Thursday, February 27, 2014

Seasons Cafe and Bakery

There needs to be an overarching name for the vast area that encompasses the bottom half of the giant peninsula that has Clearwater to the north and St. Petersburg to the south. I'm finding that boundaries here are oddly nebulous; places tend to be geographically claimed simultaneously by a number of townships. For example, there's a park I visit often that is alternately referred to by official sites as being in Pinellas Park, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, and even Tampa itself, which is on the other side of the bay. And when you get deep in the heart of the murk at the center, even the locals aren't sure where Largo becomes Seminole becomes Pinellas Park becomes Lealman. And, it must be said, they don't seem to particularly care. Good for them.

But the stretch across the peninsula's bottom, running the full length of Central Avenue, has a distinctly separate personality from the more northerly Clearwater/Safety Harbor/Dunedin/Tarpon Springs area. And the more I hang out with locals down here, the more I find them repeatedly speaking of Central Avenue and everything south of it as one big unified community, connecting St. Petersburg, Bayview, Gulfport, Pasadena, Treasure Island, and St. Pete Beach. Many refer to the whole schmeer as simply "St. Pete" but I don't want to impinge upon the individual character of each of these locales, so I'm going to call it something else. Exactly what, I haven't decided yet.

Anyway. Reason I bring it up in the first place, this vast fuzzy area of quantum indeterminacy is another perfect example of the concept of "Interzone", a place of constantly shifting boundaries and blurred lines. And like the original William S. Burroughs Interzone in Tangier, this region is a rich melting pot of cultures. From where I sit in my office right now, I am minutes away from more authentic Italian restaurants than you can count (and by authentic I mean the menus aren't in English), a Filipino grocery, a Santeria/Voodoo "spiritual botanica", a Brazilian steakhouse, an Arabic Halal meat market, a Moroccan fusion bistro, Thai diners, German cafes, Cuban delis, African import stores and literally two dozen Vietnamese restaurants and markets.

Which brings us to Seasons Cafe & Bakery, located in, more or less, Pinellas Park. You know how I feel about the Bubble Tea, and Seasons excels at this delicacy. I highly recommend the taro boba smoothie. It's fluorescent purple and has a taste that is unique and indescribable, but I'll describe it anyway - it's kinda like a cross between a sweet potato and Lucky Charms cereal.

They also have delicious Thai Tea, Vietnamese Iced Coffee, and some wacky contraption called a "Koko Loko" - coffee jelly, egg pudding, and shaved ice with condensed milk. Beat that!

The Red Phone Booth

Tampa's Hyde Park Village is famous for this antique British Doctor Who-worthy red phone booth. You can find it along the incongrously-named Snow Avenue.

Snell Isle

Snell Isle, listed as "Snell Island" on some maps, is a deluxe island neighborhood north of downtown St. Petersburg. It was founded by a Kentuckian - a pharmacist named C. Perry Snell who moved to Florida in the year 1900 and set about building a resort-community empire. According to an article in the May/June 2005 issue of Tampa Bay Magazine:

When the development, originally a muddy mangrove island, officially opened in October 1925, only 39 of its 275 acres were above the high tide line. Even so, Snell quickly sold over seven million dollars worth of lots there.

The island is filled with stunning architecture and statuary, and continues on if you follow the road into a bewildering maze of those television-antenna-looking islands - like the Venetian Isles, Eden Isle, and Harbor Isle (not to be confused with Tampa's Harbor Island.) Trudge far enough northward and you'll eventually reach the dark and swampy Weedon Island.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Biff and Buffy

I haven't actually eaten at Biff-Burger in Pinellas Park, and I'm not sure I plan to. It's very much a biker joint, and sometimes a pretty rowdy one. I think I'll content myself to stand outside and ogle its beautimous 1950s sign and decor, its classic car up on the roof, and its fascinating primitive art murals.

Biff-Burger is a sort of conjoined twin with another business, Buffy's Bar-B-Que, as the two share a common area in the center and people seem to come and go between the two as they please. Biff-Burger was once a mighty national chain that is now all but extinct, but I don't think Buffy was a package deal anywhere else but here. Even if I never get the oomph up to sample your wares, Biff and Buffy, I salute you nonetheless for your existence.

Anna Maria City Pier

One of the absolute must-go places on Anna Maria Island is the Anna Maria City Pier, which is a long walkway with no protective railings across a long span of sea. (As you might imagine, it acts as something of a sobriety test when everyone's walking back to the mainland across it after dark!) It's a primo fishing spot, has a great restaurant with locally-caught grouper, live acoustic music from Howie Banfield, and is just a generally pleasant place to sit, light a cigar, and watch the water and the seabirds.

