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Tampa Bay lore: Jack Kerouac, lap dances, monster sharks and more

No, we're not going to blow up a toilet or attach weather balloons to a lawn chair to see if it will fly. We leave all that geeky "scientific methodology" stuff to the experts on MythBusters. This is a decidedly unscientific look at five tales that have taken on lives of their own in the bay area.

. Was Jack Kerouac really beaten to death outside a bar in St. Petersburg?

Yes and no. The Beat icon and author of On The Road lived in St. Petersburg late in life, and was known to hang out at bars like the Wild Boar in Tampa and St. Petersburg's original Mastry's (152 Central Ave., not the current one at 233 Central). One night in October 1969, Kerouac visited the Cactus Bar in south St. Petersburg. The author made a comment or two that didn't sit well with the regulars, and was dragged outside and beaten. Badly. "As usual," wrote Paul Maher in Kerouac: The Definitive Biography, "Kerouac did not fight back." He was discovered crawling along the road, taken to jail to sober up, and released on $25 bail. Two weeks later, he died from a mess of internal injuries brought about by the beating and years of heavy drinking. Newspaper articles from the '60s place the Cactus Bar at 1840 18th Ave. S, square in the heart of St. Petersburg's Midtown area. The tavern itself closed decades ago, but unlike the Wild Boar or the original Mastry's, this building still stands. It's now a cell phone store, painted bright green.

. Does a monster hammerhead shark called "Old Hitler" roam the water under the Sunshine Skyway bridge?

You might not like the answer to this one. For decades, local anglers have sworn by sightings of a 20- to 25-foot great hammerhead shark with a "head as wide as a pickup truck" that lurks under the skyway. Great hammerheads do grow to about 20 feet long and weigh up to 1,000 pounds. Their average life span is 20 to 30 years, but scientists have found some to live beyond age 50. Still, Mote Marine Laboratory's Robert Hueter, senior scientist director for the Center For Shark Research, has his doubts about Old Hitler. "When people see a very large hammerhead shark they just want to say that must be Old Hitler," he says. "I think it's just a catchy name." The reality: Florida has a lot of very large great hammerhead sharks, Hueter says, not just one.

. Does Florida have the biggest cockroaches?

Sadly, it's true, at least in the United States. Didn't you see the Daily Show during the Republican National Convention in Tampa? We talked to Phil Koehler, an expert entomologist at the University of Florida. He not only has written widely on our state's bugs, but more importantly, he has judged cockroach contests sponsored by a pest control company. People sent in their entries from all over the country for the Biggest Cockroach title and, he said, "Florida always won." The palmetto bug — which locals call Florida's state bird — is just a nicer way of saying American cockroach. It can easily top 2 inches (though we swear the one in our kitchen was 5). We not only have the biggest buggers, we have the most, Koehler says, noting that one-third of all the money for pest control in the U.S. is spent in Florida. But good news! We don't have the largest cockroaches in the world. That honor belongs to South America, where they can reach 6 inches long.

. Are love bugs the result of an experiment gone wrong?

The story goes that University of Florida researchers were trying to genetically engineer a female bug that would mate with male mosquitoes but be sterile. A pair somehow escaped into the wild and rapidly reproduced, turning into the clouds of joined bugs that muck up windshields and ruin car paint. Not true, said Koehler. Love bugs actually spread from Central America to Texas, likely through the port of Galveston, he said. Since they spread across the Southeast from there, "FSU had them first so you can blame them," the UF professor said. They do destroy the paint on a car, he said, because there's acidity in the eggs on females body (that white part is her smashed eggs). When you see a pair of love bugs, the smaller one is the male and the larger one is the female, Koehler said. "He's not like the Harley guys with the chick on the back. He's just along for the ride."

. Was the lap dance invented in Tampa?

In the run up to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, much ink was spent on Tampa's notorious strip clubs. A Deadspin profile of the Mons Venus owner was headlined "How Joe Redner invented the lap dance, built a strip-club empire, became a model citizen." Numerous strip clubs in the U.S., Canada and Great Britain have claimed to have invented the lap dance, especially the notorious O'Farrell Theatre in San Francisco, where lap dancing arrived in 1980 when dancers would sit, nude, on the laps of men in the audience for tips. Whether he invented them or not, Redner is probably the most famous defender of lap dances. When Tampa enacted a rule in 1999 keeping a 6-foot distance between customers and dancers, Redner fought the law with lawyers and lobbyists, letting arrests overburden the court system. By 2001 a county judge declared the ordinance unconstitutional. And for the record, Tampa is not the strip club capital of the world, as Politifact has shown in painstaking detail. Las Vegas has more overall and per capita.

Times staffers Sharon Kennedy Wynne, Jay Cridlin contributed to this report, which also uses information from Times archives.

Tampa Bay lore: Jack Kerouac, lap dances, monster sharks and more 10/10/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 10, 2012 4:30am]
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