Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The House Where Nobody Lives

Epps/Lowry 4mi


On Sunday I missed my run because I went straight from work to New Port Richey so that Mike and I could look over some video of the Furniture Challenge show at Chris’ house. Chris has been doing some marathon training of his own since we talked about this project on the night of the Furniture Challenge opening. We have been trying to get together to run without any luck until now.
On Monday morning, Chris meets me with his daughter Maya in tow. We head east along the Epps/Lowry route with Chris pushing Maya in her running stroller, and the three of us looking very much like an ad for the benefits of gay adoption. Chris is a former resident of the storied North Street Compound, and we talk about the history of these houses and their residents as well as the house across the street at the entrance to Epps Park. I had been told before that there is a spring beneath this house, and it is apparent from the constant flow of water from the yard into the storm drain along North Street.
Chris tells me that, allegedly, the spring had been a favorite swimming hole for neighborhood children, but after a child drowned there the city capped off the spring and filled in the hole. At some point later, a house was built on this spot and the owners only learned of the former spring when their foundation started to settle and the water began percolating up from beneath their house. The current owner of this property is almost universally reviled by everyone I have spoken to in this area, and he now seems to be engaged in some sort of squatter’s rights claim to Epps Park itself, as the fence around his house gradually expands to include more and more of the riverfront land.
As we run north along the river, Chris and I swap stories about the neighborhood and I get to point out some sights that I’ve mentioned in previous posts. In Lowry Park I spot The Squirrel Whistler coming towards us, and I dance in and out of the vermin lingering on the path as Chris steers the stroller from side to side.
My watch has died and we are just running by feel, taking walk breaks here and there, passing the small spring on River Shore Drive, and turning back to the south at the foot of the water tower. Crossing Sligh again at Highland, we run past Bert Wahl’s house at the corner of Highland and Hiawatha. I tell Chris about my memories of Wahl in the 80’s, showing up for parties at the Baldwin house on Hiawatha with spider monkeys and raccoons that he had rescued. If there was anyone in the neighborhood that was a nuisance in those days, surely it was us, not him. We always thought that his Wildlife Rescue operation was a selfless labor of love, but as time passed there were more and more allegations made about Wahl’s treatment of the animals, and about his right to keep them in the city limits. Wahl’s story, as I have come to know it, has all the intrigue and plot twists of either a great documentary or a terrible soap opera.
The first reference that I can find to Wahl’s long list of troubles comes from 1983 when he pled no contest to battery charges for locking an assistant in a panther cage. Normally the sole occupant of its enclosure, Wahl’s “Florida panther” was actually the descendant of generations of captive-born cats who had been interbred with other non-Floridian sub-species. This didn’t stop Wahl from presenting the cat as “full-bred” when he spoke to schools and civic groups about the need to protect the last of Florida’s panthers, a presentation that he gave regularly for a $200 fee. Wahl and his cat were frequently in the press as they shared the stage with political figures from Lawton Chiles to Prince Charles, and he was even credited as “animal wrangler” on the “wildlife unit” of the 1995 movie “Just Cause” starring Sean Connery, a division that also included the somewhat-less-prestigious classification of “fly wrangler”.
I remember thinking, along with many others, that Wahl’s mounting problems were largely political in nature and that the city, county, and state governments were on a mission to destroy a well-meaning individual who simply refused to bow to their authority. This is what Wahl said at the time, and it may have been the case for a while, until he started believing his own press. As time passed, Wahl was cited and arrested repeatedly for violations of city codes, improper handling of endangered species, animal cruelty, and neglect. Wahl was eventually sentenced to nine months in jail for the abuse of his 16 year old cougar “Old Man” when he “choked the cougar; dragged the cougar; dragged the cougar by a choker chain; punched the cougar; kicked the cougar; hit the cougar with a shoe; and jammed a mop and broom handle down the cougar's throat” in an episode that ultimately led to the animal’s death.
At some point, Wahl abandoned his house on Hiawatha where it sat and slowly caved in on itself. His last arrest on record was made on September 13, 2004, on charges of “maintaining a public nuisance”. I can only imagine that this refers to the condition of the Hiawatha house, which had deteriorated substantially after that summer’s string of hurricanes. And still the house sat, a monument to Wahl’s righteous indignation.
Today something has changed. There is a dumpster in the front yard and two men appear to be slowly dismantling what is left of the house. Looking at the overgrown cages in the backyard, I think back fifteen years and I can remember seeing the large cats lounging in the sun next to the rescued emus and river otters. Most of all, though, I remember the sounds. The strange, haunting cries of female panthers in heat that would echo through the neighborhood. A sound so loud that it would stop us in our tracks as we rolled metal garbage cans down the street in the middle of the night.


On Wednesday I run the same route again. This time I’m concentrating on my pace, my stride, and my breathing. There’s no need for me to stay conversational today. My watch is still broken, so I glance at the clock next to the television and run out the door. I know I’ve got a good pace going and I’m guessing the first mile comes in right around eight minutes. I close down the aperture of my senses and run. A little bit slower with each mile, but I’m still moving along nicely. Rounding the corner at Thomas and Highland I dig in for the last quarter-mile and sprint up the steps to the house. I have to get a look at that clock.


Anonymous Neil said...

More about the house here...
and here

Mr. Wahl owns/owned the house directly behind it on Elm.

8:49 AM  
Blogger Devon said...

The links in the post will take you to the Living Hominid posts as well as St. Pete Times articles, mugshots, and Neil's own Gonzonia blog.

12:04 PM  
Anonymous julieg said...

Is Chris the guy who lived with Rochelle or the guy who lived in the apartment nextdoor? The slumlord you mentioned used to crash my parties at the North Street Compound. He owned a house on Central my friends rented. When they got robbed, his security measure was nailing the windows shut.

8:29 AM  

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