Tuesday, August 31, 2021

In Ybor City Back Then


Back in the late Fifties, before Ybor City, Tampa’s Latin quarter, was a tourist magnet, back when it still had cigar factories, during summers and Christmas vacations I worked in the bookkeeping department of the Broadway National Bank. I was one of three employed in manually alphabetizing checks as they came in, then giving them to the bookkeepers to post.

 The Broadway was the Ybor City branch of Tampa’s First National and my grandfather, after his compulsory and unwelcome retirement at sixty-five as president of the First, was given the presidency of the Broadway instead of a gold watch. He and I were the only Anglos in the place. but our functions were respectively high and low enough be well removed from the everyday business of the bank and our presence did nothing to sully the pleasant Latin ambiance of the institution. Spanish and Italian were the languages most often heard; the coffee in the lounge was bitter black Cubano, and the lines in front of the tellers were leisurely, giving everyone time to discuss the progress of Castro who was still a rebel in the mountains of Cuba.

As I came to know my co-workers, I fell in love with them and their ways. My closest friend was Viola, or Violin, as the others called her when she was particularly noisy. She sat beside me at the check sorting table and delighted in sharing tidbits about her life. She was in her early twenties and lived with her parents—her father packed her lunch for her. Viola had been married briefly, during which time she and her husband had lived in the ‘projects’ where, she told me, she had kept the shades down and walked around naked in her apartment all day. I never learned why this idyll ended, but now Viola was leading the life of a sheltered senorita, chaperoned to roller skating lessons and to the dances at the Centro Asturiano by her father.

Viola and I were aided in our check sorting by Henry, a small angry young man who aspired to the rank of teller but had made little headway in impressing even the bookkeepers. Henry dressed carefully, like a young man on his way up, but his appearance was marred by his over-lavish use of hair oil and a bad case of acne. He was often the butt of the jokes of the male bookkeepers—except for grandfatherly Carlo, the head bookkeeper, who was kind to him and patient with his outbursts.

But Jesus, a serious, hard-working Cuban who would eventually work his way up in the bank’s hierarchy, had no time for Henry’s ineptitude and occasional histrionics. And Willie, a tiny emotional Puerto Rican, offered to fight Henry at least once a day. Since Willie had actually been a featherweight champion back in Puerto Rico, his challenge was never accepted. When feeling especially aggrieved, Henry would talk about going to Cuba to join the rebellion.

In these pre-computer days, accounts were kept on posting machines, giant adding machines set on pedestals with partial surrounds and attached seats which the bookkeepers mounted in the morning like knights going to do battle. All day long there was a constant rattle of keys as we check sorters rushed newly alphabetized stacks of checks to the busy warriors. As the end of the day approached, the pace grew more frantic and the tension mounted. Would they balance?

One by one the bookkeepers would finish, the ping of a bell on each machine announcing a successful conclusion. At the end of a triumphant day’s battle, Jesus and Willie would shout “Pelota!”—which my elementary Spanish identified as ball, but which evidently meant balance to them. If a balance was not achieved, usually Carlo or Jesus would go to the rescue and help trace the missing numbers.

When Willie did not balance, he would routinely disappear into the adjoining storeroom, from which we would soon hear loud thumps on the wall. Then Willie would emerge, hands to his head and grimacing in pain. During the day Willie often sang as he worked, and if Carlo, who liked quiet, reprimanded him, would reply, “I sing to keep from crying.”

The female bookkeepers were Nora, Conchita, Angie, and Rose. Rose was a tiny mousy woman who might have been anywhere from thirty to fifty years old. She was very quiet, never entering into the joking and horseplay that went on. From time to time she spoke quietly in Italian to Carlo but was otherwise almost invisible. Then one day Rose came to work wearing lipstick and seemed somehow to have dressed with a little more zip. During lunch Nora explained the change: Rose was going to get married to a boy from Italy who wanted to become a citizen. As the weeks went on, Rose became more and more talkative, and we all learned how smitten she was with her ‘Johnny.’ I wondered if she would be happy; we all knew that her Johnny was much younger than she. But they married and eventually Rose became a mother, blooming into quiet happiness.

