ST. PETERSBURG — K. Allen Loper, known to pals and fellow UFO buffs as the Long Haired Cowboy, had sworn to other cab drivers for the last six months that if business didn't pick up, he'd be homeless.
His premonition came true last week, when Loper, behind on rent and facing eviction, scurried to salvage a few key possessions from his apartment and haul them 12 blocks to the Kentucky Motel on Fourth Street.
There, he paid $45 — nearly half his remaining cash — to get a room for the night.
He made his grab late Monday after waiting out a landlord parked in front of the building. With help from a friend who owns a truck, Loper made swift work of moving on. Most of what he owned was left behind.
It didn't matter to him that by inviting along a reporter, he was risking a portrait of a life in crisis being made public.
"What do I have left to lose?" Loper said. "My dignity? My pride?"
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Loper has always lived on the economic fringe and knows poverty, but said the only time he has been homeless in his 52 years was shortly after he left the U.S. Army in 1978.
He then returned to his parents' home in Asheville, N.C., where he'd gone to high school. Sharing a room again with his brother was a drag, so he lived in his car for six months while working to save money.
Thirty years later, with his taxi driver's income evaporating, he found himself only a cheap motel room away from again living in his car.
"It's a nightmare," Loper said before making the pass through his apartment. "Why did this happen to me? What did I do?"
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Loper is divorced and has two adult sons in New Port Richey. He began driving a cab in St. Petersburg five years ago. Before that, he was kitchen manager at the El Cap.
When he started as a cabbie, it was common to make up to $500 a week, enough to support himself. Over the last year, Loper said he and other drivers have seen their earnings tank.
As an independent driver, Loper pays $55 per shift to his cab company and for his own gas. At the end of the day, he keeps whatever is left, which in recent months has been next to nothing.
Tips are down, and he suspects more folks are taking the bus.
"I've had weeks where I've made only $20," he said. "When you come home with $5 in your pocket, it's not going to help you pay the rent."
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Looking for other work has been a futile slog for Loper, who may not be the easiest hire for some employers.
He wears a straw cowboy hat, a diamond stud and hoop in his left ear, likes Hawaiian shirts and has dirty blond hair halfway down his back.
He's a UFO enthusiast who boasts a clinical approach to his research. Most UFO sightings can be explained away as aircraft or by the movement of celestial bodies, Loper said, but a small handful cannot.
He claims four sightings, his first as a boy while visiting an uncle's dairy farm, the most recent three weeks ago near Fossil Park, where he saw a figure-eight-like object in the sky.
Loper doesn't think his appearance has held him back. Until this recession, he's never before had trouble finding a job and said he ditches the cowboy hat and dresses up for interviews.
As for his fascination with UFOs, Loper said it's an interest that has lost any stigma and gone mainstream.
"I use the scientific method," he said. "It's good head work. It's good mind activity."
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Loper was getting booted from his Fifth Street apartment because he'd fallen three months and nearly $1,200 behind on rent.
For much of June, he'd hung out at Fossil Park, smoking Golden Bay cigarettes, when not driving a cab. He said he felt guilty about failing to pay rent, and didn't want to face an angry landlord who frequently visited.
"Who knows what he's likely to do, harangue me and tell me he's going to kick my ass," Loper said at the park. "I just don't want to deal with it."
The park has given Loper a taste of a possible future, sleeping in his maroon Saturn in the parking lot, feeding the squirrels peanuts, watching youth baseball games and passing time with other homeless.
"I hate living like that," he said, his voice catching as he sat beneath a shelter, out of the rain.
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Loper not only got a hand and a truck from his friend Keith Mainard, but a little moral support during the tense 15 minutes the move took.
"I'm from Chicago," said Mainard, 50, while taking direction on what to grab from a rattled Loper, who feared his landlord's return at any moment, "so I'm not afraid of confrontation."
What do you take when you have no home, and no prospect of getting one?
Loper grabbed a television, a home entertainment center, his guitar, a poster of the Seinfeld character Kramer, two 16-ounce cans of Natural Ice from the fridge, his collection of UFO books and two valuable first editions by Beatrix Potter, which he can't bring himself to sell.
What gets left?
"The stuff I've got no use for anymore," Loper said. "Nonessentials, let's put it that way."
Will Van Sant can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4166.