Saturday, June 27, 2020

Onward and Inward

When I was young I was a bit of a loner. I generally felt like I was on the edge of the crowd, of any crowd, and the more I tried to fight my way into it, the more I ended up on the periphery. Even though I found others who felt the same, like Steve (and Jason, and Ben and Jake and many others) I came to believe that I was an introvert by nature. It wasn’t until much later, in my twenties, when I took a job in sales and moved to Chicago that I started to better understand the deep craving and need I had to connect with others. I honed that need into an asset. And it led me to realize that the whole time, I’d just been an introspective extrovert, by which I mean I like to talk to other people about myself.

I’m half kidding there.

But only half. The other part of it, well, it might hit closer to home. Couldn’t one argue, after all, that introspective extroversion is precisely what I’m practicing here? Open source diary keeping? A protracted public therapy session as art? Giving away front row seat tickets to a cage match between a writer and his demons?

That would probably be true if it were my story alone, but it isn’t. It’s also the story of the people and places I’ve interacted with along the way, especially those that are, for any number of reasons, unable to tell it for themselves.

I gather and recount their stories, and in doing so, bit by bit, I’m filling in those empty chairs around the table and illuminating the darkness once again. With funny stories. War stories. Love stories. Ghost stories. Entry after entry, until I’ve turned my memory inside out, for all to see. Until my own story becomes the sum of all the characters and curiosities and wonders I’ve chased down or crossed paths with.

I’m wandering this world, collecting myself in experiences like picking up pieces of some massive jigsaw puzzle. Once assembled, will it reveal itself to be a distorted fun house mirror? A postcard from a time and place that I can’t return to? Or will it form the frame of a doorway to something new and as of yet unimaginable?

The only way for us to know is to keep writing, to keep reading, keep searching, alone and together. We’ll get there when we get there and not a moment sooner.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Secret Tampa Bay Bonus Content: Epicurious

Most people are familiar with the Cuban Sandwich, but as it turns out, that is just one of many unique dishes you can find in central Florida. I opted not to include this chapter in my upcoming book, Secret Tampa Bay, primarily for two reasons: it didn't really focus exclusively on Tampa Bay, and, unlike other chapters, it seemed like I was trying to combine too many separate things rather than focusing on just one. Having a limited number of pages and chapters required me to be selective in what I included - I'm still proud of the work I did on the chapter, even if it didn't make the final cut as part of the book. I hope you enjoy it.


Are there any other uniquely local dishes or secret recipes?

The Cuban Sandwich tends to hog the headlines as far as local cuisine goes, but it is far from the only thing that Tampa Bay has to offer for more adventurous eaters. Here’s a short list of other options guaranteed to sate your curiosity (if not your hunger):

Scachatta: What happens when a Sicilian-born version of tomato pie is adopted and raised by a Cuban family? The answer is magic. Like the tomato pie you may have had elsewhere, it is served as room temperature square slices. So what makes it Tampa-specific? Ground beef in the sauce, egg yolks in the bread and a unique blend of spices that give it an extra kick. You can find it at La Segunda, Moreno Bakery, Housewife Bakery and Alessi Bakery.

Swamp Cabbage: The name may sound less than appetizing to the uninitiated, but plenty of locals swear by it. Technically it’s hearts of Sabal Palmetto (aka Cabbage Palm) and has a taste described as being somewhat similar to artichokes. Finding it might require a trip to either the Cypress Inn in Cross City or to the annual Swamp Cabbage Festival in LaBelle.  

Sour Orange Pie: Long before Key Lime became Florida’s citrus pie of choice, the Spaniards are credited with having brought sour oranges from Seville, the juice of which were blended into a creamy custard. The absence of condensed milk in the filling further differentiates this tart pie from its more recent relatives. It awaits your discovery at the Yearling Restaurant in Hawthorne.

Island Hotel Heart of Palm Salad: This Gibb’s family recipe features hearts of palm, fruit, candied ginger and green ice cream (usually either pistachio or lime). There are now several variations, but if you want the original, you’re heading to Cedar Key.

If you would rather do your own cooking, you can find a wide variety of exotic meats at the Heights Meat Market, including gator, frog, wild boar, python and kangaroo.

More than a Mouthful
What: Little-known local delicacies
Where: Multiple locations
Cost: Variable
Pro Tip: “Your body is not a temple. It’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.” – Anthony Bourdain

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Young Summer Gibberish

On June 16th, 2012, eight years ago today, I married the woman I love. I was fortune to have found her and to have shared the past decade of my life with her. Our lives have changes significantly since we met - it seems like lifetimes ago that we exchanged our vows under an unexpected swarm of dragonflies (which we have since adopted as a symbol of our union), and in some ways it has been a lifetime. We don't live in the same small apartment or even the same state we started in and we've both changed jobs and industries multiple times. We've shared fantastic travel experiences and weathered challenges including recessions, snowstorms, hurricanes, protests and more recently a global pandemic. And through it all I could not hope to have found a more adaptable, genuine and supportive partner. I am constantly reminded that it takes a very special and patient kind of person to deal with me for ten minutes let alone a full decade, but she nods and smiles and shares the ride with me, even when my trajectory and train of thought go off the rails and crash through terrain that neither of us are familiar with. For that I am eternally grateful.

