City Paper is not for tourists
Inside his rural Virginia house trailer, Carson Warner lounges on a love seat that sits atop two-by-fours that keep it from crashing through the waterlogged floor. Black mildew circles stain the ceiling, marking spots where rain has trickled through.
“It’s like a matchbox,” Carson says of the trailer where he lives with his wife, Lorraine, and their 14-year-old daughter, Michelle. “You put water on it and it mushes.”
Carson doesn’t want to fill the holes in the roof or the gaps around the windows. The furnace quit years ago, and the wind that blows through the home clears away the fumes from the kerosene heater.
As he describes living in the run-down trailer, Carson plays Xbox tennis with Michelle on a 54-inch RCA. Next to him, Lorraine watches The Rifleman on a Sony HD flat screen. The televisions fill one end of the trailer. A book shelf behind them is covered with DVD and VHS players.
Carson knows how it looks—the ramshackle home with the nice things like the satellite hookup, the large screens, and the silver Pontiac Grand Prix parked out front. It looks like a rash of bad decisions and mixed-up values.
He knows what people think of him in town, especially since they heard a nonprofit was going to use government money to build him a new house. They don’t think he deserves it. He knows that’s why they blocked it.
In some ways, Carson agrees with them; he’s made a mess of things. But at 53, he’s unemployed, sick and broke, and there’s not too much he can do about the past. His family needs a new house and without help, it looks like they will never get it.
Carson’s trailer sits off of Warner Place, a dirt-and-gravel horseshoe driveway that’s named after his people. Some of his relatives live in the trailers and paint-peeled shacks surrounding Carson’s place. There are three generations here, the youngest a teenager, the oldest 80.
Compared to the others, Carson is lucky. His uncle John, 64, and Pauline, the 80-year-old woman John lives with, carry water in glass jars and plastic milk jugs from the coliform-bacteria-tainted well in the middle of the yard. They use the wooden outhouse at the side of the property, near a storage shack with old tires piled against the side.
So do Pauline’s two sons, who also live on Warner Place.
In Carson’s trailer, cold water runs from one spot, the faucet at the kitchen sink. The toilet also works, though it is kept from overflowing by a bungee strap connected to a towel rack on one end and the flush mechanism on the other. Under the trailer, the pipes are rusted and waste dribbles onto the ground. In summer, the stink rises up and fills the trailer. Worse yet, the waste taints the community well, spreading bacteria in their drinking water.
Warner Place is near Dillwyn, Population 443, a Buckingham County town 40 miles south of Charlottesville. In addition to two state prisons nearby, there’s work at the kyanite mine, where miners drag out a mineral used to make heat-resistant ceramic for spark plugs and space shuttle panels.
Carson does not have a job. He rarely goes outside. Once or twice a week in the warm months, he runs his Cub Cadet riding lawn mower over the grass at Warner Place. Most other days, he sits inside, shades drawn, watching the news, nature shows, and science fiction.
“It helps passing the time,” he says about television. “I learn a lot about what is going on.”
Carson’s favorite show is Star Trek. He owns most of the original series through Enterprise on DVD and tape. When Lorraine isn’t cleaning houses in Charlottesville, they watch television together, Lorraine on the RCA with the volume up high, and Carson on the Sony with wireless headphones covering his ears.
Lorraine cycles through The Waltons, The Young and the Restless, The Bold and the Beautiful and Guiding Light. At 4 p.m., she switches to Maury Povich, then, at 5 p.m., to Judge Judy. When she cooks, she flicks on a tiny set in the kitchen.
Carson and Lorraine can’t remember, but they were probably watching television on the early summer day in 2006 when Betty Glover first stopped by. Glover volunteers with the Southeast Rural Community Assistance Project (SERCAP), a Roanoke, Va., nonprofit that brings water to people in rural areas who do not have indoor plumbing.
At last count, during the 2000 Census, more than 33,000 homes in Virginia were listed as having “incomplete plumbing.” Glover had grown up in Buckingham County and worked in social services. She knew how the people lived at Warner Place.
“She said she had been watching us before making contact. It put me in mind of Star Trek,” Carson says.
Glover knocked first at Uncle John’s house. Before long, most of the people in the community gathered on the porch to listen. Warner’s 66-year-old aunt, Christine, was there. His late younger brother, Toby, who lived in a trailer with this wife, was there. So was Pauline’s daughter, Loretta, who lives with her husband and children in a trailer much like Carson’s.
Glover explained SERCAP’s program. She didn’t promise anything, but said if they qualified, the agency might build new homes on their property. The nonprofit focuses on people without running water and those with incomplete plumbing. Since Carson’s plumbing was shot, she told him he might qualify.
It sounded far-fetched to Carson, like a sweepstakes letter. “The whole community was skeptical,” he says. “It was like a pie falling out of the sky in a way. But what did we have to lose? We had no proof one way or the other.”
