It's not a foreign country or whatever

Published February 28, 2007

Is it the long bridges that separate us? The bay in between?

Why is it that side-by-side Hillsborough and Pinellas counties sometimes seem about as connected as Key West and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho?

Last week, Pinellas Park officials were talking about a plan for their police on horseback to work in Tampa if needed and vice versa, a sharing sort of thing. City Council member Patricia Bailey-Snook had a question.

"Are our law enforcement officers taking up Spanish or Cuban or whatever?" she wondered.

Cuban? Whatever?

And in case they didn't get her drift: "So they can talk to the public over there."

Over there?

Apparently oblivious to the lemon-faces on some of her colleagues, she kept going: "Because a lot of them will say that they don't speak English, but they do. But they'll just keep rattling off in Spanish and you can't get them to say a word in English."

Oh, that Tampa. That far-flung foreign nation where people who get stopped by police won't speak proper 'Merican English.

Surely Bailey-Snook, with her long career in local government and even a stint in the state House of Representatives, has a more sophisticated view of the big town across the pond.

Surely she knows about the cigar workers who came to Ybor City more than a century ago. Maybe she's heard about the Spanish and Cuban (and Italian) immigrant families who were part of the city's fabric, whose sons and daughters are among its judges and doctors and politicians.

Actually, I don't know what Bailey-Snook knows, because she didn't return my calls. She did tell Times reporter Anne Lindberg after the meeting she stood by what she said.

This seems like some serious smack-talk from a Pinellas town that bristles at its own redneck reputation. Residents there once took my Tampa columnist colleague Ernest Hooper to task for an unfortunate line involving an El Camino, a front yard and cement blocks. You get the visual.

Which brings me to something that has confounded me from the day I set foot in Tampa Bay. Wait, that's a body of water, not a place. We don't even have a phrase that unites us.

How can two places be so close and so far away?

Habit, says Jack Espinosa, Tampa native, retired sheriff's spokesman and comedian who is writing a book about Ybor called Cuban Bread Crumbs. Growing up, Clearwater Beach "was in Alaska," he says. A trip to St. Pete took three buses.

"Look at the map. France and England are next door," he said. "Tampa Bay has been the English Channel. The bridges have made no difference."

So here's an offer for the council member from Pinellas Park. Come on over sometime.

Maybe we can tour West Tampa and Ybor's historic cigar factories and glorious old clubs. We can have Cuban toast and cafe con leche (that's Spanish for "with leche"), and later maybe lunch on Cuban-Chinese. Probably we'll run into people with Spanish or Italian roots who speak with a Southern accent. "I call myself an Italian hillbilly," says former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco.

Greco told me he was sure Bailey-Snook hadn't intended anything ugly. Then he offered to come along as her guide for that Tampa tour. Because that's how they really do things on his side of the bay.