The piece below was previously published in my ebook of poetry, "Turning the Stars." It's every bit as relevant now as it was when I first wrote it. Having a true partner, I have learned, means having someone who accepts all of your quirks and oddities and history, even if it doesn't always make sense.

Young Summer Gibberish

We were kids
without fences,
without unlimited
text messaging -
who needed that, when
a magic eight ball
could tell us
all we needed to know -
to call someone or not.

Text-based computer games -
pale green glowing cursor
(a green you never see
anymore, except on
monitors in old movies),
awaiting our commands
while the high definition
wilderness behind
our friends' houses
stretched across the planet.

We learned
kabbalistic quack
Cracker Jack magic tricks
to cure migraines
in dust mote choked
sunbeams through the rafters
of a day camp barn loft –
one hand on the forehead
and one hand behind the head
palms facing each other
"visualize streams
of deep blue and green and

Maybe when I tell you
all these things, like a deluge of
verbal pop cap candy fizz trivia, you'll
tilt your head to a cascade of dark hair;
your burnt umber eyes
hanging slightly ajar.
Baffled, both of us
for a moment until
you put your hand in mine,
letting me know
you don't mind
my gibberish.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Ryman Alley

When I travel, I'm usually focused on going from one place to the next to the next, but sometimes the places between places have their own stories to tell. (The piece below was previously published on Atlas Obscura. You can see it here.)

The alley connecting two of country music's most historic venues has a rich history of its own.

Walking from the gates of the Ryman Auditorium (which hosted the Grande Ole Opry for a time) to the back door of Tootsies Orchard Lounge is, for country music fans, akin to a short but holy pilgrimage.

It’s hard to fathom just how many country music superstars have passed between the Ryman Auditorium and Tootsies over the years. Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, Chet Atkins, and Hank Williams are just a few of the famous musicians to walk this alley. Nelson, in fact, immortalized the alley in a song line “seventeen steps to Tootsies and thirty-four back,” presumably alluding to having a few cocktails at the lounge and staggering out afterward.

 According to legends, the alley between the venues actually became a venue itself. During the 1950s, two young boys would sing and play guitar to Opry stars passing by in hopes of catching their attention. Night after night they played the alley, honing their craft and hoping for a break.

That break came when Chet Atkins happened to pass by and offered the boys a chance to perform with him on stage at the Opry that night. They were only too happy to do so, and went on to achieve stardom of their own as the Everly Brothers.

If you pass through the alley, you can follow, literally, in the footsteps of country music legends. A set of footprints have been inlaid on the ground.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Deeper South

I've lived in Tampa now for almost four years, and I've found acceptance here. It took plenty of salt water to wash all the layers of big northern cities from my skin, but I feel like I fit in now. Some of that has to do as much with the place as with me - Florida has been host to transplants for centuries - the Spanish, the English, Americans and more recently "northerners." In my travels though, I've found that some southern cities and towns are less accepting of this, and though they invite you in with a warm smile and a beer-battered meal, they subtly and politely remind you that their south and yours are not the same thing.

Deeper South

You can gawk and point fingers
At the monuments to those
Of cursed memory.
Snap pictures on the sly
Of the bones of the saints
And the Fiji Mermaids
That we keep shackled
In the vaults of our cathedrals.
Fumble your blunt tongue
Over the broken sidewalks
Of our quaint street names and sayings.

But it isn’t your blood
That once cut rivers through the
Fields coarse hands work.
Those names carved in the stones
Set atop that hill, they
Aren’t any relations of yours.

To you it’s a second language;
Rebranding our memories
With your Instagram photos.

You’re fashioned from data analytics,
Not shale or corn cob, or red clay
Bound in plastic, not kudzu, and
The deep delta mud under your fingernails
Wasn’t born there.

As a child, you never learned the rhymes
That teach you which path will grant you
Safe passage past the witch’s cave.

So occupy the outer rings of our circles
Sample our music and shine
Purchase a plot of land,

But know you well,
Not one or all
Of those things
Will ever make you

From here.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Exploring Central Florida: Hidden Black History

In my travels throughout Florida and the southeastern US as a whole, visiting various lesser known monuments and historical sites has revealed to me a stark and disheartening difference in the way some of them have been preserved. While removing or relocating confederate civil war monuments and statues has triggered outrage among some (especially and not surprisingly white supremacy groups), important historical reminders of black history such as cemeteries and, in at least one case, an entire town that was destroyed by racial violence, have been plowed over and erased from the map for decades with hardly any notice. In the wake of George Floyd's murder and the ongoing protests around the country over systemic racism and police brutality, it seemed like the right time to shine a spotlight on some of these little known spots. There are a great many other sites, including those along the Florida Black Heritage Trail, but this just reflects some of those with which I am most familiar.

