NEW PORT RICHEY
On April 1, Otok Ben-Hvar climbed inside a 1940s-era phone booth with wheels and walked half a mile to the outdoor patio of a produce market. Otok, white-haired and jovial, was equipped with everything he'd need to live inside the red, white and blue booth until his 72nd birthday on April 29.
A college buddy fashioned a makeshift air-conditioning unit held together with electrical tape and cardboard.
A nearby table holds a computer Otok uses to record his daily food intake and log his excursions from the booth (mostly five-minute bathroom breaks).
A stream of supporters provide Otok with moral support and rides to places like KFC, where they helped him lodge his phone booth into the doorway for a meal.
Behind the Market on Main, Otok has begun his final stunt: He is seeking a Guinness world record for longest time spent in a phone booth.
The idea is a two-pronged effort — partly for coursework at Pasco-Hernando Community College, and partly to draw attention to his efforts to have America's First National Tree planted on the White House lawn.
Accomplishing the feat of living as a homeless man for 30 days isn't the most glamorous thing Otok has done.
There was the time he drove a lawn mower 2,801 miles from Maine to California. Or the time he crashed his plane during the Great Atlantic Air Race. Or the time he got married in an ambulance.
But this time is different. If the silver maple tree gets planted at the White House, Otok's legacy will reach far beyond the span of his adventurous life.
"Every American can identify with that tree," he says. "That's why it belongs there."
• • •
Before Otok planted a maple seed in a macaroni salad bowl filled with soil, he was Ben Garcia, a Jersey City kid born without a palate.
He couldn't talk, so he was sent to schools for children with disabilities. Until high school.
He could barely read or write, and had never been around kids his age who weren't disabled. Things like changing classes at a regular school, which he hadn't done before, confused him.
"The bell rang, and I just sat there," he recalled. "I didn't know what was going on. People kept moving every time the bell rang."
He excelled as a gymnast, but his academic performance was less than stellar.
"I graduated third out of 101 students," he says, smiling. "Third from the bottom."
The next few decades of his life read like a Tom Sawyer novel. Vintage newspaper clippings and a 2003 Times story detail a life so sporadic that even Otok says he has trouble believing the things he's done.
First, a stint at Juilliard.
After seeing a Romeo and Juliet ballet at an opera house (he paid $2 for the ticket and donned a fedora, shirt and tie to the show), he got hooked and tried out for the prestigious dance company.
"A dance teacher told me I was a natural," he said.
Then he signed up for the Army Reserve.
"For the first time," he recalled, "I felt normal."
After injuring his right leg — he jumped 10 feet from an airplane during training — he picked up ice skating to strengthen his foot.
Then came flying lessons and a decision to join the Great Atlantic Air Race, a 3,500-mile trek from the top of the Empire State Building to the London Post Office Tower.
"I thought I could coast the last 99 miles, but I crash-landed in a chicken farm and got hit in the head with a jar of peanut butter I brought along," he said.
Eventually, he enlisted as an U.S. Army paratrooper, played Santa Claus in Moscow and became a greeter and dancer on cruise lines. He also visited other countries, and kept a second home in Croatia.
He earned two world records — one in 1988 for longest lawn mover drive (a record later broken by someone else), and another in 1990 for an unusual wedding, in an ambulance, before a throng of TV cameras.
By then, he had had a dozen heart attacks, and needed someone — an obliging female friend, in this case — to leave his things to if he died.
It's an open threat that he's narrowly avoided for years, and one that almost derailed his latest quest.
"If I get a pain in my chest, I go take a bicycle ride," he says. "At least if I drop dead, I'm doing something important."
• • •
By the time 1997 rolled around, Ben Garcia had changed his name to Otok Ben-Hvar. Otok means island in Croatian, and Hvar, an island there, means lighthouse.
"Everybody better be scared of me with a name like that," he says proudly.
And with a new name came a new idea.
Otok wanted to plant a tree on the White House lawn that was rooted in soil from every American state and territory.
So he asked each governor to enclose a pound of soil in a bag with a self-addressed stamped envelope.
Two years later, Otok took some maple seeds from his back yard in Maine and planted them with a teaspoon of the coveted dirt.
For years, he contacted the White House, but said he's been ignored.
Meanwhile, America's First National Tree made its rounds through New Jersey, Maine and Maryland, and Otok moved to Florida and enrolled in some college courses.
He takes online classes at Goddard College in Vermont, where the tree now stands at about 82 inches tall after 205,295 miles of travel to every state.
At PHCC, Otok is enrolled in the citizens scholar program, which required a project on service learning and civic engagement.
Otok figured living in the phone booth — which he bought on the east coast, strapped to his car and drove back home to Florida — would be perfect for the project.
So he talked to Rose Mohr, who owns the Market on Main, about setting up camp behind her business.
"At first, I thought he was kidding," she said, "but he was serious about it."
The beginning of his project was delayed 10 days after Otok had a bout with asthmatic bronchitis, fever and chills. Otok finally entered the booth on April 1, against doctor's orders. (Last week, after a cold snap irritated his lungs, he left his booth for 55 minutes and 17 seconds for a trip to the doctor.)
He told school officials like Bob Bade, associate dean of student activities and engagement, about his project and asked if they could help out by bringing him something to eat.
"I sent my stepson down there this afternoon with some Taco Bell," Bade said Tuesday.
Bade said Otok's idea didn't shock him.
"For Ben to say he's spending 30 days in a phone booth," Bade said, "is just another day at the office."
• • •
Otok's supporters also include students and strangers who shop at the market.
Karren Tolliver, director of the Progress Energy Art Gallery in New Port Richey, said one of the gallery's artists heard about Otok at an art fair. Soon, Otok's firecracker art — firecrackers rolled in paint, placed on art paper and set on fire in a plastic tub — was on display at the gallery.
One of two petitions (the other is at the phone booth) promoting Otok's efforts to plant his tree sits at the art gallery.
"I know he will be successful at the record," Tolliver said of Otok, who began his journey in front of her gallery. "He's so dedicated to America's First National Tree, so I am sure he will get that accomplished."
PHCC student Mike Jones first spotted Otok on campus last year. Jones heard other students talking about a guy with interesting stories to tell, and the two struck up a conversation. They danced together at a campus Mardi Gras event, and have been close ever since.
Jones, 21, hooked up Otok's air-conditioning unit, and spends about six hours a day hanging out on the market's patio with Otok. He helps Otok get around by loading the booth into Otok's van and driving him wherever he needs to go.
"He's like the modern-day Forrest Gump," Jones said. "It's kind of cool to know I can be a part of that. When I get older, I can remember I helped him do something that's never been done before."
• • •
When he's not entertaining visitors or working on his homework, Otok spends time completing a letter to President Barack Obama, asking for his tree request to be granted.
He says what matters most to him is that he does what he has set out to do, which would solidify his place in history.
"Whether you succeed or fail, just do it," he says. "I don't care if people come see me in a box. I did it, and that's what matters."
Camille C. Spencer can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4609.