Triton Statue

This Triton statue looks pretty digestible to me. It depicts him blowing his magic conch just outside a gelato shop, and the more I look at him, the more I can't unsee Jeff Bridges from The Big Lebowski.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Gulfport Casino

One of the first things about Gulfport that captured my attention was the majestic old Gulfport Casino by the beach. I gazed through the glass door at the wide open area inside and imagined it in another era, filled with raucous swingin' jazz music, gaily feathered and sequined women of ill repute, and the clatter and clank of spinning roulette wheels and primitive early slot machines.

Well, as it turns out, none of that ever happened, at least not in this segment of the Multiverse. The Gulfport Casino, I've learned, was never actually a gambling casino, but a casino casino, in the archaic sense of the word when a casino simply meant a gathering place.

It took some time to shake off the cloak of disappointment but now I'm good with it; the place still has a rich past, dripping with historical goodies. It was once the waiting area for an old ferryboat that once shuttled passengers over to Pass-A-Grille, and has been for most if not all of its existence a performance hall for live music and ballroom dancing, and even had a thriving barn dance scene, if a squib from the December 24, 1937 edition of the Evening Independent is to be believed.

Even during the cultural morass of the seventies, the casino (which is finally being considered for protected historic building status) managed to survive the years of post-hippie-burnout, Nixon, Carter, disco and punk rock. A 1976 puff-piece/advertisement notes a swing band called The Debonaires performing at the casino, keeping the dimly flickering candle of swing burning during those desperate dark pre-hipster swing revival times when about the only thing keeping the tradition going in popular culture was The Lawrence Welk Show. It doesn't say whether the Debonaires were the regular house band composed of locals, or if they were a regional act traveling to Gulfport for special appearances each weekend.

If it's the former (most likely) I'm betting some old retired members are puttering around watering their lawns in Gulfport and Pasadena right this minute, and I should probably go track them down and interview them, shouldn't I? And another advertisement, from the 1950s, mentions a Merrymaker's Orchestra of which the same question applies.

To this very day, the casino still hosts a swing night that looks to be right up my alley. I'll be stationed full-time in Gulfport in about a week or so, and plan to check out the proceedings. Who knows, maybe I'll even do a JSH Combo appearance here if they'll let me molest their piano a little and also pay me in something other than smiles and soda. Come swing with me.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Drinking Skeleton

This painting on the wall of a Jacksonville Beach bar depicts a cerveza-drinking skeleton. As one might expect, the beverage just runs down his bare sternum and spine.

Truly-Nolen Mousemobile

So it turns out that the Truly-Nolen pest control company, whose mouse-motif Volkswagen we'd seen previously in Kentucky, conducts its business in the Sunshine State as well. Recently at breakfast in Pinellas Park I saw this critter-car parked in the restaurant's lot. (As a dining customer, we presume, and not a rodent-ridder for hire.)

Given the Walt Disney company's extremely litigious nature, I'm surprised they haven't attempted to claim the concept of mouse's ears rendered as black circles as their own intellectual property.

Gulfport Signpost

As previously chronicled from this desk, Floridites do love their multi-directional signposts. Here's another specimen, sighted in Gulfport. However, this signpost has an added twist in that all the signs point directly to Yummy's snack shop.

Centro Ybor Sign

Gotta love this sign overlooking the Muvico Theatre at Centro Ybor in Tampa's Ybor City, designed to resemble a giant cigar band.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Red Hot Tiki

I was excited to see this "gourmet" store called Red Hot Tiki in Gulfport recently, and my mind started racing to imagine what sort of exotic goodness lay within. Sadly, my flag went to half-mast when I walked in and realized that the store sells practically nothing but hot sauce. And not just any hot sauces, but specifically the "stupidly hot for stupid people" kind - with pictures of toilets and Grim Reapers and medieval executioners and explosions and biohazard symbols - which I take an extremely dim view of.

(I'm also not sure where "Tiki" comes into play here. The buzzword is quickly becoming beyond homogenized to the point now where anyone with any kind of business in a coastal area thinks it's the hip thing to do.)

I like hot sauce that I can taste, not hot sauce that is going to fry my tongue so severely I can no longer taste anything - and certainly not the kind that actually brags right on the bottle that this will be the effect. I like Cholula, which is my baseline go-to sauce, and it meets my general rule of thumb which is: can you drink it from the bottle without choking or vomiting? It's like what Frank Sinatra once said, regarding show-offs who try to turn drinking into a macho competition, "Why knock yourself out? Don't try to be a big hero with it. For what?"

Apparently there's a sizable subculture for insipid frat-boy hot sauces and barbecue rubs whose names and labels openly liken their products to nuclear waste, Satan, hell, torture, pain, death, etc. but that's not my scene. Yes, I'm tough enough to eat any raw peppers that top the Scoville Scale, but I'm also tough enough to carve the Black Flag logo into my arm - but the question remains, why the hell would I want to?

