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In Ybor City, the mother of all bartenders goes by Mama

Carol Steen, a.k.a. Mama, poses for a portrait at Hamburger Mary’s. Mama, who is 49, has worked at Ybor City bars for about 15 years.

Luis Santana | Times

Carol Steen, a.k.a. Mama, poses for a portrait at Hamburger Mary’s. Mama, who is 49, has worked at Ybor City bars for about 15 years.

YBOR CITY

Her kids call her Mom.

Everyone else calls her Mama.

Only a few know her actual name: Carol Steen.

Say it and she might not respond right away. Sometimes even she forgets she has a real name.

But that's Mama, the mother of all Ybor bartenders who watches out for her customers — and scolds them if they misbehave.

Mama was a fixture at the Reservoir Bar for more than five years until about a month ago, when tectonic plates shifted somewhere and she ended up at Hamburger Mary's. It wasn't anything she planned. Just an opportunity arose and she took it.

Telling her friends at Reservoir was one of the hardest things she has ever done, she said.

• • •

Moving a few doors east on Seventh Avenue proved an easy transition for Mama, who has worked in Ybor bars for nearly 15 years, including the Castle, Crowbar, Boneyard and G.Bar. Her regulars at Reservoir are still her regulars at Hamburger Mary's. No doubt, friends she hasn't seen in a while will come find her on Mother's Day.

Mama, 49, has been called Mama for so long she doesn't remember how it started. Only recently, after creating a Facebook account under her real name, did she begin telling people her legal name so they could friend her.

Even her new boss, Kurt King, a longtime friend, had no clue.

"When I was passing out paychecks, I said, 'Who's Carol?' "

The name fits her personality and actual life. She has six children, ages 18 to 29, and two grandsons. She had five boys — Ernesto, Antonio, Enrique, Miguel and Joseph — then finally got a girl. Mama named her Ashley Rose after her own mother, Rose, who died six years ago.

Mama's mom was a strict Catholic homemaker with five kids who loved to cook. Her father was a tattooed tug boat captain who served in the Navy. When he retired, they moved to Florida from New York. Mama followed.

Like anyone raising kids, Mama says she wasn't a perfect parent but did the best she could. She only had to look sternly at her children to express anger or frustration. She got by on caffeine, nicotine and vodka.

She lives east of Ybor, not far from work and her kids. Like every year, she plans to work on Mother's Day. She'll probably cook a big family dinner on Monday, her regular day off. Brunch, a spa day and flowers just aren't her style.

In honor of Mother's Day, Tampa Bay Times sat down with Ybor's favorite Mama at her new digs at Hamburger Mary's. She spoke about motherhood, her latest career move and her worst Mother's Day gift.

What type of advice do you give new moms?

Usually, when I see someone who's pregnant, I say, "Congratulations. Good luck and get ready for the ride. It's a roller coaster like none other you've ever been on. There'll be ups and downs, twists and turns. And you have to figure out how to roll with every one. There is no book."

Do customers tell you stories about their mothers?

Yes, a lot of them, when their mothers come to town, they introduce me to their mothers. They will say, "This is my mother," and they'll say to their mothers, "This is Ybor's mama. She's my mother when I'm in Ybor and she watches out for me."

Have you ever bailed anyone out of jail?

No, thank God. I've never had to. I just make sure they are behaving in front of me.

Was it strange moving from a straight bar to a gay bar?

The Reservoir Bar, I made it an anybody bar. Yeah, it's labeled a straight bar, but anyone could go in there. My tag line for the place was, "For bikers and drag queens and everyone in between." This place is kind of like the same way. You have families coming in here with children, gays and lesbians, and straight people. I've seen bikers eating here.

What's the toughest part about being mom?

Trying to stop your children from making the same mistakes you made when you were growing up. That's the absolute toughest part because you also have to remember what you felt like at their age. And remember that you probably didn't listen to your parents when they were trying. The teenage years are really rough. You're not giving them advice to p--- them off. You're giving them advice to guide them.

What was your best Mother's Day gift?

When my son had first moved away, and I hadn't seen him in two years, he came down to Florida and we all had a family dinner together.

Worst?

I got a Snuggie once. (Laughs.)

In Ybor City, the mother of all bartenders goes by Mama 05/10/12 [Last modified: Friday, May 11, 2012 3:18pm]
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