Nora loved to talk and I loved to listen. She was only a part-time bookkeeper, helping out with the check sorting when needed. Nora was a hefty, pleasant-faced woman whose chief topic was her husband Raul. Raul was from Cuba and had old-fashioned ideas about marriage. No matter that Nora worked nine to five; Raul demanded homemade soup with his evening meal. Nora told us gleefully that she bought Garcia’s Spanish Bean Soup, heated it up, and he never knew the difference. “I throw the cans out in the alley so he won’t see them,” she explained.

Conchita was the glamour girl of the department. Dark hair, vivid red lipstick, high heels, she was always good to look at. Undoubtedly plump, but her deep bosom and rolling hips were set off by an unexpectedly narrow waist which was always accentuated by a wide belt.

One day I was in the lounge, sipping on my can of Metrecal, part of an eternal quest to weigh less. Concha and Nora came strolling by and looked in. “We’re going down to Cuervo’s for some lunch; come with us,” they said.

Tempted but righteous, I lifted my can of Metrecal. “Thanks but I’ve got this.”

They laughed. “Come on with us and get some arroz con pollo—you can drink that when you get back.”


My life was enriched immeasurably by the time I spent in the bookkeeping department. They were all so kind to me and if any resented that I’d gotten the job through a family connection, I never felt it. When I married, many of them came to the wedding and for years after that, whenever I was back in Tampa, I’d go back to the bank to visit my friends.

On one occasion I was home to show off my second son who was about six weeks old. I’d made the rounds in the bank and was outside on the sidewalk, waiting for my grandfather. As I stood there with the baby in my arms, an ancient Black man came slowly up the sidewalk toward me. He stopped and wordlessly indicated that he wanted to see the infant. A little hesitantly, I held the baby out so the old man could get a better look at him.

He studied the sleeping infant for a long minute, then uttered a single word. “Ruler,” he said and continued on his leisurely way.

I was intrigued; was this a prophecy? I knew that Ybor City was home to practitioners of Santeria and Voodoo; I myself had once gone into a dim little place with the sign Herb Shop on the window and had found, not parsley, sage, rosemary, or thyme but the ingredients for a mojo hand—High John the Conqueror Root, Dragon’s Blood, and the like. So when this old man appeared out of nowhere and named my son a ruler, I didn’t forget it.

I also didn’t mention it till maybe twelve years later. My younger son was out of sorts, feeling that his older brother got all the breaks. I remembered the old man and told the story. My younger son listened eagerly, and I could see him beginning to stand a little taller and look a bit masterful. I wondered if I’d done the right thing—maybe this was the way Napoleon got started.

Quickly, I issued a disclaimer. “Of course, he could have said ‘Drooler’.”

Monday, August 30, 2021

Random Rambles and Rants in Late Summer

The maple tree says it's time. The past few days have been our hottest of the summer so it's pleasant to think that fall is on its way.

The chicks that Josie and I purchased back in the spring are all grown up and have been moved in with our laying flock's old girls. Some discussion of pecking order has ensued but John says he expects that the Speckled Sussex (above) will emerge as top dogs chickens. 

These pretty girls are Buff Orpingtons --known around here as Buff Orphans, as a friend's neighbor once called them.

Did I mention that it's hot? And our county is hot too, full of anti-vax, anti-mask people. It's depressing.  And scary. We are being very cautious and limiting exposure--and wearing masks in the grocery store--where too many are not. I've again postpone some routine healthcare appointments and reluctantly decided against getting my hair cut by a professional. I know she's vaccinated and wears a mask--I don't know if that's true for her other clients. So I take a mirror and some scissors out on the deck and have at it.

A year and a half of this. The isolation and bad haircuts aren't a problem. Worrying about my family contracting the Delta strain is the problem. And I'm getting pretty hard-hearted--finding it impossible to muster up even an iota of sympathy for those folks who gasp through their ventilators as they are dying that they should have gotten the vaccine, should have worn masks. . . 

We can have herd immunity or we can have thinning of the herd--Live Free and Die.  


Sunday, August 29, 2021

The Journey by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice—

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

"Mend my life!"

each voice cried.

