As saloons go, the late Paddock Lounge was gritty, dark, spare and filled with some of the finest drunks Tampa had to offer — newspaper people, longshoremen and the odd pickled judge, or two.
It was heaven on a stool.
Back in the early 1970s, the Paddock exuded all the ambience of a Turkish prison. And yet for a young journalist just starting out in the scribbling racket, it was also where master classes on this craft took place late into the night when after putting the next day's edition to bed reporters, editors and composing room gypsies would gather over their bottomless glasses to dissect the day's events, argue, gossip, shoot pool and occasionally throw a punch or two.
This was not Beef 'O' Bradys.
You drank at the Paddock and you drank hard. And it was easy work since a draft beer only cost 25 cents. The waterhole was located in the Stovall Building directly across the street from the old Tampa Tribune's home on Kennedy Boulevard.
Once my late father, no stranger to the charms of clinking ice cubes, celebrated my release from the hospital after a lengthy stay by buying a round for a stunned house. He left a generous tip for Liz, the Australian barmaid, for whom a tip was about as rare an event as getting a raise from my then-employer. It was the talk of the Paddock for months afterward.
Bars are special places, especially if you drink. They are a communal respite from the hassles of the day, a place to share a laugh over a really good dirty joke, console a broken heart, fabricate lies no one believes anyway.
We all have our favorite watering holes where we feel comfortable, where everybody knows your name, often preceded by phrases unmentionable in a family newspaper. Alas, the storied Paddock served up its last besotted ink-stained lush many years ago to make way for "progress." But the ghost of hangovers past has been in the news recently.
The Retreat, a pleasant little dive just a few convenient stumbles away from the University of Tampa campus, is making the case it is entitled to serve booze to patrons. It is basing its claim on an aged 63-year-old Burgert Brothers photograph purporting to be the same location of the relatively new bar clearly revealing liquor bottles yearning to breathe free.
If the photo is accurate, the owners can cite an obscure city ordinance that would allow the sale of liquor on the site since it was already permitted, albeit quite a while ago.
At issue is a UT claim the picture is not of the present location of the Retreat, but rather the fabled Paddock. The university has come up with a 1949 Burgert Brothers photo of the Paddock, which the school insists is remarkably similar to the so-called 1946 photo claimed by the owners of the Retreat as their site.
The Retreat's lawyer found numerous elderly tipplers who signed sworn affidavits that they keenly remembered drinking hooch at the Retreat locale, which was good enough for city administrators to approve adding liquor to the joint's bill of fare.
Now the issue has landed in the lap of the Tampa City Council.
As an expert witness on these matters, I'd go with the geezer guzzlers. As anyone who has ever sidled up to an aperitif can tell you, one can be in final stages of dementia and still remember in vivid detail every bar where one has ever ordered a bump and a beer. It's a cocktail code of honor thing.
Perhaps it is possible both photos are of the Paddock, although I doubt it. The ceilings are different, and so are the floors. The bar configurations don't match up. Indeed, the closest thing to remodeling the proprietors of the Paddock ever seemed to engage in was keeping a mop and a bucket handy to clean up the occasional barf moment.
Although UT officials want to prevent the Retreat from serving liquor out of an understandable concern for their students, they've made no effort to deny nearby Mis en Place, which is equally close to the campus, from serving alcohol.
The innkeepers of the Retreat would have to be complete idiots to risk their license by serving underage customers. But it is also undeniable and yes, probably the height of political incorrectness, to suggest that young college students come to school not only to learn about engineering, or accounting, or history, but how to drink responsibly, too.
And isn't it better these scholars learn those lessons within walking distance from their residences, rather than getting behind the wheel of a car?