That day on the porch, the families filled out applications. Then Betty Glover went away, and they pretty much forgot about it.
When Carson and Lorraine married in 1974, he was 19, she was 18. They had met a year or so earlier at a nursing home in Charlottesville, where Carson was an orderly and Lorraine was a housekeeper. Soon after the wedding, they moved to Louisa, Va., a town an hour’s drive east of Charlottesville, where Lorraine grew up. They quickly got into financial trouble. “First thing I had to do was go down and get furniture on credit,” Carson says.
Before long, he couldn’t make the payments, and the bill collectors started calling. For the next 33 years, the phone would continue ringing.
After that first rental in Louisa, the family moved from house to house and into various trailers as money got tighter. Despite his bad credit, Carson figured out which stores would give him payments, albeit at hiked prices and high interest, and which stores to avoid.
Things ratcheted steadily backward until the early ’80s when, broke and frustrated, Carson decided to return home to Warner Place, where he was born. His grandmother had died a few years earlier and her trailer was sitting empty on the property.
It was rent-free on family land. Carson figured they could save money, even with the drive to the Elks lodge in Charlottesville, where he was washing dishes.
Tiny and dark with small windows and a tree growing through a hole in the floor, the trailer was worse than Lorraine imagined, though it was nicer than what many had on Warner Place. The furnace worked and it had running water, hot and cold.
Carson laid down new flooring and knocked out a wall between the living room and dining room for space. Lorraine put up pictures. By the time they finished, the place was almost pretty.
Life on Warner Place did little for the family’s pocketbook. For the next 10 years they scraped by. In 1993, Lorraine gave birth to Michelle, their only child. And the bills kept coming.
“The same thing that you rely on to survive is the same thing that is choking you to death,” Carson says about how he bought diapers, groceries, and clothes on credit. “Add a child, there is just no way to catch up. Get sick on top of it, and you are really stuck.”
After almost two decades living in the trailer, their luck changed. In 1999, Carson got a job driving a delivery truck for Airborne Express. It came with benefits and regular raises, unlike any place he had worked before. Carson and Lorraine figured they had a shot at paying down their bills and buying a new trailer to move onto Warner Place.
Their trailer was falling apart. The roof leaked; electrical sockets pulled from the wall. As Michelle grew, they were also running out of space; Carson slept on the living room couch so his wife and daughter could have the only bedroom.
One afternoon, they drove to a Charlottesville mobile home dealership to look around. As they toured the homes, they marveled at the bathtubs and the large bedrooms. They looked more like regular houses than trailers. Carson met with a salesman and filled out the financing paperwork.
“We tried doublewides, we tried singlewides, we couldn’t get financing for anything,” he says. “We got discouraged at every turn.”
Since a new trailer was beyond their grasp, Carson and Lorraine started skimming newspaper ads for used trailers. They once found a decent singlewide for $3,000 and planned to buy it, until Carson learned it would cost $3,700 to move it and set it up. Over time, they gave up.
Carson again focused on fixing up the trailer and began buying electronics with extra money that came his way.
That approach might have worked if
Carson’s body had held up. Off and on for years, he had noticed a strange fuzziness in his head. It didn’t happen often, but when it did, he felt dizzy. The bizarre feeling got worse.
Sometime around 2002, the fuzziness turned into vertigo. When it hit, the room spun, Carson’s balance tipped, and if he didn’t sit down, he fell to the floor. Sometimes it happened when he was delivering packages.
Carson ran up medical bills at the University of Virginia Hospital trying to figure out what was wrong. MRI scans couldn’t pinpoint the problem, but doctors told him he should not drive. In 2004, Carson lost his license, left his job, and filed for disability.
Around the same time, Lorraine began to develop arthritis in her legs and back, which kept her out of work for days at a time. With money drying up and Carson unable to stand without fear of collapsing, the trailer on
Warner Place continued to deteriorate. When sink fixtures gave out, he cut the water off at the pipe and tore them out. Before long, only the kitchen faucet remained.
Then the water heater crashed. In summer, the family heated water in a microwave. In winter, Carson set a pot of water on top of the kerosene heater. They washed in a gold plastic basin that sits in the fixtureless bathroom sink.
Carson had re-tarred the roof, but rain still dripped through the ceiling, and it got to where Carson couldn’t afford wood to fix the floors.
“It ain’t like people got plywood laying around to give it to you,” he says. “But then again, you don’t want anyone to fall through the floor either.”
Until the day Glover stopped by, Carson and his family figured they would be in their trailer forever, if it didn’t crash down in a wind storm. But soon after her first visit, the people on Warner Place learned they all would get new homes. It would take a year, Glover told them, but they would move in to new homes by the summer of 2007.
