People seen from a distance

November 28, 1996|By Rob Hiaasen

THE OLD MAN had a flair for directing traffic. He looked like he was conducting an orchestra playing only in his mind. For three years, he directed traffic on Swinton Avenue in South Florida.

Then one day he was gone. And he was missed -- from a distance.

Another man used to walk on Swinton Avenue. He was a very big man, so he needed the exercise. One day, motorists noticed the man wearing a Walkman and walking faster. The people in cars had to smile because they were following the man's weight-loss program. Then one day he was gone, too.

What happens to people seen from a distance? Do they get lost? Does someone tell them to stop directing traffic? Why are they missed -- from a distance? What do we care?

There was a man who lived under Interstate 83 at Centre Street. He lived in a cardboard home, in a public parking lot. The people in cars drove by him every day.

Get closer, for a change. Make eye contact. At the very least, learn the man's name:

Perdy McCormick.

When he isn't walking and walking, Mr. McCormick sits in a beaten, legless armchair under I-83. It doesn't look comfortable, judging from a distance. But it's more comfortable than killing time on a milk crate, he says. He isn't carrying a ''Will Work for Food'' sign. He hasn't made any signs for himself.

''I don't ask nobody for money.'' And he says he doesn't like bumming smokes off people. He prefers ground-up cigars for chewing tobacco.

One hot August day, 20 minutes is still on the meter for the black Sentra parallel-parked in front of Mr. McCormick's cardboard home. The car wears ''The Club'' for protection. Mr. McCormick, 67, wears a heavy jacket. It's 88 degrees.

Why do you live under an interstate?

''It's a nice open space,'' he says. ''People treat me nice. Every once in a while kids stop and talk smart. Older guys don't bother me.''

How do you -- well, for instance, when do you shave?

''When I need to.''

I'd be nervous sleeping here.

''I don't blame you.''

But this is where you sleep, right?

''I wouldn't call it sleep.''

You going to stay?

''Yeah, as long as it lasts.

Do you think people feel sorry for you?

A stupid question

Mr. McCormick, led to powerful laughter, says: ''I don't know about anyone feeling sorry for anybody around here.''

(Is there really no such thing as a stupid question?)

Who knows this man?

Mr. McCormick did mention going to the Dog House, a carry-out restaurant across Fallsway. Owner Paul Christ says he sees Mr. McCormick every morning between 10 and 11. ''That's his time.'' Mr. McCormick is called ''Pops'' by an older cook here. The customer usually orders iced tea with a grilled liver-and-onions sandwich. He always pays.

''He's never asked for handouts here,'' Mr. Christ says. ''If we have customers, he'll take his food outside. He knows he has a strong scent to him, and he doesn't want to offend anyone.''

Mr. McCormick is just another customer trying to eat in peace and mind his own business, Mr. Christ says. ''He's just a person without a home.'' Just a person living in a cardboard box in a public parking lot.

Since August, the weather has cooled, naturally. A man might now need a heavy coat when walking at night. The people in cars still pass under the interstate at Centre Street. But there's no sign of Perdy McCormick any more. No cardboard box, no legless chair. His spot looks swept clean.

Paul Christ says he hasn't seen Pops at the Dog House. He doesn't know where he went. Wonder if Mr. McCormick was asked to move along. He probably made a home for himself in another, nice, open space.

What do we care?

Rob Hiaasen is a writer for The Sun.

Pub Date: 11/28/96

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