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HOME, SWEET MOBILE HOME

Car pulls up, rolls to a stop, elderly couple gets out. Ah, Florida.

They walk gingerly to their part-time home, which is parked under an orange tree and next to a hibiscus hedge. Open the door. Musty smell. Time for a good airing out.

The ritual begins.

They are arriving now almost daily from the Midwest, New England and Canada. Especially Canada. They're snowbirds, the kind without feathers, who migrate every winter to Florida, especially to west Florida, and end up nesting in a trailer, though these days everybody calls them mobile homes.

Many such snowbirds and even a few year-round residents live at Conner's Mobile Home Park. Tucked between car dealerships and fast-food restaurants at 2701 34th St. N, Conner's celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, making it one of the oldest mobile parks in an area famous for its abundance of homes on wheels.

Elsewhere, even in certain alcoves in Florida, such parks almost are an endangered species, victims of rising real-estate prices, changing times and perhaps old stereotypes. Mobile villages are supposed to be hotbeds of big-haired women, spouse-abusing men, tattooed sex kittens and other practitioners of so-called "white-trash" vices.

At Conner's, where everybody has more than a tinge of gray in their hair, the phrase "trailer trash" is likely to provoke indignation or plain confusion.

Nobody could mistake the matriarch of Conner's Mobile Home Park, 85-year-old Daisy May _ yes, that's her name _ for Paula Jones. Mrs. May, who prefers her Bible to television, has lived in the park 45 years.

"It's home," she says.

She rocked on her knee the park's current manager, Martin Conner Jr., when he was a tyke, racing around the park after his dad, Martin Conner. When Martin was a young man, he worked for his parents, Robert and Bessie Conner, who established the park in the middle of piney woods that are no more. A no-nonsense fellow, Old Mr. Conner, as he was called, once felt the need to whip his boy awake with a switch when he overslept.

"I woke up on time after that," says Martin, now 71.

"Honey, how old were you when he switched you?" asks his wife, Audrey.

"I think I was in my 20s," he says.

Then and now, park maintenance required elbow grease, with the park's 250 lots, weathered mobile homes and white-haired residents who want their shuffleboard courts shiny, their swimming pool clean and their cribbage tournaments held in a timely fashion.

Now another season has begun as many residents flock back to Florida to enjoy not only autumn, but the autumn of their lives. On their rigs they hang signs announcing their names and their hometowns, sit under awnings at twilight and sip highballs while chewing the fat about who has arrived and who hasn't, who has been sick and who passed away since they last met.

They even talk about crime.

There was a crime epidemic a few years ago, when unruly youth were stealing into the park after dark and joyriding away on adult tricycles. Conner's installed a wire fence around the park and thus ended the crime wave.

The good old days

"The world has really changed," drawls Martin Conner, tucking a wad of Day's Work chewing tobacco into his right cheek.

When his father started the business in 1952, the park was on the edge of town or at least seemed that way. In pre-air-conditioned Florida, when windows were perpetually open, frogs in a nearby ditch croaked so loudly that residents applauded when an old-timer showed up with a gig, a croaker sack and a frying pan. At night, light from black-and-white televisions pierced the darkness outside as screech owls trilled from the trees.

Modern Florida was still around the corner.

"Nobody had clothes washers or dryers," says Audrey Conner, 60. The park maintained a small collection of machines, plus a few tubs for residents who demanded washboards to clean their duds.

"If you wanted to wash your clothes in a machine, you had to make an appointment," Mrs. Conner continues. Even then, the park was sensitive to the "trailer trash" image. Nobody was permitted to dry clothes on porch railings or drape them on the rose bushes. Amenities included rows of clothes lines in the heart of the park.

"Very few people even had phones," Mrs. Conner says. It was she who answered the one telephone in the office. If a resident was needed, Mrs. Conner summoned them over a public address system.

Conner's park was part of a boom that started in the 1920s. That's when Northerners began towing tiny trailers into Florida, especially the Tampa Bay area. They'd gather at the edge of town in huge camps and enjoy the winters. Nothing fancy was on the supper menu, usually only vittles that came in tin cans. That's how the term "tin-can tourist" came about.

There were so many tin-can tourists that cities started discouraging them. But it was too late. Trailers got bigger and parks fancier, and after World War II the mobile home business almost exploded with growth. Retirees, especially, were attracted to the life.

"I think a lot of the appeal was social," Audrey Conner says. "People knew everybody else, cared about everybody else."

It was a natural fit for older folks who had grown up when people were neighborly and sat on their porches at night and talked and listened to the whippoorwills.

At Conner's, people are still neighborly, especially around dusk if it's not too hot outside. But gone are the cries of the nightbirds and the frogs and the blinking of fireflies. Sirens wail from nearby U.S. 19. During the day, the Chevrolet dealer next door uses a loud PA system to page customers.

But life goes on, as always, at the park. It's unmistakably an old place _ some of the trailers look ancient _ but it's clean and neat. Clang! Somebody just threw a ringer at the horseshoe rink. Shufflers are shuffling, and someone in the clubhouse just cried "Gin!" And let's just say that bingo is forever. Old-timers still remember the time Martin Conner, then barely in his 20s, swallowed his chewing tobacco while calling a bingo game and fainted. Other park legends included Miss Lula, who lived to be 104, and crafty old Gus, who always could figure a way to smuggle hootch into the Saturday night dances.

But nobody was more legendary than Old Mr. Conner, who started the park. When he wasn't switching his son, he was wheeling and dealing. He once traded a trailer for a 3-carat diamond ring for his wife.

