WELCOME TO PARADISE 


It's past midnight and Lynette, a 29-year-old, motor-mouthed prostitute, is knocking at my door. "I don't like to share crack when I get high," she says. "Is it OK if I come inside your trailer?"

I'm living at the Palms Trailer Park, 1610 S. Orange Blossom Trail, for a week, reporting a story about one of the Trail's most notorious rental properties.

A few minutes after Lynette steps inside my two-bedroom trailer, she's setting fire to the rock she brought with her, smoking it right before my eyes. As soon as the flame hits her makeshift crack pipe, she's breathing deep and inhaling as hard as she can. It's when she exhales that she starts to feel good.

Damian Marley's "Pimpa's Paradise" flows through my radio speakers in the background, and the irony is hilarious; Marley's singing about a woman who sleeps with men to get high. We both laugh at the reference. Lynette takes another hit, slowly blowing smoke through her nose and mouth. Then she's quiet. She puts her head back to enjoy the rush.

Cops know the place well. The Orange County Sheriff's Office has been here 891 times in the past 12 months, mainly for drug offenses and violent crimes. Just last weekend, Nov. 9, a 42-year-old man was arrested and charged with stabbing another man to death at the Palms.

The county's code enforcement department is also familiar with the place; they've been out here 22 times since September. Animal control, too: They've been here 31 times in the last year and a half responding to dog bites, reports of rabid animals and stray cats.

Many Orlando residents know the place via a series of reports by WFTV Channel 9 on the multitudinous code violations.

But you never really know a place until you've experienced it firsthand; until you've had a crack addict light up in your living room, seen roaches crawl up your leg, been offered oral sex by an overweight woman in a toga who wants $25, but will settle for $20. That's what life was like for me at the Palms.

A procedural note: To live at the Palms required that I not be entirely forthcoming about what I was really doing there. I didn't lie to anybody, but I didn't tell the whole truth, either. That's ethically problematic, but there was no other way to report the story.

Because of that I am not giving the full name of anyone who talked to me while I was living there. After moving out I returned and spoke to the management, and some residents, on the record. Those people are identified in the story by their full names.

OLD NO. 75

The rickety wooden fence surrounding the Palms is barely standing. There's Christian graffiti spray-painted on it, proclaiming "Jesus saves" to the prostitutes who gather in front of the trailer park as early as 10:30 a.m.

The road into the Palms is dirt, and there's not much grass in the place at all. Inside is a collection of 94 trailers, most of which are old.

To rent a trailer you go the office at the front of the park. For some reason it's littered with old fire extinguishers; I counted 21 of them. A large television shows nonstop video surveillance of the courtyard behind the office.

Sal Conigliaro, the property manager, stands behind bulletproof glass the color of stale smoke and tells me that he's only got two vacancies. Without asking my name or for any kind of ID, he slides the keys to trailer 92 through a slot at the bottom of the window and tells me to go check it out.

As I enter No. 92, a rank stench of food and feces hits me. Roaches are crawling everywhere — up the walls, along the baseboards — and the place is a mess. It hasn't been cleaned since the last tenants moved out. There's a pile of shit in the toilet, which at first seems unnecessary; then I realize the toilet doesn't flush. It's backed up, and each time I try to flush, the water rises and the smell gets worse.

A stray cat lives in the trailer, which explains the odor of urine. I snap a few photos and leave, telling Sal I need to think about leasing the place.

Driving away I try to reconcile what I saw with the fact that the Palms is a $2.5 million property. It was last sold on Dec. 1, 2004, to MJR Estate Corp., a company run by a man named Michael Robilotta out of Kent Lake, New York. The price seems high, especially for a run-down trailer park in a crime-ridden neighborhood on the Trail south of Gore Street, an area where crack and prostitution flourish.

Later, I talk to the Orange County code enforcement department. They too are curious about life inside the Palms, as many of them were on hand Sept. 29, 2006, when the health department did a surprise inspection.

