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Carlton: Tampa's Gasparilla now sails sea of diversity

So it's Gasparilla again, Tampa's rich, historic tradition of pirates and parades, beer, beads, and the occasional bawd, a town at its best and, okay, sometimes its worst.

The weather the mayor ordered should arrive on time, cool enough Saturday morning that even hardcore partiers won't start bending elbows early because it's hot and hate stumbling by noon. Because on this day, it is not unusual to spot someone enjoying a frosty beverage with the sun barely up, Tampa partying Mardi Gras style.

Gasparilla is the same as it's been for decades — festooned pirate ship gliding across the bay, scarred and bandana'd marauders, kids large and small begging beads tossed skyward from floats, the city in full party mode — but also not the same.

One of my very first glimpses of Gasparilla years ago always comes back to me: A gangplank to carry the pirates off the ship and onto dry land buckled. So a bunch of workers, many of them black, hoisted it on their shoulders as the white pirates, the city's elite dressed up for a day of play, plundered off.

I remember, too, the story of a Gasparilla luncheon at the Tampa Yacht Club in the 1980s. Some imbibing pirates got in a food fight, with the wait staff looking at the mess they would have to clean up and no less than Mayor Sandy Freedman ducking under a table when the silverware started flying.

Time — and even Gasparilla — changes. After the big brouhaha over Ye Mystic Krewe's all-white, all-male membership, they admitted a few black members. Today you have more than 50 krewes in the pirate party: a krewe for "women of spirit and wit," krewes of sailboaters and riverboat gamblers, the Krewe of Buffalo Soldiers, a krewe in kilts.

There's even Ye Notorious Krewe of the Peg Leg Pirate, with a core mission of helping amputees and their families. Now there's a bunch that knows how to mix purpose with fun.

And this year, the big party will surely be attended by couples who could not have been legally married as of last Gasparilla, but by today's parade have been legally bethrothed. That's a nice milestone.

But before we start looking too inclusive here, ours is still a party in which a friendly group from one county south will not be parading for reasons still murky. Might it have something to do with the fact that they, too, dress up like pirates? As if!

What's great about Gasparilla is that, beyond the blueblooded bluebeards, it's for everyone. People pour in from rural corners and staid suburbs and grittier city neighborhoods north of Kennedy Boulevard, places some South Tampa denizens still rarely venture — all to play pirate.

And for an only-in-Tampa moment, look, over there, at those Bayshore mansions along the parade route — why, it's socialite Jill Kelley of CIA director scandal fame co-hosting a big do with her neighbors the Maddons, as in former Rays manager Joe, who we're still mad at for leaving us. Okay, so maybe not for today.

Gasparilla at its worst? Too-young kids sick from drinking, adults behaving badly, random peeing, an air of lawlessness, the college-age men I once saw wrestling beads from a homeless man. But police have tamped down on much of that in recent years.

Police who today, by the way, wear badges bearing a skull-and-bones.

Hey, it's Tampa, and also Gasparilla.

Carlton: Tampa's Gasparilla now sails sea of diversity 01/30/15 [Last modified: Friday, January 30, 2015 8:02pm]
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