Last year, someone asked Tampa's mayor what kept him up nights.
He did not hesitate.
Right up there with stressing over a direct hit from a hurricane, Mayor Bob Buckhorn said, was the prospect of 50,000 politicians, protesters and assorted other parties soon to arrive for Tampa's first Republican National Convention — the biggest event this city ever attempted.
And because we never do anything easy around here, of course we had a wannabe hurricane churning out there in the gulf just as everybody was about to show up. You know, just to keep things interesting.
Remember how surreal it was a year ago, when the RNC came to town?
Beforehand, some restaurants and businesses — especially many of the strip clubs for which we are infamous — dreamed of untold crowds of visitors bearing big fat wallets. Police hoped for the best and readied riot gear for the worst. Even reporters learning the ropes for covering something this potentially explosive were advised to trade their black cellphone covers for white ones — pink, even — lest a phone whipped out in the name of news-gathering be mistaken for a weapon.
And then they were here. And it was weird.
We saw legions of police in those unfamiliar khaki uniforms, on foot, on bikes, and for a few tense occasions, in the aforementioned riot gear. (Hands down, best chant from protesters: "You're sexy … you're cute … take off that riot suit!") Meanwhile, other protesters were having their smiling pictures snapped with the police chief. The hurricane did not come. The heat — wicked heat, even for us sweaty veterans of many a Florida summer — did.
Because the week's big events were corralled largely to one scenic side of the city, much of downtown turned ghost town. All we needed were tumbleweeds. The always-packed Vietnamese lunch spot was mine alone. At another restaurant, the owner paced outside his empty business. He looked ready to weep.
We did look good on TV — particularly when the cameras faced the pretty channel and the pretty yachts, or showed off a big plate of Ybor City Cuban sandwiches and not those big, scary security fences.
And then they were gone. And it was like — what just happened here?
On Tuesday, the mayor and the RNC team got to take a victory lap. Their glossy economic impact report did not show platoons of police, though there was a shot of some Hooters girls posed with a GOP-ish elephant. In a wardrobe note that may or may not have been related to all those giddy millions in economic impact, the mayor wore a tie that was very, very green. "We did it," he said. "We absolutely did it."
So what else did we get out of it? A little cachet, I say.
Tampa is a little big town, and it seems to me every Super Bowl-sized party we host gets us a thing intangible and beyond numbers.
A couple of weeks ago, a snooty New Yorker with a too-hip show on HBO started an unprovoked rant: We can't have our talented young people unable to afford New York and moving to a place as horrifying as Tampa, opined Girls' Lena Dunham.
And was it me, or did she sound a little scared of us?
So maybe with each big event to hit our city — up next: The Bollywood Oscars — we get a new slogan:
Tampa: Not Nearly As Bad As You Thought.