"I couldn't believe the prostitution that was going on in that place in broad daylight," says Kurt Fasnacht, chief inspector for Orange County's code-enforcement division. "It's comparable with some of the worst properties I've ever seen. There was water running out of the bottom of some trailers even when nobody was home. A bunch of them are unfit for human habitation. When you look at the amount of money they're charging for people to live in those conditions, it's just unbelievable."

In fact, the Palms isn't cheap. Rent is only $125 a week, but that doesn't include electricity, water or trash collection. It costs $600 per month, minimum, to live there. Long-term tenant Mark Zadrozny says he's paid in excess of $850 per month. You can get a one-bedroom apartment in Thornton Park for about $750 a month.

A week later I'm back, ready to move in. But No. 92 but is taken. I settle for No. 75 instead, and I'm in without a background or credit check. My lease has an interesting provision attached to the second page; it claims the trailer is sprayed for roaches before anyone moves in, but tenants are responsible for all roaches thereafter. I guess I'm in store for a few visitors.

Day one

My front door has "fuck" sprayed on it in red paint, and it barely opens. I have to lift the door up and jimmy it loose to get inside, because the dingy metal steps block it. The steps aren't attached to the trailer, either, one of many code violations in my home away from home.

Inside roaches crawl about, completely unfazed by my presence. Most cockroaches flee at the sight of people; these dudes don't even pick up their pace. It's pretty clear they've lived here, unharassed, for quite some time.

They come in all dimensions: small, big, husky and king-size. Even the refrigerator is full of roaches. The sink is a kind of roach playground; smaller bugs climb up from the drain to the top of the sink and ski down, slipping and sliding back down along the porcelain. They're either trying to get out of the sink or having the time of their lives.

There is what appears to be a roach funeral going on in my bedroom. A huge, deceased cockroach lies in state in the middle of the floor with lots of smaller roaches circled around it, either eating it or eulogizing it, I can't tell. Either way I decide to give them their privacy.

One adventurous roach crawls up my shoe and onto my pant leg. I have sworn, before entering this trailer, that no cockroach will die at my hands, but already my will is tested. I can handle roaches in the fridge, but up my leg? I flick the roach off my blue jeans as hard as I can and step back outside for fresh air. It's going to be a long five days.

I stroll through the trailer park to check out my environment. Stray cats are everywhere, and I can see why animal control considers them to be a problem. Ironically, the rental office has a large sign in the window that says no dogs are allowed on the property, but I count at least seven in my week living there.

At nightfall, young men take over the courtyard, hanging out as people approach in cars or on foot. It's hard to see what's changing hands, but the clientele consists primarily of white women walking in from Orange Blossom Trail. Most simply walk into the trailer park, get their goods and leave.

All of the young men are black, and most of them are dressed in black; black shirts, jackets, jerseys, tank tops and doo-rags seem to be the local couture. A lot of these guys wear their hair in dreadlocks and sport baggy clothes, a plus for me because I look just like them. It doesn't take long before a man approaches me, looking to buy crack. He's a tall, middle-aged man with slightly graying hair. As I walk by, he propositions me.

"You got any of that hard?" he asks in broken English. "Hard" is the street term for crack, the drug of choice in these parts.

I tell him I'm crack-less for the evening. I'm not sure if he believes me.

"You're not a cop, are you?"

"No," I insist, looking at him askance. I'm thinking to myself, "Damn, if a black man doesn't have crack for sale in this place, then he's a cop?"

"Everybody around here is selling it, so I thought I'd ask you," he says frankly.

When I tell him I'm not selling anything, he seems surprised.

"This place is all about business," he says. "Everybody here is using their trailer for some kind of business. You'll see."

It turns out he's my neighbor. We part ways, but he's still checking me out.

As the night winds down, I get hungry for some leftover chicken wings I brought along with me, but the thought of eating inside the trailer is repulsive. It's also guaranteed to attract more roaches, so I eat outside, under a starless sky. Cats appear out of nowhere to compete for the chicken bones.

Day two

A visit from code enforcement starts the day. I've prearranged with code enforcement officer John Raznoff to inspect my trailer.