But you didn't stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations,

though their melancholy

was terrible.

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do—

determined to save

the only life you could save.

Friday, August 27, 2021

When She Was Very Young

The child rotated slowly in the well of light. She had pulled the mirrored closet door all the way open till it touched the window, forming a secret place, a tiny three-sided magical room filled with early sun and the summer smell of new-mown grass. The rhythmic back and forth whir and grind of the hand mower in the yard below was a soothing background to the sounds of a warm Saturday morning. Mourning doves called softly back and forth in the live oaks surrounding the house. Next door, a car started. The child continued to turn—dizzy with brilliance and the happiness of the day.

Across the room her grandmother was making up the two double beds. plumping the feather pillows and setting them to air in the wide windows at the far end of the big room. As the sun warmed the cotton pillowcases, the clean smells of starch and ironing joined the sweet green grass smell.

Soon the child would go downstairs; her grandmother would go outside and cut pink and yellow and coral Gerbera daisies to arrange in an etched glass bowl that stood on a table in the front hall. An old lady, a friend of her grandmother’s would come to lunch, smelling of talcum powder and Jergens lotion and wearing a flat little hat with a silly crumpled veil. Miss Glennie and her grandmother would eat chicken salad and potato chips and peach pickle and talk about people the child didn’t know. She would get bored and go into the sitting room where she would kneel on the sofa, arms stretched across its back, staring out the front windows at the street beyond the yard and sidewalk. Squirrels would dart to and fro, flirting their bushy tails, and the rough upholstery would scratch her knees.

Later she would go play in the backyard. It was bounded by a low hedge but the rolling greens and fairways of the golf course beyond seemed to go on forever. Frankland’s Lake was out there in the far blue distance, hidden by trees. Sometimes, when it was really quiet, she would listen for the guns. A war was going on and her daddy was overseas in a place called Burma. That’s why she and her mother lived with her grandparents. So she listened hard and wondered if the sounds she heard were guns and if tomorrow she and her grandfather would walk all the way to Frankland’s Lake.

In the late afternoon, when long shadows slanted across the grass and the heat hung heavy in the air, her mother’s friends—the ladies—would sit under the trees in the backyard, sipping iced tea from the tall sweating glasses they rested on the broad arms of the wooden lawn chairs. The ladies wore crisp linen dresses and chalky white pumps with fat high heels. Sometimes they had on stockings with black seams running up the backs of their legs. They talked and smoked cigarettes, leaving bright red lipstick smudges on the cigarette ends and fastidiously picking occasional crumbs of tobacco off their perfect lips.

At night, after their supper of Campbell’s tomato soup and saltines, her grandfather would pull the window shades down, making a cozy inside world. Around the tall cabinet radio in the sitting room, they would listen to the hiss and crackle that was news about the war. She would wait sleepily till it was time for bed. Then they would climb the stairs, past the clock on the landing and to the big room where she would snuggle into the little cot placed between the two big beds. After she had said her prayers, she would stretch out and fall asleep, her grandfather holding her left hand while her grandmother held her right.


I wrote this maybe thirty years ago, remembering my charmed childhood. Where was my mother? She had a room over the attached garage. I expect she preferred the independence of a separate schedule. Before my father returned from the war, she bought a tiny little house in another neighborhood and we moved there—though until I went off to college, I would continue to spend many days and nights with my grandparents.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Preschool and Playdate!

I was in a hurry to tell Meema about my first day of pre-school. I go to pre-school on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. On Tuesdays I stay with Meema and on Thursdays I stay with Grandma. And Meema will pick me up after school many days and I will spend the afternoon with her.

Pre-school is a lot like summer camp was. We play outside a lot and take hikes and eat lunch and take naps. There are some different teachers but they are all nice. There are also different kids. There are only three girls counting me and about a hundred boys who are very noisy. (She may exaggerate but there are indeed a lot more boys. Claui said the playground looked a little like The Lord of the Flies.)

So on Tuesday when I was at Meema's, I had a playdate with a girl. She has been here before and we are friends. She is only three (I am four) but she doesn't act like a baby at all. 

