I was sitting on my porch, my fingers clicking away, the I-pod my son gave me playing Little Betty by Otis Taylor and I felt my cell phone vibrate in my shirt pocket. I fumbled with the tiny controls and shut off Otis, removed the little ear plugs, dug in my pocket and just missed the call. It was a central Florida area code, but not a number I knew. I hit redial.
“Hello?” a tentative female voice answered.
“Sorry, I think I just missed your call,” I said, identified myself and ask if I could be of service.
“I was told you aren’t a regular lawyer. I mean you are different aren’t you?” she said, “My name is Francine Jackson. I live in Micanopy. You live in Salt Springs? Do you work this far over?”
“Actually, I’m not a regular anything; I don’t really practice law in Florida. I teach at U of Florida in Gainesville. What were you hoping I might help you with?” I asked.
“I think I need a lawyer, but I don’t have any money. I mean, I did have money, a little money, but that’s the problem. I had to spend it and now I can’t buy my medications.” Francine said. She sounded near tears.
“Tell me more,” I said, “What happened to your money? Maybe I can help,”
And I probably would help. This is what I do now from my home in the middle of nowhere. It is not what I have always done. I sit on my screened porch overlooking the little clean boat channel, neatly framed by the seawall, listening to what I know will be a sad and utterly true story of an injustice done.
I live on Highway Three-sixteen, just a mile or so before it dead ends at Salt Springs, about two miles west of the end of the road on 238th Ave. As “big city” as that sounds, 238th Ave. is a dirt road. Starting at US 441 in Marion County, Florida,
the little sandy roads running off of the hard roads are numbered in increasing
order. Some roads go only a block or two and stop.
My road wanders south for exactly two miles. It crosses through sand scrub, over salt marshes, and twists and turns through an almost perfect tunnel of trees for over a mile, then it makes a bee-line south, alongside a row of power poles and dead ends into a dusty horseshoe around a deep channel canal feeding into to Lake Kerr.
There are forty-three homes here: nice suburban ranch-style houses, coastal platform cottages, rusting single-wide trailers and several well scrubbed double-wides nestled along the banks of the water. Most have boat docks. All have screened-in porches.
A few years ago my parents bought a nice double-wide here. My
father added a long screened-in porch and a boat dock. My mother bought dozens of plaster birds for the porch and one black iron rooster wind vane. My father built a roof over the dock and attached it there. It still stands there with little twists of Spanish moss and air orchids hanging from the “s” of the directional bar below, the rooster shifts slightly in the breeze as the wind changes from south to southeast.
The rooster has faded beige white, though the rest remains black. I inherited the “cabin” a couple of years ago. My law degree from the University of Alabama didn’t exactly turn out the way I had hoped. I expected spend my days like Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. It seems that most law degrees now are in the service of big corporate law firms. These firms specialize in shuffling paper for billable hours.
After a decade of filings and shufflings, I packed it all in, including the fancy car and fancy the ex-wife. The car, the wife, and the pricey place in the hills on the
south side of Birmingham all left together.
I got on as an adjunct professor at the University of Florida. With my folks place free and clear and a ten year-old Ford pickup, I do okay. I still do. I don’t expect tenure, but I keep busy with three or four classes teaching Applied Law, that is to say, law for non-law students.
I have a few hobbies. I feed the fish from the boat dock and they feed me. Once a week, I throw a hook in instead of food of very edible fish. My cousin says this isn’t fishing, it is eating your pet fish. The way I see it, the fish are free to leave and I don’t mind the arrangement.
There is the upkeep on a twenty year old trailer: fuses go bad, plastic pipes spring leaks. I feed the squirrels, and don’t even eat them. I warm the fifth pew from the back on Sunday morning at the Community Christian church. It all takes time, too. I go to church about once a month and I go to church socials, especially the suppers. I get to eat good potato salad and fried chicken made by talented country housewives. I occasionally get a jar of honey, or figs or plum jelly. My ex would laugh at them. She used our oven as storage space.
There is a price for this, not only the sermons but to town folk who are try not to think new thoughts and never ask deep questions. My currency is free simple legal advice. My neighbors trade in knowledge of how to fix a pump or reinforce a seawall,
they will come over and fix mine. They will bring the tools they need. I don’t charge for the legal, and they would never think of charging me. In further defense of the town folk, the crowd in Birmingham and Gainesville mostly think trendy new thoughts and ask the socially approved deep questions.
