Story by Jeff Klinkenberg
Photos by Scott Keeler

Times photographer Scott Keeler talks about Gibsonton

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It would be nice to begin with a postcard scene of waving palms, a moonlit pond or an orange tree dripping white with blossoms. But the Tamiami Trail starts where U.S. 41 meets State Road 60 in an industrial East Tampa neighborhood occupied by gas stations, high-turnover motels and tire-clogged ditches.

Poverty comes with the scenery.

Jim Carr, Linda Gregory and Darryl Bedell watch from the best seat in a bleak house. Homeless, they pass their days under the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway. When they panhandle enough at the traffic light, they can buy a six-pack of Bud and a tin of Bugler Turkish Blended Tobacco with which they roll cigarettes by hand. They're middle-aged but look older, worn out Walker Evans photographs made flesh. Their lives are about hanging on.

They are longtime carnival workers, but the economy is so bad, even carnivals aren't hiring everyone who wants a payday. In a good year, Bedell would be transporting by trailer a Ferris wheel down the Tamiami Trail or to points north along U.S. 41. Carr and Gregory would be running a carnival game called the Rabbit Toss. Instead, they endure.

"We're just like them Injuns on the other end of the Trail, bro," Carr says. "We ain't no different."

A carnival funnel cakes trailer parked next to a tattoo parlor is as reliable as a city limits sign. For much of the year, carnival workers by the hundreds call Gibsonton home. During the season, they pack their trunks and head up the Tamiami Trail to small towns and churches throughout Middle America. Careers over, retired carnies come home to Gibsonton to live out their days.

Al Tomaini and his wife, Jeanie, helped establish Gibsonton nearly six decades ago when the Trail and U.S. 41 beyond was a main route. Al, known as Giant, was nearly 8 feet 5. Jeanie, known as Half Girl, was 2 feet 6. Giant and Half Girl are gone, but the restaurant they started, Giant's Camp, remains a beacon to hungry folks along the Tamiami Trail.

In the steamy kitchen, Margaret Ingram, 74, for three decades an institution here, fries chicken and fixes collards and her famous biscuits. You can joke about her chicken but not her biscuits. "I make them from scratch," she says, eyes blazing behind spectacles.

After supper, business at Gibsonton's other institution, the Showtown Bar & Grill, draws carnival workers for beer, talk and karaoke. Regulars include little person Pete Terhurne, fire-eater Felicity Perez and her husband, sword swallower Matthew Bouvier. Often they are accompanied by their manager, Ward Hall, who has lived in Gibsonton for most of his 73 years.

"If a drunk from Tampa were to wander into Giant's or the Showtown and see all the acts that have been here throughout the years," Ward says, "he'd probably give up booze." Chapter 2