On the road and online, unlikely #CondoSeniors foursome bonds like family

Published July 16 2014
Updated July 16 2014

By Leonora LaPeter Anton

Times Staff Writer

"Where are we going?" 91-year-old Dolores "Dee" Lane asked from the back seat of the Honda Odyssey.

Her pale green eyes were framed by gray-white curls. Her leopard print blouse was buttoned to the neck. Her cane was folded in the seat pocket.

Rain pelted the family van as it crawled across the Howard Frankland Bridge. The answer didn't matter. They were going somewhere. Together.

Dee and her sister, 92-year-old Lorraine Hanlon, who looked like her twin but wasn't, sat in their usual spots; Dan Cafazzo, 71, had the wheel; his roommate, Robert Neff, 53, was in front, tapping out a tweet on his iPhone.

Raining bad. Divas have umbrellas and shower caps.

In 2012, Lorraine asked the men, who lived down the hall in their condo complex, to drive her and her sister to her daughter's wedding in California. Lorraine felt she and Dee had one trip left in them. During the 25-day junket, Neff posted 2,915 times on social media. His posts were informative — how Lorraine first visited the Grand Canyon in 1959 when there was just one park ranger — and sometimes sassy — like how Dee had a thing for 18-wheelers and big motorcycles.

Turned out it wasn't their last trip. The four have gone on seven cross-country journeys and dozens of smaller trips, every one of them chronicled for Neff's 17,000 Twitter followers under the hashtag #DrivingtheDivas. The sisters, whose husbands died in the 1990s, tolerated Neff's online obsession.

It was nice to have someone to take them for a beer or to the eye doctor, to feel like someone wanted to be with them when many people their age were often stuck at home in front of the TV.

In the van, Neff looked up from his phone. "We're going to the Apple store," he said. "I made you both appointments."

• • •

Neff made his way into International Plaza with Lorraine on his arm. He had helped teach the sisters how to use iPads and he wanted them to meet with someone from the Apple Genius Bar.

Laid off from a technology job during the recession, Neff was trying to make it as a freelance photographer, artist and social media marketer. He held accounts on Twitter, Flickr, Instagram, Tumblr, Vine, Facebook. He sold his photos as postcards and publicized events such as the Grand Prix in St. Petersburg.

Neff posed the sisters in front of the Apple store. He knew they would try to cover their faces. Over the years, they had hidden behind Slurpee cups and McDonald's Happy Meals. Lorraine held up her iPhone and Dee covered her face with her iPad. Neff posted the photo immediately.

Yes, the Divas do the @apple store. ;) My #CondoSeniors rock!

Neither Diva wanted to do the Apple store if it meant actually going inside though. They weren't interested in learning more about their technology. Lorraine stepped into Williams-Sonoma. Dee headed to Chico's.

When the sisters returned, Robert ushered them into the store anyway. Neff tried to show Dee a keyboard she might use with her iPad.

"Dolores should know when to quit," she typed and walked out.

• • •

Back in the Odyssey, the sisters wanted to know where they were going next.

"We're going to the restaurant," Neff said. No one asked which one. It didn't really matter.

Most nights, they gathered at Cafazzo's condo. The Divas had taken to calling him their "personal chef." The title had become increasingly accurate following Lorraine's fall in December. She'd fractured her shoulder and had been unable to cook. After she healed, she'd just kept coming over. Dee, who lived in Seminole, had also become a frequent visitor. All of her neighbors had died or moved into nursing homes.

Now at the Hyatt, the four took the elevator to Armani's on the 14th floor and emerged to stunning views of an iridescent Tampa Bay.

"Lorraine and I are going to sit down and you get what we want," said Dee, pointing to the antipasto bar. "You know what we like."

The women sat contentedly with their cocktails — a vodka martini on the rocks for Dee, a glass of red Zinfandel for Lorraine. Neff busied himself posting pictures of a broccoli fritter, veal scallopini, short ribs, the wine. Cafazzo smeared the bean dip on a piece of bread for Lorraine. Dee sampled the octopus.

As the ladies ate, the chef and two other guests stopped by.

"I've been telling everyone your story," Neff said.

"What's our story?" asked Dee.

"I think we need some remuneration because you are using our names," joked Lorraine.

My #CondoSeniors just mentioned they are full. But still ordered dessert :)

Neff set down his phone to dig into his lemon sorbet.

"I'm absolutely joyful that we are all here talking and having a conversation and no phones are going," said Dee, sounding very maternal.

Minutes later, Neff was up again to photograph the sunset. Dee joked they needed to harness him like a little kid. But then she softened.

"In two weeks, what difference does it make to us?" she said. "Especially since he's so passionate about it."

Just after 9 p.m., the Divas leaned on the men as they headed down the elevator.

"We're the most exciting thing that's ever happened to them," said Lorraine.

Neff and Cafazzo smiled. The Divas needed them. But they also needed the Divas, and not just because Neff shared their experiences together on social media.

"They're family," he said.

Besides, if not for the divas, the men acknowledged, they'd probably be home in front of the TV.

Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at (727) 893-8640 or lapeter@tampabay.com.