Johnny Foens paid $548,200 to get into heaven.
He rode an elevator into the sky, unlocked a door and stepped onto the balcony of his new three-bedroom, three-bathroom condominium.
Behold, to the west, the majesty of a downtown skyline sparkling in the sun. To the south, the posh pulsations of Harbour Island. And you smell that? That salty stretch of Tampa's blue-black bay drifting toward the horizon?
"This is why I bought the place," Johnny says.
At first he had company.
Five hundred people turned out for the groundbreaking in 2005, complete with spotlights, valets and a sand sculpture of the towers-to-be. All 257 units in these two 29-story towers were snatched up in 13 days, before ground was even broken.
But alas, this is Florida, where another boom has busted. Two-thirds of the buyers have backed out. Deals have been shredded, lawsuits filed. The developer sought bankruptcy protection after the fallout.
That left Johnny Foens, who kept his promise and moved into the middle of a city of 318,000 in a county of 1.1-million, in a region of 2.7-million, and found himself living in a tower nearly alone.
Much has been written about the winners and losers in this soured housing market. But if there are bust-time complexities to explore, they are found on the 11th floor of Towers of Channelside, where a man makes his home among scores of empty condos.
Punch the button. Step past the security guard and onto the elevator.
"Hey!" Johnny says, swinging the door open. "Welcome."
Johnny is 39. He wears his hair curly and crisp and sports black-framed glasses, shiny shoes and a button-up shirt, pressed but untucked.
He grew up around here and made his money — good money — in the screened enclosure business. He has three kids; a teenager and two youngsters he sees every other weekend. Their pictures hang in the hallway and their bedrooms are painted with the Disney castle and Pokemon.
Johnny's girlfriend, Amanda Jasin, wearing long blond hair and a red party dress, just turned 22 and studies at the University of South Florida. The two met when Johnny's buddy hired Amanda as a cocktail waitress for a poker party. Johnny kisses her a lot and bought her a stuffed buffalo head for Christmas.
When she's not in school, she stays here, with the buffalo head, high above Tampa.
You can't help but think they'd fit perfectly into the social network of this condo tower, if one existed.
"We'd really like to meet some couples," Amanda says, "but there's nobody here to meet."
That adds a touch of irony to the advertisements showing cute singles poolside, handsome couples snuggling, beautiful people doing beautiful things.
An oasis in the center of the action, says the development Web site. Life at The Towers of Channelside encompasses tropical breezes, flowing waters and the flash of warm smiles. But beware — it's only part of the magic.
• • •
Before Christmas, Johnny stretched a few strands of white lights across his balcony. Most nights it was the only sign of life on the darkened south side of his tower.
"It can get kinda lonely," Johnny says.
There are benefits, besides the view.
You can hopscotch to the trolley station and rock your way to Ybor before your Sierra Nevada gets warm. You can skip to work downtown without soiling your button-up. You can almost spit on Channelside cruise liners from the penthouse.
Even the emptiness is not all bad.
The pool table downstairs is always open.
Johnny and Amanda play kickball with his kids in the common areas when they visit. And the kids ride their scooters down empty hallways, past darkened condominiums, across carpet that doesn't need vacuuming.
No one ever complains.
• • •
"You wanna sneak up to the penthouse?" Johnny asks.
He takes off without locking up.
"That's another perk," he says. "You don't have to lock your doors."
He punches the button for the elevator. The doors slide open immediately.
"You never have to wait," he says.
Up he goes, then out of the elevator and up, up, up some stairs. On the top floor, the door to the penthouse is unlocked. Johnny leads the way. He holds Amanda on the balcony and leans against the railing. Those views again.
"Pretty sweet," he says.
These are the benefits.
• • •
On the flip side, there is plenty of idle time when you live alone in a building as large as this.
At Publix, Johnny and Amanda pick up extra sacks of rolls to throw from the balcony. Boredom plus altitude means lookout below.
On Super Bowl Sunday, they emptied a vegetable tray during a can-you-hit-that-with-produce contest.
Another negative: Maintenance is slow. Not long ago, Johnny clogged the garbage chute with pizza boxes, and when no one showed up to fix the problem, he dragged a concrete block five flights up and dropped it in the chute. When that failed, he tried another.
"It just exploded," he says.
The pool isn't heated. Johnny suspects it's because there aren't enough residents to justify the bills. He did figure out how to activate the waterfall, which pours down from Disneyfied bluffs. Still, instead of mingling beauties on lounge chairs and late-night Red Bull-and-vodka parties, the only real action on pool deck is the occasional Realtor networking social. Yay.
Worse than all that are the nuances of life with no neighbors, the things you wouldn't necessarily think about.
Johnny sliced his finger cooking dinner not long ago. He was out of bandages. Perfect time to ask a neighborly favor, if he had neighbors.
Johnny wrapped the gushing wound in plastic wrap until it quit bleeding.
A few weeks ago, Amanda was baking a strawberry pie. She had sugar, strawberries, gelatin. All she needed was 2 tablespoons of cornstarch. She tried to remember where the other people lived. Was the woman with the Pomeranian on the fifth floor?
She knocked. No one answered.
The strawberry pie became the latest casualty of the housing bust.
"If you need, like, one little thing, oh man," she says.
Outside the sliding glass doors to the balcony, Tampa pulses with life. A cruise ship slices toward the port, traffic flows down Channelside Drive, workers spill from buildings for their afternoon commute.
In the middle of it all, a man and woman close the door on their urban oasis, where a decorative stone on a shiny new bookshelf says: "Sing like there's nobody listening."
Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.