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THE AILING PRIEST WHO CHERISHES HIS BUICK

"The '$250 collectible' is all his''; May 17, 2007; See past coverage at life.tampabay.com.

THE STORY: A derelict 1983 Buick Regal Limited rests in a city parking garage on First Avenue S in St. Petersburg, coated with years of dust. Its Florida tag expired in 2006. It looks abandoned, except for the stack of $69.55 monthly payment receipts stuck under the windshield. The owner turns out to be the Rev. Charles Sanford, 77, an impoverished Episcopal priest who likes to be called "Chip." He is stricken with lung cancer, lives alone across the street, and owns nothing except the Buick.

FROM THE STORY: The Buick died in its space, oh, how long ago?

"2004, probably."

What did it die of?

"Most everything you could imagine."

Chip found out he had lung cancer. Surgeons removed the upper left lobe. He takes an experimental chemotherapy. Every week, he has to get himself to the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa.

He gulps deep breaths as he tells how he gets to Moffitt.

"I walk to Williams Park at 6 a.m.

"I take the No. 4 to Gateway Mall (in north St. Petersburg).

"I take the 100X to the Marion Transit Center (in downtown Tampa).

"I take the No. 5 to the bus stop across from Moffitt."

Travel time: three hours.

All those parking stubs on the windshield add up to about $2,500. The estimated blue-book resale value of a 1983 Buick Regal Limited in "rough" condition is $250.

Chip nods dismissively. He uses a very different arithmetic. His apartment dining table is covered with pill bottles and medical brochures. He looks down and away, smiles with humble self-deprecation.

"That car," he declares, his voice wavering, "is the only thing on God's green Earth that I own.

"I pay it gladly."

THE REST OF THE STORY: In January, the Buick disappeared from its space. Chip, who continues to ride the bus to Moffitt, had no idea where it went. He was pretty sure it had left unwillingly, because it hadn't gone anywhere under its own steam in four years.

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT: The garage had come under new management. Someone assumed the car was abandoned and had it towed away. After a couple of distraught calls by Chip, the Buick reappeared in its old space, slightly less dusty. Says Chip, "I'm very relieved."

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