45 residents -- a figure impossible to confirm but one that makes sense given the rents that residents pay. "He has done pretty good with this place,"
According to property appraiser records, Wes and Patricia Cox now have a $303,000 townhouse in Key Largo and live in a 4,139-square-foot home in Lake Clarke Shores worth $259,000. Their home is yellow with a perfectly manicured lawn and a boat next to the garage. He owns a beige van with "Wes Cox" on the license plate that he takes on the two-mile drive from his well-kept neighborhood to the rundown trailer park he manages.
Not surprisingly, the 61-year-old looks the part of a slumlord. With his spiky silver hair and deeply wrinkled face, the Missouri native looks a whole lot like a real-life version of J. Jonah Jameson, the harsh, barking boss in Spider-Man comic books.
In the two decades that Cox has run the park, he has systematically run it into the ground. Shortly after taking over, residents say Cox stopped doing routine maintenance. The shuffleboard courts deteriorated, the driveway cracked and pitted, and the electrical system was repaired using substandard supplies. The home where the Lowmans once lived now sits empty and boarded up. Weeds grow where there were once gardens kept by the Canadians. Meanwhile, the residential neighborhood surrounding the trailer park also deteriorated, with empty lots occupied by industrial facilities. A concrete plant came in next door, and the city of Lake Worth bought the land just south of the park for a motor-pool lot. Now, during the day, there are constant rumbles from diesel engines and machines at work.
When Jeanne hit, the storm ripped out half of the park's power lines. Some trailers still had full power, others only in part of the trailers, and a few, no power at all. When the city of Lake Worth came to turn the power back on, they discovered an electrical system so poorly kept up that they declared it too dangerous to be turned back on completely. The city ordered Cox to fix the park's entire electrical grid, but he refused. Cox wanted to use the park's land to expand a warehouse he owns next door. So on Nov. 17, the city hit him with a $250-a-day fine for refusing to get the power system up to code. "It was pretty clear to our inspectors that he had done a lot of work out there without the city's permission," says Bill Bucklew, director of the Lake Worth building department. "It was all unsafe. He would have to just about start over to get it up to code."
Until the problem was fixed, the city also feared that the electrical lines could spark a fire. The city ordered Cox to install smoke detectors in the trailers. He refused, Bucklew says, and the city hit him with another $200-a-day fine that began on Christmas Eve. The two combined fines now total over $12,000.
In the midst of the fight, Cox called Romano, perhaps hoping the mayor's old connection with the park could help him. According to Romano, Cox said: "I can turn the power back on right now if you just turn your head."
"I'm not going to be a part of burning your park down," Romano told Cox.
Figuring correctly that Cox would rather let fines collect than fix the problem, Romano has made it his mission to help the residents. He contacted the State Attorney's Office and the State Attorney General, hoping prosecutors could bring criminal charges against Cox for refusing to fix the power lines. He tried the Department of Professional Regulation, which oversees the licensing of trailer parks. But everyone he called had the same response: While state law requires trailer park owners to provide utilities, it fails to give anyone the authority to enforce it.
The law in question, State Statute 723.022(4) to be precise, specifically requires park owners to provide utilities to residents. The law was co-sponsored in 1984 by then state Rep. Ron Silver, who's now a lawyer in North Miami Beach. Silver says the law was passed during a debate in the Legislature over a proposal to enact rent control on trailer parks. Rent control did not become law, but a compromise was reached to protect trailer owners by mandating standards for park owners. "I remember getting pressure from both sides, from the trailer owners and the manufacturers," he says. But Silver couldn't recall why the law didn't get any muscle behind it. Since the law passed, no one has tried to enforce it, lawyers say. The Tropical Trailer Gardens lawsuit would be the first time a judge will be asked to punish a park for failing to provide utilities.
In a last-ditch effort to help the park, Romano called Gov. Jeb Bush's office. He asked that the governor declare the park a disaster zone. Typically, disaster zones are declared for counties or cities. "If they did that, he could suspend state statutes and get this problem fixed," Romano said. "I even offered to let them deputize me so if anything went wrong it was on my head. I mean, coming in and fixing this would be like Superman flying in and helping people. There's no political downside." The governor refused to help.
A pair of legislators have agreed to correct the law. State senators Dave Aronberg, a Democrat from Greenacres, and Jeff Atwater, a Republican from North Palm Beach, plan to co-sponsor a bill that would put some teeth behind the statutes. But the process will take months, and the new law wouldn't be enacted until July 1 at the earliest. "In our wealthy county," Aronberg says, "to have people live like that, it's just wrong."
The only option for the residents was to ask a judge to intervene. Fifteen of them sued Cox. For those living in the rundown park, the lawsuit has become their way out, if only it works.
