Saturday night, just past 11 at Big Dog's Patio. It's casting light on the sleepy downtown, nestled between some benches made of train wheels and a shop that sells honey.
A sign says everyone is welcome, and it's evident. White, black, Latino. Girls in tight jeans, guys in camouflage. Mohawks, Nikes, khakis, cowboy hats. Everyone relates around a beer. They grind to a song by a rapper from Riverview, some 20 miles away. They sit at the bar, cigarette slumped in their worn fingers.
A tall, glorious woman in a pink miniskirt bounces up to the bar. She orders gin and pineapple, and she calls the bartender "sweetie."
What is there to do around here? I ask.
"The Strawberry Festival!" she shouts over the beats.
Besides that, though.
She dabs sweat from her head, whips her hair and grabs her plastic cup.
"This is about it."
What is this place, really?
• • •
Plant City rests along Interstate 4 between Tampa and tourist mecca Orlando. Some 30,000 people live within 22 miles, many of them for their whole lives. Plant City doesn't have tall buildings, beaches, roadside bungee jumping or $15 Mickey Mouse ears.
It has strawberries.
The red jewels ooze from every pore of this place, on crystallized tank tops, on business signs, on antique gravy boats in dusty shops. The winter strawberry capital of the world, Plant City has hosted an annual festival to honor the industry since 1930.
There is a parade, farm animals, a pageant of pretty girls who serve as small-town royalty. This year's queen, Victoria Watkins, works at the local Beef 'O' Brady's.
While the festival still thrives on pulled-pork and shortcake, it has decades of Nashville savvy, booking major country acts like Lady Antebellum and Bill Ray Cyrus. The festival attracts more than 500,000 people every year.
There is slow cultural change, too. This year's strawberry court includes an African-American girl, only the second in history.
That push and pull is the engine of Plant City, always moving forward yet staying put. There's a Chili's, a Dunkin' Donuts, grocery stores and dollar stores, even a Starbucks. There is the elegant Keel and Curley Winery, where you can pick blueberries and get married. There are tiny diners and farms and trailers, big-wheel trucks rolling past Southern tea rooms.
But is there life after the Strawberry Festival? Or is Plant City a roadside curiosity that ends with the harvest?
• • •
The waiter sets down the steak.
It's a glistening slab of bovine with mashed potatoes and onion straws. Portions like this don't happen in big cities. It's part of the $65 dinner show. Drinks are extra.
The Red Rose Inn and Suites beckons from the highway, just when you think the world's gone flat. The hotel ballroom drips in emerald velvet and golden lamp light. Each toilet in the ladies room looks up to a chandelier. It has an odd mystery, like if left untended, it could be the Haunted Mansion, or The Shining, or Hotel California.
Evelyn Madonia, the redhead mascot with painted lips and satin gloves, goes on television to advertise the place. People vaguely familiar with the Red Rose Inn call her "that lady from those commercials." She and her husband invested millions in the formerly rundown motel, and their pride — or at least hers — is inescapable.
Her face is everywhere. The room key. The housekeeping form. The sign on the highway.
People from Ocala and Lakeland and Clearwater flock every weekend to shows at the Red Rose Inn. It's all oldies, apple pie and doo-wop, rhythm and blues and a dash of Neil Diamond.
Our show is so booked, my boyfriend and I have to sit with several strangers. Like a wedding or a cruise.
Singer P.J. Leary croons from the stage. Crazy for feeling so lonely, crazy for feeling so blue.
"Oooh, this is when you really start to live," says Charlie Johnson, swaying through the music like it's airborne syrup. He saws into his steak. "Young people today, they don't appreciate the oldies."
Charlie and his wife, Darlene, have come from Lakeland to see this show. Darlene, who refuses to dress like she's 58, has on a short skirt, a sparkling red jacket and plastic heels that light up when she walks.
She lives simply, she says, like most people here. She cleans floors at a sandwich plant. She is a grandmother. She loves her bonfire and Riunite wine. She went to the Strawberry Festival every year as a little girl.
"I loved to walk through where they sell all the crafts," she says. "My dad always told my mom to meet him at the steamed corn stand."
