St. Petersburg Times Online: Sports

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Ybor awash with flood of humanity


© St. Petersburg Times, published January 28, 2001

You notice the couple the moment they step off the elevator. She remains by his side, but she never touches him. She's wearing a black evening gown, stiletto heels and a smile that seems there only because it has to be. She's trim and tanned and turning every head in the room. Men with their wives or girlfriends, men working mobile phones trying to score tickets, even other women are looking at her.

He's wearing an Italian suit and a red power tie. He's slightly overweight, barely taller than she is, and what's left of his hair is a color not found in nature. He could be her father. But that's not likely. This is the Super Bowl. You see a lot of "fathers and daughters" here.

He rattles off the schedule. Dinner reservations and a private party.

She says something about Ybor City.

"No, we'll come back here."

In another time, in another place, she probably would have pressed the issue. But not now. That's not in the job description. That's not her role anymore.

She dutifully maintains her smile. They finish their drinks in silence and leave.

Lots of the other people at the bar are leaving, too.

So are you.

10 p.m. Lobby bar at the Wyndham Westshore.

This is another stopover bar. Everyone, except the ticket guys, are on their way to somewhere else.

Ybor should be starting to cook just about now.

11 p.m. Crawling along I-4 at 15 mph.

Every limo and rental car ever made is here, and they're all getting off at 22nd Street, the Ybor City exit.

This won't work. You get in the left lane and fly past the line. You don't get off with everyone else, but go one exit further, to 40th Street, and double back. You're there in 15 minutes.

You realize immediately that Seventh Avenue is the Mississippi River and you're just a drop of water being swept along. It's a river of faces and beads and plastic cups.

Along the banks are french fry stands, cigar stores, and men who squat on the sidewalk and beat on plastic buckets. And, of course, the bars.

Velvet. Frankie's Patio. Cherry's. The Full Moon. A shirtless man with warpaint on his face is standing in the street in front of Tahiti Joe's. He's using his screams and his spear to beckon people inside.

At least you think he works for the bar. You squeeze into the Green Iguana and start talking to two couples from Baltimore. You can barely hear what they say. Something about hating Bryant Gumbel.

You get back outside in time to see several people marching down the street carrying 8-foot banners, one of which reads: "Trust Jesus." Everybody's selling something tonight.

It's a little after midnight. Enough time to make it back to BayWalk in St. Petersburg. Dan Marino's martini bar and restaurant just opened.

BayWalk is deserted except for the second floor, where a blues band at Marino's still is going strong. The bar is warm and friendly and the music is perfect. This would a good place to end, except you have to go back to Ybor. For one last look.

2:30 a.m.

These are the desperate hours. If you haven't found someone yet, you have to act now.

You can see the panic on their faces. The look of anticipation four hours ago has given way to a glazed, how-about-it? stare.

But most people arrived here as couples or in groups. And that's the way they're leaving.

Except for the ancient, bearded man who's sitting on the steps outside Centro Ybor. He has a large garbage bag next to him, and a pile of cigarette butts. He'll have some company tonight.

Two police officers walk up and escort him away.

Time for you to go, too.

-- Tom Zucco is a staff writer in the Times news features department.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.