The houses would not be free. The families would make a monthly payment for 10 years based on their income. It could be as little as $5 a month or as much as $100. They could not sell them or put them down as collateral for a loan.
Glover brought pictures of homes the agency built and once drove the residents around the county in a van to see them. In time, the people began to believe it was true.
Warner Place was an ambitious project for the agency. SERCAP had been around since 1969, and had always built houses one at a time. This time, it would try to win a Department of Housing and Urban Development Community Development Block Grant and build all the homes at once.
By winter 2006, SERCAP was deep into the planning, but much work remained before the March 2007 deadline for the grant application. The agency was preparing the grant, but the county had to sign off on most aspects of the project.
From the beginning, the Warner Place project set the nonprofit and Buckingham County administration at odds.
Buckingham County Administrator Rebecca Carter says the county never understood why the agency chose to develop Warner Place. Months into the project, she says the community and the board of supervisors raised objections: “Our board asked for a sit-down meeting with them so we could start all over and say, ‘OK, how did these people qualify? What criteria did you use to choose these areas and those people?’”
To answer those questions, the agency brought the board of supervisors to Warner Place to meet the families and see how they were living. What they saw didn’t sit well with some board members, especially
Joe Chambers, the board chairman.
A Baptist minister who runs a logging company, Chambers lives in a two-story house through the woods from Warner Place. Carson has known him since he was a child. He calls him “Baby Joe.”
When Chambers arrived that day, Glover says he walked up to her and pointed at a 2003 Dodge pickup parked in front of Carson’s uncle’s shack. He told her the truck made it look like the people didn’t need help. If they wanted to make an impression on the board, they should have taken those things away, he said.
“He told me, ‘You should have moved the cars,’” Glover says. “Joe, he don’t have no heart. And that’s something I would tell him to his face.”
Chambers declined to speak about the incident. He says he was never against the project, but he felt the people on Warner Place should be treated like everyone else. “I just don’t think we should change requirements for one project. It sets a bad precedent,” he says. “They wanted to put eight houses on six or seven acres of land.”
In the end, the agency missed the grant deadline. At a January 2007 meeting, the board of supervisors tabled the project and agreed to consider trying again in 2008. It appeared to be sunk.
When Carson and the others learned of the project’s fate, they were not surprised. Some joked about the farce of believing in new houses in the first place. “If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” Carson said.
Deep down, Carson felt bitter against the county and his neighbor. “They were not asking for money or labor,” he says about SERCAP. “They were working it out so the county didn’t have to pay anything. You would think they would appreciate it.”
The agency was also discouraged, but it promised the families it would keep working toward the 2008 grant and try to find other ways to build their homes.
One evening soon after the grant deadline passed, Lorraine drove Carson and Michelle to attend a board of supervisors meeting in town. The agency had gotten on the agenda to try to work out its problems with the county. It asked Carson to speak for the community.
Michelle waited in the car while her parents went inside. Despite his 6-foot 5-inch frame, Carson is a shy man who speaks in a deep and quiet voice. During the project, he had become the spokesman for the other families, a role he didn’t enjoy.
When it came time for public comment, he rose. Carson had thought about how to make the board understand that the people at Warner Place were stuck in the mud and needed help, despite the few nice things they had. It was a long and embarrassing story, and he struggled to begin.
“A lot of us are getting up in age and have a lot of illnesses and disabilities,” he said. “I myself am disabled. And believe me, if it were possible for us to finance our homes and situations to get out of the dire situation that we are in, it would have been done a long time ago. But unfortunately, we can’t do that so we need these people to come in like angels falling from the sky.”
Carson didn’t tell them about Airborne Express, the fainting spells, or their shopping trips for a new trailer in Charlottesville. There was no time for that.
“Yes, there’s a few of us that may have newly bought used vehicles that are necessary to get around,” he said. “Everybody has to have a vehicle. It takes a lot more financing, as you know, to build a home.”
“Mr. Warner. Mr. Warner,” Chambers interrupted. “I think this board has always tried to help in every area that we could. I don’t think you ought to blame the board. It’s not the board’s fault.”
“I just wanted to put that out there,” Carson said. “I had heard a number of things that were said.”
“We can’t speed up the process for nobody,” Chambers replied. “We have rules and regulations that we have to follow, and everybody has to go by the rules.”
Carson was angry, but he did not raise his voice. He had hoped to make the board understand, but it was clear the members had already made up their minds about him.
“If they can help us out up there, we appreciate anything that can be done by the board,” he said. “Just speed it up.”
“Again, I can’t promise you anything,” Chambers said.
Dillwyn is the kind of place where people know one another’s business, but aside from the petty scandals that rise from small-town politics, local government goes on in a vacuum. Outside Warner Place, few knew about the project that would have bought Carson a new home.
