Tag Archives: Ybor City

Castanet Sleigh Ride

When it snows out, I play John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things,” a tradition that dates back to 21 years ago today when I returned to my apartment on Bleecker Street, got caught in a blizzard, and watched the city go silent. I owned two CDs back then: John Coltrane and The Black Crowes, and snow in Manhattan felt more Coltrane than Chris Robinson, plus “My Favorite Things” is a 17-minute song, so that’s ample time to sit by a large window and watch the snow fall. More than 20 inches fell on New York City between January 6-8, 1996, still among the best two-plus days I’ve ever enjoyed in Manhattan. I ordered Indian takeout. Outside, I walked Greenwich Village and watched people cross-country ski down Bleecker Street, as if they had been waiting for this moment for years. No one honked their horns because the cars were stuck. People threw snowballs and waved at each other. It was the most laid-back side of New York City I had ever seen.

I am playing Coltrane now, though we woke up to barely an inch of snow. As someone who grew up in the Snow Belt, this is quite unimpressive January weather (so far). During my childhood, winter wasn’t so much a season but a state of mind, one that involved time, preparation and equipment: the extra five or ten minutes to get into a snowsuit and boots; how I had spent all fall stacking wood for our wood-burning stove; the purchasing of rock salt; making sure the shovels could take another round; ensuring the snow-blower still worked; that we hadn’t outgrown our boots yet; that we had cans of Campbells soup somewhere in the cupboard in case we got snowed in and the grocery store was closed, because at the time there was only one store in town (and yes, it was Campbells—I can’t even look at the Warhol version without thinking of how salty that soup is). Snow piled up in feet, not inches. There was a hunker-down mentality to my childhood winters that I’ve always resented, and I’ve spent years distancing myself from them, despite the fun I had sledding down huge hills.

Last Friday, I was in Ybor City in Tampa, Florida, where it was around 65 degrees, and folks were bundled like the “Big One” was coming. Heavy scarves, long sweaters, hats, boots, coats. I get that Floridians, and Southerners in general, don’t do snow. They hunker down for hurricanes, a shared, but different mentality altogether. One of our waiters, who was originally from Georgia, joked with us how he keeps meaning to drive north to see snow, but when it gets to be around 60 degrees, he chickens out. I thought about this notion—driving a long distance to see snow, and here I was having just driven 1,300 miles to warm up on a beach. A friend of mine who lives in Phoenix drives her kids 170 miles north to Flagstaff to take them sledding. When I was a kid, I was always jealous of my classmates who could afford to go to Florida for school breaks (and it was *always* Florida). Intense sunshine, powdery beaches and palm trees were as curious and exotic to me as snow was to this guy.

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So here I was, living out my Florida fantasies over the holiday break—doing exactly what I had always wanted to do as a kid. Originally, I had wanted to stay on Sanibel Island, but the rates were too high and the restrictions too many, so instead I lucked out with this awesome house attached to a private pool in Cape Coral, only a half-hour drive from Sanibel. I loved the Cape Coral neighborhood because it wasn’t travel brochure-Florida—it was Florida-Florida: manatee-shaped mailboxes, plastic flamingos everywhere, dolphins etched into glass doorways, very tanned, white-haired people walking dogs. Florida was my happy lamp last week, so I spent mornings walking around the neighborhood, and once, a young guy heading towards a pickup truck greeted me hello while holding a rifle in each hand. Yep. I had the real deal.

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Sanibel Island didn’t disappoint either. We went to the beach a number of times last week, including a beautiful stroll on Christmas Day. This was my first “warm” Christmas, and I reveled in Florida’s quirky mix of inflated polar bears and palm trees, its plastic candy canes jutting out of sand. We saw egrets trying to wait out the fishermen, and we saw dolphins swim past every time we went to the beach. Sanibel is known for its seashells, and there’s a posted guide displaying different shells and their names, which reminded me of being in the cosmetics aisle reading lipsticks thinking: “Which is more me, Red Hot Lover or Pretty In Pink?” I found an Atlantic Kitten Paw and a Florida Spiky Jewel Box. I only took a few shells home as souvenirs; I saw people carrying buckets of shells on the beach, and the roads in our Cape Coral neighborhood were a mix of asphalt and crushed shell, so perhaps seashells aren’t a limited resource—I don’t know. But I didn’t want to be greedy. I “shelled” because “shelling” on Sanibel is a very active verb, and I walked the edge of the Gulf of Mexico admiring the variety of shells. The waves off Sanibel weren’t ideal for boogie-boarding, so Mike dragged our kid across the water the way he used to pull her on her sled across snow.

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Throughout the week, the Sunshine State lived up to its name; it was in the 80s, abundantly bright out and warm enough to use our private pool almost all hours of the day. Except for last Friday, the day we went to Ybor City because I wanted to take my half-Spaniard husband to Columbia Restaurant, a Florida institution I had visited the previous year. This time, Columbia felt far more touristy than I had remembered. Maybe this was because of the holidays? We had reservations for dinner and flamenco dancing. At the table next to us, an older gentleman loudly asked his companion if it was “Flamingo or Flah-min-coh” dancing, and the companion had to correct him: “It’s ‘flah-mehn-co, not flamingo like the bird.” I kid you not—that was said out loud—very out loud—at the table next to me, and I was amused and slightly nervous because I knew then we were in for something marketed to tourists. Sure enough, the lights dim, the dancers come out dressed in bright gowns and wearing bright silk flowers in their hair, and they start dancing to “Sleigh Ride” blasted from an aging soundtrack system, keeping the rhythm of “Sleigh Ride” with their castanets. I burst out laughing, and then did all I could to maintain composure during the performance. My husband, whose father was born in Madrid and apparently didn’t speak any English, look horrified, which made me laugh even harder. We honeymooned in Spain, and had seen gorgeous flamenco dancing when we lived in Washington, D.C., and a troupe from Spain passed through. I had also recently seen beautiful flamenco dancing while in Havana in May. None of these past experiences involved a soundtrack. Flamenco dancing is a few women in dresses that crest and fall like ocean waves, castanets strapped to dancers’ fingers, and usually one guy dancing with them, another guy playing a box or a chair or some makeshift drum, and always—always a dude furiously strumming a guitar like it’s his last day.

Our daughter, who had never seen live flamenco dancing, looked confused and kept asking why I was trying to stifle my laughter. Repeating “Mom, what’s so funny??” while dancers are on stage trying to do their job is as awkward as it sounds. I had brought my family to a tourist trap. Playing castanets to a Muzak version of “Sleigh Ride” was meant for guys in the audience who can’t pronounce “flamenco.” The dancers were quite good, and the whole thing would’ve been better if they shut off the cheesy soundtrack, which, they eventually did. A skinny guy in a red shirt and tight black pants came on stage and saved the day with his singing and dancing, and my husband’s posture softened. A few minutes of something authentic-ish.

Honestly, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. It just added to the weirdness that is Florida. And, it humbled me. I can take my family down Seventh Avenue in Ybor City, past its bars, the hookah lounges, the tattoo parlors, I can buy a cloche hat from La France, crave a Cubano sandwich I can’t eat because it’s not gluten-free, and convince myself I’m having a cool, authentic experience only to spend that same evening sitting before a stage of flamenco dancers working their assess off to “Sleigh Ride.” It was the perfect Friday night in Florida. You should try it sometime.

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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