And so they come

Some people know when the season has changed by the date on the calendar. At Conner's, it's different. When Canadians begin their migration, it's fall.

"We just got in yesterday from Montreal," announces Blanche Picard in a thick French accent. She and her husband, Gerry, come every year for the mild climate and the beach. Mrs. Picard loves the beach and healthy exercise. She rides her three-wheeler to the clubhouse practically every day so she can borrow jigsaw puzzles from the library. She's 87.

Other frisky neighbors are three 60ish sisters from Canada. Aurore Breau and Josette Melanson and their husbands have their own mobile homes and live next door to their sister Bern and her husband, Don Breau. They have wintered at Conner's for a decade. The reason? The weather and shuffleboard. They all play, but Don plays harder than the others. He represents Conner's "A" team in a Tampa Bay mobile home park shuffleboard league.

One of his sisters-in-law whispers something urgent into his ear.

"We also have a "B' team," he says diplomatically. "The captain is Joe Nichols."

At places like Conner's, it pays to be sensitive to things like sharing credit. After all, Conner's is like a small town, where grudges can be held until death and where there is no such thing as a secret. Everybody knows who divorced whom and what widows and widowers are living together in what used to be called "sin."

Not Sy and Grace Riendeau. Devout Catholics, they have been married 53{ years. They are in their early 70s and moved here more than a decade ago from Rhode Island. Their first trailer was nice, but not as nice as the mobile home they dwell in now. It's not a metal firecracker, like somebody once described old-fashioned trailers, but almost a ranch house.

Their house on wheels features a big-screen television, a sprawling living room full of antiques and a kitchen to die for. They have a bath with a Jacuzzi. A romantic, Grace placed a dozen candles around the edge of the Jacuzzi, just in case.

"But it's kind of hard to climb in," she says. "We can get in, but it's hard to climb out without slipping."

Staying healthy is paramount for them, as it is for almost everybody at Conner's. Twelve years ago, Sy suffered a heart attack that nearly killed him. He wears shirts that show off a little bit of scar from the bypass.

"I saw my doctor the other day," he says. "Told me I might not survive the next heart attack. Whattya gonna do? I'm trying to lose weight."

He throws up his hands. What's a man going to do? Don't we all start dying the moment we're born?

Daisy May and Floyd

Daisy May, who lives in one of the more modest homes in the park, prays and reads her Bible to maintain her strength and courage. In recent years she's had a couple of strokes that left her with the tremors. But even as her 86th year approaches, she lives alone.

Yet how she misses her husband, Floyd. They met when she was 15 and he was 17. In the hills of Tennessee they were neighbors. He had a way with the guitar and played on the porch at night while she listened secretly next door, on her own porch, heart fluttering. They were married within the year.

He became a preacher, like his daddy, and she a preacher's wife. They started many Church of God facilities in Tennessee and in Florida. Late in life Floyd began losing his memory. His favorite place to visit, after he could no longer drive, was the Kmart across the street from Conner's.

During his last few years, Daisy and Floyd _ his friends affectionately called him "Li'l Abner" _ walked across U.S. 19 almost daily to go to Kmart. Employees liked them so much they threw a party at the store to celebrate the couple's 60th anniversary. Mrs. May, her hair piled high, her dress ironed neatly, her home clean as a whistle, likes to show off those pictures to guests.

"He died, from Alzheimer's complications, on Dec. 12 of 19 and 94," Mrs. May says, fighting back tears. "He was a fine man and a wonderful preacher."

A few years ago, Mrs. May gave up her television because she thought the programs were too racy. During the day, she depends on her neighbors for companionship. Evenings she still depends on her late husband for what she needs.

On a cool fall night at Conner's Mobile Home Park, when Mrs. May leaves her windows open, somebody walking by can hear her husband's voice. Oh, he's dead all right, but she has tapes of his many sermons.

If your hearing is acute, and the traffic on U.S. 19 isn't too heavy, you might hear something else from her driveway, the turning of pages, of her worn-out Bible, as she listens to her husband's ancient and comforting words.

Times librarian Cathy Wos contributed to this story.

Other sources:

St. Petersburg and the Florida Dream, 1888-1950, by Raymond Arsenault, University Press of Florida, $24.95.

Taking Out the Trailer Trash: The Battle Over Mobile Homes in St. Petersburg, Florida, by Lee Irby, The

Florida Historical Quarterly (Fall 2000)

Many seasonal residents of Conner's Mobile Home Park in St. Petersburg take walks and chat with neighbors at the end of the day. From left, Ron and Lorina Dugre of Sanford, Maine; Blandine and Roy Regen of Quebec, and Tony and Louise Viscardi of Quebec catch up one day as dusk turns into night. The Regens were walking their dogs, Masha and Bijou.

Daisy May, left, has lived at Conner's Mobile Home Park for 45 years, which makes her the park's longest-tenured resident. Mrs. May, 85, sits in her living room with the park's owners, Audrey and Martin Conner Sr.

Happy hour at 5 p.m. is a daily event for, from left, Don Breau; his wife, Bern; and Bern's sisters, Josette Melanson and Aurore Breau, who is married to Don's brother, Yvon. All are from the Canadian province of New Brunswick and live at the park side by side in three trailers from November through April. This is Josette's trailer.

The park's office has jigsaw puzzles residents can borrow to pass the time. These are on the way to the trailer of Blanche Picard, 87, of Montreal. She and her husband, Gerry, have spent October through April in St. Petersburg for the past 15 years.

They're not "tin-can tourists." They're snowbirds with lives _ and a lifestyle _ all their own.

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