tampa, florida: blue politics, bluz and bbq, pig bucks, and the big sloppy


Once again flyingnorthblog found itself on an airplane – this time headed south. Destination – Tampa, Florida. Despite having been to places like the former Soviet Republic of Moldova, I had not been to Tampa before, and I figured it was high time. A city with a population of about 335,000, Tampa was settled in 1823 and by the turn of the 20th century became known as the cigar capital of the world.

As I made my way from the airport to a friend’s apartment, I noticed how clean the streets were and also how organized the city was, at least the downtown area. Coming in from the airport, for easy identification for drivers, the signs for the airline terminals were not numbered, but color-coded. Red for British Airways, Blue for Delta, etc. I also very much liked the illuminated street signs downtown – lit from within.

Speaking of red and blue, the locals characterized Tampa as a red city with a blue mayor, and St. Pete, Tampa’s sister city, as a blue city with a red mayor. From what I saw in Tampa, it certainly wasn’t the stereotypical “hanging chad” gray hairs who held up the election results from the year 2000 in neighboring Dade County – it was in fact a city that had quite a liberal edge to it. That is not to say that there weren’t plenty of men in Tampa Bay football shirts walking along with their wives or girlfriends in their finery. By finery I mean a matching velour track suit.

Recently, the city of Tampa has passed antidiscrimination rules for transgender people [2009], quite a forward-looking social statement made by a southern city government. The population is fast becoming decidedly similar to something one might see if one were to, let’s say, fly north. As we had been driving around, I saw Tampa’s occupy Wall Street contingency in another park, probably around 300 people or so, adding the voice of the city to that nascent movement.

Later, walking around, we came upon a large open park just behind the shiny new art museum and across the river from the University of Tampa, with its beautiful late nineteenth century Moorish revival administrative building that looks like something one might find in Europe [it was formerly the Tampa Bay Hotel]. In the background was the skyline of the Tampa business district, not a huge number of buildings, but actually quite nice, except for the Bank of America building, which of course only reminded me of the ridiculous fees they are pushing on the public.

In the park was a large fair – called “BLUZ and BBQ,” cleverly named as amongst the crowds one could find lots of bbq and a stage with bands playing blues music. In order to get some of that BBQ, we had first to exchange our greenbacks for “pig money,” and could then feast on a taste of the south. I noticed one particularly popular stand, that of “Smokin’ Oaks BBQ – Home of the Big Sloppy.” As I took my pig bucks and was hopeful that I would be able to solve the mystery of what the big sloppy actually was [I know what that might mean in New York-speak but any of those options wouldn’t be something that would be sold at a fair, let alone have people wait in queue for it in public]. The proprietor of “Smokin’ Oaks” came up to us and introduced himself with all of the southern hospitality one might expect from a proprietor of a business with that name. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time to wait in the queue, so I never did get to find out what the “Big Sloppy” was. My excitement morphed to disappointment.

12 pig bucks later, and we had a huge plate of BBQ from “Smokin’ Oaks’” competitor, and were satiated for the moment, albeit the food was the culinary equivalent of the word “meh.” No doubt yet another reason why Smokin’ Oaks was smokin’.

As I left the city a few days later, in the early morning at the clean and quiet Tampa airport, I looked for my first latte of the day with all of the determination of the CIA hunting for militants. Despite my aversion to the place [once you’ve had a real latte Starbucks tastes like a counterfeit version being sold on the streets of Chinatown] I ended up ordering a latte. As I paid, I was debating if I should ask the sleepy barista whether or not Starbucks took pig bucks.