When we went down the hill to meet them, I found a map in the car. I studied it carefully and told Meema it was a pirate map and it showed where the pirates had hidden the princesses. 


We played in the branch and in my sandbox for a while and then we were hungry and went up to the house for snacks.

She brought lots of food.

We decided to do some painting.

I like to let the colors be very runny and smoosh together.  

My friend paints with two brushes. We are both serious about our art.

Of course we played with the Castle People too. She likes the horses the most. 

I love my school and I love having playdates with my friend, I think she is coming back next week. Maybe we will use the pirate map and rescue the princesses.


Wednesday, August 25, 2021

The Daves

Just an assortment of pictures of Dave, Not-Dave, and the Davettes (only four now--one went missing during all the rains.) And Buck-Buck--the father of the family.


Tuesday, August 24, 2021

More from the Shop

John made this lovely bench for me so I can sit in our little entryway garden. It's made of treated wood and can't be painted for about a year but the blue paint is waiting.

Sitting out there in the dappled shade, watching the bees busy in the liriope, took me back to my early childhood. I don't have high blood pressure but if I did, I'm sure it would have gone down.

Thank you, John!


Monday, August 23, 2021


 In my post yesterday I mentioned the story teller's maxim of never letting the facts get in the way of a good story and a Facebook friend commented that when she was growing up, 'telling a story' was meant as the equivalent of telling an untruth. I'm familiar with this usage--my Alabama bred Grandparents would ask, "Are you telling a story?" if I stretched the truth.

'Telling a story' wasn't meant for flat out lying. It was more directed at a white lie or a fib--a minor transgression. 

And speaking of fibs--I had a feeling that word might derive from the Latin word for story fabula (who says those four years of high school Latin weren't useful--though to be honest, I chiefly took Latin to avoid chemistry and physics.)

Indeed, that's what some sources say--tracing it back to fibble-fabble-used to mean nonsense but ultimately derived from fabula. And, over time, transmogrified to fiddle-faddle.

As a semi-professional teller of stories, I'm intrigued at the implications. And can't resist sharing this list of synonyms for fibble-fabble (Merriam Webster online):

    applesauce [slang], balderdash, baloney (also boloney), beans, bilge, blah (also blah-blah), blarney, blather, blatherskite, blither, bosh, bull [slang], bunk, bunkum (or buncombe), claptrap, codswallop [British], crapola [slang], crock, drivel, drool, fiddle, fiddlesticks, flannel [British], flapdoodle, folderol (also falderal), folly, foolishness, fudge, garbage, guff, hogwash, hokeypokey, hokum, hoodoo, hooey, horsefeathers [slang], humbug, humbuggery, jazz, malarkey (also malarky), moonshine, muck, nerts [slang], nonsense, nuts, piffle, poppycock, punk, rot, rubbish, senselessness, silliness, slush, stupidity, taradiddle (or tarradiddle), tommyrot, tosh, trash, trumpery, twaddle

And then there's fabulous--which could also apply to story tellers and their craft.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

A Family Story--repost from 2010


Tampa, Florida -- the early 1900's. An early autumn afternoon and C.L Knight, the family patriarch, and his sons and grandchildren are taking their ease on the front porch  while the women of the family are inside -- resting after the exertions of Sunday dinner.

The house is located in what is now downtown Tampa and many a fashionable couple is out strolling, parading in their Sunday finery.  The Knights smile and nod and comment privately on their passing neighbors.

A newly-wed couple, arrayed in particular splendor, approaches and the men lean forward with special interest for the blushing bride was, before her marriage, one of the ladies of pleasure in a well-known sporting house. All three men grin and nod to the couple who acknowledge the greeting and continue on.

"Well, boys," says the patriarch to his sons, as he leans back in his rocking chair and watches the shapely bride out of sight, "there goes a mighty fine piece -- and we all know because we've all had some."

A sound . . . a muffled word . . . an intake of breath behind them and the men turn to see Mrs. C.L. standing there just inside the screen door with a face like doom.

The family story -- as told by C.L.'s grandson, Charles Lafayette Knight II -- says that C.L. took one look at his wife and set off for his hunting camp in the Everglades where he stayed till just before Christmas, returning laden with gifts for everyone.

