I was just thinking the other day how much I miss Pittsburgh in the summer. The sound of lawnmowers humming in the background, the smell of grass mixed with summer flowers, beautifully cared for lawns with oodles and oodles of colorful summer flowers. I have done my share of traveling but am not particularly a world traveler, but I have lived in quite a lot of different places. From Tampa to Tel Aviv, Miami to Pittsburgh to Amsterdam. I lived in Miami when I was a kid so I never really had the feeling that Miami was really 'my city' but the others Tampa, Pittsburgh, Tel Aviv and Amsterdam I consider one way or another my cities. Each time I visit, a part of me feels totally at home and I often find myself fantasizing about what life would be like if I lived there again. Each city also had things which I didn't like, but you always have that, but each one's charms far outweighed their downsides. So, I am feeling nostalgic so I thought I would take a little trip down memory lane, and what the hey, I'll drag you all with me. So, today's epic is about Tampa, the "other"city by the Bay.
Tampa is really where I started my adult life, or at least my prolonged adolescence. I moved to Tampa totally on a whim. I was a junior at Penn State, kind of drifting aimlessly in my college existence. I didn't know what I wanted to do with myself, I could barely go to class much less commit to a major and I had discovered the numbness which comes from drinking large quantities of alcohol. I also discovered that alcohol lowered my insecurities and allowed me to be the person people thought I was. Anyway I was just kind of direction-less, without confidence, your typical 20 year old insecure girl who was not doing well at school but keeping up the facade for my dad. In my entire college career I had more or less stayed good friends with the same circle of friends I had met during orientation week. We all met and within a week or two we had clicked and we more or less did everything together. It was a lot of fun. There were 5 of us in this circle, with a few others kind of coming and going at different times. I had been roommates with one of these friends in my sophomore year when we all still lived in the dorms and although we had our fights we had made it through the year with our friendship in tact, or so I thought. This girl was a mafia daughter. Her dad was in prison when we all started as freshman so it was extremely interesting to see on the one hand that this girl dripped with jewels and diamonds but at the same time her mom was on welfare and she had a lot of moments of stress wondering if her financial aid would come through. By my third year, I had decided to do an apartment share with the 3 of the other friends. We found a really great furnished apartment a couple miles from campus, and lucky my family owned a furniture store so we had all the extra bookcases, comfy chairs and tv's we needed. And while with 4 girls living together we had our issues, we always also talked them out too. While I was enjoying school in this third I had a crisis of confidence with my friends. One night during the semester my roommates and I decided to have a party at our apartment, a big college blow out. We invited everyone we knew and of course I got drunk, so drunk that I got totally sick and spent the entire night throwing up violently in the bathroom. Now, I had been drunk enough before to be sick and throwing up before but nothing like this. I mean I was pretty sure I lost a kidney that night. A few weeks later I found out why. It seems my roommate, mafia girl, from sophomore year decided it would be a good idea to put serum ipecac in my beer and apparently everyone at this party knew about it and got a big laugh over it. Needless to say I was extremely hurt by this, hurt that someone who I really loved and considered a friend cared so little about me that she would want to humiliate and embarrass me like this, but I was also very hurt by my 3 current roommates, who I thought were among my best friends in the world, but who not only did not try to stop mafia girl, but didn't tell me about it. I don't remember all the ins and outs of the story now but I do remember them saying that they didn't do it and had some good reason for not warning or telling me but I just felt so hurt by their actions and inactions, that Penn State was the last place I wanted to be. This coupled with my general apathy about college just told me that it was time for me to do something else, be somewhere else until I could figure things out.
When I was in high school a few years earlier I used to go to summer camp and there I met a beautiful, extremely talented, funny, loyal, kind person named Shera. Shera was from Tampa and one day I was talking to her on the phone, telling her that I didn't any purpose to being in school if I wasn't going to be interested in a major or in applying myself. Like that Shera blurted out "why don't you come to Tampa?" At first I said no way, I couldn't do that, my dad would flip out, etc., etc. Somehow by the end of this phone conversation we had agreed that I would move to Tampa over Christmas break, Shera would help me find a job and I could live at her mother's house with her, no problem. Shera, who was also taking a break from school convinced me that her mother would welcome me. Her mom always did love me because I was so level headed and she thought I was a good influence on her daughter. The next day instead of registering for my spring semester classes, I went to the bursar's office and applied for a leave of absence and a couple of weeks before the end of the semester I told my dad I wanted to take a semester off. He, the college professor, the educator, the one who told me time and again that he didn't care if I became a ditch digger, but I should at least be an educated ditch digger really tried to handle the news in stride. I was afraid he would blow up at me. He didn't. He was stern and trying to be patient, he only said okay, but that if I was going to leave school I would have to find a job and support myself until I went back to school. (Supporting myself still meant he would pay for my car and health insurance though). And actually at that time in my life I was drawing a paycheck from the furniture business, it wasn't a huge amount, something like 500 bucks a month, but to me, at that time, that was like all the money in the world. So I called Shera, verified it would still be okay if I would come down and stay at her mom's house and that Shera really could find me a job someplace. We hung up and hte next day she bought a plane ticket to fly one way to Pittsburgh on Christmas day to drive down to Tampa with me (great road trip memories there, boy).
