Robert Strauser's fingers lumbered across his laptop keyboard under the weight of 12 chunky diamond and gold rings. He wore 33 pounds of gold chains, dark sunglasses, a black Fedora, snakeskin boots. He'd brushed Just for Men, dark brown, into his skinny boxed beard.
Limo Bob, as he likes to be called, was attempting to connect online by Skype with a reality show producer. He had a lifetime of stories to tell her, about how he had once owned the longest limo in the world; how he'd lost it all and had to sell Barney dolls on the street; how he had come to Florida after someone blew up five of his limos.
Limo Bob wanted his own reality show like a teenage boy wants a girl he can not have. He could see it now. He would don his gold (all $1 million of it) and the fur coat that Mike Tyson gave him back when he chauffeured him. The cameras would pan as he emerged from the back of one of his limos with his midget maitre d', Shorty, his ex-wife, his current wife, his adult son and daughter, all under the watchful eye of his stiff-faced bodyguard, Tank.
The computer in front of Bob clicked to life and a woman's face appeared on the screen.
"How ya doing?" he said, smiling broadly.
He sat at a country-style dining table in a small concrete block house. Nearby on a wall was a plaque that said: "If You Always Give, You Will Always Have."
But Limo Bob had the camera on his computer turned to the other side of the room. Today, he was not promoting the churchgoing Robert Strauser, the one who speaks to kids in prison, who has been known to give nursing home residents free limo rides just for fun. Today he was straight gangster.
"That's my Cleopatra," he said, pointing behind him to an ornate red velvet throne. "And there's Kool Kat, my 7-foot leather panther. He was in the Spring Breakers movie and he's a star."
The producer grinned appreciatively, sizing Bob up. She was helping cast for a reality show that would drop three people and a survivalist in the wilds of Tennessee.
Bob contemplated this. At 55, he was not in the best physical condition. He had heart problems. He didn't know how to start a fire, fish or kill an animal. He was afraid of snakes and spiders. But if this is what it took . . .
"As long as I don't have to eat rats in the mountains," he said. "I got to draw the line somewhere."
A little more than a week later, Bob stretched his 6-foot, 278-pound frame out in the back seat of one of his limos. A carousel of wine glasses spun in front of him. His wife, Christi, a 50-year-old platinum blond, had the wheel. They were headed to Immokalee, a small town at the heart of the state's tomato fields, to distribute food and clothes to needy migrant workers. The mission trip had been organized by Christi's church, Our Savior Lutheran, where Christi had worked as a teacher for 19 years until she met Bob in 2010.
Bob wore cargo shorts, a T-shirt, flip-flops and a single Gucci chain as thick as a coral snake. "I don't want to be too blinged-out because we're going to work today," he said.
On the way, Bob spun his life story, a series of missed opportunities and unfortunate events (he has pursued a handful of lawsuits). He said he amassed a fleet of lawn mowers at age 13; took over his father's limo business five years later; fled Chicago for Florida after someone (he suspects the mob) started blowing up his limos; resurrected his limo business in Chicago a few years later and lost it again, this time in a business deal that Bob claims was a scam.
To help Bob or perhaps to humiliate him — it's hard to tell — a friend gave him 6-foot Barney dolls to sell. Bob raised enough to buy Sylvester Stallone's Mercedes limo. Eventually he amassed 28 vehicles, some of them with Jacuzzis and putting greens. "What Elvis was to rock 'n' roll, that's what they said I was to limos."
Then the economy tanked. Limo Bob became Repo Bob. He sold all but six of the limos and moved to Florida, renting a $4 million penthouse on Treasure Island.
Sounds like a classic tale of modern America, the triumph of superficiality over substance, of misplaced priorities. Then you find out how Bob and Christi met.
Their first date was at church. Earlier this year they married surreptitiously at Holy Land theme park in Orlando. He never misses Sunday church. So which is he: pious Samaritan or self-promoter? Narcissist or nice guy?
