Tabs closed. Doors opened. Dance strobes mixed with police lights. Like 1,000 angry ants, they stormed out onto the main drag of Ybor City.
The crowd gathered on sidewalks, half deaf from the thumping club music. Half blind under the white street lamps. Some half drunk.
Police waited with paintball guns loaded with pepper spray slung by their hips, fresh images of fallen comrades burned into their minds that afternoon at an officers' memorial. A buzz hung over the street the same way birds chatter minutes before a storm. They knew something had to happen.
Then it did.
Silver whistles screeched. Bystanders washed into the street. A Tampa police horse and rider thundered to the intersection of Seventh Avenue and 17th Street, by Habibi Hookah Bar. Officers filed down what they call a fatal funnel: One way in. No way out. Something dangerous at the end.
Back inside behind the bar, 23-year-old Denzel Malcolm and 25-year-old Nabil Taher threw fists and elbows. A hookah tumbled from a coffee table and smashed on the concrete floor. Officers yanked them apart. They bent Taher over a sofa's arm and handcuffed him. Malcolm struggled a few feet away. Shouts echoed in the cavernous bar.
"Leave!" police barked at the crowd. "Now!"
The officer on horseback pushed onlookers off the sidewalk.
But they don't. They won't. Not yet.
Something will cause fists to pound flesh and kick the heels of crowds to come watch. The violence is ignited by alcohol, testosterone, the urge to impress. Sometimes nothing at all. The flare-ups are sporadic. They form in pockets. Sometimes the fights spread like spilled oil. Sometimes not. The only constant is that they will happen.
Two blocks west, 18-year-old Jacob Pompeo stumbled on a scene that would churn his gut for days. A thick-built, 6-foot-tall man anchored himself against a Dumpster in an alleyway and kicked a figure on the ground with all his might. He kicked so hard he grunted.
A pale overhead light illuminated another man's face on the ground. He writhed in the wet gravel. Pompeo and his friends rushed the scene. The man against the Dumpster got in two more kicks then fled down the alleyway. Weeds and a broken beer bottle were coated red where the other man lay. Blood poured from his head and his mouth and was smeared on his face. He said his name was Doug. It was about all he could remember.
Doug's cellphone and credit card were lost in the scuffle. He couldn't remember whom he came with. Dazed, he tried to recount what had happened. Pompeo and his friends called an ambulance. Paramedics loaded Doug onto a stretcher.
If crowds can be your pain, they can also be your salvation. Chance and human concern can peel from the pack and present themselves at odd hours of the night. The way superheroes spend their evening.
Seventh Avenue emptied in 45 minutes. Malcolm and Taher slouched in the back seats of squad cars while their information was scribbled on reports. The ambulance pulled away with Doug in tow. Glass rattled in a vacuum cleaner in Habibi Hookah Bar. Beer bottles and torn wristbands littered sidewalks. Homeless men scavenged in garbage cans.
By daybreak, Seventh Avenue would be neat and tidy, as if 3 a.m. had never happened.
Alex Orlando wrote this as an intern for the Times. He is now interning at the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky. He can be reached at email@example.com.