by Naja and Arnaud Girard
Whether ‘Old Man Chapman’ will finally be swindled out of his house is no longer up for debate. Last Monday a red 8” X 6” legal notice was taped to his door at 221 Petronia Street. It read: “Final Notice of Eviction” and directed the Monroe County Sheriff to remove any person from the premises on Tuesday.
“It’s tomorrow. Tuesday is tomorrow,” said Chapman on the phone, “Where am I going to put my things? My clothes? My wife’s clothes? Our grandson’s clothes? What am I going to do?” It was 9:30 am. The beginning of a long day – which was going to involve Sheriff’s deputies, pro bono attorneys, a Judge, New York bankers, someone known as “Coconut Man,” and Mr. James Matthew Chapman. Mr. Chapman, the one-man-lighted-parade, who has been photographed thousands of times by tourists as he rides his Christmas-tree-like tricycle, blasting soul music, up and down Duval Street.
What was to be the last afternoon in Chapman’s yard was quite emotional. “My mother was born in that house across the street,” said Chapman pointing at an abandoned house on the other side of Petronia, “It was a clinic for colored folks. They made diapers out of flour sacs.”
He didn’t mention the second floor door, but everyone else sitting in the yard did. The door on the upstairs porch had mysteriously opened during the night. “That door has been closed for twenty years,” said Leroy, “there are no stairs to get up there – the house is all boarded up and the stairs are destroyed.”
“My ancestors are watching over me,” agreed Chapman.
In the late 1990’s, after having difficulty paying property taxes, Chapman made a deal with local businessman, Norman Moodie. Since Moodie had helped him pay off a $ 10,000 tax lien, Chapman would let Moodie put his name on the deed to Chapman’s house. Moodie thereafter borrowed $ 588,000 on the house, never made the loan payments, didn’t pay the new $ 20,000 mandatory insurance either, and, according to Chapman, only ever gave him about $ 10,000. Moodie’s mortgage mushroomed into a million dollar debt that resulted, last month, in a final decree of foreclosure on Chapman’s house – the house where generations of Chapmans grew up – on Chapman Lane.
The story we reported a few weeks ago has inspired many locals to offer support. Well-known event organizer Jeff Salzman is putting together what he calls a ‘Stone Soup Concert” fundraiser to help the Chapmans relocate.
“We always have to take good care of our neighbors, but I didn’t know I had so many neighbors,” said Chapman when he learned about the fundraiser, “But I guess in Key West we are all neighbors.”
“Toko Irie, who plays the steel drums, C.W. Colt, and the Doerfels are already onboard,” says Salzman, “we also hope to have one of the best Reggae bands come down, but that’s not finalized yet.”
Details came out about how Moodie got the best of Chapman. Moodie rode into town in the eighties, fresh out of the Coast Guard. At the time Ed Swift and Norma Jean Sawyer were making efforts to bring tourism dollars into Bahama Village. That’s when the sign over Petronia Street was installed.
Moodie saw great opportunities. He launched several businesses including a sex club just next door to Chapman’s house, where Fire Fly is now located. He liked Chapman’s knowledge of folk history and his story telling ability. He was going to make him the “Bahama Village Ambassador.” He even bought him a colorful uniform made for a Bahamian official. The problem was Chapman’s wife. She had a secret weapon. Unlike her husband, she had learned how to read and she didn’t trust charming Norman. This was solved by a “business trip.”
“He told me to meet him at the Circle K in Islamorada,” said Chapman, about the fateful trip where Moodie had his name added to the deed to Chapman’s house, “I drove up there with my uncle Frank who had a car.” Chapman, 75, had left school to become a shoe-shine boy. “When we got there I got into Moodie’s car,” says Chapman who signed documents which might as well have been written in Chinese. He had removed his childrens’ names from the deed and added Moodie as a co-owner. On Monday morning on the phone, Moodie, who now lives in Miami, was still promising to somehow keep Chapman in his house…
In the meantime, Chapman’s friends were making all the moves of a cat desperately trying to escape rising waters. Pro bono attorney John Hogan rushed to the courthouse to look at the file hoping something could still be done. The bankers and Sheriff were called in vain. In the end, when all else had failed, what did it was an eloquent plea by “Coconut Man” to Judge Sandra Tayor. She granted Coconut Man’s “motion” and gave Chapman another week to move out.
Stay tuned regarding the specific date and location of the Stone Soup fundraiser in support of Old Man Chapman, who in fact has truly been the ambassador and historian of Bahama Village.
NOTE: Tentative date for the Stone Soup Concert fundraiser for Mr. Chapman is August 17 from 3-8 pm. Venue options are still being studied. If you can offer a venue [preferably in or around Bahama Village] or if you are interested in participating or learning more about the event, contact Jeff Salzman at (305) 896-0961.