I have a bad habit of assumption. It seems useful, but it’s often a lie, and the consequences are enormous. A year ago, I assumed Florida was not cool.
But I had never heard of Ybor City in Tampa Florida, where I shipwrecked on my way to St. Petersburg, and was reborn a Floridian. My assumptions were slaughtered.
A city of converted red brick cigar factories with iron balconies and moorish arches. Railroad tracks run parallel to the main drag, filled with Cuban sandwich joints, bars, and leathery old men rolling cigars in windows.
The nicest building in the neighborhood is the fully renovated scientology compound.
Nearby is the oldest Spanish restaurant in America, with a beautiful tiled exterior, it’s own chapel, and overpriced, tourist trap ‘Spanish’ cuisine. There’s no decent bookstore but there’s a James Joyce pub.
Yet being a sober bibliophile who has been all over Spain, I’m still diggin it.
Wiry feral cats roam, with bald patches of furless muscle, trailed by their kittens, studying how to kill, ignoring gangs of roosters bathing in dirt and scattering across broken sidewalks under tropical foliage.
The bands of hens and chicks peck for food near the tracks or the cobblestones under street cars on rails, clanging, running past crumbling brick buildings vomiting barbecue smoke on the palm lined patios, staining the scene with nostalgia like the nicotine on the fingers of old men sipping cuban espressos.
June brings the storms, the rain shaking the palms, the lizards in heat, scuttling across my girlfriend in the dark, and the termites whose wings fall off, initiating a nauseating metamorphosis into a crawling worm on the walls, on the sink, your toothbrush. Sand is in everything.
You can easily mistake the nocturnal hip hop bass trailing by for thunder.
The neighborhoods to the north are grim impoverished reminders of life lived for a substance, but the rent is cheap.
There’s danger you can’t see in the sun, yet people nod and say ‘Hello’, or ‘Good Morning’. The girls at Blind Tiger Coffee will chat your ear off about what they’re reading, because they have the time and energy.
Folks in L.A, myself included, solemnly gave up hope of ever having either again.
Cigars and Revolution
Ybor City, ‘Cigar City’, was named after Vicente Martinez-Ybor, a Spanish Cigar entrepreneur who started in Cuba, came to Key West, and then Tampa.
According to Wikipedia, when Cuba was under rule by the Spanish, although Spanish himself, Ybor was sympathetic towards the Cuban rebels, providing them with funding, and then had to escape with his family to Key West when the Spanish found out.
Eventually he came to Tampa, and employed many Cuban immigrants in this district, which was owned and inhabited almost entirely by Spanish, Cuban and Italian immigrants (thus the Cuban sandwich was born).
José Martí, poet, and Apostle of Cuban Freedom on his plaque, has his own private park across from the Scientologists, his pale mustachioed form reaching out to an ideal of independence from Spain.
He died in battle at 42 before he could see its achievement.
I had previously made the assumption, based on nothing, that Florida was not a cool place to be.
I pictured Spring Breakers (Think James Franco’s bleary ‘Sprang breaaaak’), ghetto rap murder culture, cheesy fisherman retirees dancing to Jimmy Buffet, alligator attacks at disney world, headlines about the pervasive threat of mother nature via hurricanes or Zika or cannibals.
And I discovered it’s all there. It’s all true. It’s actually weird. It’s why Harry Crews and Ernest Hemingway wrote here. The beaches beckon the souls of the weird. If it’s good enough for Iggy Pop, it’s good enough for me.
Photo by Olaf Heine
To think of all the communities in the U.S that provide an infinitely greater quality of life due to affordability and community that are NOT the gigantic metropolitan cities reddens my face with shame, because I never entertained the option while in the city, I never looked until I had to.
Learning = Discomfort
Traveling shifts your whole perspective. It’s not a choice. You’re exploring the unfamiliar territory, changing unknown into the known, making it your own, initially submitting to its laws. It’s uncomfortable. You spend too much money, get fat, and lose sleep, and you learn, and learning is discomfort.
I put too much emphasis on being in a large city knowing I couldn’t afford it. I was trying to stick it out to see what would happen, what connections I’d make, what numbers the dice would show. This is (obviously) a terrible, unorganized way to achieve your goals.
Move to a place where the rent fits your income, take responsibility, do the work and stop trying to shirk tradition and take short cuts. Stay as far away from debt as you can.
When you give an answer automatically about exploring new territory, without thinking, ask yourself, do I really believe that, and if so, why?
Old People and Alligators
I felt like a stereotype in L.A whether or not I was successful in my goals.
Couple this with skyrocketing homelessness, 23% last year according to this LA Times Article.
I would pay exorbitant rent while going to sleep listening to people screaming on the street almost every night and lived in a building where someone was shot to death in a hallway. I heard about kids raised in Skid Row growing up to be teenagers who had never seen the ocean a few miles away.
It’s a fine city if you have friends, time, a lot of money and a calloused soul. Maybe it would have gotten better, but I couldn’t afford to find out.
When you tell the people you know in Los Angeles, or any insular metropolis, you’re moving to Florida, it sounds like ‘I’m Giving Up’. Florida is full of old people and alligators. One friend asked me if I’m ‘settling down’.
‘I’m sorting myself out’, I replied.
Grab as much responsibility as you can carry and hit the road.
St. Pete/Tampa is not a perfect place. I’m not searching for perfection, I’m searching for growth, truth, maturation, authenticity, meaning. You can find these things in large cities. Or so I’ve read in books.
Do not stop exploring. Look where others are afraid to. Ideally you’d have equal amounts of curiosity and stability. Chaos and order. System and excess. Yin and Yang.
When your curiosity is lost, your life becomes dull.
When your stability is lost, all you can think about is how to get it back.
Somewhere in here is the opportunity to have both, and it may only be a small window in time, with a considerable amount of risk. But often the greater the calculated risk, or sacrifice, the greater the reward.
Sometimes you don’t know – and you have to say fuck it.
I don’t know if this will work, or if it’s a good idea. I’m doing it anyways.
Grab as much responsibility as you can carry and hit the road.
“Fix it on the other side” as my friend J told me.