TAMPA — Dressed in a tie, a straw fedora and linen pants, Eric Hughes guided a dozen people along the RiverWalk and downtown sidewalks of Tampa.
The librarian, 43, tied together Tampa histories with a thread of newsy weirdness known as the Florida Man phenomenon — wacky headlines in which a "Florida man" commits an outlandish crime.
In his opinion, the city is lacking in regular walking tour options, and he’s hoping to change that by injecting a little Florida Man into the mix.
Using skills honed as a part of the WIT Improv troupe, and in character as Bryce Everglade, a certified "Level 5 Florida Man," he told "true" first-person tales of siphoning gas from a police cruiser and the time he burned down a meth lab while trying to ignite his own flatulence. He displayed the real-life news stories on a tablet to remind the group that while Bryce Everglade is a character, Florida Man really is out there somewhere.
While crossing Ashley Street after beers at Four Green Fields, Hughes talked about the street’s namesake William Ashley, a city clerk who is believed to have lived secretly with his former slave as his wife. Between drink stops at Pokey’s and the Hub, he told the tale of D.P. Davis, founder of Davis Islands, and the mystery of how the famed developer disappeared after falling from a porthole on the Majestic, the Titanic’s sister ship. The group was standing outside the CVS that once housed Davis’ office.
Outside Tampa Theatre, where he explained the lighted marquee’s relationship to a city ordinance meant to curb strip clubs, he pointed at Franklin Street and explained it was the site of Tampa’s greatest fiasco, the 1958 snow show, featuring an artificial ski jump leading to multiple injuries, a retail heist perpetrated by a Santa Claus and a trailer filled with prostitutes.
This was the third and final test run of Hughes’ three-hour tour. Earlier versions had featured Hughes in a wackier costume, using the name Florida Man Hall of Fame Tour, but he’d since changed it because he didn’t want tourists to think the idea was to "join the hall of fame," he said.
As he explained the history of Tampa’s former Woolworth building, the group became fittingly distracted by a shirtless man singing loudly while roller skating in the middle of Polk Street.
Looking up at the ornate ceiling and massive chandeliers as they entered the Floridan Palace Hotel, the night’s final stop, several Tampa residents marveled they’d never thought to walk inside the 90-year-old historic building.
"I’m a Realtor in Tampa, and I think this tour could be good for people who want to get more familiar with the area," said Aubrey Crow, 32, who lives in Seminole Heights.
Hughes, who has been in Tampa 12 years and is originally from Williamsburg, Va., "near the Jamestown historical area," originally set out to give straightforward history tours.
"I was going to talk about Tampa in the 1920s, and then I thought, let’s keep going," he said. "I don’t want people to think I’m making fun of the city. I think we have some good stories."
He plans to begin charging around $30 for the Downtown Tour: Florida Man Edition in late October. For information on how to book a trek, visit his Facebook page at facebook.com/tampatreksandtonic.