I have one other hobby. I run a low-key, low-profile justice program. Maybe you’ve heard of the Innocence Project. They convinced the former governor of Illinois to stop the execution of state prisoners and commute their sentences. That is not what we do.
I give extra credit to my students and we seek justice on a smaller scale. We offer help to poor people who have been wronged by the system. Usually people who have been cheated in debt collection or mortgage or personal property issues. Boring stuff, but helpful. We are David to the Goliaths.
Sometimes I bump into someone at church or the hardware store that has suffered injury and found all avenues of redress closed. If the situation is of a private or of an embarrassing nature, or the odds too great, I will handle the case alone.
I wondered if I’d have to ride solo for Mrs. Francine Jackson. She seemed to calm down a bit when she realized I might take an interest in her plight and told me a common story.
While most folks know of Hurricane Katrina; of Andrew and maybe even Camille and Betsy, for central Florida the double whammy of Frances and Jeanne created havoc. Mrs. Jackson lived in a mobile home in Micanopy. The two storms mostly missed Micanopy, but the winds were still enough to rip the metal sheeting from the top of her strapped down trailer.
The FEMA guys came and tacked down a blue tarp and a few weeks later a charming young man came by and gave her a quote to repair her roof. Citizens, the state run insurance company, was her insurer. They approved the quote to repair the roof and sent the check out.
The charming young man, Willard “Bill” Wade, took the check, which the grateful Mrs. Jackson happily endorsed for him. He removed the tarp and poked around a bit on the top of her trailer. Promising her that he would return the next day, Bill left in his pickup which bore a nice red sign the read “Wade Roofing, we can fix it quick!”
Bill did not return the next day, but he did deposit the check before noon the first day. Mrs. Jackson left a series of polite, then desperate, then angry messages on his phone.
Eventually, she hired both an attorney and a new roofer. The roof was fixed to the tune of $6000, and the attorney charged her $2500 to tell her that Wade Roofing ceased to exist, though Mr. Wade was happily running a new firm under the name of Willard Roofing. Due to Florida’s laws, she could not touch him. All the assets of Wade Roofing had been liquidated and she and a few hundred other people were just out the thousands they had paid.
We made a date for me to come over the following day and meet with her. I left my snug little cottage on the outskirts of Salt Springs and drove west on Highway 316. With a couple of twists and turns, 316 ends at US 441. I drove north to the turn off to Micanopy.
Most people think the road to Micanopy is Interstate 75. And they think Micanopy is one of two things It is a town of gentlemen horse farms with ”devil’s lanes” marked off with freshly painted white wood fences and steepled stables with prancing stallion weather vanes. It is also is known for its “all nude” truckers buffet.
From Salt Springs, there is the real town; the road to Micanopy is an almost straight two lane of asphalt covered by overhanging branches, Spanish moss hangs without discrimination on oak and pine alike. The road is bordered by working horse farms behind pressure treated black plank fencing. The black fence is lower cost and lower maintenance and keeps the horses just as safely penned in as the rich man’s white fence showplace. Working people live in the small houses and scattered mobile homes on lots developed when this was a rural outpost from Gainesville.
Mrs. Jackson and her late husband bought a mobile home and a small lot in a abandoned pecan orchard over twenty years ago. She could probably sell the plot for a good profit, but it is home. Like so many seniors in Florida, she is house poor. With no income other than social security, she can’t borrow against her place with any realistic expectation of being able to repay the loan.…
Mrs. Jackson had spent every penny of her savings and had to borrow $5000. Now she could not pay for the medications which helped which her immune disorder. The symptoms were painful shingle like blotches and caused her joints to stiffen to an almost crippling immobility.
After our visit, I contacted the fraud investigative unit of the local Sheriff’s department. I found out about Willard’s history through the few arrests local departments made. One of the early ones, an officer asked him about his penchant for polyester and he gave a short history.
Mr. Wade grew up in the delta region of Mississippi. He worked in a cotton gin as a teenager, and drove cotton wagons to market when he was old enough. As a result, he developed an unusual but not unheard of allergy to cotton. Consequently, even when he was atop one of his victim’s roof, he wore nothing but polyester.
Willard learned construction working as a helper on a few industrial sites in Memphis. He learned the scam business shortly after he came to Florida, chasing a job with a large construction company. He had worked on their projects in the delta, but when he was laid off there, he followed a rumor to Orlando. It was just a rumor of a job. He did find work with one of the many companies a local man, Jerome Brown, had started, scammed money and then closed.