He immediately notes that my front steps are a fire hazard. The electrical outlets are not grounded properly, he says, and he recommends not touching two of them at all. He notes exposed wires in the trailer, that my smoke detector doesn't work, and that the air conditioning unit is without a cover and unsafe. He also finds holes in the walls, windows without screens, a cracked bathroom sink, a warped bathroom ceiling, an ill-fitting toilet lid and a hole in the bathroom floor through which I can see straight to the ground below.

The kitchen is worse. There's a hole under the sink big enough for a raccoon to crawl through. My hot-water heater looks new, but it covers a gaping hole in the floor. My cabinets are "non-workmanlike," according to Raznoff, which is a code violation as well. The vent over the stove is sealed with electrical tape, rendering it ineffective. Raznoff says it's a fire hazard.

The place is in deplorable shape, he says, but maybe not bad enough to condemn.

During the inspection, Conigliaro, the property manager, calls Raznoff's cell phone, probably because he sees the code enforcement truck on the property. Raznoff says I've called and complained, which technically is not true. It does not take long for Conigliaro to send one of his minions after me. Willie, the maintenance man, knocks at the door, and says Conigliaro wants to see me at the office. He's pissed.

"Why'd you go and call code enforcement on me?" he asks angrily.

I explain the roach infestation and litany of code violations, but he's still peeved.

"I'll fix it, but you just burned your bridge," he says pointedly.

Later that afternoon, I encounter Lynette, the streetwalker who smokes "hard." She asks me if I have any for sale. I tell her no, and she makes me pinky swear that I'll never touch the stuff. We lock fingers and I can see that she's serious, and strung out.

Lynette tells me she came down to the Trail three months ago from Clermont to buy a dime bag of crack and hasn't left since. She's homeless and turns tricks for crack.

I also meet Rhonda, a long-term tenant of the Palms who says she had a multitude of problems with the establishment since moving in a year ago. The first trailer she lived in caught on fire, and her current pad is a dump. She too has roaches and holes in her floor, but she also has three children to feed.

"If you got nowhere else to go, it's OK," Rhonda says, as the two of us stand outside and watch sheriff's deputies make an arrest.

Rhonda tells me she had an orange abatement notice stuck on her trailer from the county, meaning her place was uninhabitable, but some of the day laborers who work here ripped it down. County records show the Palms had 16 trailers on its property as of Nov. 10 with abatement notices. Rhonda's is on the list. She is living in a structure deemed unsafe for habitation. There are other tenants in similar circumstances. Cecile Dekle, 28, moved into trailer No. 96 on Aug. 31, six children in tow. It was condemned by code enforcement right around the time her seventh child, Niesha, was born. Dekle says she was paying $170 a week for a full month before relocating to a different trailer.

Tonight is Halloween, and the park is alive. Kids are trick-or-treating, and so are adults. A few kids pass by my trailer wearing costumes and ask for candy. It feels cleaner sitting outside, as my trailer is again full of mischievous roaches. Despite my vow not to kill any of them, I instinctively smash a mammoth roach after it crawls across my hand. Roaches have made it inside my duffel bag because it's not zipped up all the way.

A drunk Mexican woman staggers up to me out of nowhere. I offer her candy, which triggers an uncomfortable staring match between us before she finally accepts my offer. In return she sings me a mariachi tune, belting out a beautiful rendition of "La Raspa" in Spanish. It's a surprisingly touching moment. Afterward, she kisses me on the cheek and saunters away.

At the front of the park a large black woman in a toga and sandals is waiting on a "date." She offers me a blow job for $25, quickly drops her price to $20, then backs off from cash completely and says she'll accept "hard."

Later, Lynnette comes back by my trailer and we chat. She tells me she had sex with two people earlier today for crack. As stunning as that revelation is, Lynnette has something about her that is beyond judgment. She has a habit of offering help to strangers and she's constantly making me promise her that I'll never touch crack. There's a sense of urgency in her voice and she means what she says. But tonight she's high, and as we sit under a royal-blue midnight sky, she rambles uncontrollably, making no sense. She also has a tough time sitting still. She describes a crack high this way: It's the most euphoric 10 seconds of her life.

