Thursday, September 20, 2018
Human Interest

The State You're In: St. Augustine's moment, the offer Chili Palmer couldn't refuse, what they carry to Cuba

The offer Chili Palmer couldn't refuse

Elmore Leonard, who died on Aug. 20, modeled one of his most famous characters, Miami loan shark Chili Palmer, on a real life "shylock" known for a quiet cold stare that often convinced men to pay up. Leonard admired the name so much he asked Palmer's permission to use it in his book Get Shorty.

Palmer (given name Ernest) met Leonard through his partner Bill Marshall, who had been a college buddy of Leonard's. In a Los Angeles Times interview in 1995 (the year the movie version

came out), Palmer described his life in the 1960s in Miami Beach. An "investor" from New York (reputed to be a member of the Colombo crime family) gave him $100,000 to distribute in high-interest loans to gamblers, businessmen, "all kinds of people from all walks of life . . . You gotta remember every major hotel had a resident bookie, with a cabana by the pool. That was the standard back then.

"Oh yeah, it was fun. You lived by your wits, and

you made your own luck or destiny or whatever

you want to call it. But your values change as you move along in life."

Ernest "Chili" Palmer died in 2008.

What they carry to Cuba

Four hours before their flight to Cuba takes off, 100 people are packed into the baggage check-in at Tampa International Airport — all pushing metal carts teeming with packages.

Suitcases are scarce, or hidden beneath the big stuff:

Curtain rods and computers, fold-up walkers and car tires. Microwaves, coffeemakers, window frames. Bicycles, stereo speakers, guitars.

All stacked into mini mountains, all swathed in cellophane, all bound for relatives who have been cut off from U.S. commerce for more than 50 years.

Beatrice Castillo, 40, is hauling two 32-inch TVs. "There, you can't afford these," she says. Near her home in Spring Hill, she paid $358 each. On the island, she says, they would run $2,000 each. "So I am taking them to my mother. Along with all of this."

Her four duffels are stuffed with clothes and shoes, canned ham and carrots, 30 pounds of Pepto Bismol, Tylenol, vitamins. "There," she says, "you can't get these."

Ever since flights from Tampa to Cuba started two years ago, planes have been filling fast. By April, every seat for this summer was booked. So Island Travel & Tours added a third flight each week. "And we still have a waiting list," says president Bill Hauf.

About 2,000 people fly his charters from Tampa to Cuba every month, he says. The 344-mile trip takes an hour and 20 minutes; round-trip tickets cost $550.

You can bring a personal item and one carryon, as long as they each weigh less than 20 pounds. The first 44 pounds of your first checked bag is free, but every additional pound costs $2. After that, each checked bag costs $20, plus $2 per pound. No bag can weigh more than 70 pounds. Oh, and when you get to Cuba, customs agents there charge an average of $4 per pound to bring everything in.

"Some people take 10, 12 bags each," Hauf said. "I've seen bumpers, windshields, kennels of dogs."

Travel sites recommend that visitors bring gifts for residents: baseball bats,

colored pencils, condoms. You can bring 200 cigarettes, plus 3 liters of alcohol.

But you can't bring drugs, guns, pornography or any "printed matter directed against the public order and the morality of Cuba and its revolution."

Lane DeGregory

Word for word: Choking under pressure

In late July, two Escambia sheriff's deputies fired 15 rounds at an unarmed man who was looking for cigarettes in his mother's car parked in his own driveway. Two bullets struck Roy Middleton, 60, shattering his leg. A week later, six Escambia deputies climbed through the window of a home, without a warrant, rousted a couple from bed, handcuffed them and then shot two of their dogs, killing one. The couple weren't arrested. David Morgan, the sheriff of Escambia County, spoke on Aug. 13 to the Rotary Club of Pensacola. Here's how he warmed up the crowd:

"I'll share with you a political axiom that I think is appropriate today for what the Escambia County Sheriff's Office is currently facing and it's rather humorous . . . When forced to swallow a turd, it is recommended you swallow it whole and for God's sake don't chew it. We've been handed a couple of these here recently (laughter from audience), and I'm doing my best to choke them down (more laughter)."

