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Alligator Evasion, Cracker Country and Strip Clubs: A Tampa Native Explains Her Hometown

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For those of you watching the Republican National Convention on TV, you'll probably see lots of pretty shots of Tampa - our little skyline gleaming red, white and blue over the water, attractive people jogging on Bayshore, delegates being pelted by rain due to a well-timed tropical storm. "That seems like a normal city," you might say. "Maybe Florida is not a den of weirdness, after all." As a third-generation Tampon*, I can assure you that my hometown is plenty weird. As proof, here are a few memories from my formative years:

Cracker Country This is a real place that Tampa schoolchildren visit to watch elderly people in old-timey garb demonstrate how to make candles via the painstaking process of melting down candles from yesterday's demonstration. Always alert to the presence of junk food, we'd buy lengths of sugar cane for $1 and gnaw on them until we couldn't see straight.

Nature's Classroom Another mandated activity for grade-school children, who spend three days in a swamp learning Florida wildlife survival skills, including:

  • Alligator evasion. Don't believe what you've heard - running in a zigzag pattern doesn't work. What you really want to do is climb a tree, or distract the alligator with another, smaller child.
  • Wasp avoidance Cover your Coke can when it's unattended, or you will get a big sip of wasp.
  • Stingray evasion Shuffle your feet in the sand to alert stingrays to your presence, and they will glide gently away. At least this is the theory. We never remembered to do the "stingray shuffle" for more than 30 seconds, because we were still hyper from the sugarcane.
  • Gun safety I may be remembering wrong, but I swear we shot BB guns at Coke cans, for some reason. Maybe it was to kill the wasps? In retrospect, it seems like an odd thing, to arm 6th- graders, but perhaps it's understandable given the Florida wildlife situation.

Gasparilla Once, at about 5 a.m., a drunk and disoriented pirate fell asleep on my family's front lawn. This is not unusual in Tampa, thanks to Gasparilla, an annual event where drunk people stagger through town in makeup and pirate costumes, trading cheap plastic necklaces for kisses and beer. This activity used to be open only to white men, but after a major protest that resulted in a really lame parade, it got opened up to people of other genders and ethnicity. That was in 1990. And Tampa is pretty progressive, as far as central Florida goes.

Strip clubs Did Republicans decide to convene in Tampa because it's a particularly swinging part of a major swing state? Perhaps. But they might also have been attracted to the area's world-famous strip clubs, including Mons Venus and 2001 Odyssey, which features a space ship that appears to be a misplaced set piece from an Austin Powers movie. Why are Tampa strip clubs so good? It might be because there's no alcohol. With an entirely sober clientele, Tampa strippers have the tough job of distracting men from the smell of desperation while also earning decent tips. They must be good.

Now, I must confess I have never personally been to a Tampa strip club, as I moved away at age 17. So perhaps things have changed in the last 15 years and Tampa has become the modern, normal city it seems to be on TV. But somehow, I doubt it.

*People from Tampa actually refer to themselves as Tampans, which in a southern accent is indistinguishable from Tampon. So follow AP Style and go with the funnier spelling.