It’s late, but I’m still awake.

We didn’t get home until nearly 2:30, after a very long drive back from Clearwater.  I was there visiting one of my best friends, who moved there about a year after I moved to Florida.  We lived two doors down from one another in New York.  It’s been a busy day, though a “day off.”  I took an exam, ran some errands, then the trip to Clearwater and back.

I often enjoy driving, because I’ve often felt it’s an opportunity to clear my head, rather like jogging can be.  When I was in college, I would often drive late at night, either alone or with a friend, down canopy roads, or along familiar paths that were significant to us.  But lately, I don’t enjoy driving to Tampa.

Palm tree looking up from below
Palm tree in Clearwater

For many years, I had a special place in my heart for Tampa.  My maternal grandparents and great grandparents lived there in a house my grandfather built, that had a certain sort of magic about it that one can only experience on a lazy summer day.  We would spend what felt like months, but was probably only a week or two, every summer visiting.  They had a huge Florida room that had a wet bar (I don’t remember it having alcohol, but there may have been wine) that was filled with all sorts of spaces that were converted to homes for the Barbie dolls we would bring with us, even after the year of the Barbie Townhouse.  There was a huge pantry, and a utility room that was perfect for hiding toys and playing “colder, warmer, hotter.”  Nanu (my grandfather, who was a carpenter) made us a scooter before those were even a thing, as well as the most wonderful circle shaped swing that would spin as we swung.  (Something of a plywood tire swing on which you could stand as well as sit.)

My grandmother has always been the kindest soul I’ve ever known.  My great grandmother (we called her “Gram”) was always baking something good (like Yorkshire pudding with the roast beef every Sunday) and Grandad (my great grandfather, who resembled Gandalf without the beard) would tease us by pushing his dentures out and making scary faces, much to my delight.

White gardenia blossom
Gardenia bloom in Clearwater

But none of that is there anymore, and now, when I drive through Tampa, I am filled only with anxiety.  This has been the case for several years now, making me glad that when I was trying to decide where to live, I did not choose Tampa, one of two main contenders.

Part of it was the Bar Exam.  Being there, with the nervous energy, only to find later that I didn’t pass?  It didn’t exactly warm my heart to the city.  But I think the greater problem with Tampa are recent associations I’m not sure I will ever overcome.

My brother lived there for many years, and as I was driving down I-275, a particular trip played out in my mind…

Adam and I drove to Joshua’s house.  We were there on a salvaging mission on a weekend when my kids were visiting their father.  We all knew it was a matter of time before Josh’s house would be lost, and we were clearing out not only the valuables not rescued by his wife’s family, but anything of sentimental value to Josh, for safekeeping.  My mother and father had made some trips, but it was difficult for them, and Adam had a nice sized SUV with lots of trunk space at the time.  We had to meet her parents to pick up the key, first, as well as some items they were sending to my parents.  We spent the earlier part of the day just visiting Tampa, trying to get in touch with Joshua’s in-laws, and we also stopped by my friend’s condo in Clearwater to check up on things, as she was away in New York. (She had both places at that time)

As we were driving north on I-275, a motorcycle zipped past us.  He nearly clipped into us.  He was wearing some sort of do-rag, a denim jacket, jeans… No helmet.  We had a discussion, for the next minute or so, about how the guy was either high or had a death wish.  I pointed out the lack of a helmet, and Adam observed that, at the rate of speed he was riding, the guy wouldn’t survive an accident anyway.

We had just changed the subject when we saw him, sprawled in a contorted position, on the highway, cars stopped behind him.  I remember looking at him, then looking for the bike, which was about a quarter of a mile away.  I was still in shock about that, I didn’t look back.  Adam did.  He happened to see as someone tried to pick the guy up.  He said there was no way the biker made it.

I looked for news of the accident in the days that followed, but could only find other motorcycle fatalities in the news.  There really were that many fatal accidents in the news around the same weeks.  People drive like idiots in Tampa.  Worse, perhaps even, then in Atlanta, the land of the Bumper Cars.

The thing is, every time I’ve driven through Tampa in the past two years, the traffic has been horrendous.  And the experience of being in Tampa has gone from fun times to nothing but stress.  I’m not even getting into the nightmare stories of trips to Busch Gardens… I’ll blog about that if and when the lawsuit is ever resolved.

Sometimes when places change, it is not an improvement.

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