The Flip-Flop Man

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ST. PETERSBURG - The Flip-Flop Man is a legend in west-central Florida. Yet very few people know his name or anything about him other than his affection for flimsy rubber sandals.

Flip-Flop Man lacks an automobile or driver's license, but he is surprisingly mobile. He lives in Madeira Beach, near the center of Pinellas County, but folks frequently see him miles away in Gulfport, Seminole, Clearwater, Dunedin, Tarpon Springs, Tampa, Brooksville and far beyond.

On sunny days his ensemble includes an enormous sombrero and a long-sleeved shirt buttoned at the neck so that the tails fly behind him like a cape when he runs. On overcast days, he goes bareheaded and bare-chested, sticks to plaid boxers and, if he is feeling especially debonair, carries a cane or walking stick.

People encounter Flip-Flop Man at high noon and at midnight. If they happen to be out at 4 a.m. the moonlight might illuminate, not a pink elephant floating across the highway, but the Flip-Flop Man out for a wee-hour ramble.

The Flip-Flop Man is a garrulous fellow with salt-and-pepper hair and a scruffy beard. Many women describe him as "handsome," even though he often smells like a sweaty locker room and long ago lost all of his teeth from eating sugar.

Ironman triathlon champion Jackie Yost, 78, often sees him during her training runs. "He has beautiful legs," she says.

The Flip-Flop Man has a muscular 5-foot-10-inch frame and seems to lack any body fat whatsoever. In a normal week, he runs or walks 125 miles - 6,500 miles in a year. In 1995, what he calls his best year, he flip-flopped about 33 miles a day, approximately 230 miles a week, 12,000 miles in all - equal to a trip from St. Petersburg to Athens, Greece, and back.

He is 62 years old.

"He must have the constitution of Superman," says marathoner Bill Castleman.

A typical day lasts eight hours, though sometimes, when he can't sleep - the Flip-Flop Man deals with more demons than most of us - he flip-flops 20 hours.

One time he asked his friend Lisa Lorrain a question that continues to haunt her:

"Are you happy?" he said. "I have never been happy."

- - -

The Flip-Flop Man raced into Joe Burgasser's world about two decades ago. Burgasser, 68, a renowned athlete himself, is founder of the Forerunners, a long-distance running club. Two afternoons a week he conducts grueling practices at St. Petersburg Catholic High School's running track, where his athletes sprint at top speed for a quarter mile, jog for a quarter mile, then repeat the process until they poop out.

One day in 1990 a new runner caught Burgasser's eye. The new guy, hard to miss, had shaved the front half of his skull and was wearing flip-flops.

At 4:30 p.m. the first group of Burgasser's hard-core runners arrived. The new guy joined them, running effortlessly, never falling behind some of the fastest, most competitive athletes in Florida.

Burgasser's gasping charges finished their workout. Then another group began running their intervals. The new guy joined them, and joined every new group for the next two hours, running at a 5-minute mile pace during the sprints.

The new guy identified himself as Larry Perrier.

Folks delighted in his strange company. Some also wondered if their ears were going to fall off: Flip-Flop's tongue, as it jumped from topic to topic, was as fast as his feet.

After a few months, club members brought the new guy their old $100 Nikes and Reeboks. He took the shoes home and tried to modify them into something resembling flip-flops. After a while he told his new friends, "Thank you, but I don't need charity."

Burgasser, running on the Pinellas Trail a few months later, encountered an unhappy Larry.

"What's wrong?" Burgasser asked.

"I am having trouble with my flip-flops," Larry said.

Burgasser thought, "Of course you are. We gave you running shoes but you prefer flip-flops with no padding. Your feet must be killing you."

"It's winter," Larry explained. "Kmart doesn't sell flip-flops in the winter. I'm running out of flip-flops."

- - -

Over the years I have seen the Flip-Flop Man dozens of times while riding my bike on the 35-mile-long Pinellas Trail. A few weeks ago I stopped and introduced myself.

"I don't know if I want to talk to the media," he said politely. "You know, I think I ought to demur because part of me is really private. But on the other hand, everybody knows me anyway, and for years I have sort of been working to build up my legend."

