Tag Archives: Tampa

Smoky Days

You can still smell cigar smoke walking down Seventh Avenue. More than a century after its heyday as the cigar-manufacturing capital of America, men—and women—lounge about Ybor City’s sidewalk cafes and enjoy a break from the Florida sun by puffing on a cigar. It’s a long-practiced, ideal way to wait out the afternoon humidity because the sunset hours are always the best in Florida, so why tire out beforehand? Just sit, relax, smoke slowly, and wait for that perfect part of the day to come because it always does.

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During my recent girlfriend getaway in Del Boca Vista country, we made the time to schlep an hour on the highway to stroll Ybor City and experience one of Florida’s oldest dining institutions, Columbia Restaurant, where the key lime pie is sweet and glossy like fresh lipstick.

Before our dinner reservation, we had time to meander into Ybor’s many vintage and consignment shops, and what’s a girls’ weekend without a little shopping? My favorite was the addictive La France, a place described by its owner as being “like a museum without a cover charge.” La France had the enthusiasm of a gay pride parade with the diligence of a carefully curated exhibit. We were in there a while. Feather boas lined up by color, beaded flapper gowns, diaphanous hats that would send sunbeams ricocheting, hairbands with beaded skulls, necklaces with beaded skulls, earrings and bracelets with beaded skulls. (Did I mention the beaded skulls? A touch of Mexicana in Tampa, apparently.) Floridians, like Southern Californians, don’t shy away from color. Forget urban black and embrace the magentas, corals, ambers and periwinkles! I found Tampa’s vintage shopping more interesting than New York’s, not just because New York’s may feel too familiar by now, but because Tampa didn’t seem to be trying so hard. These shops screamed “we love color and old stuff, so check us out!” and that was that.

At one vintage shop, a chain called Revolve, there, hanging on the wall behind the cashier, I spotted a green, floral-printed Old Navy dress I used to own around 1999-2000. I had purchased my dress in Seattle, had worn it to London (there’s a photo of me wearing it, standing in front of the London Eye in August 2000, shortly after I got engaged), and likely gave it to the Salvation Army sometime when I lived in Washington, DC, and became pregnant in 2003. I’m sure it wasn’t the same dress, though size-wise it looked like a match, and secretly, I wanted it to be my dress still traveling without me.

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But that’s new Ybor. What about old Ybor? The original Ybor? Like many American port towns, Ybor has a “those-were-the-days” story, when this Tampa neighborhood was a thriving immigrant community, and, like the old whaling town of Hudson, New York, a planned community built around a single industry, cigar manufacturing. Ybor’s golden age began as the 19th century was winding down and the 20th century was gearing up, the spin-off years after the Industrial Revolution when Cubans, Spaniards, Italians, Romanian Jews, Germans and Chinese flocked to the area to make something of themselves. In 1869, Vicente Martinez Ybor, a Spaniard in the cigar-making trade, decided to move operations from Key West to Tampa, where there was an active port and a new railroad line, ample opportunity to move boxes of fresh cigars around. Industry always leads to indulgence, and bars, restaurants, theaters and dance halls sprouted up as business boomed. Folks rolled cigars during the day and then puffed and partied at night. It had to have been downright dreamy.

I’m part German, and I had a hard time imagining my fair-skinned ancestors coming from a place of mountains and snow and adapting to Tampa’s climate, but history says they were business leaders there, supervising cigar factories and working as managers and accountants, no doubt bringing their quintessential German efficiency to the task at hand. The Germans arrived to Ybor in the 1890s, and by the 1930s, the Great Depression had knocked the wind out of Ybor’s sails, and like everywhere else in America, things dried up. Difficult decades followed, and then folks started realizing the faded potential of Ybor’s old brick buildings, that one of the state’s best restaurants was just down the street, and that if things could be dusted off a bit, business could boom once again. That’s when places like La France began to bloom.

Walking Seventh Avenue in Ybor City now you hear roosters crowing—just as you do in Key West—though the street is quiet during the heat of the day and not as busy as it appears in the sepia-toned photos I found of Old Ybor. Trolley cars still crisscross town. You still smell cigar smoke, you smell sweat, you see signs for sangria and promises of sales and a Greek man standing in a window making the perfect crepe for the umpteenth time that day. There is French food, Cuban food, Greek food, Spanish food, bar food. You likely won’t hear music unless stepping into a restaurant or cafe or bar because everyone keeps their doors closed to ensure the air-conditioning doesn’t escape and evaporate into the street because it’s really, really hot in Tampa most of the year, and coolness—the tangible kind—is social currency; it literally draws people in off the street, as it did us.

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We cooled off at Columbia Restaurant, which has weathered Ybor’s various transformations over the decades since 1905. Sangria pitchers there weren’t $15, but the booze was light, smooth, and went well with the black bean cakes and grouper that I ordered. It was Friday night and packed. If you’re going to go, make reservations. I gluten-bombed during this dinner, but it was worth it. Order the key lime pie and if you’re gluten-sensitive, just eat around the graham cracker crust. I recall tasting delicious, silky key lime pie when visiting Key West five years ago, and thinking “Damn, that’s good pie!” Columbia makes all its own desserts, but our waiter informed us the key lime pie comes from Mike’s Pies, and let’s just say Mike gets pie. He really, truly gets pie. I once savored cantaloupe gazpacho at Daniel, an extremely expensive restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and blurted out loud so that every coiffed Upper East Side diner heard me: “That’s the sexiest thing I’ve ever eaten!!!” And the waiter there smiled because he knew; he had just never heard someone say it so bluntly.

