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A night out with Patsy Cline and Biketoberfest Man

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By ERNEST HOOPER

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 10, 2001


Iwent bar hopping in Seffner last weekend.

That's right, Seffner. This brother was out on the town in a part of Hillsborough County that has the reputation of being a redneck haven.

It's also my home.

I've been living there since March, part of the changing face of a community that has been colored (pun intended) by negative perceptions for years.

The rural scenes of grazing cows, horseback riders, citrus groves and wooded tracts certainly have played a role in the skewed view some city folks have of Brandon, Seffner, Mango and Dover.

So did what happened in 1989. That's when Buffalo Avenue -- one of the area's main drags -- was renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The MLK street signs in Seffner and Dover were sprayed with racist slogans, bent up and ripped down. County Commissioner Rubin Padgett, a black man, got letters warning him to "stay outta Dover."

* * *

That was then, this is now.

According to U.S. Census figures, the number of blacks in Seffner, Mango, Dover and Brandon went up 184 percent in the past 10 years. The number of Hispanics increased 123 percent. It's a reflection of a countywide trend that has seen Hillsborough become a little more integrated.

I see the changes in my own subdivision, a simple oval of new three- and four-bedroom homes. Three of my neighbors are people of color.

My kids have made friends with neighbors of all races, and my wife and I have not encountered any serious problems with racism.

But I knew the bar hop might be a little different than going to the local Publix or McDonald's. So I cajoled one of my Seffner friends, who happens to be white, into tagging along and we set off into the night.

* * *

We started on MLK with dinner at Pot Bellie's Kitchen (all-you-can-eat fish for $8.95), and finished at the Scoreboard Lounge. In between we visited six bars, and save for one or two "What the hell are you doing here?" stares, I had a good time.

The best place may have been the smallest. The 11-Mile Tavern on MLK is in a light blue, wood-framed building about the size of some living rooms. Legend has it the 11-Mile got its name from being exactly 11 miles from Plant City's courthouse and 11 miles from Tampa's courthouse.

It was dimly lit with two dartboards, a jukebox, two pool tables and some of the coldest beer I've ever tasted. (In case you're wondering, I only had a couple of drinks. I was working.) Nearly everyone offered at least a hello and a smile even though they seemed a little surprised to see my brown face.

They were even more surprised when I played Patsy Cline on the jukebox. (Hey, I had to fit in.) One woman, a middle-aged brunette, joined me at the box and helped me pick out songs. She chose Conway Twitty, I chose Charlie Rich. I thought about Barry White, who was available, but this just didn't seem like a Can't Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe crowd.

Only one person didn't speak, a guy wearing a light-blue denim jacket with cutoff sleeves and the word "Biketoberfest" stenciled on the back. But that's only because he was asleep on the bar.

* * *

Lenny's, nestled in a shopping center behind Pizza Hut, had a smoking house band (Groovy Tuesday), a smoky atmosphere and an interracial couple having fun. I told you it's changing.

After stops at Kennedy Hill (founded in 1947) and Club 92 on U.S. 92, we strolled into Art's Liquor and Lounge where I saw, believe it or not, Biketoberfest Man. He had arisen from his slumber and was in full party mode.

A different night might have brought some different experiences, but the idealist within me hopes my evening is a sign of the changing times. Racism is everywhere, I know, but maybe the brush that people have painted east Hillsborough with has been too broad.

- Ernest Hooper can be reached at (813) 226-3406 or Hooper@sptimes.com. His column appears on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

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