That's just one of the stories Uncle Charley told. Another was how when C.L. the first died  (much later and of natural causes -- nothing to do with his wife)-- Seminoles from the Everglades  appeared the next day in Tampa and camped in the yard for three days, singing songs to help their friend's spirit on its way.

My husband's family is full of story tellers -- and they all adhere to that fine old Southern tradition of never letting the facts get in the way of a good story.  

Friday, August 20, 2021

Those Who Don't Study History . . .

 . . .are condemned to repeat it. While those who do, shake their heads as it happens again and again, an endless Groundhog Day nightmare.

Actually, I'm not a real student of history. But I enjoy reading about the past and every once in a while am struck by mankind's seeming inability to learn from it.

I just finished The Birth of Britain, volume one of Churchill's A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. From the Roman invasion and occupation to the Angles and Saxons and Vikings, on to the Normans and the Plantagenets, the Magna Carta and the Black Death, Joan of Arc and the Wars of the Roses, the history of the Island, as Churchill calls it, seems to be one of almost perpetual war.

And it was hard to avoid seeing parallels to today;

"The belief that the English were invincible and supreme in war, that nothing could stand before their arms, was ingrained. . . The assurance of being able to meet [the enemy] at any time upon the battlefield overrode inquiries about the upshot of the war. Few recognized the difference between winning battles  and making lasting conquests. . . . While the war continued the Crown was expected to produce dazzling results, and at the same time was censured for the burden of taxation and annoyance to the realm. A peace approached inexorably which would in no way correspond to the sensation of overwhelming victory. . ."

Sound familiar? This was at the end of the 1300's and it's still true today.

Another parallel I found interesting was the Black Death. It killed nearly a third of the population and suddenly, good help was hard to find. Wages had to increase and this led, eventually, to the rise of a middle class.

We are seeing something like this today, as folks laid off low-paying, unfulfilling jobs by Covid, begin to demand better paying, more satisfactory work. It would be nice to think that our middle class will eventually be brought back to the strength it once had, when one wage earner could support a family and own a home.

Interesting times, the 1300's and the 2000's. I can't wait to see what happens next.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

My St. Christopher


When I was in high school, it became fashionable among my acquaintances to wear a St. Christopher medal. Not just any religious medal—no Sacred Hearts or BVMs—that was for the Roman Catholics which I and my closest friends were not. No, we were a mixed bag of protestants, from Episcopalian to Baptist, but we all had come to feel the need of a little supernatural protection. Some had little gold crosses, and one of my Methodist friends wore, on a thin gold chain around her neck, a tiny cube of wood from her church’s altar. 

Now, in the summer of 1958, suddenly we all wanted something more exotic. For years we’d been told by our mothers that the “Latin” girls with their pierced ears, ankle bracelets, and gold religious medals were tacky—if not downright trashy. So why were we skulking into the bookstore  attached to Tampa’s Sacred Heart Catholic Church in search of papist fetishes? God knows.

There were four of us, none of whom had ever set foot in a Catholic church. But, like junkies looking for a connection, we had somehow ascertained that through this dingy doorway on the side of the huge church there were St. Christophers for sale. Once inside, we realized that there were lots of other things as well—luridly colored pictures of Jesus opening his chest like a garment to reveal his technicolor heart, vials of cloudy holy water, photos of the Pope (suitably framed,) and a wealth of rosaries in every material from wood to plastic to mother-of-pearl.

“What do they do with these?” whispered Jobeth. “I’ve never seen anyone wearing one.”

“They use them to pray to Mary.” Liz whispered back. Hers was the voice of authority; as an Episcopalian, she was almost a Roman Catholic and presumably knew about these things.

The dowdy lady behind the cash register sent a sharp look toward our indecisive bunch as we leaned over the showcase where the rosaries and medals were displayed.

“Can I help you girls with something?”

“No, ma’am,” came the automatic reply, “we’re just looking.”

Then Anne pointed. “Actually, I was wondering how much this St. Christopher costs.”