The Van-Dells, a trio of older men in letter sweaters, sing Americana ear candy and crack harmless jokes. The crowd, nibbling on chocolate mousse and strawberries, is transfixed. When the band plays Dixie, people stand, applaud and thrust their arms victoriously in the air. When one of the Van-Dells hikes his Looney Toons boxers and makes a "pants on the ground" reference, the place howls.
Charlie and Darlene run to the front of the ballroom and dance like teenagers.
The Red Rose Inn is couched by the highway and a train that blares through town at all hours.
Sleeping is interesting.
The opulence of the ballroom is forgotten inside our $99 double room, which feels like an afterthought. We've been downgraded without a price adjustment because we booked the room online and they were full.
"You can call the website," the receptionist says, flanked by Gone With the Wind paintings, wrought iron roses and ceramic conquistadors.
We leave and find Baker's St. Cafe, a tiny diner at a fork in the road. We order biscuits and gravy. The waiters pull cartons of strawberries from behind the register for special customers. Signs on the wall say "American as apple pie," and "Mom's Diner." There are a couple of old racially charged tin syrup ads, too.
Judy Smith, our waiter, knows everyone who comes through. She is 60 now, waiting tables since age 18.
"You don't have a lot of places like this anymore," she says. "I know everyone's order."
Judy suggests we visit a mural downtown. I laugh that a mural could be considered an activity, but later that day I see a woman sitting on a bench staring at it.
• • •
We head a mile up the road to Parkesdale Farms, founded by strawberry grower Roy Parke in the 1950s. It's bustling with folks buying purple onions, grapefruits, strawberry plants and souvenirs. Trampled strawberry stems are smashed into the dirt. The line for shortcake and milkshakes winds into the parking lot. A sign reads kindly, "Cell phones off would be nice."
The Garden of Eatin' is Parkesdale's food court, a picnic shelter shellacked in red tinsel, strawberry kitsch and massive framed pictures of the Parke family with George H.W. Bush and Jeb Bush. A water-pocked piece of paper tacked to a bulletin board invites guests to check in on Foursquare.
A big strawberry chair sits center, with a row of plastic crowns. It's really for kids.
I finish my strawberry shake, the best I've ever tasted. I pick a gold crown and perch in the belly of the berry. I survey the place, feeling just a tad special.
• • •
Up the road and under the interstate, there's a big Tyrannosaurus rex.
Dinosaur World was named one of the Top 5 Tackiest Tourist Traps by cable network TLC. More than 100,000 people come here each year. For $12.75, you can pose inside a dinosaur head and meet 150 foamy prehistoric pals.
Drive down to Disney's T-Rex Café, and there's a moving dinosaur roaring at tourists between bites of Brachiosaurus Bruschetta. But here, there is no food, no animation, no sound effects. You can bring your dog and buy a Coke from a machine.
The dinosaurs are almost charmingly underwhelming. Spanish moss hangs in the mouths. Glass eyes have popped off. Replica fossils sit among potted ferns. In the carnivore section the dinosaurs eat each other by the jugular. It feels like a metaphor for this place, swamped on all sides by encroaching predators of modern life.
Dinosaur World plans to double in size by the fall, adding a dinosaur playground, indoor museum and gift shop. At the arched entrance, pterodactyls will soar through the sky.
• • •
In town on Washington's Birthday, it's ghostlike. Only half the shops are open.
The dress store, glimmering with poofy pageant gowns, is closed. The Plant City Photo Archives is closed. The Plant City Welcome Center is closed.
A woman pops into an antiques store. Where can her elderly father get a cup of coffee? The coffee shop is closed.
"I'm surprised," says the shop owner. "It's a busy day for us in town."
Outside, there is nearly no one.
We buy a $4 Superman comic from the 1970s. The owner is delighted, sliding the bills into the drawer. It could be her only sale for the day. We ponder how the Strawberry Festival, with its studded country rock stars and gluttonous fair food and theme T-shirts, is vital to this sleepy place. For many reasons.
We walk past Big Dog's Patio. It's empty, but the nighttime hours are posted on the door.
They close, it says, when the last person leaves.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8857.