Thursday, June 5, 2008

The family that lived in an elevator shaft

On a Friday afternoon in June 2000 a green metal door swung open and Malcom Murphy, 68, walked into the now abandoned Chavers Furniture Store on Harrison Avenue in the heart of downtown Panama City. It was a trip back in time. Fifty-seven years ago, Malcom's family lived in the elevator shaft on the roof of this three-story building.

"Times were tough in '43, "recalled Gerald Chavers, 78, whose father Earl owned the building (later the site of Holland's Dress Shop). "Folks were working for a dollar a day.

Malcom's father, Royal--desperate for housing and employment--was hired by Earl Chavers to lay tile. On the store's roof was a 10-by-12 feet brick cubicle that housed the elevator pulley. "My Dad," Gerald remembered, "offered to let the Murphys live there for free." So Royal, his wife Grace, and children Levada, 16, Erline, 15, Malcomb, 12, and Royal, Jr., 4, moved into the tiny space where they would live for nearly two years.

On this Friday afternoon, Malcom--along with current building owner Jim Gilbert and this reporter--returned for a look. It was Malcom's first visit since 1943.

Malcom opened the cubicle and 57 years melted away. "This brings it all back," he said softly. "We had a Coleman stove over here. Mom and Dad had a mattress in this corner. We kids had a bunk bed--boys on top, girls on the bottom. But most nights we slept on the roof, in the open air."

When the store closed at 5pm the family was locked in for the night. They used customer rest rooms and a shower on the first floor. "Dad was doing what he could to survive," Malcom said. "He literally worked himself to death." Within three years Royal would be dead of a heart attack at the age of 45.

But the family stuck together. Today, Malcom is Bay County's school transportation supervisor. Royal, Jr., 61, owns Key Electric Company. Lavada and Erline are retired and living in South Florida.

The rickety freight elevator hummed and clicked as Jim, Malcom, and I descended to the ground floor. Outside on the street we watched and listened as the green metal door clanged shut behind us. We stood quietly for a moment, re-aclimating ourselves to the present. Malcom bobbed his head slowly.

"We learned valuable lessons up there," he said finally. "Help people when you can. Work hard. Better yourself. Appreciate what you have. And always be proud of who you are and where you're from."

--Ken Brooks, Panama City News Herald, June 6, 2000

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