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A day in the park, with 'spice'@

Published on NewsOK Modified: February 16, 2013 at 9:24 pm •  Published: February 16, 2013


By John Woodrow Cox,

c.2012 Tampa Bay Times@

As the sunlight lurches over the city's eastern high-rises then spills down through the oaks and onto the damp Bahia grass, Williams Park draws its first breath of the new day.

The cool air smells of coffee and cigarette smoke. Beneath a lingering crescent moon, beeping blue buses pull to the sidewalks and sleepy-eyed riders shuffle aboard. A family of squirrels hunts for day-old bread.

These 4.3 acres in the heart of downtown St. Petersburg are seldom quiet, but in this brief moment they are almost peaceful. Perhaps only now, before the booze and dope and pain pills overwhelm this place, is life here at all like it used to be.

From its once world-famous bandstand, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford addressed thousands. People packed benches to hear the Sunshine City Band. Families picnicked on the grass.

But as downtown blossomed, the park languished. Politicians quit coming. Concerts declined. Families preferred the waterfront.

Now, in its 125th year, the park is home to a new community: drug dealers and drug addicts, hell-raisers and drunks, hustlers and philosophers. The economy here runs on bus passes, cheap beer and thousands of hand-rolled synthetic-marijuana joints. It has become an inhospitable island, surrounded by fast-moving concrete rivers and, on three sides, a wall of 9-foot-tall buses.

To those nearby, the park is a cancer that has long diseased what could be a prime city block. St. Petersburg leaders are searching for solutions: more regular markets and luncheons, fewer transit stops, redesigned sitting walls.

But their ideas are not new. For decades, officials have tried and failed to revitalize the park.

Nearly all of its daytime residents are homeless. The majority are substance abusers. Many are mentally ill. Some are dangerous.

A few want help out of this place.

Most do not.

• • •

Just after 7 a.m., a man with a scraggly goatee and rotting teeth wobbles by a gurgling fountain in the middle of the park. His shirt reads: "I'm not as think as you drunk I am."

"I'm going home," he says. "I think I'm going to throw up."

On the park's southwest corner, the regulars exchange cigarettes and complaints about the police in front of the World War I memorial. They reminisce about a time when people could drink a beer in the park undisturbed.

Nearby, a quiet man in a black trench coat flips through the weathered pages of a Winston Churchill biography.

Morgan Hill is a former crack addict. In Williams Park, he found a family of sorts. They share conversation and blankets and, quite often, a stiff drink.

He turned 45 on Jan. 30. To celebrate, he drank more vodka and beer than he can remember. He acted crazy and deserved to go to jail. The arrest was his 14th since 2006. He doesn't blame the cops.

"Just doing their job," he says.

He sees it this way: The wealthy people who work in the neighboring buildings complain about the homeless to City Council members who complain to the mayor who complains to the police chief who orders his officers to do something.

As he explains his theory, the street corner grows crowded.

A man in sagging gray jeans raps about Williams Park. He says he has schizophrenia. He calls himself "Smoove Threat."

An older man, homeless for 35 years, smokes the nub of a synthetic marijuana joint, commonly referred to as "spice." He tells jokes about frogs and sex and about frogs having sex. He calls himself "The Joker."

A 29-year-old with a sloping nose and a long chin paces the sidewalk. He wants to sit, but he can't. He has a trespass warning that bars him from the park. He says he is bipolar and has made some bad choices. He has robbed people, stripped at gay bars and prostituted himself. But, the man quickly adds, he once received 10 weeks training from a Christian retreat to become a pastor. He got a plaque.

Back on the memorial, Hill lights a menthol cigar.

"A lot of homeless people out here," he says, "are their own worst enemies."

They lie about their conditions and ailments. They feel people owe them something. They don't intend to ever leave.

Williams Park, he says, is no one's home.

• • •

It is 10 a.m. in Spice City.

Dozens of joints have been rolled and lit. A cloud that smells like skunky, burnt grass and singed hair settles overhead.

Two men twist palm fronds into roses and crosses. They work the "Corridor," the stretch of sidewalk on Fourth Street where panhandlers ask for change.

Ronald "Blue" Wilson, 23, is new to the craft. He is from Rhode Island but came to St. Petersburg hoping for a job. He has a tangled mess of long blond hair and a marijuana leaf tattooed to his chest. He carries his life in a blue Cookie Monster backpack.

Wilson comes to the park, really, because he has little else to do. He sells to make a few bucks.

"It gets you a beer, a burger and a cigarette," he says. "And maybe a little spice to get high."

Around here, his choice of business is unusual.

Williams Park currency isn't cash, it's spice joints. Each morning, people pool money and head to a grocery mart. The cashiers sell the 10-gram packs, like "Mad Hatter" and "Scooby Snax Potpourri," but only to people they know. One $20 pack turns into 30 joints that are priced at $1 each. Profits go to bus passes, booze, pills, marijuana or, most often, more spice.

• • •

It's 10:45 a.m. From a bench near the fountain, Nicholas Terolli watches the day's first arrests along First Avenue N.

He is 26. His T-shirt is clean, his hair tidy and his beard trimmed.

"You know what this park is all about?" he asks.

He opens his mouth wide and tosses in a pair of blue 30 milligram oxycodone pills.

"Vitamins," he says, grinning.

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