Sherry Henderson has the kind of setup those Canadians used to dream about. She has a trailer two doors from the shuffleboard courts. It's right behind the house where the Lowmans used to live, on the exit side of the U-shaped drive that cuts through the park. She has a small concrete porch where she has a swing chair and a chaise. She has piled cushions on the chaise, and you can find her reading out there most afternoons. She moved to the park two years ago after open-heart surgery. It's the only place she can afford with her $700-a-month disability checks from the government. "Most everybody, including me, came here to get their lives together," she says. "They'll stay two or three years and then move on because this is cheap living."
Henderson has had it perhaps worse than anybody in the park over the past few months. She has partial power, but no functioning refrigerator or hot water heater. Her plumbing was out for months until Cox finally fixed it in late January. Until then, she snuck into the bathroom of an abandoned trailer. When the roof collapsed there, she started washing her hair in the sink of the laundry room. When Cox padlocked the laundry room, Henderson had to rely on the generosity of neighbors for a quick, cold shower.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Henderson shared her porch with Conniston "Connie" Lambert, a former park resident evicted by Cox. Lambert, who stands just over five feet, was born in Ireland but grew up in Brooklyn, giving him a mix of Irish and New York brogue. He talks often of his former days as a boxer. When he speaks, he regularly throws open-fisted punches in front of him. "What you have to ask yourself about this predicament," Lambert says, throwing a one-two combination, "is what's the wind-up? Who's jerking off who?"
"Nobody's jerking off anybody," Henderson says, lounging in an oversized green
T-shirt pulled down to her knees. At 56, she still has a flirty smile and blonde hair past her shoulders. With two college degrees, she's the park's resident expert on most matters. She spent most of her life as an exotic dancer, but she says she has also worked as a court reporter and a private investigator. "This is just Wes Cox being an asshole."
Lambert spent a few months sleeping on Henderson's couch since getting evicted. A few months back, Henderson gave Lambert mouth to mouth, perhaps saving his life, after he passed out in a drunken daze. He picks up his third can of Natural Light in an hour's span. "But who's getting jerked off from this deal?" he asks.
"Nobody's getting jerked off," Henderson says. "Who's getting jerked around here are the residents. There are people walking around like zombies because they have no place to go."
The residents are betting everything on winning the lawsuit, Henderson says. They'll need the money to put down a security deposit on a new place or to pay to have their trailers moved. They'll buy a little something extra for themselves too. "I have to remain positive," she says. "If that comes through, I'm gonna buy myself a used Toyota pickup, I'm gonna pack up my stuff and head to north Florida where things are cheap. I'm gonna get the hell out of here."
With mostly disabled and elderly residents left in the park, the thieves have had easy pickings. Most of them blame McFayden's lackeys. Burglars emptied Henderson's cooler of food one night. A couple of days later, they took the generator that used to power Annie Johnston's mobile home. Then they broke into Bob Phillips' place.
A few days after the break-in, Henderson and Lambert try to do a crime scene reenactment. A former government worker, 67-year-old Phillips has been on disability for 25 years because of a back injury. He has a simple trailer, its walls full of clippings from tabloid newspapers, paintings of Jesus, and pictures of kittens. "They tried to get in here," Phillips says, pointing to a window with a damaged frame. "They couldn't do it, so they tried this window in the bedroom." He walks to the rear of the trailer, where there's a side door. "I think they got in here because I forgot to lock it." The thieves had stolen all his food. "I had a bunch of chicken in my cooler. They had a buy-one-get-one-free deal at Winn-Dixie, so I had a bunch of it."
"This will be part of your damages," Henderson says. It's part of routine conversation at the park now -- adding up what kind of damages will be assessed in the lawsuit. Any wrong that can be blamed on Cox, they say, will be added to the damages once they win the suit. When, for instance, a resident has to go to a coin-op because the park's laundry room is boarded up, that goes into that person's damages. Henderson alone figures her damages have reached $30,000 or more. "You know," she adds, "we've got damages up the ying yang."
While the suit could be years from concluding, the residents recently had two successes in court, something that has finally given them a bit of hope.
Shortly after Wes Cox took the stand to defend himself in a recent hearing on the residents' lawsuit, the judge issued him the kind of scolding teachers give misbehaving kindergartners. Circuit Judge Timothy McCarthy had already admonished him for talking out of turn, being combative with the residents' attorney, and for refusing to answer questions. But this rebuke was scathing. "Mr. Cox," the judge said sternly. "This is not the Jerry Springer Show. You have to behave yourself." As he did every time the judge admonished him, Cox rolled his eyes exaggeratedly toward the ceiling. He shifted in his seat and shook his head defiantly. His attitude didn't bode well for him that day.
Cox has already had one setback in the lawsuit. Another judge on the case issued an order requiring that Cox "expedite" the repairs to the electrical system. It was a major victory for the residents, but it's too early to tell if Cox will abide by the ruling.