Then came Mike’s Pies.

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A Four-Day Vacation With My Former Self

There appears to be three primary reasons people fly to Florida: to visit an elderly relative, to attend the funeral of an elderly relative, or to party on the beach. On the flight home, I sat between two people returning from two different funerals. At age 42, I can proudly say I was the one who had partied on the beach.

I use the word “party” loosely. I couldn’t hold my drink then and I can’t hold it now. While sunbathing in my SPF-50 long-sleeved rashguard on Siesta Key, I barely drank my daiquiri, some ruby-colored concoction that melted the second it was made (I’m discovering I’m a high-end tequila gal, anyway). Everyone else looked leathery and was gulping down what looked like cheap beer or neon-colored drinks like mine. On the beach, I scuttled toward any bit of shade, like some frightened crab eager for protection. I’m not getting any younger, and have somehow remained wrinkle-free, like some freshly laundered white Oxford shirt. In fact, I received a few compliments on my clear complexion while visiting Florida last week and at first, I thought “What the hell? Are the labels on my overpriced skin care products actually true?” Then I looked around at all the raisins in the sun.

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So what brought me to Bradenton, Florida? Me and my mates from college try to meet up every few years to just hang and reconnect. Without planning for it, this trip fell almost exactly 20 years after our college graduation. Our last jaunt was to Savannah, Georgia, in 2012, so it was good to get everyone together again; our chemistry as a group is something I’d snort and sell because it’s so special. Come to think of it, we meet up in the Southeast frequently and I have no idea why. We’ve met up in Savannah twice and New Orleans twice. One year, they threw me a bridal shower in New Orleans’ delightfully spectral French Quarter, a fantastic time in which I received far too many skimpy pieces of lingerie, drank lemonade that could trigger diabetes, and danced with an eighty-something-year-old man who had some serious sweet moves.

Now we’re all a decade or more into marriages and mortgages, some of us have kids and menageries of pets, some of us are already talking early retirement, because, Holy Crap! the mid-fifties are closer than we care to acknowledge. We’re scattered across the United States, one in Los Angeles, one in Kansas City, one in Washington, DC, one in my hometown of Rochester, NY, and then me. This past winter we were all bitching about the cold, Florida came up in the conversation, and one of us mentioned her mom’s friend’s place in Bradenton where this friend’s mom’s friend snowbirds with her husband. My advice to you, at any age: when a friend’s mom’s friend says “Hey, I’ve got a house in Florida you can use!” you show up. No matter where it is. Just go.

For four days, we hung out in a house about twice as big as mine and purchased at less than half the price because everything is bigger and cheaper outside the New York City region. I was grateful the house wasn’t decorated in the aquamarine-seashell kitsch I expect of Florida. I sipped morning coffee on a lanai—a word I never get to use in the Northeast—while watching lizards dart everywhere. We affectionately referred to the area as “Del Boca Vista” (a Seinfeld reference for those of you who came of age after 1998). Next to the visiting grandchildren, we were indeed the youngest in the ‘hood. The best perk—besides being almost free—was that the house stood just feet away from a beautiful, inground pool—a Florida backyard staple—where the water temperature never dropped below 80. Every day, my friends and I sat in the pool until our skin pruned. The pool was where we chatted bluntly for hours about everything under that unforgiving Florida sun because that’s what you can do with friends who have known you since you were 18; you can say anything, anytime. That’s why we do these trips.

I’ve always been sensitive to my environment, and was worried Florida would get under my skin and make me feel old before my time. The exact opposite happened. If anything, hanging with my college friends made me feel 20 again. We blasted the Gin Blossoms in the car. We gossiped. We compared notes on sex. No one counted calories because no one cared.

Which made driving around Bradenton a little weird because the town, like the rest of Florida, had its fair share of funeral homes, and since I was the one skipping the second daiquiri to drive three forty-something women around town, I noticed these things.

But the area surprised me, too. We encountered Loggerhead turtle eggs on the beach. I ate fish tacos that were almost as good as the ones I ate in Mexico. We visited Bradenton’s quirky, thriving arts community where we bought the same kind of funky jewelry we used to buy 20 years ago. It wasn’t all Winn-Dixies and funeral homes; there was a heartbeat in Bradenton that was still going strong. The Del Boca Vistas in America may be cookie-cutter, but they haven’t flatlined. In fact, they’re oddly rejuvenating.

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By the time I boarded my flight home, I realized I’d had a Doctor Who moment. Yes, Florida is strange—the crazy aunt of the Continental 48, as someone once said—but I had enjoyed time travel. While in Bradenton with my college friends, I got to revisit the old me, which is still vocal, chugging along, and dropping a few too many f-bombs, but is also occasionally overshadowed by the forty-something stuff, which is to be expected. We can’t be 20 forever. Yet it was fun to fly alone. I wore artsy jewelry and bought a $12 dress at some secondhand shop (though I think the term is “upcycled” now). I didn’t feel like a suburban hausfrau. I went four days without talking to a neighbor about school districts, property taxes or who has what disease (their favorite topics, not mine; I’d rather talk about books, but no one in my zip code reads for pleasure). I was just Kate, the blonde woman blessed with good skin tone who always loved to travel but hated to fly, the girl who never could hold her liquor, the one working on a novel, listening to the Gin Blossoms.

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