Scott Graber

The essence of this strange place


By Scott Graber

It is Friday morning and Susan and I are in Tampa, Fla. Actually we’re in a part of Tampa called Ybor City. I’ve got my coffee and a recently purchased La Faraona. As I weigh the pros and cons of smoking this cigar (it’s 8:30 a.m.) my mind takes me to 1964 and a cross country trip with three other Citadel cadets.

It was a mid-winter passage made even colder by the fact that my car was without a heater. Who would have guessed that interior heating was not standard in a 1962 Corvair?

In the interest of comfort, I bought my passengers cigars — Have A Tampa Jewels if memory serves — and urged them to smoke in order to avoid frostbite. But smoke from the cigars, and the fact that the car had no defroster, led to a screeching, screaming slide through a railroad crossing. We survived that near miss (I was summarily relieved of my driving duties) and that night is now a fading anecdote.

Yesterday, we drove over to Tampa, without incident, for a discussion about inflation, recession, fourth-quarter growth and China. We met with Steve Paris and Rich Berry at Bellini (a restaurant) where they speculated on whether we were going to have a “soft” or a “hard” landing.

Those of you who read this column know that I have absolutely no understanding of money, and but for the frugality of Susan, I would probably be homeless. But I understand these limitations, and we have entrusted these two men, professionals, with our investment portfolio.

During the course of our lunch — Fettucini for me and Risotto for Susan — we talked about inflation. Steve believes that the billions of dollars of Covid relief still sloshing around in the economy – together with Chinese shutdown, the disruption of supply lines and related factors – scared-off investors leading to a disastrous decline in market value. My two friends, however, remain optimistic admitting that they are in the business of investing and need people like me to stay the course.

It was not until we walked out of Bellini, nearly tripping over a live rooster, that I realized we were in a six block-long, iron-balconied remnant of what Tampa must have looked like in 1900. Suddenly we found ourselves dodging streetcars and walking past tiendas, cigar bars and huge men smoking large aromatic cigars.

Vincente Martinez Ybor opened his first cigar factory in 1886. During the next forty years, what came to be called Ybor City was awash with immigrants from Sicily, Cuba, Germany and Spain. These men and women sat at tables, all day long, rolling millions of cigars that would be consumed around the world. While they worked they listened to a “lector” who read newspapers in the morning and novels in the afternoon. I’m told by Tony Crisitello — Beaufort County’s former planning chief — that Earnest Hemingway was his mother’s favorite author.

The immigrants lived in narrow, single-storied “casitas” that reminded me of Elvis Presley’s boyhood home in Tupelo, Mississippi. There were social clubs — El Centro Espana, Centro Asturious and L’Union Italiana — where the young people could flirt, dance and if the pheromones were compatible, marry.

Ybor City took a hit with the embargo (of tobacco) that followed the Cuban Revolution. And with Cuba on the sidelines, Honduras, Dominican Republic and Nicaragua surged into the vacuum. Then many Americans turned their back on tobacco.

Between 2000 and 2015, cigarette consumption declined by 38.7%. However, consumption of cigars actually increased during that same 15 year period. Today about 7% of the adult male population smokes cigars.

What remains of Ybor City is a red brick skeleton and a story — a great story that descendants have tried to tell by way of a museum, a park that is the habitat of dozens of free-roaming chickens, and men who perfume the street with hand-rolled, $10-a-pop cigars. There is also a laid back attitude entirely inconsistent with any serious discussion of inflation, recession, fourth-quarter growth or China.

Last night — right after working our way from our hotel through the chickens and their poop — we found a restaurant called Acropolis. We also found a beautiful young waitress who had blond hair, dark skin and who had pasted small golden stars on her cheeks.

She guided us through a large menu, telling us what to order, and in the process imparted an irreverent, animated, fabulously funny vibe that seems to be the essence of this strange place.

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at cscottgraber@gmail.com.

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