Photos courtesy of the author
How I ended up growing up in a trailer park in the Everglades is still a bit of a mystery to me. In 1998, my family moved from Davie, a wealthy cowboy themed suburb outside Fort Lauderdale, to Holly Lake, a trailer park in the middle of the Everglades. From what our parents told us, our financial crisis was the result of a business investment gone awry. After my dad’s mother passed away, he put all of his inheritance into a chain of family-friendly bar/restaurants called Hub’s Pubs. This ended up being a very bad decision, because his partner ran away with all our money before Hub’s Pubs ever opened. (I later found out that my dad came across this venture in an obscure back page newspaper ad.)
Holly Lake was west of US 27—it was about as far west as you could go before running into the swamp. Our new home was on the other side of that highway, where the railroad track and the power lines ran through the reeds, a reverse oasis of highly flammable tin boxes nestled around a manmade lake.
For my sister, the move from our sprawling five-bedroom ranch home to a three-bedroom singlewide was unbearably humiliating. As an eighth grader, she took up violin after school just so she could take the late bus and avoid being followed home listening to her classmates’ jeers. Although I was only in the third grade, I gathered we’d hit a rough patch, but starting our new life in Holly Lake felt sort of like an adventure, like we were the Swiss Family Robinson, shipwrecked at the end of the universe.
We attended Chapel Trail (the best school in the everglades), had a boat ramp, a baseball diamond, a community center, basketball and racquetball courts, two swimming pools, and our own firehouse, because it can take less than five minutes for the average 60-by-12-foot mobile home to become engulfed in flames.
Best of all we had Arnold’s—a smoke-filled convenience store with VHS rentals, a mini bowling alley, and trailer park kids’ daily necessities: beer, condoms, boiled peanuts, and candy cigarettes.
Our neighbors added to the entertainment. One morning, someone knocked on our front door before school. I answered the door and found a bare-chested boy holding out a glass for some milk. When I “ran away” after my mom returned my puppy to the pound, I found a neighbor on the sidewalk and cried into her nightgown. On the flip side, I once heard a neighbor tell my dad that a local boy bludgeoned his father to death with a baseball bat.
Three years later, I left these wonderful swampland weirdoes. My father worked his way up in sales at a thriving swimming pool remodeling company, and my mom managed a small coin laundromat they’d purchased—we had enough money to move to Plantation, a western suburb of Greater Fort Lauderdale whose motto was “The Grass is Greener.” Plantation was filled was soccer moms who drove Range Rovers and parked in sprawling driveways, neatly separated from the lower-income families who populated the C-rated public schools. We also lived across the street from the Sawgrass Mills Mall, Florida's second largest tourist attractions. I haven’t been back to Holly Lake in over ten years, but I often return to the trailer park in my dreams, walking around the trailers and staring at Arnold’s and the swamplands all by myself.
One evening after work, I decided to make my dreams a reality. I wanted to see if the grass really was greener. And I wanted to stock up on candy cigarettes from Arnold’s.
I drove northwest on US 27 from Miami for about 30 miles, skirting the western fringes of Hialeah until ornate motel facades and check cashing stores gave way to cow pastures and hundreds of trucks cutting their way up the wetlands. It was overcast when I finally crossed over the other side of US 27 into my old neighborhood. The firehouse at the entrance looked like it hadn’t been used in years, and the baseball diamond was all grown over with weeds. Still, it was sort of charming. An American flag ruffled lamely on a pole across the field, Arnold’s was now called A.J.’s, and I was delighted to find that the sign on the door said they were open.
A kid wearing gauges and a backwards hat greeted me with a friendly hello as I walked in and began to look around. It seemed brighter inside, cleaner, and emptier—no smoke. Behind a new deli counter, a middle-aged woman flipped chunks of chicken over a cheap looking grill. The boy made his way back behind the counter. His name was Andrew. He was 18 and well spoken, with striking blue eyes and a kind face. He had lived in Holly Lake with his mom for the last 15 years, but he’d only been working at A.J.’s for a week. His mom has had cancer and four strokes; he said he was saving up so he can help take care of his mom before heading to University of Central Florida on a full ride to study music.
“She’s a really strong woman, and a great person, but she hasn’t always made the best choices for her kids,” he told me, unafraid to look me in the eyes. His eyes were so blue—his manner of speaking so calm and direct—he reminded me a little of me when I lived in the trailer park.
When I asked him how things have changed around the neighborhood, he painted a somewhat typical picture of a tightknit community with its share of problems: Four kids under the age of 15 had just been arrested for vandalizing a community building with graffiti, and there were a few drug houses getting raided on the regular. He called over Donna from the deli counter to see if she could provide any insight. She happened to be the mother of the two new owners, Anthony and Joe. Arnold’s had been closed and in disrepair for the last eight years until Joe, a chef, and Anthony, a professional bowler, decided to take it over and reopen the store last October.
“It’s kind of like the match made in heaven here,” Donna told me. “We’re getting the lanes resurfaced come Monday, and after we’re done, we’re gonna have the United States Bowling Congress come in and certify the lanes—and then we’re gonna have leagues. We’re trying to give the kids fun things to do, and the adults too.”
Just then, a grisly man with a dark, balding mullet and a ponytail walked in.
“You got any crazy stories for us, Petey?” Donna asked.
“Who’s asking?” he said. “You mean like the kids shooting the old ladies? One old lady got shot from across the lake. She was watching TV about 2:30 AM and, all of a sudden—BOOM. She got shot in her shoulder. They saw her in there, and they were just like, ‘Dad, can I hit that old lady?’ I tell you, the kid that did it, I think he’s dead. I think he committed suicide just recently. Kids love to smoke dope in empty houses,” he concluded. He told me I looked like a younger version of one of his favorite actresses, but he couldn’t remember the name. I asked if I could take his picture, and he said no, because he was wanted in five different states.
As I thanked them for chatting with me, Donna let me in on the first “Get to Know Your Neighbor” party they’ll be throwing this October, to celebrate their anniversary. “Come by. Check out the new lanes,” she said. “You’ve gotta try Joey’s food.” I told her maybe I would.
After I left A.J.’s, I drove around the neighborhood. I pulled up to a lot where all that was left was a raised concrete foundation overlooking the lake. I stood on top of the concrete and thought about everything I had seen in Holly Lake as a kid. Later, driving on Highway 27 back towards massive manicured lawns and matching barrel tiled roofs, I remembered something Donna had said: “We’ve all been through our struggles here.”
I wondered if I was driving away from the realest place I’ve ever known.
More stories about Florida: