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In Tampa, a conflicted son untangles his family history as a Redner

TAMPA — For as long as Joey Redner could remember, Dad was a strip club owner.

He smoked pot and snorted cocaine. He never showed up for his high school football games.

Joey would not realize his father's place in Tampa until middle school and beyond, when the boys thought he was cool because his dad owned the Mons Venus and the girls tried to take him to church and save him.

Joey wasn't always comfortable being Joe Redner's son. There were times he didn't want to tell people his last name.

Then one day, a letter arrived from a stranger.

I believe I'm your father.

The letter was from a man Joey had met once. It wasn't a complete surprise. Joey's mom had mentioned that his paternity was a question mark. Still, Joey wasn't sure he wanted to meet this new guy. He felt a powerful loyalty to the man who had raised him and given him his name.

But this guy was nothing like Joe Redner. This guy was a cop.

Joey picked up the phone.

•••

If you saw Joey Redner in a crowd, you probably wouldn't remember him. He is tall with a goatee and dark hair cropped close to his head, which is often covered with a baseball cap.

He's a family man, devoted to his wife and three daughters. He devours books about beer and physics and enjoys classic literature. Every summer he rereads The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

He has never really had much in common with his father, Joe Redner. He didn't care for the strip club business. Too much drama. And his dad didn't like sports or fishing or any of the other things that fathers and sons do.

Joe signed his birth certificate and was always there for him emotionally. But Joey sometimes felt like his life was an ill-fitting shoe. It wasn't anything specific — just this feeling that he didn't quite belong.

So when the letter from the cop came, he had to wonder: How was he connected to this stranger? How could he have grown up with Joe Redner and be so unlike him? Who would he have been if he'd grown up somewhere else? How do any of us become who we are?

The decade after Joey was born, Joe was in the middle of his strip club wars. He was in and out of jail and court, fighting for the right to showcase nude dancers. He would be arrested more than 100 times, mostly for nudity violations at his clubs.

Joey was just 10 when Joe opened the Mons Venus. He was 11 when Joe was arrested at a Bucs football game for cocaine possession. He was with him when it happened, saw the plastic bag of cocaine in his father's hand.

One time Joe took Joey to the mall to get his Christmas presents and he asked Joey if he thought he was a good person. Joey was too young to understand Joe's turmoil, but he could tell that Joe was truly wrestling with the question.

After that, Joey saw his father transform. Joe Redner quit alcohol. Then drugs. He became a vegan. He talked about not judging people, maybe because everyone was always judging him.

As a teen Joey smoked pot, experimented with cocaine and drank. But as he entered his 20s, he didn't like how it made him feel. So he quit, too.

He went to college, met his wife, had three kids. With Joe's financial help, he opened a brewery that now sells beer in three states.

When he heard from the police officer, the guy who was perhaps his biological father, he wasn't so sure he wanted to meet him. He'd created a full life for himself.

What could this man add to his life now?

•••

The Cornerstone Pub in Northdale.

Joey saw him on a stool in front of the bar. Mario Tamargo was stocky and balding and tall. They shook hands. Joey ordered a Sam Adams.

Mario patted Joey on the shoulder. "Man, you've got some size on you," he said.

Joey felt uneasy. He'd met Mario once. His mother, Lorelei, had taken him to a Denny's on Hillsborough Avenue 25 years before. Mario, then a patrol officer for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, had showed up in his uniform. Joey remembered peering across the table at him, trying to find a piece of himself there, seeing nothing.

But now he could see the physical similarity. The dark eyes, the square of the shoulder.

He'd sort of written this guy off years before, decided Joe must be his biological father. He wasn't sure if he wanted to change his perspective. After 30-something years, what was the point?

Wait, had the guy ever arrested Joe?

Mario seemed unfazed by Joey's hesitation. He talked about his large Spanish and Cuban family. He told Joey he wanted him to meet his grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins. One of his uncles even played professional baseball.

They got together every year on Christmas Eve. Could he come?

Joey's wife was pregnant with twins. It wouldn't be a bad thing for them to meet this side of the family, Joey thought.

It dawned on Joey that if Mario was his father, he was actually Spanish and Cuban — not Sicilian and German like Joe. He also realized he already knew some of his cousins. He'd gone to high school with them, even dated one of them very briefly. Oh God.

They talked for about two hours. Mario told him he'd wanted to be in his life but Joey's mother hadn't let him.

Joey's mother, Lorelei Jackson, had another version of this story. She said that she and Mario, who dated for four months, broke up because Mario didn't think Joey was his baby. After she got together with Joe, she'd offered to let Mario be in Joey's life. But he'd neglected to contact them.

Joey knew one of them wasn't remembering it right. But at this point, did it really matter?

As they parted ways, Joey asked Mario to take a DNA test. Mario nodded, gave him a hug.

"Your dad did a good job," he said.

•••

Joey's house in North Tampa, a few months ago.

Joey's twin toddlers — Lorelei and Lucia — ran around a living room blocked off with baby gates. Joey's wife, Jennifer, held their week-old newborn, Zoey, on the couch.

Mario, 65 and retired from the sheriff's office, had come over to see the new baby.

He took hold of his grandchild. "She's beautiful."

Then he got down on the carpet on his belly with the twins.

It's been a couple of years since the results of the DNA test arrived in the mail.

Mario is Joey's biological father.

He calls Joey "son" and tells him he loves him. He comes over often to visit Joey and his growing family. But Joey still struggles with Mario's place in his life.

He has come to realize it is probably easier for a father in these circumstances to love a son than for a son to love a father.

He has tried to get over the anger he felt at missing out on so many years with his biological dad. He realizes that Mario, who later adopted two children, would have been there for him more as a kid than Joe Redner was. Mario would have come to his baseball games. But thinking about this made him feel ungrateful.

"I had good things in life," said Joey, now 37. "I had a man who stepped into his place and raised me as his biological son."

From Joe, a onetime carnival worker and terrazzo floor-layer, he learned intensity, hard work, how to make things happen. He knows Joe taught him to look at the world differently, to not always feel like he had to follow society's norms, to not judge people by appearances.

Joe, the atheist who earns a living with strip dancers, was committed to him from birth. The king of strip clubs, the community pariah, was good on the inside.

"I've trained myself to be more fair in the way I view things," Joey said, "and look at both sides."

Maybe that's why he has learned not to judge Mario by his absence in the past, but to accept him for the way he is now. Joe taught him that.

Every year, Joey's family attends the large Tamargo Christmas Eve get-together. He realizes he always wished he had a big family, that it was what he missed most growing up. He doesn't want his kids to miss out on that, too.

But he still calls Joe Dad.

Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at lapeter@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8640.

In Tampa, a conflicted son untangles his family history as a Redner 07/10/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 16, 2010 2:45pm]

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