Jim Strong, a 67-year-old paramedic who has lived in the county all of his life except for a stint in the Army, is one man who did.
He witnessed the blowup at the board of supervisors meeting.
One evening last year, Strong sat at a table at a gas station smoking Swisher Sweets and talking to retired men at other tables while prison workers ate fried chicken.
“He looked healthy as hell,” Strong said about Carson. To Strong’s way of thinking, any man who can stand up and give a speech is strong enough to work.
“If my well runs dry, ain’t nobody going to come and dig me another one,” he said. Strong said he put in his drain field himself back in 1958. It still works.
In his opinion, the reason the people on Warner Place do not have water is they don’t want it bad enough.
“I sympathize with the underdog, but this man…” He shook his head. “I’m not a Mr. Chambers advocate, but what he did was appropriate. One of the few things he has done that is appropriate.”
As Strong spoke, the other men joined the conversation. None of them knew about the project, but they talked about family members who got water for the first time in the last 25 years. Some spoke nostalgically about carrying water themselves from springs as children.
Lugging water and using an outhouse just isn’t that big of a deal, they agreed.
Back at Warner Place, Carson also agrees. Getting water from a well isn’t that much of a problem, except in the summer when it runs dry and comes out muddy. Water is the reason he and the others first caught the attention of the nonprofit, but Carson says it’s not new plumbing that his family looked forward to most.
“I would walk to the well if I could get a new house,” he says.
He wasn’t sure about the outhouse, though he expected his toilet would soon give out. The toilet tank had sprung a leak and had to be kept dry, which prevented on-demand flushing.
To flush, they now had to unhook Carson’s jury-rigged bungee cord mechanism and allow the tank to fill. If they let the tank fill again post-flush, it would leak out onto the bathroom floor.
“It’s sort of embarrassing,” Carson says. He long ago told his daughter she was not to have any visitors at the house. “The only thing that makes it bearable is we are in the same boat,” he says of his neighbors.
Not really the same boat. Early one morning after the project died, Carson’s Uncle John sits in the rusted out Chevy S-10 pickup he drives when collecting cans and scrap metal. Inside the cab, John looks into the rearview mirror and drags a disposable razor across his dry face. When he finishes, he wipes his face with rubbing alcohol.
For John and Pauline, running water would be a luxury. They have never had it and could only guess at what it would be like.
“It ain’t the worst, and it ain’t the best,” John says of the brown and green wooden shack he has lived in for what he guesses has been 40 years. “You could probably live in it for a while.”
In early December, Warner Place looks much as it does the rest of the year, except no one is outside. A pair of pit bulls pull at their chains. A warped rectangle of tin that was once a roof lies on a pile of burned rubble, whipping in the wind. The torched trailer was Carson’s Aunt Christine’s. Workers burned it down after she moved into assisted housing for the elderly in town.
In front of Carson’s trailer, a sagging wooden porch sits like an obstacle course before the door. Inside, he has just returned home from buying $10 worth of kerosene—less than three gallons, enough to make it through the night if the temperature didn’t drop. He’s watching television alone.
Carson isn’t sleeping well. The oxygen machine he wears over his face at night for sleep apnea needs to be adjusted, but he doesn’t have the money. The Xbox is gone, pawned to pay bills. He tried to pawn the televisions as well, but the shop had no room to store them.
For eight months after the board of supervisors tabled the grant application, the families had not heard much about new houses. But the nonprofit had not given up on them. And one day in November, builders arrived with a backhoe and began leveling the land behind Carson’s trailer, just as the people from SERCAP told him they would.
Everyone from Warner Place came out to watch the groundbreaking for Carson’s new house.
The nonprofit had found money to build the house from a state water program pushed through the Virginia legislature by Gov. Tim Kaine. After more than a year and a half of wrangling, there was no longer any need for SERCAP to work through the county or Chambers.
When Carson’s home is finished, three more homes are set to go up at Warner Place—one for his Uncle John and Pauline, one for their daughter Loretta, one for another elderly aunt.
Carson’s home, a white-sided two bedroom, is nearly complete. The floor needs to be covered with linoleum and the electricity run to the pole.
“It’s a dream,” Lorraine says. “That’s what it is. Don’t nobody wake me. Let me sleep.”
Soon after the builders arrived, Carson and Lorraine went shopping at a sale at Grand Furniture. They checked with a salesman to see how much the store would give them on credit. For close to $2,000, they bought a couch and a table and got a love seat and an end table in the deal.
When the work is finished, builders will knock down Carson’s trailer. From the road, passers-by will see his new white house at the center of Warner Place. Carson knows how that will look. He knows what people will think. It’s like a television Western, he says.
“You have a rancher who has a few hundred acres and they think they are God because they have done it on their own,” he says. “They become like a deity and rule over everyone else.”