When a comedian mentions a trailer park, it's usually as part of a mocking punch line. Not for Dan Whalen.
The Des Plaines salesman and former amateur comic organized and performed in a "Trailer! Sweet Trailer!" comedy benefit as part of a community effort to move Michael Masalski, 55, and Marjorie Branly, 66, out of their mobile home that still suffers from damage caused by record rains a year ago.
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On April 18, 2013, floodwater washed away their air conditioner, lifted linoleum off the floor of their trailer and "came gushing through the windows," Masalski says. Neighbors rowed boats down the street, where the water was 5 feet deep. Even when the water started to recede, a passing bus would send a wave rolling through their trailer, where the water rose to 18 inches deep in the kitchen, Masalski says.
He patched up holes with plywood and duct tape, but the floors remain unstable and the effects of the water linger.
"For three days, I slept out on the porch because I couldn't breathe because of the mold," Masalski says. "It's all black mold under the sink, and black mold is the worst."
The couple didn't have insurance on the trailer and FEMA ruled that their home didn't suffer enough damage to qualify for federal aid. Masalski, once a promising baseball player who saw his dream of playing shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds fizzle in 1980, worked as a laborer loading trucks until a car crash in 1994.
"I've got metal rods," he says, pointing to a scar in his neck and detailing injuries that leave him with pain and a $721 monthly disability benefit.
Branly says she gets a total of $730 a month from Social Security and her ex-husband's pension. Her work history, which brings a smile to her face, didn't come with retirement benefits.
"I was a go-go dancer, a belly dancer, and I did some modeling," says Branly, who recalls dancing in places on Rush Street in Chicago and in the suburbs. "I had long, dark hair then, just like Cher."
A year younger than Cher, Branly is still recovering from surgery to put screws in her hip after she fell in their trailer this winter, tripping over boards Masalski installed where the waterlogged floor seemed ready to give way. She's going to the hospital today to have a growth removed from her breast.
"If it weren't for bad luck, they'd have no luck at all," Whalen says, paraphrasing an old Albert King blues song.
That luck is changing.
The benefit at Zanies Comedy Night Club in Rosemont last week raised more than $7,000.
"It was great," says Cyndi Nelson, Zanies' general manager. "Everybody had a good time and they made some good money."
The flier designed by Whalen, 52, and his wife, Jody, read, "Help us rebuild their trailer home and their lives!" The Whalens, parents of four and grandparents of three, have a special reason for rallying behind the couple living in the mobile home park along Touhy Avenue east of Elmhurst Road in unincorporated Elk Grove Township.
"Thirty-three years ago, my roommate and I lived (in a trailer) four blocks from here," says Whalen as he walks up the wobbly, rusted metal steps leading to the door of Masalski's damaged trailer No. 39. "A trailer can be a cheap way to live in a nice neighborhood."
Masalski says he bought his 60-by-15-foot Skyline trailer in 2001 as a way to keep his mother from living in a nursing home. He paid $20,000 in cash.
"It served its purpose because I got a chance to take care of my mother," Masalski says. His mom died in 2004.
While the comedy show raised the most money, strangers from Des Plaines and beyond have volunteered help. "It makes you feel good about people," Whalen says.
"One lady came to our door and handed me $45," Masalski says, adding that neighbors and others have been donating food for the couple's four cats. Masalski rattles off a half-dozen names of people and organizations helping.
Members of the Lutheran Early Response Team of Lutheran Church Charities, Jan and Ed Boerman, both 65, came to the trailer intending to fix all the damage caused by the flood. They soon learned they'd have to find a different way to help.
"There isn't anything to repair that would make a difference. It was beyond that point," says Jan Boerman, a member of Trinity Lutheran Church of Lisle. "Their living conditions are deplorable."
A repair service estimated it would take $20,000 to repair the damage. So Whalen, members of the Trinity Lutheran churches in Des Plaines and Lisle, and others are working on raising money to buy the couple a better trailer.
"We have to find them a better place to live," says Jan Boerman. "Right now, I'm at a loss to know where that is." Whalen has priced a handful of trailer options and established The Mike & Margie Fund, which accepts donations in care of Whalen at any BMO Harris Bank branch.
Having worked with tornado victims in downstate Washington and Joplin, Mo., the Boermans know there are people in worse shape than Masalski and Branly. That doesn't change their efforts.
"These are the people that God put in my path, and these are the ones we have to help right now," says Jan Boerman, who lives in Downers Grove and joins her husband in running Boerman Trucking, a long-distance moving and storage company.
Masalski and Branly, who met at church 25 years ago, say they like the trailer life. "I take care of him and he's taking care of me," Branly says. Many people stuck in their situation might be bitter or angry.
"Margie is not that way. Mike is not that way," Whalen says. "They're just good people."
Masalski and Branly say Whalen is more like an angel.
"God sent him," Masalski says, "knocking at my door."