Later in his talk, Morgan expresses indignation that his agency has been tarred with an accusation of racism. (Middleton is black and the two deputies were white.) He asked why the public did not react with outrage to a pair of notorious local crimes that featured black assailants and white victims. We at the SYI desk won't presume to speak for the good people of Escambia County and where they choose to direct their anger, but we would offer these observations to Sheriff Morgan: Don't complain about racism by encouraging people to react racially, and it's never a good idea to compare trained law enforcement officers to criminals.

Big numbers

$45,000: Cost of a 40-foot bat tower proposed in Temple Terrace

600,000: Maximum population of the proposed bat tower

1.8 billion: Estimated number of mosquitoes and other insects consumed each night by that many bats

$65,000: Cost of a 2.5-foot-long aerial drone that the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District might purchase to locate, but not kill, large swarms of mosquitoes.

Excerpt: All is not perfect in Eden

In John Dufresne's mordantly funny new novel No Regrets, Coyote (W.W. Norton), his protagonist is a South Florida family therapist named Wylie Melville. Nicknamed Coyote, Melville's superior perceptive skills earn him praise as an "intuitionist" and a "cryptaesthetic" who can "find essence in particulars." His friend, Detective Carlos O'Brien of the Eden Police Department, occasionally relies on him to provide crime scene insight that has escaped other investigators. But the grisly killings of the five members of the Halliday family are not the only things Melville has on his mind. Along with a dementia-afflicted father, an unstable sister and a well-meaning ex who is trying to set him up, Melville has acquired an unusual, but somehow quintessentially Floridian, houseguest.

For a couple of weeks I'd had a squatter living in my yard.

He'd set up camp in the shrubbery along the fence. I'd asked him nicely to leave. He said he had nowhere to go. I said, Try the homeless shelter. He said it was a dangerous place. I called the cops. No one came by. So I told Carlos. "I see this guy in the morning and at night, not every night, but most, especially since he's taken to leaving his sleeping bag and backpack behind the heliconias."

"He trusts you," Carlos said.

"I don't want him there."

"Is he hurting anyone?"


"What do you have against the guy?"

"It's my house." I told Carlos how today I had tried to ignore the guy. I walked straight to my car, and I heard, "What, you're not going to say hello?" He was sitting in his sleeping bag, leaning up against the fence, reading Harper's, which he probably stole out of my recycling bin. "Stuck up?" he said to me.

Carlos thought this was funny.

I said, "Would you put up with this?"

"No, but I wouldn't ask for help either."

Time Capsule: St. Augustine, June 11, 1964

In the spring of 1964, international eyes turned to Florida's northeast coast where demonstrations about the proposed Civil Rights Act were growing ever more heated. As protesters attempted to integrate the beaches of Anastasia Island, they were driven into the water by police and segregationists; some could not swim and had to be saved from drowning. But on the night of June 10, the same day a two-month filibuster ended in the U.S. Senate, the nightly march in St. Augustine was met by an angry crowd of more than 100 white men who broke through police lines and attacked the demonstrators. On June 11, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference tried to eat lunch at the Monson Motor Lodge's restaurant — and were arrested and jailed. Historians believe it was the only time the civil rights icon was arrested in Florida. The next week, a group of black and white protesters jumped into the swimming pool at the Monson, and the owner dumped what he said was muriatic acid into the pool to force them out. Photographs of that incident were broadcast worldwide and became some of the most famous images of the civil rights movement. The next day, June 19, the Senate passed the Civil Rights Act. On July 2, 1964, the U.S. House of Representatives agreed, and President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill into law the same day.

Times director of photography/multimedia Boyzell Hosey and news researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.

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