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On Ybor's corners, gumption pays off

The first guy who called Vincent Starke "Vinnie" was Frank Vaccaro, the bruiser of a lawyer who was blown away by his boyfriend.

The two of them were leaving a club in Ybor City where musicians played the theme songs of Frank's stormy life _ the blues _ and Vincent Starke was on the sidewalk with his vending cart, trying to make more money than he ever made washing dishes. He sold African masks, Guatemalan art, cookies too, and Frank Vaccaro did to the young black man on the sidewalk what he did to everybody. He started razzing Vincent Starke. But he was the wrong guy to mess with. He started razzing Frank Vaccaro back.

Finally, Frank got the message to back off. He paid the vendor the highest compliment. He gave him a name like the name of some kid in every Italian neighborhood on earth.

After that, every time Vaccaro returned to Ybor to party away the night, he would lay down a $50 bill and buy everything Starke had. And he always called him Vinnie.

Vincent Starke became Vinnie the Vendor who sold Vinnie's famous chicken and ribs and hot dogs, all of it cooked by the man. Vinnie the Vendor attracted the wrath of some of Ybor's bigger wheels. At least he thought so. They resented him because they thought he was making money without any overhead, since you do not have to pay rent to whoever owns the sky, and maybe also because they thought he was the wrong color.

There was also the problem of Vinnie the Vendor's mouth. What came out of it tended to be obvious and true, but also uncensored. "The reason we have problems in Ybor City," he said by way of example the other day, "is that people here are so damn greedy."

Or else it is philosophical sounding and peculiar. "Ybor City is a woman," he said. "She'll either kill you or make you happy."

She made him happy. Tired and happy. He went from corner to corner and finally to a lot on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 17th Street. He was paying rent to the man who owned the empty lot. Still, the inspectors repeatedly came, to check out his selling food in the open air. Vinnie figured the inspectors were sent by the Ybor wheels who did not like him.

This pleased him to no end. "I'm not happy until somebody bothers me. If nobody's bothering me, that means I'm doing what they want me to do, not what I want to do."

And because of that, and perhaps because he is the man Frank Vaccaro said he was, a little miracle came in the life of Vinnie the Vendor. His landlord decided to turn the little lot into a pretty open air market, the Ybor Market, with brick columns and green and white awnings and to rent the whole space over to vendors like Vinnie. He put Vinnie Starke, who had always dreamed of owning his own lot, in charge.

He is signing up the vendors even now. The other day it was a woman who wanted to sell handmade hat bands. He wants to offer more. Soup to nuts. Fresh fruits and vegetables. Body piercing. Even free Internet access for anybody who comes by with a laptop under his arm. Vinnie is, after all, a big believer in the future.

He is a gentle bear of a guy, in jeans and hiking boots and a Rastafarian tricolor snug on his head. His father is Haitian, his mother is a Gullah from South Carolina's low country, and he considers himself a Jew. This ought to make him a perfect addition to Ybor City's crazy stew. But nearly everybody who owns or visits Ybor is white, what the cigar makers would have called Crackers. I wonder what they would think, for instance, of the lively country-western bar and dance hall on Seventh Avenue. I know what they would think of Vinnie Starke. They would cheer _ and give him their recipe for deviled crabs, the kind they used to sell from wooden carts for a nickel, and tell him to hustle them too, for a very good price.