The $250 'collectible' is all his

The Rev. Charles Sanford is retired and very ill but he hangs on to life and to his Buick.

Published May 17, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - All the props for a good mystery are there: dank parking garage, bad lighting, moldy stairs from level to level, a scarcity of living human beings.

The Buick Regal Limited is on Level 3. It's not parked, it's embedded, like statuary from an archaeological dig. It's 24 years old and battleship gray. It lies under a three-year layer of grit.

The Florida tag in the back window expired in February 2006. A stack of monthly Central Parking System stubs is stuck under the windshield wipers. One pulled at random says SEP 05. Underneath, there's a faded, unread note and phone number from a nice lady named Alyson: "Hi, I just backed into your car. I don't think I did any damage, but I just wanted to let you know."

Garage attendants know nothing about the car except that someone religiously pays the $69.55 tab on time every month.

This calls to mind a scene from The Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal Lecter has sent Agent Starling to an address that turns out to be a storage unit. She has to jack up the door and crawl under it to get inside. It's pitch black. With her flashlight, she finds an old car, covered with a filthy tarp. She lifts the tarp and shines her light through the window.

Cut back to the garage on First Avenue South. The Buick looks like it absolutely must hold a secret. You just know that if you popped that trunk you'd either find a body or $100, 000.

The Rev. Charles Sanford, retired Episcopal priest, hears this and laughs. It's hard for him to laugh. But he laughs. Then he draws a labored breath and says, "I guess that would be better than the truth."


The Rev. Sanford likes to be called Chip. He's a big, gentle teddy bear with snow white hair and a soft southern Virginia drawl. He is 77. He lives across the street from the Buick at Lutheran Apartments. He terms his lifestyle "genteel poverty."

He once had a family car and a wife and two sons to go in it. He had a house and a post at the Church of the Annunciation on Anna Maria Island. Life was good. He was at a clergy conference one weekend, standing near the bishop in the dining hall, when a Bradenton police officer approached. As the bishop looked on, the officer served him with divorce papers.

Chip lost the family car, the family, the house they all lived in, and his post at the Church of the Annunciation. He quotes a line from Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey:

Member that rainy eve that I drove you out,

With nothing but a fine tooth comb?

The diocese had a policy of transferring priests when they got divorced. Chip was reassigned to the Dayspring Episcopal Conference Center in Ellenton. With no wheels of his own, he lived on the grounds.

His new boss found the Buick for him at a used-car lot in St. Petersburg. Chip paid $3, 000 for it. "Love at first sight, " he says. "It's a collectible, such beautiful lines. You know it's a Buick Regal, don't you?"

Chip uses the word wonderful three times.


The Buick died in its space, oh, how long ago?

"2004, probably."

What did it die of?

"Most everything you could imagine."

Chip found out he had lung cancer. Surgeons removed the upper left lobe. He takes an experimental chemotherapy. Every week, he has to get himself to the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa.

He gulps deep breaths as he tells how he gets to Moffitt.

"I walk to Williams Park at 6 a.m.

"I take the No. 4 to Gateway Mall in north St. Petersburg.

"I take the 100X to the Marion Transit Center (in downtown Tampa).

"I take the No. 5 to the bus stop across from Moffitt."

Travel time: three hours.


All those parking stubs on the windshield add up to about $2, 500. The estimated blue-book resale value of a 1983 Buick Regal Limited in "rough" condition is $250.

Chip nods dismissively. He uses a very different arithmetic. His apartment dining table is covered with pill bottles and medical brochures. He looks down and away, smiles with humble self-deprecation.

"That car, " he declares, his voice wavering, "is the only thing on God's green earth that I own.

"I pay it gladly."

Times researcher Lea Iadarola contributed to this report. John Barry can be reached at jbarry@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2258.


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Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes they will play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes they may be part of the news. To comment or suggest an idea for a story, contact editor Mike Wilson at mike@sptimes.com or (727)892-2924.