Lately I find myself driving past Tampa's ghosts, even the ghost of its smells.
Where Palios Bros. restaurant once stood, I swear I still get that county-fair scent of just-fried chicken. An open-air farmer's market that is now a medical office building always smelled of fresh-turned earth. Castellano & Pizzo, the old-school Italian store with its mixed scents of baked bread, musky olives and good cheeses, shut down late last year, another heartbreaker.
New can be good — a chain gourmet market, a high-end restaurant, a closer Target. But when the bars and stores and shops that make up the heart and crust of a town go, they go for good.
Now it's the old Army Navy Surplus Market at the edge of downtown. The business has been part of this place forever, selling tents and dog tags and all things camo piled to the ceiling. Stepping inside its dim and clutter is like passing through a portal, into smells of old burlap and metal, history and dust, a place to get lost in.
Of course military types came to sift through fatigues, helmets, canteens and lace-up boots. Cops, too. Campers came for blue-speckled cook pots and minnow buckets, workers for Dickies coveralls and stiff Lee jeans. The homeless counted out coins for reflective vests for panhandling, wool blankets and thick Army socks. A contingent has always been interested in the brass knuckles, lethal-looking batons and canes topped with carved skulls. Certain churches, I am told, regularly bought camo for what were called "War With The Devil" events.
And with every prediction that the world would soon end came those seeking camp stoves, water purification tablets and MREs. The most recent dire prognostication? "Oh, we were busy then," store manager Awilda Lebron tells me. She wears a camo jacket and Hello Kitty earrings, and says she wrote on their receipts, "See you tomorrow!" Tomorrow always came.
This place also had a way of drawing in people you might not expect, partiers wanting matching dog tags, suburbanites hunting Halloween costumes, college kids needing footlockers. Mayor Bob Buckhorn, known for his natty Brooks Brothers look (and, the occasional pair of pants so plaid you must shade your eyes), has himself walked these aisles to outfit himself for a duck hunt.
"Everybody — judges, bankers, lawyers, workers, reporters like you," owner Nick Potamitis rumbles from behind the counter where he has been for decades. He's right; I came in for camo pants my young nephews loved and added canteens and binoculars that were better than anything I could have found at Toys R Us. When my niece went to college, I got her pepper spray here, safety against the world.
Potamitis says it is time to retire, so the clearance sale started this week and ends when it's all gone. He says the property owner may rent to someone else — though given downtown's recent uptick it's not hard to imagine another tall shiny building here, not far from where the old Goody Goody restaurant smelled of searing burgers doused in secret special sauce, until it closed, too.
At the register I inhale the dusty smell and buy a blue-speckled metal ladle, and also more pepper spray, a thing to make you feel safe. Because the world keeps changing. And where's a town supposed to get its brass knuckles and camo then?