So that's how I ended in Tampa. Now the majority of Florida is a full of three basic types of people --Jews, Crackers and (Spanish speaking) immigrants. It's a strange ecosystem but somehow it works for the most part. I loved Tampa, it was the perfect city for this time in my life, where I just wanted to have fun, party and not have a care in the world. You had the beaches of St. Pete and Clearwater, palm trees, a thriving tourist trade (so there were tons of jobs) and loads of young people like me flocking to the beaches for the same reasons, so no lack of friends. I lived a very wild existence in Tampa, pushing many boundaries but I did love it. There's just nothing like putting the top down in a convertible in the middle of the afternoon and riding around. Luckily Shera had a convertible as did another roommate of mine, so I was never in short supply.
What are some of the things I loved about Tampa? Well, duh, the weather for one. Summers were stinking hot but unlike Miami, the nicer weather lasted longer. Winter in Miami lasted 1 or 2 months but in Tampa you got 4 months of beautiful sunny, not too hot temperatures. I also loved the architecture in Tampa which had a a lot of Spanish influences but also there were loads and loads of beautiful pre-war homes built in Florida style (ranch houses) but the charms of the old south. Lots of weeping willows and clapboard homes set on large flat lots.
Some of my favorite places. Best restaurant? No question Bern's Steakhouse and let me tell you, if you are anywhere near central Florida, Orlando, Naples, you have got to go to Bern's Steakhouse. This place is legendary. The food is not only fabulous but it is a totally unique place. They have their own farm where they grow a lot of their own organic vegetables and fruits, they have one of the largest wine cellars in the world and they make steak like no other (Ruth's Chris, sit down). Their staff literally train for YEARS before they are allowed to set foot in front of a customer. Many of them start off at the farm and work a variety of positions before being allowed to work in the position they applied for. I once worked at another restaurant with a guy that was one of the Sommeliers at Berns for many years and this guy just could not work anywhere else, although it was fantastic to cosy up to this guy at the bar after work and hear his war stories. He eventually went back to Bern's and stayed there until retiring. Berns is a place that takes no shortcuts and they accept nothing short of excellence. Despite this, though Bern's, while being fancy is not pretentious in the least. Seriously, if you are in central Florida, you must go there.
Another thing I loved about Tampa was Bayshore Boulevard, a long, curved stretch of road which wrapped around Tampa Bay. I once read that Bayshore was the longest continuous sidewalk in the world, I have no idea whether that is really true or not but it sounds good. On one side you had dog walkers, joggers, walkers just out and enjoying the view, the scenery and the feeling of being alive that being next to a shoreline allows you. On the other side were some of the most beautiful houses I have ever seen. And not today's cookie cutter houses, but beautiful old Southern architecture. Miniature versions of Tara in it's heyday. Beautiful colors, pale yellow, next to beige, next to pink, next to white, next to mint green with sprawling lawns, palm trees.
Don't get me wrong, all of Florida is the land of the beach and the strip mall and Tampa is no exception. Tampa definitely has a redneck underbelly, but it also has the beauty of the old south with a tropical twist. South Tampa especially. I loved nothing more than being in my car and driving through beautiful South Tampa neighborhoods, Hyde Park, Culbreath Isles, Davis Island (which I called home for about a year), Palma Ceia.
There's nothing like shopping in Hyde Park and then meeting up with friends for a glass of wine, a cocktail or a movie. Plus, Tampa is close to Orlando (1.5 hours), Sarasota, Clearwater, so plenty of places to escape and discover. Miami is a 4 hour drive, so plenty of places to have great long weekends and such.
I really loved the 3 years I spent as a resident of Tampa. I met some great friends there who I am still friends with now, some 20 odd years down the road and I must say Tampa was absolutely the best place for a lost, not sure where I was going, Generation X'er who was not quite ready yet to find herself.
Thanks, Tampa I had a blast!