Willard was no dummy. He was making straight wages from a guy who was stealing a fortune. When the man closed a company and failed to pay him his last check, Willard went into competition. He started at a lower price and promised a quicker time to be finished. Soon he was so smooth, he got a premium and even learned to tell folks he had to wait on materials so they waited contentedly for a couple of weeks. This gave him more time to cash checks and close operations.
Soon Orlando got too hot for him. The local police and code enforcement had him on a watch list. Local TV news did features on him, so he took his cash and followed hurricanes and tornadoes around the South.
His method was to move in right after a disaster promise repairs as soon as materials arrived, take a nice 50% cash down payment. And leave town a few hours before the fraud squad showed up. By the time the twin hurricanes roared across Florida, he had a laptop, professional estimating software, brown leather wingtips, and $800 custom made shiny suits. He looked like a cross between a big city attorney and a used car salesman. But he had charm, and believability. People like Mrs. Jackson thought he was the cavalry; they lined up to hand their money.
Sadly, Florida’s history is full of scam artists like Willard Wade. There is no recourse under the law. Fortunately, I have never felt that justice needed to be confined to the courtroom. I knew Mrs. Jackson would never get her money back, but I thought I might know a way to handle Mr. Wade.
I had coffee with a friend who worked in the Ag department at the University. He was the leading expert on cotton in Florida. I told him I wanted to run some experiments and wondered if he could get me a few cotton bolls. I took my little bag of cotton home.
I looked up everything else I could find about cotton allergy in the web. Turns out that okra, hollyhock and hibiscus are all closely related to cotton. Cotton allergy was not so much an allergy to cotton as to cotton seed dust. I decided to press the seeds to remove as much of then oil as possible. The cotton I threw away.
Once a person develops the allergen, usually from exposure to air borne particles, even a mild exposure to cotton seed dust, such as the tiny particles that get mixed into the cotton boll fiber in cotton cloth, or especially ingest orally or through the nose, a reaction would occur. Mild symptoms were usually itchy rash and head aches. More serious reactions included swelling of the joints and even a swelling of the soft tissues in the throat that could restrict breathing. While rarely fatal, the pain and terror of the more severe symptoms meant a cotton allergy was a condition that required constant alertness on the part of the sufferer.
I went to the local garden center and bought a few hibiscus and holly hocks. I planted them right outside the screen along my porch.
I explained my plan to Mrs. Jackson and she was delighted. I asked her if she could fry a respectable chicken, she assured me that she had been frying chicken for fifty years, and not counting her husband who had passed away a couple of years before the storms, from a massive heart attack, nobody had died from eating her cooking.
I called Willard’s number on the card he had given her. I gambled that he wouldn’t bother getting a new cell phone every time he shut down a business. I was right. I left a message.
Two days later, I got a call from a very interested and charming Willard Wade.
“Is this the attorney who has a business proposition for me?” he asked.
“It is,” I answered.
“What I want to discuss with you is a sensitive matter. It could make us both lots of money, but I don’t care to discuss it by phone,” I continued.
“Understood,” he said. We agreed to meet for dinner at my cottage the following Friday evening. I gave him directions and asked if he liked fried chicken. He said he loved it and was looking forward to our meeting.
Mrs. Jackson was nervous that he would recognize her, but I assured her that she was a faceless face among hundreds, maybe thousands he had scammed along the way. Mrs. Jackson did a little grocery shopping. She bought a whole chicken and a bag of fresh raw okra.
I clipped a few blooms from the hibiscus plants and made a center piece for the table on the porch. A few minutes before eight pm I heard the crunch of gravel. Willard eased his expensive four wheel drive pickup into my drive. In his unmistakable well cut polyester suit, I knew it was him.
“Mr. Wade, I presume?” I said, jovially.
“Yes,” he replied.
“I suppose I’m at the right house,” he added.
“That you are. That you are!” I said.
We went in and I introduced him to Mrs. Jackson, as my housekeeper. He didn’t seem to notice that she was a woman he had taken for a few grand, nor did he seem to think it odd that a country attorney would have a housekeeper who stayed late on a Friday to make dinner. He looked nervously at my late mother’s upholstered furniture. I knew he was trying to calculate whether it was old enough to be cotton instead of polyester.
“Let’s have a drink on the porch,” I suggested. He looked relieved. I turned to Mrs. Jackson and suggested we have dinner outside, as well. Willard was visibly relieved as we settled into the plastic woven lawn chairs.
“Whiskey?” I asked.