So here's the story of how Larry Perrier became the celebrated, talkative, irrepressible Flip-Flop Man.

He was born in the South Bronx on May 15, 1945. When he was a boy, his mother developed multiple sclerosis and took to the bed that would be prison for the rest of her life.

As she deteriorated, his father quit work to care for her. He found it impossible to also care for a boy who suffered from what today we might call attention deficit disorder.

"I think about that. . . . My mother couldn't move from bed, and here I am walking and running day and night," Larry told me. "That must mean something."

He grew up in seven foster homes, quit school in ninth grade, enlisted in the Army, left the Army, and found it almost impossible to hold onto a job. He has lived with a kindly woman - "my old lady," he calls Blanche Tucker fondly - for three decades. She supports the two of them as a nurse.

"I have always been different," he told me as I pushed my bike alongside him. But he didn't tell me why at first. He was off on another topic - doctors. "I don't go to them. Oh, I'll go to the doctor if I have to, like when I had a hernia, and they took care of it, though I didn't follow their advice - they said to rest for a while - but I was back running in a few days andd then developed another hernia. Now you're going to ask me if I wear a truss. I don't believe in trusses.

"What was I saying?"

About being different.

"One time I hitchhiked across the country barefoot. Then I discovered flip-flops. Flip-flops are almost like being barefoot. I used to buy them at the dollar store. Now I get them for five bucks at Kmart. Sometimes when I know I'm going to do a long day I'll hide flip-flops on the trail in advance just in case one of them breaks."

What's a long day?

"Fifty miles is a long day, though I'm older, I'm not as strong, I don't do as many long days. One time I walked to Brooksville. I think that must be 70 miles to Brooksville. I ended up somehow running in a forest and these guys came up and said, 'What are you doing running out here during hunting season?' I think they were trying to scare me, but they were hunting deer and maybe I could have gotten shot by accident."

That would have ruined a nice run.

"Over by Tyrone Boulevard, these young kids on bikes rode up to rob me. At lunchtime. Noon. One guy says 'Give it up!' and even though I didn't have much money I tried to talk my way out of it, and one took out a knife, and I wasn't going to run, no, I wasn't going to show them I was scared, so I sat on a bench and held my ground, but then I got nervous and I started running, jumped into a ditch and lost a flip-flop and had to walk home to Madeira Beach with one flip-flop. But I was lucky, I stopped to talk to this old guy who gave me a rag to wrap around the other foot so the pavement wouldn't burn it."

What about lightning?

"When it's your time to die, you will die."

I had lots of questions about his diet.

"Well, I eat a lot of sugar for energy. I keep a bag by my bed. That's what rotted my teeth. Now I have to eat soft things, food out of cans. People tell me, 'That isn't enough,' but it seems to work.

"In the winter I like to put on a little weight for warmth and energy. Right now I weigh 148 pounds but my winter weight is higher. I eat cheese and chocolate. I have to be careful, though, because of my, you know, addictive personality. If I buy a gallon of ice cream I'll eat the whole gallon in a day."

Some people try to soothe emotional pain with food, shopping, television, computer games, sex, gambling, tobacco, cocaine, religion. For years, the Flip-Flop Man's drug of choice was alcohol. After his last booze-related dustup with the law, in 1989, he is proud to say, "I quit drinking."

To cope with his demons he started walking, jogging, running and sprinting instead.

A shrink might have told him "Larry, you're substituting one addiction for another. Work on your problems."

But he didn't go to a shrink. Doesn't believe in shrinks. He believes in the power of flip-flops.

- - -

I had a small camera in my pack and asked to take his photograph. As I fumbled with the settings he began fidgeting and said, "Hurry up. It's hard for me to stand still."

As I snapped his picture, a guy in a nearby yard cranked up a hedge trimmer. "I'm high- strung," Flip-Flop told me. "I don't like loud noises. Time to go."

When he took off running, I jumped on my bike and followed.

I glanced at my speedometer.

Twelve miles an hour.

A 5-minute mile.

In flip-flops.

I stayed behind for a half-mile.

"Call me sometime," he yelled over his shoulder. "We'll run together. I sometimes run with people even more overweight than you."

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at (727) 893-8727 or