Day 2: Ybor City
“Writing and travel broaden your ass if not your mind and I like to write standing up”
Yesterday we visited Ybor City—a quirky, historic neighborhood near downtown Tampa. The Southern humidity combined with the effusive smell of tobacco smoke issuing from the endless cigar shops made me realize where the term atmosphere comes from. The humidity was mild, like stepping out of a hot sauna into a temperature controlled locker room. The comfortable, masculine scent of cigars seemed to cling to my nostrils as we walked the sidewalks. Roosters and females peacocks roamed freely across the nearby train tracks, a block down from the main drag.
The Ybor City neighborhood is defined by its brick buildings, its balconies, bars, cigar shops, Cuban culture and hints of iniquity. Our first stop was La Herencia cigar shop. After picking out a cigar from the humidor, my father and Linda sat at the bar drinking rum and coke, locally known as Cuba Libre. The walls were lined with memorabilia, and various kinds of Caribbean percussion instruments—which my brother and I beat on, to the consternation of the other patrons. I had a rum and coke, too, and then, according to custom, wrote on one of the walls.
We stepped out back into the damp, hot, smoky Florida air and explored the rest of Ybor City. I found the James Joyce Pub (named after the 20th century Irish author of Ulysses, Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Finnegans Wake). From outside, I could hear Irish-American punk-folk rock like Flogging Molly and the Dropkick Murphys. Outside, a friendly “little person” in a lobster suit accosted passerby and advertised the crayfish special.
As we explored, Ybor city seemed to get more and more eclectic. Shops sold men’s clothes, guayabera style shirts and fedoras. An LGBT novelty shop called “Gaybor City” punned on the neighborhood name. Other shops displayed rainbow flags in their windows. A restaurant sold slices of what they claimed was “New York Style” pizza. One building was entirely hollowed out—just an old red brick wall remained, and a browning palm tree just barely rose into sight through a window. Across the street, the Department of Homeland security took up real estate with uniform, rigid, modern-looking cubicles. A few blocks down, the Church of Scientology occupied a three story brick building lined with palms.
While tourists and the tattooed, twenty-something Tampa night club scene were clearly the real financial lifeblood of Ybor City, I couldn’t help but feel an air of authenticity—a sort of pirate amorality that still hung about, a lingering scent of the bad old days of rum smuggling and black market criminality. After a few blocks, the trendy bar and grills turned into strip clubs and less reputable-looking pubs. Back at La Herencia, a local had been talking to my father over a cigar about the respect Tampa residents had for one another—no drunken fist fights or shouting matches. All because of Florida’s “right to carry” laws, recently under scrutiny after the shooting of Trayvon Martin in nearby Seminole County.