“Sure, but tell me about this business proposition. I didn’t drive halfway into the wilderness to have a drink and some chicken,” Wade said, impatiently.
For a minute, we danced the dance of two crooks, not wanting to admit what the other already presumed. Finally I told him of my scam.
“Look, I have a deal worked out with the State of Florida. We are gonna build fourteen hundred affordable housing units. The bid is too low to make a profit, but the draw structure is set up so we get ten grand per unit when we break ground. That’s fourteen million dollars. That’s the only time the project will be profitable,” I explained.
“You want me to help you scam the State of Florida? You never told me. How did you get my name?” Willard asked, as he took a strong draw on the whiskey.
“Jerome Brown. He was gonna do it, but he’s got unrelated charges hanging over him. He’s a no-go,” I said.
“Jerome? That snake? I’m surprised,” he said, smiling.
“If you are interested, come by my office at the University of Florida next Wednesday, Applied Law, we can go over the details there. Now let’s eat some chicken!” I said.
Mrs. Jackson gave me a wink as she brought the bowl of fried okra and platter of fried chicken out of the kitchen.
“Old family recipe, she said.
As we squared away to eat, she headed back towards the kitchen.
“I’ll start cleaning up in there while y’all eat,” she said.
Willard never slowed down; he ate three pieces of chicken and had seconds on the okra.
“What is this side?” he asked.
“Oh, I don’t know, Mrs. Jackson just cooks up something special every time I have anybody over. Sure is good though,” I added.
Willard pushed back from the table. I noticed his face was getting a little red and I thought I noticed his neck looked swollen.
“Man, that was good, but I don’t feel so good. I must have gotten into something on a job site today,” he said.
“You don’t look so good. You sure you can drive?” I asked, truly concerned. I didn’t care if he lived or died, but I didn’t want to have him die on my porch.
“I’m good,” he wheezed.
“But I better be getting back. I’ll see you Wednesday up in Gainesville,” he added, beginning to scratch his arm.
I walked him to the door and thanked him for coming.
“See you Wednesday,” I said as he backed out of the drive.
Mrs. Jackson came out as his taillights disappeared up the dark road.
“Do you think it worked?” she asked, hobbling over to her old sedan.
“Sure, he was looking pretty bad, had trouble breathing, and was beginning to scratch,” I said.
“Serves the bastard right!” she smiled.
Wednesday Willard never called or came by. About four in the afternoon I called his cell phone.
“Man, I been in the hospital. I still am. I got a cotton allergy and something really got me. I nearly died after I got home from your place. I couldn’t breathe. I could hardly walk,” he said.
“That’s too bad,” I said.
“Oh, by the way, the housing deal looks like it is going to fall through,” I added.
“I hate to hear that. I was really looking forward to getting a big score,” his voice sagged.
“Well, it may turn around. I’ll let you know. Anyway, you’ll have to come back out for dinner sometime. Mrs. Jackson can fry about anything. Maybe we can catch a few fish and let her fix those,” I suggested.
“I’d like that. Her cooking was about the only thing good that’s happened to me this week,” Willard said.
“Funny, Mrs. Jackson said she had been looking forward to cooking for you for months,” I said.
“Huh?” Willard replied.
“Yeah, she said she had been waiting to cook you up something special, ever since you took a few thousand dollars from her and forgot to fix her roof. I think she used an old family recipe, cotton seed meal mixed with the flour, yummy, huh?” I asked.
“Are you crazy?” Willard yelled.
“You two nearly killed me!” He was suddenly enraged.
“Well, justice can’t always be perfect. Maybe next time. She said she likes to cook for a man who knows how to eat,” I said, and rang off.
I picked up the phone again. Mrs. Jackson answered on the second ring.
“Your cottonseed meal fried chicken was a real hit!” I said.
“Oh?” she asked.
“Yeah, our friend nearly died Friday night. He’s still in the hospital, but he said he sure would like some more of your good cooking,” I said.
“Anytime,” she said.
“Oh, I doubt he’s coming back for seconds,” I said.
“No?” she asked.
“I thought it might get his attention, if he found out what nearly did him in,” I said, laughing.
“But what if he tries to get even?” she sounded worried.
“He doesn’t know where you live, I mean he does, but he hardly keeps records of his victims, and there were a lot of folks he scammed on the road to Micanopy,” I assured her.
“But what about you? I bet he knows where you live,” said a concerned Mrs. Jackson.
“I’m not worried. Most scam artists want easy money and no trouble. He will stay as far away from me as possible,” I said.
And he did.