Why would I want to eat a hot sauce that leaves me unable to taste anything else for the rest of the meal, and whose label openly and gleefully promises it will give you diarrhea? It's about as useful and desirable a practice as, say, huffing toluene. Which is to say, nil.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Neon Liquor Bottle

I can't even remember what liquor store this sign was for - it had a red awning and was somewhere on Ulmerton Road leaving Largo. I went in because their awning said they sell cigars, but their humidor was practically empty so I grumpily left. Either restock your supply or scrape the word "cigars" off the awning, you guys.

But their old neon sign, which probably predates the current owner, sure is spiff.

Dali-esque Horse Statue

Near the corner of Beach Blvd. and 29th in Gulfport, I happened to see this Dali-esque sculpture of a horse with extraordinarily long legs.

(Salvador Dali, you may or may not recall, went thru a period where he was given to rendering horses, elephants and various creatures with long insectoid legs.)

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Vana Vana Society

A curious report in the February 3, 1936 issue of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune tells of a mysterious group of nudists who encountered problems just outside of Tampa's Hillsborough Bay. Their craft, the Fleetwood, ran aground on a reef and damaged its engine. The next day, the New York Post reported the ship was fixed and on its way.

The group called themselves The Vana Vana Society, and consisted of one Maurice Allard, his wife, son, and two daughters. They had no navigator among them, and while in Florida Mr. Allard made inquiries to find one to join them. But as the newspaper article waggishly states, all the local seafarers were too fond of wearing trousers to sign up for the post.

Despite lacking someone on board who could navigate, the Vana Vana Society were sailing to the Virgin Islands, where they had a 1000-acre tract on St. John's Island. Here, the paper says, the family intended to establish a "nudist-socialistic utopia". Refreshingly, the paper made no editorial effort to mock, sensationalize, or judge the group - hell, they didn't even make any bad puns.

But did the family complete their journey? I do not know, but I wouldn't bet the nudist farm on it. The only thing that comes up in a Google search for the Vana Vana Society is a handful of newspaper articles about their Florida mishaps. A story dated Feb. 25 in the St. Petersburg Times says that their journey experience more problems after their Feb. 4 sendoff - they had three separate mishaps before finally setting off, noting that they'd be stopping in Key West to stock up on provisions. They also apparently managed to lure a navigator named Johan Johanson into their ranks.

Weeks passed. Then came the appearance of the article "Queer tales of nudist ship: Captain goes mad and runs amok" in the Straits Times, May 3, 1936. The article's anonymous suthor seems to be blurring some of the facts as reported by the previous papers, and so casts a shadow of doubt on the sensationalist tone of the story. It claims here that Johanson was already helming the ship when the original Feb. 6 accident occurred, and blames that disaster on Johanson's mental instability. It accuses him of chasing the female nudists around and letting the ship go in circles unmanned, and that he finally had to be restrained and tied up.

This piece notes two additional passengers not mentioned in any of the other newspapers: a New York artist named Ross Dodd and a 19-year-old Denver girl named Lucille Robinson.

And then the story goes cold. We're left to only guess what became of this ill-fated cruise to "nudetopia" and if they even made it out of Florida waters at all. Drop me a line if you know more, won't you?

Roland Manteiga Statue

This statue in Ybor City honors Roland Manteiga, the former editor of Tampa's weekly newspaper La Gaceta, founded in 1922 by Roland's father and now carried on by his son. Published in English, Spanish, and Italian, La Gaceta is the only trilingual newspaper in America.

Ice, Custard, Happiness

I never made it into Rita's on Anastasia Island, though I do love ice, I adore custard and am all about happiness. I did snap a picture of their sign because I liked their slogan. I'll wend my way back there eventually and file a report on all the colorful products they purvey, but for now let's just be real quiet and think about this universal trifecta.

Sniki Tiki

Siesta Key's Sniki Tiki is another good example of my Anomalous Enthusiasm Axiom regarding Tiki Bars. Despite being Tiki-named on a freakin' island in the freakin' gulf, the decor is not really retro and the waitresses seem hurried and disinterested even when you're the only customer in the joint. Nine tenths of the Tiki Bar experience is about the mood, the setting, and the demeanor of the staff. But if pressed on the matter, all these managers of these sorta-but-not-really-Tiki-bars would probably just shrug and say, "Look, man, this isn't 1957. I just gave the place that name 'cuz, you know, it's all tropical-sounding and stuff."

Having said that - ah, the inevitable "having said that" - I nevertheless visited the place three times and still have fond memories of it. Because the food is excellent. And that's really what it's all about, isn't it?

First time I went, I had the clam chowder, second and third time the Philly Cheesesteak. All superb, and it must be said I am an authority on Philly Cheesesteaks, you ask anyone. The drinks are top-notch, even if they are served in dinky little boring clear plastic cups and not in a proper Tiki Mug or a ceramic tumbler that looks like Fu Manchu's less successful brother.

You'll find Sniki Tiki at the world famous Captain Curt's Village on Stickney Point, Siesta Key.