We all held our breath; could the woman tell we weren’t Catholics? Would she ring a bell and would some burly nun appear from nowhere and toss us out? Or would she ask us questions in Latin or tell us to recite a Hail Mary?

She did none of these things, just sighed and came over to pull out a tray with a selection of little gold medals and chains. We each picked out very small, very discreet images of the saint; mine was smaller than my little fingernail and was, as the lady pointed out, meant to be worn as a charm on a watch. She eyed my bare wrists and I shrugged.

At last, we had all paid for our medals and, filled with relief, were heading for the door and the secular sidewalk beyond when she called out, “Take them next door to the rectory and one of the priests’ll bless them for you.”

We stood there motionless, four Lot’s wives tuned to salt. Had we acquired these little treasures under false pretenses; did she really think we were Catholics? Finally Jobeth, driven by some obscure Presbyterian sense of honor, quavered, “Ma’am, we don’t go to this church.”

“That doesn’t matter.” She waved a dismissive hand. “Just run around next door and Father Andrew or Father Torres will bless your medals.”

Once outside, we found ourselves plagued with theological and other questions. Should we go next door? As Episcopalians, Methodists, etc. did we think the priest’s blessing would do any good? Or, more specifically, do us any good. And would we have to pay? Did you tip a priest or make a thank offering or what? How involved did you have to get?

My personal vote was for non-involvement. My last brush with a strange religion had been the month before when I went with a group of friends to a Baptist revival as the featured entertainment of a slumber party. Not one of the raucous tent revivals, alas, it was very middle-class and mind-numbingly dull. After the stately wooden pews of St. John’s Episcopal, I thought the red plush individual seats more suited to a theater than a church. More comfortable, sure, but physical comfort had never been a part of Episcopal services. No lounging around for us: we stood and sat and knelt.

Another surprise was that instead of an altar and a cross, there was a plain wooden shelf with a large green houseplant of some sort, just enough off-center to catch my attention and bother me all evening.

When at last the point was reached that we were all invited to come forward and give ourselves to Jesus, I was deeply surprised to see my friends jump up, one after another, and head for the front. It didn’t help that most of them had to squeeze past me to get to the aisle and salvation, and so I had to keep squinching my long legs to the side. Of course, it would have been easier for me to stand and let them by, but I was afraid it would look like I’d heard the call and changed my mind.

So, having escaped the Baptists, I was wary of the Romans. But we stood in a knot on the sidewalk, casting sideways glances at the dark brown pain of the rectory’s front door. After several indecisive minutes, Anne tossed her head. “Well, I think if we’ve got the medals, we might as well get them blessed. It couldn’t hurt. Y’all do what you want; I’m going in there.”

Of course, we couldn’t let her go in there alone, so up the steps and in the door we all trooped. Inside was a dark, linoleum-floored hallway with a door opening to the right into a large, shabbily furnished sitting room. Standing there, chatting and smoking cigarettes, were two priests in long dark garments. We were speechless; what do you say to a priest if you’re not a Catholic? Eventually the younger of the two asked, with some amusement, “What can I do for you girls?”

“The lady at the store said you’d bless our St. Christophers,” one of us gasped.

Sixty-three years have passed but I still see him--mysterious, darkly handsome, smiling as he quickly mumbles something and, with his hand still holding the cigarette, makes the sign of the cross over my St. Christopher.

I wore that little medal on a thin chain around my neck for two years till I lost it in the Gulf of Mexico during Beach Week after graduation. It protected me while I had it and forever after, if I was at the beach—any beach—I would look down to see if it might be tumbling there in the foam at my feet, like a tiny golden shell.

All of the pictures are from the internet. This essay (or whatever it is) was written thirty-some years ago (I've updated it a bit.) In going through a bunch of old papers yesterday, I came across quite a few bits of writing that I decided to move from legal pads and typescript to my computer.  Fair warning: I will probably be sharing more. . .

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Serious Rain

Tuesday afternoon and we are having some serious all-day heavy rain--the sort that makes trees fall and banks collapse. Also, there's a tornado watch. 

Update--at 8:30 pm, the rain is slacking off. No tornado, no power outage at this time. We've had about four and a quarter inches. The road will need some work and some gravel but so far, nothing worse.