We call temporary insanity Gasparilla

Published January 26, 2007

So here it is Gasparilla again.

Unless you just drove down from Idaho in a moving truck, you probably know something about this - the past, the politics and, of course, the party.

Gasparilla is Tampa's own homegrown craziness, our wildest uncle dropping in once year for some fun and leaving a big mess behind. It's temporary insanity sailing in on a pirate ship, swashbuckling its way ashore and taking the town. (Which is easy enough, since the mayor hands over the keys.)

Tomorrow, a bunch of bigwigs will put aside their weekend khakis and golf dates to don pantaloons and eye patches. They are The Krewe, the official big dog band of pillaging pirates.

Hundreds of thousands of spectators are expected to show, too. Not that everyone partakes. Plenty choose to ignore it, to hunker down or to get out of Dodge till it's safe to come home.

But on a clear Gasparilla day, you can look down curving Bayshore Boulevard and swear a whole city has come out to play.

Gasparilla has been going on more than a century now - though the early decades likely had less beer swilling, bead tossing and breast-baring. It is Tampa's history.

In 1974, a pirate-garbed executive editor of the Tampa Tribune died of a heart attack during the night parade.

In the 1980s, Gasparilla was part of a federal racketeering case. Lawyers complained that, among other things, the judge kept up a grueling schedule that was unfair. A juror even asked if the curtains might be parted so they could watch the Gasparilla parade go by. A new trial was ordered.

Of course, the big controversy came over all-white, all-male Ye Mystic Krewe and how that might play with the Super Bowl coming to town. In the brouhaha, Gasparilla got canceled. In 1991, the city held something called Bamboleo, informally known as Bambo-lame-o.

We wanted pirates.

Has Gasparilla fixed itself? Well, there are more krewes, women krewes, krewes for pretty much anyone who wants to be in a krewe. The Krewe added a few black members. You decide.

Fancy corporate tents and paid-seat bleachers have changed it from a people's parade. But the crowds come, rain or shine.

They show for beads, screaming themselves hoarse on the parade route to get cheap plastic strands thrown their way. At Gasparilla, you are no one without beads. People collect so many around their necks they lean back to walk. Tomorrow, toddlers, homeless people and dogs all will sport beads.

Grown men will relieve themselves in sculpted hedges near the city's fanciest mansions. Cannons will boom and the world will smell of elephant ears, corn dogs and cigars. Having a cold beer in the sun surrounded by a pack of generally happy people might not sound bad. In a light drizzle, even.

And every year, without fail, kids are starstruck at the sight of all those pirates.

Funny. Last weekend, the Daily Show's Jon Stewart happened to be in town for the milder but still formidable version, the Children's Gasparilla Parade. Stewart wondered aloud about us, like a lot of people do this time of year. "Why," he asked, "would you want to teach 10-year-olds about Mardi Gras?"

Jon, Jon, Jon. You're not from here, are you?