Day three

The phone rings early. It's Raznoff letting me know that my trailer is being added to the abatement list. That means I too am officially living in an uninhabitable structure.

In September, the county cited the Palms for having broken sewage pipes and sewage running on the ground. Twoquala Stevens, a former Palms resident, says that's one of the reasons she moved.

"The sewage was not hooked up with the city at all, they used septic tanks, and whenever one overflowed or was not working properly, the smell of shit was everywhere, especially after a hard rain," Stevens says.

Since last night's rain, my toilet is releasing a noxious smell each time it's flushed. Parts of my bedroom are wet this morning, too.

A cat finds its way into my trailer. It was only a matter of time before something crawled through the hole in my kitchen floor. The cat is easy to shoo out the door, but I wonder what would have happened if an opossum or raccoon had come up through the hole instead.

Outside, trying to get some fresh air, I have an unintentional run-in with the law. I noticed a sheriff's cruiser drive by my trailer but thought nothing of it until the cop, a white male, circles back and tells me to come over to his car. He tells me he's just getting to know people who live here. But his approach is aggressive. He asks me for my name, birth date and ID so that he can enter me into the computer system. He's sweating me hard.

But I'm not in his computer system because I'm a recent Michigan transplant, so he asks for everything again: name, birth date and ID. It's killing my cover. He's put me in the system twice and is suspicious of my lack of criminal history. Two dudes behind me are eyeing the situation. The last thing I want to look like is an undercover cop.

By nightfall the place is pulsating with movement. Cars are strategically parked between trailers, which is advantageous for people who want privacy. There are plenty of places to hide in the dark, and for the most part, the trailer park is like a fortress.

More people are buzzing around the park tonight. I look out my window and see folks huddled behind trailers, smoking.

But the fact is that — strange as it might sound — most of the people I meet here, drug dealers included, are friendly. They all speak, wave or say "What up" to me without a hassle. They are my neighbors.

Day four

There's a feeling in the Palms that the block is hot and the police are stepping up their patrols. I encounter a male tenant standing near the laundry room who tells me the "jits" — short for "jitterbugs," or kids — bring it on themselves.

Later, I find a guy named Bama outside of my trailer, looking for someone who owes him money. We start talking and I get the feeling he's checking me out to make sure I'm not a cop. I invite him inside my trailer to sip on some Crown Royal I brought with me, but the bottle is empty.

We talk about life in the trailer park and get around to the topic of hip-hop. Bama says some of the dealers used to bring out microphones and speakers on Sunday afternoons to let folks in the trailer park rap, but that hasn't happened in awhile. He also says it's not uncommon for dealers to buy food and put on a barbecue for tenants on the weekends. There's a sense of communal survival here that goes beyond the living conditions.

Bama likes to rap. He starts freestyling to songs on the Roots' new album, Game Theory, which is playing in background. I can't rap for shit. But eventually, he lures me into a cipher. We freestyle back and forth for 45 minutes and Bama's country style of rapping gets more coherent after each song.

His rap topics range from selling dope every night to working on a chain gang in Alabama to how Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary is trying to keep him down. He's sharp with his lyrics, which are completely improvised, yet topical at the same time.

After 20 minutes Bama slowly spits out eight or nine pieces of crack that were stuffed in his jaw this whole time. Then he finds the beat again and continues freestyling. He raps about how dealers around here don't rely on vials, preferring to hide contraband along their gum lines instead. It's easier to conceal, and can be swallowed if the need arises. I'm floored that this baby-faced kid can rap with a mouth full of crack, and I'm impressed he conceals his pharmaceutical sales job so well.

Our cipher and shit-talking session continues into the night until, without a second thought, Bama stuffs the crack back in his mouth. He's got to head back outside to make money.

