Mr. Thin Pockets Lives Cheap and Prospers

My mother wanted to be taken for a ride through rural Florida last summer. I offered to take her to Englewood and show her the garage I lived in during the first months of 1975.

Mom didn't know that I had lived in a garage. Members of the family never did such things. Now, I am all for high standards. I am all for family values. But during my first years in Florida it was sometimes difficult to find housing that low- income workers could afford, especially during tourist season when rents went way up.

In 1974, I was unemployed, driving a well-packed car down the East Coast to Florida. There was a so-called gas shortage in America. Waiting in a long line for two hours to buy $5 or $10 worth of gas was a historical footnote that no generation should have to endure. But apparently the crisis did what it was intended to do: elevate the price of gas from 35 cents a gallon to 65 cents.

I remember taking an all-night nap in the car at a roadside rest area in North Carolina. By the second night I so craved a shower, a comfortable bed, and an air conditioner that I splurged on a motel room in Lake City, Fla.

I eventually found a sunny apartment complex in south Florida that was perfect: low rent, pool, maid service, color TV, and a kitchenette to cook meals in. I could have stayed there forever.

But the landlord would not let me stay there forever.

In November came tourist season. The rent on the place would skyrocket from $135 a month to $650. I was suddenly living in panicsville. I coaxed, I pleaded, I begged the landlord for a fair year-round deal. It was no use.

But the landlord did steer me to another landlord who owned a duplex some miles away. The place was unfurnished, and insects loved it a great deal. I didn't like the idea of the landlord charging me a "furnished" rent rate. We negotiated.

Eventually, the landlord started up his Ford Econoline van and went out on the prowl. He must have raided every yard sale in the county, and came back with an unspeakable array of bedding, tables, and chairs.

There was a couple who lived next door that did not like each other at all. In the middle of the night I would have to drag my box spring from the north room to the south room, and close all doors in between. Then I could sleep.

By February the next year, I could no longer endure Cockroach Manor. I went looking for better housing.

I found a landlord in Englewood who had a motel that was full, but he needed a handyman to work two hours in the evenings painting, planting, and watering.

I had a job by then, but if I worked two hours a day I could live in his garage free. I would save on rent, had use of electricity, water, a rowboat, and fishing gear. In the midst of inflation and recession, I had found a kind of heaven.

I fished in Lemon Bay, caught flounder and sheepshead. The pelicans would spot me fishing in the boat and come in for a landing. When a strike came on the line, I had to keep my dinner from becoming the pelicans' dinner, and it was difficult with six or seven of them watching me and my fishing pole.

A letter came from my parents, asking me to come north for two weeks on summer vacation. Continental Trailways bus lines had a super deal going at the time: You could travel to any destination east of the Mississippi and back again for $55.

When summer came, I went north for a visit.

But while I was gone, the building inspector inspected the motel, looked in the garage, and saw my slippers under the four-poster bed.

When I returned, I could live in the garage no more.

A ROOM had become available at the motel, though, and because I had done so much work around the place I was charged a very low rent. Living in the garage had been a sort of warped romantic bohemian life, taking outdoor showers in the tin-walled stall with no roof.

Now I had decency all around me, and didn't wake up each morning next to lawn mowers, wheelbarrows, and bags of fertilizer.

Things were looking up.

The biggest delight was that the long lines for gasoline were gone. And as soon as I found a new alternator for my car, I could take advantage of this. The money saved on rent would go for a down payment on a home, so tourist season could come and go without my having to sleep in the car as well.

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