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Community tales told on the edge of sidewalk

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By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 6, 2001


As a light mist fell over Davis Islands Boulevard one afternoon last week, a brown-haired woman ran up to a small bulletin board hanging on a wall between a coffee shop famous for its biscotti and a video store that also sells balloons and bikinis.

The bulletin board contained the usual small announcements of events big in the lives of particular people, like a business card for a biker club catering to those who have found Jesus, and a note that a honey-blond Pekinese had been found around the corner.

In the middle of all this, the brown-haired woman posted a manila folder with this message scrawled on it in blue ballpoint:

"Beth will stop smoking on 5-10-01. Let's help her!"

Then the woman disappeared.

In that sign was a story, and not just about Beth, whoever she was. Anybody whose smoking is discussed on the sidewalk lives in a place where the sidewalk matters.

There are few places in Tampa or even the Tampa Bay area like this, and it is another measure of the strangeness of our collective adopted hometown. We came here to live outdoors, and the first thing most of us did was go inside.

Ybor City and Old Hyde Park Village in Tampa, and now BayWalk in St. Petersburg, offer some of downtown Davis Islands' pleasures, the sidewalks where you can walk hand in hand and admire the shop windows. But these other places have a manufactured quality that downtown Davis Islands mercifully lacks. Its closest bay area cousin is downtown Dade City. I may have missed another, but I doubt it.

In my search for Beth, that smoker everybody is so worried about, I never strayed from the side of the street where the sign was posted. I wandered under awnings past Estela's Mexican restaurant, past the real estate office, a boutique called the Fig Leaf where the owner, Sharon Rose, makes her own handbags and sells jewelry that is easily mistaken for art. Next door was the coffee shop, Java and Cream, and the video store, Tatebuster, where that '80s classic of cops and robbers, Action Jackson, starring Carl Weathers, was on sale on the sidewalk for $2.99.

I had to thread my way among the cafe tables and chairs, even the picnic benches. The only place they don't seem to appear is in front of the hair salon, Scanio, and Davis Islands Hardware, the last refuge of those who would rather shoot themselves than walk into Home Depot. They'll even repair your Rollerblades at this hardware store.

In between was a place appropriately -- for this context -- called Serendipity, the Fig Leaf's cheerful competitor in the arty boutique department. A tall, red-haired woman stepped forward to greet me. Her name was Beth.

I explained my mission, about the strange little posting on the bulletin board. I am so slow.

Beth.

Beth?

"It's me!" she said.

It's Beth Fitch, precisely, 43. She is the baker of the killer biscotti for the coffee shop next door, and for several other bay area shops. She works part time at Serendipity. The quit-smoking campaign was launched by her boss at the coffee shop, Dennis Cavanaugh.

"It was kind of a joke," he said.

But when you live and work in a place where the sidewalk is the thread that holds people together as a community, a joke can be quickly transformed. This one is.

"They keep putting that sign up," Beth complained through a smile, "and I keep taking it down, and somebody puts it back up."

Now Cavanaugh's customers, even strangers, are coming in and asking who's Beth, and will she really quit. He points her out. He tells them this: "You need to go talk to her. You tell her you back her 100 percent."

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