This Old House Sitter

Chris Drennan was getting some bad energy from back home in the Sunshine State. Having temporarily relocated to Chicago to care for her dying father, she was concerned about her little red house in Coconut Grove. When she placed a long-distance call to her next-door neighbor, Drennan says, he refused to talk about it. So she consulted a psychic. "She said it was a disaster," recalls Drennan. "She said, 'Get down there and get rid of everything as soon as you can; recycle it through the universe.' Well, by the time I did get here, it was too late -- the universe already got it."

Late last month Drennan came back to Miami and found that her 30-year-old house on William Avenue near Margaret Street was a shambles. A few sticks of broken furniture scattered among trash and debris. Busted window frames and shards of glass, light fixtures gone, mattress and box springs on the floor. The stench of toilets clogged with newspaper and condoms. On the living-room wall, a modest attempt at graffiti: "Sometimes your the windshield/ Sometimes your the bug." And amid the wreckage, a young man she'd never seen before, who managed to haul a few loads of the trash out the back door before he passed out.

"Very picturesque," recalls the round-faced, amiable Drennan. "Everything was gone. They tore out my mailbox. They took a big plant out of its pot and walked away with the pot. Fortunately I didn't have anything of major value." (Unless you count her car, a 1989 Volkswagen Golf, which had disappeared from the front yard.) Nor, she admits, did she have any insurance on her house or possessions.

Drennan checked into a motel. The next day she called a locksmith and had the locks changed, and that night, after stoking her courage at a neighborhood bar, she ventured back to her house. Though FPL had cut off the power long ago, the lights were on inside. "I said, 'Well, I'll be a son of a bitch,'" Drennan recounts. "There were five people in the house! I stood outside with my heart going bump-bump-bump and rousted them out at the top of my lungs. The next day I burned their clothing in the back yard, as a ritual for myself. There was lots of clothing in the house. Theirs -- mine was all gone."

Before leaving for Chicago last Easter, Drennan had arranged for an acquaintance, a woman who had a small child, to housesit in exchange for minimal rent. A few weeks later, when Drennan called to check up on things, the house sitter said she'd had to move out, but not to worry: she'd found "a shrimper" to take over for her. "There are very few real shrimpers in the Coconut Grove area," Drennan observes. Impostor or not, this shrimper never sent any rent. "But at least," reasoned Drennan, "somebody was in there."

Somebody certainly was. Though the neighbors didn't notice much at first, it soon became evident that the woman and her baby had been supplanted by a shaggy-haired blond man who was telling people that he owned the house. Several idlers from the area were seen arriving and departing. By January matters were clearly out of hand. "There was a lot going on, people out getting high, a lot of cursing," reveals one William Avenue resident who doesn't want her name published. "It was kind of disturbing for a lot of the neighbors. All kinds of people would come at all hours. Some went in with nice suits like they had a job. Old men, young men, cabs pulling up, every kind of thing." A police SWAT team raided the residence in late January and found marijuana.

Drennan, who describes herself as a feminist activist, moved into the two-bedroom house seventeen years ago. She says she's on good terms with her neighbors, some of whom have lived in the vicinity much longer than she has. For the past three decades that part of the Grove has housed mainly working-class black families, but urban blight has made inroads. A small park on Grand Avenue a few blocks north serves as a 24-hour drug emporium, according to some residents, and police recently kicked a group of crackheads out of a vacant house a few doors down from Drennan's.

Six months before she left for Chicago, Drennan put her house on the market, but there were no takers. Her new realtor, Andrea J. Bain of Southern Hill Real Estate, says someone offered $28,500 not long ago but that the house will be worth twice that once it's fixed up. Shortly before Drennan came home from Chicago, Bain adds, she showed the house to a client. When Bain ushered the man inside, however, they were met by several people. "One woman said, oh, she was just getting her things," the realtor recalls. "About two seconds later, the police pulled up." Police records indicate that around that time in April, four people were arrested at Drennan's house for drug possession and trespassing. Bain says her client lost interest in the house.

Tom Braga, one of two City of Miami police officers assigned to the Coconut Grove Neighborhood Enhancement Team (NET) service center, says he learned what was going on in Drennan's house shortly before she returned, when a neighborhood kid mentioned it. Before that, Braga says, he never heard a single complaint about the house. In fact, getting anyone to volunteer information about crime in that part of the Grove has been almost impossible in the two years he's been assigned there. "I went door to door. I gave them my pager number, which does not pick up your address like 911 does," Braga explains. "I said, 'If you have any problem, call me.' I haven't gotten a single call. I've had people throwing my business card back at me. Some of these folks have known the offenders all their lives, by sight and name."

And some of the residents, evidently, are scared. Drennan's next-door neighbor, the one who didn't want to discuss the goings-on when she called him from Chicago, still doesn't want to. "It's the duck's bill that gets it into trouble," he says darkly. "I see and I don't see, because I have to live here. There's some wrongdoers around. Next thing you know, I'll be floating down the canal. She's a good lady, but anything I told her would go against me."

While she's fixing up the house for sale, Drennan has moved back in. She says that through inquiries at local bars, she has discovered that many of her uninvited guests were neighborhood people she'd seen or heard about for years. She learned still more by sorting through the garbage they left in her house. She found a bag of syringes. Some snapshots. Several letters that were never mailed. These items, says Drennan, have instilled in her a certain empathy for the squatters, particularly the women, who evidently subsisted by selling sex for crack. One was pregnant and going through difficulties in a relationship. "I'm very sorry things had to happen like they did," reads one unsent letter. "You think I fuck you around. But I promise you I will make it up to you.... Jimmy please understand where I'm coming from. I'm ready to leave this house because if I don't I will kill me a So please do what you can."

If the woman did kill someone, muses Drennan, the victim's spirit most likely has joined the ghost of the house's former owner, an elderly woman who died there and who occasionally appears in the back yard. "Unfortunately I've had a life filled with such occurrences," Drennan confesses. "My karma ran out this time.


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