1. The Harlem of the South
During segregation, roughly half of all black people living in Tampa occupied the area known as the Scrub. Central Avenue there became the black business and entertainment district, known as the Harlem of the South, with almost 100 shops and storefronts. Those businesses included a boarding house where "The St. Pete Blues" was recorded by a little known musician at the time named Ray Charles. That song would go on to be his first major hit. Today Central Ave is the site of Perry Harvey, Sr. Park and displays along the sidewalk illustrate the development, culture, history and key figures that made Central Avenue a success up until it's decline the sixties. The shooting of a 19-year-old black man named Martin Chambers by a white police officer in 1967 led to rioting and essentially closed the chapter on Central Avenue's many decades of prosperity.

2. Progress, One Step at a Time
In other posts I've mentioned my deep affection for St. Augustine, with it's centuries of history dating back to Spanish and English occupation. On a more recent trip there, I discovered that it also contains an important piece of much more recent, Civil Rights history, in the form of several bronze footprints near the corner of King Street and St. George Street. Known as Andrew Young's Crossing, the footprints terminate abruptly at the spot where the young activist was knocked unconscious by an angry white mob while leading a peaceful protest march on behalf of Dr. Martin Luther King. Young and his marchers remained true to the ideal of passive resistance and endured the brutal beatings. This has been cited as one of the events which led President Lyndon Johnson to pass the Civil Rights Bill on July 2nd, 1964. Young went on to become America's first African American U.N. Ambassador and subsequently Mayor of Atlanta. He has since returned to St. Augustine multiple times, completing the path from which he was once forcefully prevented.

3. Where is Rosewood?
If you've ever visited the quaint beach community of Cedar Key, you likely drove past a historical marker along Florida State Road 24. That marker is essentially all that remains of the town of Rosewood, which was torn apart and set ablaze when racial tensions erupted into a violent massacre. Rosewood was once a peaceful lumber town, but that all changed on January 1st,  1923 when a white woman accused a black man there of assaulting her. According to the marker, "In the search for her alleged attacker, whites terrorized and killed Rosewood residents. In the days of fear and violence that followed, many Rosewood citizens sought refuge in the nearby woods. White merchant John M. Wright and other courageous whites sheltered some of the fleeing men, women and children. Whites burned Rosewood and looted livestock and property; two were killed while attacking a home. Five blacks also lost their lives: Sam Carter, who was tortured for information and shot to death." The death toll is actually now believed to have much higher and that the female accuser was trying to cover up an affair. Though profoundly tragic and disturbing, many have not heard of the events that transpired in Rosewood, because for almost 60 years the massacre was a taboo subject, until former residents began reluctantly opening up about it in 1982. 

4. Green Benches, Invisible Bars
As far back as 1916, the city of St. Petersburg knew it was going to become a major tourist destination. Toward this end, Mayor Al Lang realized that amid the beaches, shopping and other attractions, visitors would appreciate a comfortable place to sit. So he began regulating the dimensions, size and color (green) of the benches around the city. Thousands of them sprung up - you can still see the smiling faces of people sitting on them in old postcards. Smiling, old, white faces, that is. According to Ray Arsenault – John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, "the black residents of St. Petersburg had their place, but that place was not on the green benches." They weren't expressly forbidden from them, but they didn't have to be - it was simply understood. Eventually, in the 1960's, the City realized the error they had made and removed the benches in an attempt to rebrand the city as younger as more diverse. But the damage was done and the connections between the green benches and systemic racism was inseparable. Today you can still find one of those few remaining green benches in the Florida Holocaust Museum.

5. Separate and Unequal... in Death as in Life
I dedicated a chapter to this subject in my upcoming book, "Secret Tampa Bay: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure," and the story is unfolding in real time as more cemeteries are discovered, so I won't say too much about it. Suffice it to say that as many as a dozen of the Tampa Bay area's oldest black cemeteries very quietly slipped off the map and became lost. The oldest of these, Zion Cemetery, was recently discovered to have been underneath public housing for the last 70 years. In their haste to cash in on available land, the developers never even bothered to move the coffins. To compound the pain of those family members who are learning that the graves of their relatives were ignored and built over, many of the residents there have had to be relocated. More recently another black cemetery was discovered under a local high school and now it appears that a third may have been found in Clearwater. Still others will likely be rediscovered in the coming days - a painful reminder of how black history and bodies have been bulldozed, erased and forgotten.

As mentioned previously - these are just a very few of the vast number of historically and culturally significant black history sites in central Florida. There's the home of Zora Neale Hurston, Fort Mose, the Bing Rooming House Museum, school houses, churches, cemeteries and monuments. I plan to explore this topic further, and I look forward, as always, to sharing with you what I discover.