Day five

It's 8:30 a.m. as I drive to work, and Bama already has a customer. It's Friday and it's going to be a moneymaking day. Tenants walk along the dusty roads of the trailer park, lively even this early. Parts of this place look like images from Soweto. Two dark-skinned women carry laundry baskets on top of their heads, and men with no jobs sit outside their trailers smoking cigarettes. I'll be glad to leave.

At my office I go over some background on the Palms. Most of the clips I find are in regards to shootings or fires. A murder- suicide in 2003 catches my eye; it involved a 26-year-old tenant, Debbie Daoust, who intentionally set her trailer on fire, killing her mother and two infant children in the process. Economic hardship was given as the cause of the Daoust family tragedy.

I also find a bit of interesting trivia. According to an article in The Calgary Herald, Marilyn Monroe's half-sister, Bernice Miracle, was a resident at the Palms. According to the article, a letter signed "Lovingly, Norma Jeanne," which was mailed to the property in 1948, was auctioned off by Christie's last year.

Back at my trailer, the smell coming from the toilet is increasingly agitating. It's time to leave. Moving out is surprisingly easy. I drop $26 for utilities charges and split.

Epilogue

Two weeks later I returned to the Palms to talk to Conigliaro as a reporter. Initially, it's a tense conversation; he refuses to talk on record. But I've already been living here, and I know what it's like. Conigliaro relents.

"Look, I do everything I can," he says. "But I'm not a police officer. I used to battle the prostitutes and drug dealers every day, but I'm not going to risk my life out there. That's the sheriff's department's job."

That's true. But property management is his job. And I know that my property, for example, was not well-managed. Conigliaro readily admits the Palms isn't upscale living.

"I know some of these problems are there, but we have to get the money to fix things first," he says. "I know we've got to fix all the steps and windows and make serious improvements to the trailers, but it takes time."

When I bring up the topic of people living in trailers the county has deemed uninhabitable, he puts me on the phone with the property's New York owner, Michael Robilotta. Not throwing people out of condemned trailers is actually an act of compassion, he tells me.

"We're going to continue charging rent," says Robilotta. "If I throw everybody out, where are those people going to go? They'll be homeless. And if I closed down these 16 trailers, the park won't be able to make enough money to stay open."

Robilotta says the Palms collects $11,000 to $13,000 in rent each week, and that it grossed $656,000 last year. He personally considers it "a great moneymaker." He also says it's for sale. Asking price: $3 million.

His concern isn't with the tenants; it's getting code enforcement off his back. "I don't know what you don't understand; our only concern is satisfying code enforcement and we're complying with them."

A compliance meeting with code officers and Conigliaro on Nov. 27 revealed that the property is still derelict in bringing violations up to code. Enforcement officer Yolanda Matos says the Nov. 27 checkup was disappointing, because only about 25 percent of the problems were addressed.

"They're doing the repairs slower than expected," says Matos. "The major stuff was not done. It looks cleaner, but a lot of `tenants` are very stressed. We saw a lot of fear in those people because if they call and complain, they get evicted. They're kind of stuck."

According to the county, the property has cleared all of its sewage, sanitation and exterior electrical problems. MJR Estate Corp has until Jan. 10 to fix the rest, or it faces fines of $1,000 per day for each violation, and possibly seizure of the property.

Robilotta is angry about being hit with so many violations at once. He believes the reason the health department and code enforcement are suddenly so interested in his property is so they look like they're doing something.

"There's a lot that was overlooked over the years at this property," says Robilotta. "That tells me that they `code enforcement` didn't do their job. It doesn't seem fair to say that 20 years' worth of violations have to be repaired in such a short amount of time. The park doesn't make money that quickly."

Both Conigliaro and Robilotta blame the Orange County Sheriff's Department for not doing enough to rid the park of crime. Both men appear eager to get code enforcement off their backs. But make no mistake; Robilotta's interests are purely financial.

"I'll be glad when all this is over and I can go back to making money," he says. "But I won't sell the property until all the violations are cleared up. You can quote me on that."

jcunningham@orlandoweekly.com

More by Jonathan Cunningham

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