On sunny day, even a dirty job was fun

The parade crowd goes wild for an inmate who said, yes, I'll clean up after the horses.

By ERIN SULLIVAN, Times Staff Writer
Published November 5, 2007

LAND O'LAKES - Saturday morning, inmate 147760 waxed the floors of the county jail in Land O'Lakes and overhead some deputies talking. They needed an inmate to walk behind the Pasco County Sheriff's Office mounted patrol and clean up the horse manure during the Flapjack Festival parade, which was starting in a few minutes.

Robert Allen Noodwang, a 44-year-old New Port Richey man serving time for felony DUI, walked over.

"Let me do it," he said.

The deputies weren't sure.

"I want to do it," said Noodwang, who is a trusty at the jail, meaning he has more privileges than regular inmates.

He can go outside to take out the trash. He sleeps in the trusty tent, a huge dome housing about 100 men, which is a lot better than a cramped cell. Noodwang works on a team stripping and waxing floors during the day and volunteers in the medical unit most evenings, giving patients haircuts and cleaning up after them.

Noodwang has been in jail since Sept. 24. His release date is in April, but he's shaving it off, day by day. The more hours you work, the sooner you get out. Noodwang says he works 12 to 15 hours a day.

He hopes to go home in February.

"Please," he said.

"All right," the deputies said, and a few minutes later, they were all running out the door to a patrol car. The parade was about to start and they got there just in time. They gave Noodwang a shovel and a wheelbarrow and suddenly, he was in a parade, a part of one, for the first time in his life. The crowd cheered for him and he couldn't believe it.

He started hamming it up, striking poses as he ran to scoop poop and not lag behind.

He was out, in public, off the jail grounds and it felt so good. The weather was cool but sunny and gorgeous. Noodwang, in his black and white striped uniform, decided to use his new podium.

"Don't drink and drive," he shouted to his audience. "This could be you."

One woman there with her girl thought he was in costume.

"You certainly look authentic," she said.

"Halloween is lasting a bit longer this year," he said, not wanting to scare the little girl.

When it was all over, Noodwang still felt like a star. The deputies and the sheriff himself came over to thank him for doing such a good job. But Noodwang thanked them. He really did have a great time.

The jail deputies took him back and soon he was waxing floors again. He kept replaying the cheers in his head.

The next day, Sunday, Noodwang met with a reporter in an empty visitation room in the Alpha section. The longish blond hair from his most recent mug shot is shorn and his facial stubble dotted silver. His green eyes are bright, but his face is weary. He doesn't sleep much in jail. His mind races.

He said he grew up in a tough area of Chicago and moved to Florida when he was 15 to live with his father. He said he went to high school for only about five months before dropping out.

He worked as a laborer until he crushed two vertebrae. He had five back surgeries, but it still hurts him and he has been on and off disability. It's been hard for him to deal with.

He was married once, for five years, but it didn't work out. He has a daughter who is 23 and lives in Chicago. She is the thing he misses most. He doesn't have her photo or any others with him in jail, because he feels that would mean he's settling in, and he wants out.

His mom lives with him in his New Port Richey house. Because Noodwang is in jail, his mom got a job at ACE Hardware to pay the bills. Talking about this, Noodwang started crying. His mom is 65 and worked hard to raise him and his two brothers. He vowed to take care of her, but he messed up. He feels guilty.

He has been a drinker since he was 12 years old - also the same year he began driving.

He said he never hit anyone while driving drunk and he thanks God for that, because he couldn't live with himself if he had. He said he quit drinking for good in May, after his third DUI.

After talking for a while, his crew gathered in a nearby room, waiting for him to be done so they could wax the floor.

"I felt like somebody special," he said of the parade, as he stood to go back to work.

"It was a beautiful day."

Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@sptimes.com or 813 909-4609.


Three decades of fun

The annual Flapjack Festival turned 30 this year and is one of the biggest festivals in the area.

Many organizations, including booster clubs, churches and charities, raise money from the festival. It is over for this year. But you can contact the Central Pasco Chamber of Commerce for information about next year's festival.

Go towww.centralpascochamber.com.

Or call (813) 909-2722.