Many moons ago, I attended my first Guavaween.
The Ybor City parade they call the Mama Guava Stumble was all satire and silliness, clever costumes mocking the politics of the day, pregnant nuns and a car powered with gas from Ybor's famous black beans.
When I went a few years later, Guavaween had morphed into more than 100,000 people. You saw great motorized floats with the same krewes from the Gasparilla parade throwing the same strands of beads. (And can someone please explain the I'll-do-anything-for-cheap-plastic-beads phenomenon? It's not like they're tossing lemon martinis or twenties.)
But the costumes seemed more commercial, the crowd rougher, Guavaween sans some of its original charm. Or maybe its stumble.
That night, you found yourself pressed against strangers like layers on a Cuban sandwich. You moved with the thuggy masses like you were caught on an ocean current, whether you wanted to or not, and you started to understand stories of people trampled in a crowd.
Not making this up: One year at Guavaween, a man dressed as a mugger robbed a guy of his wallet and his rented Freddy Krueger costume.
Teri Cox Hickey, president of CC Event Productions and Guavaween promoter for the last 17 years, tells it this way: By 1994, the Ybor Chamber of Commerce had the rights to the event and the mayor said get it under control. "We said: Fence it and charge admission," she says, and they did.
Weather, the economy and competition from theme park screamfests can all hit attendance. But in its 25 years, Guavaween costumes kept reflecting the zeitgeist: Bill Clinton and the intern in the blue dress, Billary, Beavis and Butt-head, Boris Yeltsin, baseball players on strike.
A cruise ship spilling sewage, college football players in trouble, Saddam, Osama. It seems inevitable that big burly men will dress as Hooters girls, and a nun in the family way will be a crowd-pleaser.
One year, city officials fretted over plans for a band called the Butthole Surfers, but their appearance did not cause the streets to open and swallow us all. Some merchants struggled with Guavaween because, face it, beer-drinking revelers and nice restaurants do not mix.
At last, Guavaween is working to get back to its roots.
Last year's banning of floats, or anything motorized, led some krewes to refuse to come out and play, but who needs 'em? It's called a stumble, people. Yes, it's a more modest event. About 25,000 came, including a Krewe of Blues that turned a coffin on a cart into a cooler. Now that's the spirit.
And if attendance is down, some think the clientele is improving. Not to mention costumes.
Tonight, a cool October one on the evening before All-Hallow's, oh, the possibilities for dressing up scary or satirical and winning the $2,000 prize, the potential for making fun of what is by daylight not all that funny:
A defrocked, refrocked state Senate candidate. A Charlie-in-the-middle. Tea partiers. TV snipsters who want to be your governor.
Or maybe something along the lines of a makeup lady on CNN, buffing the shine out of Rick Scott's head. And there's always that nun.