'You know, you're walking a long way'
On Kennedy Boulevard heading west from the copulating Slinkys you pass through a brief zone of domed quaintness marked by the old Tampa Bay Hotel, now the campus of the University of Tampa. Soon this gives way to sprawl: storefront cheque-cashing services, law firms specialising in personal bankruptcy, fast-food chains, pawn shops, hair-loss clinics, bridal shops, a seemingly disproportionate number of luxury bathroom tile outlets, a 24-hour-fitness centre, a gentleman’s club called Envy (cash only), and a couple of the sort of hotels you see in movies when somebody goes on the lam. Life here was getting married, renovating your bathroom, going broke, declaring bankruptcy and trying to save what you could of your hair.
I checked to see if the first failure of my card was fluke, and managed to purchase a Cherry Coke, a cheeseburger and a bottle of whiskey, but when I tried to pay in advance for a cab, it failed again. I took a wrong turn north on Westshore Boulevard and walked past a couple more high-end strip clubs, including the one featuring a Sarah Palin impersonator all week, then mistakenly took the service road to the airport. Put straight by a security guard, I was heading south on Westshore, and the place began to look like a prosperous suburb, with palm trees, multiple cars in most driveways and the occasional cute pond.
I was looking forward to the cool air of the bay, but when I started to cross the Gandy Bridge, two police cars with their sirens on pulled up behind me, soon joined by a third. Was I doing something wrong? The first officer, with a fastidiously shaved head, said: ‘No, we’re just checking you out. Not safe crossing the bridge in the dark. Where’s your vehicle?’ Everyone had a vehicle here but me. ‘Could we see some ID?’ I gave them a passport. ‘You’re American, don’t you have a driver’s licence?’ I used to. ‘Florida?’ Massachusetts. ‘Do you have a weapon in your bag?’ No, just a bottle of whiskey. ‘That’s not a weapon.’ He made a joke! Then he took my passport to punch me into his computer.
The second cop, with a brown moustache and a bit of a paunch, said: ‘You know, you’re walking a long way.’ I was aware. ‘We can’t take you back to your hotel, but we’ll ride you the four miles over the bridge, to the RaceTrac, that’s a convenience store. What are you down here for?’ I told him. ‘I’d be protesting. I’d be raising hell.’ Had I missed any big protests today? ‘Piddly stuff.’ Would it get bigger over the course of the week? ‘I doubt it.’ He was on the verge of being wistful. In the back of the patrol car I learned that the doors can’t be opened from the inside even when they’re unlocked.
The first cop drove me to St Petersburg and I walked towards Clearwater. Beneath the overpass for I-275 I saw the corpse and cracked shell of an unlucky turtle. I didn’t see any ‘Beware of Alligator’ signs until just before I got home. That taught me to rely on government-assigned accommodation when the free market could have put me in a motel on Kennedy Boulevard for a third of the price, free wifi too. On CNN Piers Morgan was interviewing the five sons of Mitt Romney, who all have that strange quality of laughing at things that lack even the categorical potential to be funny because otherwise they’d never laugh at all.