The open Florida scrub lands gave way to a small business district. The Rolls-Royce-style limo passed squat stores named Cancun Mart and Zapateria El Oasis. Christi pulled into a scrubby parking lot across from the Amigos Center, an organization connected to the Lutheran Church.
Volunteers from their church had arrived in vans and were distributing dry food on tables in the parking lot. Bob opened the trunk of the limo and grabbed a stack of black T-shirts decorated with cartoon crabs. Soon Haitians, Mexicans, Guatemalans swarmed the back of the limo, grabbing the shirts.
"Oh, my gosh," Bob said, backing away from the crowd.
A man walked up. Karl Glander, director of services for the Amigos Center, had never seen a limo in Immokalee. He thought perhaps Bob was a drug dealer.
"Can I help you?" he asked warily.
"Where can I work?" Christi said. "Put me to work." Bob nodded in agreement.
Glander raised his eyebrows, surprised.
Soon Christi was handing out food, and Bob balanced boxes of groceries on his shoulder.
Someone asked Bob what he did. By this time, several volunteers were gathered around him.
"I opened up a lounge in Key Largo," he said. "I actually took it over. It was a dream of mine to have an all-night club with martinis and bottle service. I had limos taking people to it as many times as they want for free. I got it up and running perfect, and I loved it so much and then they kept it and booted me out."
The group stared mutely at him. Then they returned to their volunteer work.
It was mid October, and Bob was trading emails with an agent named Kyle who was casting a reality show about a family business. Bob still hadn't heard from the survival show. He typed: All I ask is PLEASE give us a try and you will never regret the decision you make.
Bob has a profile on realitywanted.com. He has spent hours scrolling through casting calls for nudist matchmakers, military survivalists, trucker couples and people whose pets have witnessed crimes.
In 2010, TruTV ordered two episodes of a Limo Bob reality show. The shows did well, Bob said, and there were plans for more shows. But they were never made. He pitched himself to Hard Core Pawn, Pawn Stars, Counting Cars. His son's 16th birthday party landed on an episode of My Super Sweet 16. Christi and Bob appeared on Brides of Beverly Hills.
"It's not my thing," she said. "It's more Bob's world. I'd rather it just be him, but I'll go along."
"She can live without it," Bob said. "I can't live without it."
"He almost put us on Wife Swap," Christi said.
"Okay, here we go," said Bob.
"I am not spending a week alone with a strange man."
Bob tried to explain his compulsion. He'd dreamed of this since he was 13, when he went to Los Angeles for a funeral and stayed at a rental next to Cher. "To me the greatest achievement of mankind is to be a star."
Kyle's family business show sounded ideal. Bob's son, Bobby, and Christi rented out limos in Chicago and St. Petersburg; Bob had a limo-building operation.
Bob continued typing: Trust me Kyle, If they wish to do a show on Family Businesses, we will be a super hit, or it is FREE for my entire family & I. We will be the Next BIG Thing in Reality TV.
On a recent Sunday morning, Limo Bob and Christi took seats in the back row of Our Savior Lutheran. They stood in line for communion. They sang Away in a Manger. They prayed. The pastor spoke of people who believe in Christ but don't act like he exists. "What area of your life have you not surrendered to God?"
Bob was praying that he would find a way to become a star or else forget his obsession with stardom when a photo of Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi of Jersey Shore fame popped up on a screen.
"She is professing to be a Christian but there is nothing about her life that professes she believes it," the pastor said. "See the difference?"
There was a message somewhere in there for Bob but if he got it, he did not acknowledge it. Moments later, he placed a folded check for $100 in the offering basket.
A week ago Saturday, Bob got a call. He'd been cast in the survivor show. It pays $1,500. "I'm going as myself," he said. "I'm going to be a dude going to the woods." Six days in the Appalachian Mountains in February. He wanted to cry. This was his break.
The show's working title: Big Men.
Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8640.