Trailer Trashed

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.

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Eric Alan Barton
Contact: Eric Alan Barton