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Thousands of stories and memories melt into one final farewell

I went digging through Times story files this week and came across an enormous number, larger than I had anticipated. I have written columns for most of the past 17 years. In that time, I have produced nearly 2,000 of them.

The column began in November 1987 with a piece about a harebrained plan to overhaul Tampa's gorgeous thoroughfare, Bayshore Boulevard.

It ends today with a simple thank you and farewell.

Beginning Monday, I'll be on sabbatical until year's end. I'll spend the time trying to figure out what to do with the next lap of my life. Whatever it is, I don't expect to continue the column.

It's been grand fun. But I have at times felt like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, doing the same thing over and over. As soon as I got one column in the paper, I had to sit down and write another. I had to be pithy, smart, funny. Nobody, absolutely nobody, is consistently pithy, smart or funny, not in private life, nor this one.

Don't take that as complaint. This job is a privilege. The newspaper put me on what we call the metro news front to connect with readers in a most personal way, to write about them, to be their voice.

It's strange: I have a reputation for skewering public figures, but those aren't the columns dear to me. I remember the people whose names would otherwise never have made the newspaper, except maybe at birth or marriage or death.

I think of a lonely woman sitting outside the Hillsborough County Courthouse, trying to sell roses made from strips of palm. I think of the boy I met, then 9, who was later accepted into Harvard _ how proud I felt of someone else's son.

The pastor of an impoverished church who vowed to rebuild after a devastating fire. The woman so anxious to prepare for hurricanes that she filled sandbags and loaded them into the spotless trunk of her Jaguar.

Their stories played out against the changing backdrop of Tampa Bay. We watched it change together, didn't we?

The barriers, real and psychological, that once separated Tampa and St. Petersburg have come down. Maybe widening the Howard Frankland Bridge did it. Maybe it's from mayors working together. But I'd put my money on the sheer number of newcomers who didn't buy into, or didn't even know, old ways of thinking.

It used to be the Tampa Bay area was embarrassingly self-conscious, desperate for entry into the major league of cities. So we chased mega-events like Super Bowls and the Olympics, as if they would award credibility we couldn't earn any other way. We got the Super Bowls. The Bucs even won one. But that's not why I feel, in my gut, that we are less anxious to explain and promote ourselves. The rest of the country knows us now, and the rest of the country likes what it sees.

I don't, not always. We build too many shopping centers. Even our credit cards can't keep up with them. We fill too many pastures with identical houses, so close together their roofs nearly touch. That may be the story of America these days. But I don't think there's anything wrong with longing for better.

That's me, always wanting more. I don't care about the liberal tag dangling from my neck. It's meaningless, as is that word, conservative. Those labels are designed to shut down debate, not foster it. I wanted Tampa Bay to be someplace better. That's all any of us should be about.

In Tampa, I wanted little but important things _ more sidewalks and better roads _ so the city could shake its reputation as one of the most dangerous places in the country for walkers and bicyclists. In St. Petersburg, I've wished, and still do, for something big enough to change conditions in Midtown and ease the city's long-simmering racial resentments.

I have to go clear my desk now. There's a big, blue second-hand, overstuffed chair nearby. I used to sink into it when I had a column to think through, or when I had an editor I was trying to avoid. Somebody in my office who needs to think and hide will get it. And somebody else will write this column. Please welcome whoever it is. Be as generous to them as you have been to me.

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