The hearing on January 19 was to determine if Cox could evict his tenants and whether the residents should pay him rent while the lawsuit drags on. Two residents, Henderson and Johnston, testified first, telling of life without power and, for Henderson, without a working septic system.
Then came Cox. He wore a gray pinstriped suit that clung tightly to his six-foot, two-inch frame and a blue patterned tie over a white dress shirt. He was immediately combative. He argued that residents ought to use extension cords to run appliances, even though it may not meet code and could be a fire hazard. He claimed those without power were just trying to get money out of him. "There's no excuse for not having [working appliances] unless you want to play poor to sue the poor landlord," he said.
The residents' pro bono attorney, Cathy Lively of Lake Worth, asked Cox if he thought residents could live a normal life with half or no power in their trailers.
"I don't believe they've ever lived a normal life, to tell you the truth," Cox responded.
"Why is that?"
"Because they do bizarre things," the landlord explained.
Cox claimed that if he made the repairs to the electrical lines, he'd have to raise rates to pay for it. "The poor residents who I've been helping with low rent all these years wouldn't be better off in the long run," he said.
The judge asked Cox several times if he knew how many tenants were without power or sewer service. Cox said he hadn't taken a survey. He had left flyers on the residents' doors after the storm, but only a few returned them, he claimed. "I have no idea," Cox insisted. "As far as I know they all have power." But pressed further, Cox admitted that at least one trailer was without power entirely and several others had only partial power. In truth, 15 tenants have joined the lawsuit and claim to be without all or some electricity, and at least a half-dozen more have declined to sue.
Even when Cox wasn't on the stand, he met the judge's wrath. Several times, the judge told Cox to stop talking loudly into his attorney's ear. "I don't know if you learned to whisper in a sawmill or what," the judge said.
After Cox's poor performance, Lively asked the judge to cut the resident's rent in half. McCarthy, at first, seemed to think the residents hadn't proven their case. The judge explained that the residents had provided sufficient evidence that they've gone through hardships; their attorney argued that could not all be quantified. They needed a court-appointed expert to set a reasonable rate, the judge said.
"How do you get to 50 percent?" the judge asked Lively.
"I know," Lively admitted. "It's not scientific."
Finally, the judge, perhaps unimpressed by Cox's Springer-like performance, agreed. He ordered the residents to pay Cox half of the rent, and to deposit the other half with the court until the end of the lawsuit. More importantly, he also forbid Cox from evicting them. It seemed to be a resounding victory.
Outside the courtroom, Lively said the ruling is a sign that the lawsuit will go their way. She predicted it would set a powerful precedent forcing trailer park owners everywhere to maintain their parks or face the wrath of the courts. "All we want," Lively said, "is to see that these residents have a chance to move forward and to move out of there. That's not too much to ask."
But when you're down and out, establishing a legal precedent can seem like nothing but an academic exercise.
Henderson, sitting on a bench outside the courtroom, wiped away tears before they could mess up her mascara. She and some of the others had hoped the judge would reduce their rent. By sending half to the court, they'd still be paying the entire $270. Few of the residents had paid rent in at least a month, and the judge ordered all back rent to be paid within two months. McCarthy had unwittingly penalized those he was seeking to protect.
"I was saving up that money," Henderson explained. "I had given it to my sister for safekeeping. That was the only way I could find a new place, with that money. Now what am I gonna do? If I had a place to go, I'd just go and leave the trailer. But where am I gonna go?"
Back at the trailer park, most of the residents rejoiced. But Henderson sulked. "We still have to pay that son of a bitch," she said. "Why would I give anyone a dime who treated us this way?"
Two days after the hearing, McFayden spent a Friday afternoon cleaning out his rundown trailer. He worked first on the storage sheds outside. He plucked out tools and bits of metal to keep, then threw everything else into waist-high piles in the yard. He tossed heaps of clothes out of his bedroom. "I'm not keeping most of this shit," McFayden barked. "I've got a couple of suits. Good suits. I'm gonna keep them, and that's about it."
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McFayden was finally moving out of his trailer. Not because Cox evicted him for the drug dealing going on there or because he owed $3,103 in back rent. No, McFayden said, he just finally got sick of living in a community where everybody hated him.
McFayden planned to live in his van for the moment. But he had plans to get an apartment soon in south Lake Worth. "Wes is even going to loan me $800 for the first, last, and security," he said. The money is payback for all those years he worked for Cox. It was apparently a relationship anchored in mutual convenience, with Cox turning a blind eye to the drug deals and late rent while McFayden carried out the odd jobs that kept the place barely functional.
For the residents, McFayden's unlamented departure, scurrying off to a different lair, only meant that things would get worse. Somebody scribbled "drug house closed" on the side of his trailer, McFayden said indignantly before he left.
"I guess they thought that was funny or something."