THE BUTTER DISH THIEF
A few months ago, I committed a crime. Next to the chair I sit in to write, rests a little gray cube shaped ottoman. On top of the cube is a square black tray and in the tray mixed among various old napkins, a coffee cup and the TV remote controls, is a tiny little white dish. It’s a little butter dish that I stole from an infamous restaurant in Ybor City. Other than for its outstanding food, this establishment is most well-known for hosting the criminal elite of Tampa since 1905; who individually and as a group, committed far worse crimes than my humble lift.
This harmless theft of the butter dish from the restaurant table, pales in comparison to a level of organized crime that was rampant in the late 40s and early 50s throughout Florida, especially in Ybor City. One night, in the early 1950’s, just prior to the Thanksgiving Holiday, one of the most notorious gangsters this country has ever known, knocked on the door of a little shack off a side street located within, the Cigar Capital of the World.
As the rain finished tapping on the tin roof of this humble workers home, the crime boss waited and a beautiful young lady in her 20s named Delia answered. He wanted to be sure that everything was all set for the Bolita Drawing that was to occur later that night. This was the equivalent to the modern-day numbers racket or illegal lottery of the day. Delia nodded and the gangster left her home and drifted back into the shadows. She closed the door and resumed her preparation for a fund-raiser she would be dancing at later that evening at a local club.
During the day she, like many others in her world, worked at the cigar factories. Delia was a cigar bander and would soon fall in love with one of the men she worked with, who was a cigar maker. He managed to earn a little extra in the evenings, betting on his prize rooster at the cock fights. The two cigar workers would marry, have two sons a daughter and launch a dynasty that followed them. But on this night, she had to rush out to the club where a random photograph was taken of the dancing volunteers crowded around a famous actor named Edward Horton, who also donated his time to the charitable event.
Delia stood just to the left of the famous actor and next to one of her best girlfriends. She rested her hand on the shoulder of another close friend sporting a very tiny mustache, as he sat posed in front of Mr. Horton. And this picture will be passed down through the generations along with stories of gangsters, close calls and good times in the old neighborhood. Later that night, more photographs were taken including candid shots of the dancers smoking those same cigars that they rolled and banded during the day.
Flash forward to 2013, I’m up the street from that same neighborhood, in downtown Tampa, the weekend before Thanksgiving. The shadowy figures of the past have been replaced with huge office buildings casting shadows on empty weekend parking lots filled with vendors on a Sunday morning. I had just dropped off my daughter departing from the Tampa airport and had to kill a few hours before returning to the airport to retrieve new arriving guests flying in for the holidays.
No gangsters or famous actors here today, just the dogs unnaturally adored by their owners and the view of a wannabe famous mascot promoting the local hockey team standing in front of a strolling rubenesque woman poured into a striped dress too tight to be seen in public.
Round and round I walked, looking for thrilling reveals and spontaneous moments to capture. All I could find was even more full-figured women dressed in bright yellow t-shirts offering to squeeze large lemons into lemonade and smiling college students working their way through school by selling Whoopie Pies. I decided to move on from the dull and delicious to find adventure in downtown Tampa on a Sunday afternoon.
It was surprisingly busy up and down the side streets. Workers were caulking cracks in parking garages while others painted flag poles at great heights.
Groping for spectacular images I had to settle for strange and bizarre decals unusually mounted to the backs of cross walk signs naturally placed beyond reach. I pondered the possibility of hi-tech drug dealers and pimps marking their territory with their hi-res branded images printed on adhesive backed stickers purchased at Kinko’s copy centers.
Defeated, cold and tired I decided to take in a movie at the historic Tampa Theater. Continuing to scrape the surface of the obvious, I grabbed frozen females in need of elbow grease and young dramatic boys fixated on flutes.
Suddenly the beautiful sound of music filled the air as the stage floor opened up at this old theater pushing through an old man on an old organ. I climbed up to the balcony to get another shot from a different perspective. Soon the entertainment ended, the floor of the stage opened up again and swallowed the musician and his instrument while I settled in up there to watch the movie of the day.
Hours passed, the movie ended and the weather changed from tropical windy to dark and blustery. I left the theater in search of adventure once again and was drawn to mischievous nymphs running through crops of tilted blown fountain stalks. Playing with my camera to adjust the light and speed, another odd traveler rode their bicycle through my field of wet white weeds. It could have been the mist from the spraying sprigs or a drizzle may have started to fall, either way I was compelled to seek shelter.
Frustrated, searching and starving for image and story… I looked up to see the Florida Museum of Photographic Art in the distance. I can’t stand photo galleries. The tension between the thought of how my pictures should be on those walls and the envy toward those people who are actually exhibiting… is excruciating and unbearable. And like a moth to the flame I’m drawn in to allow myself to be pulled by the continuous caustic conflict.
I entered the luring museum and rode the elevator up to the second floor where the gallery was located. The elevator doors opened in front of a desk where a thin, artsy man sat, taking money and repeating the pitch about the various exhibits going on. A tall athletic man and an exotic woman stood in front of me at the desk, making their donation to enter the exhibit. I thought they were a couple till the woman proudly pointed and declared, “ You see that woman over there in the exhibit poster? That’s our mom! She’s the pretty one in the middle smoking the cigar.”
That’s when it all made sense to me. My purpose for being there at that moment. To connect time and be a part of a special story. A chain of events that ended with me being at a museum at that exact moment, behind a brother and sister. I’m now a part of tale that began long ago with a mother who banded cigars and a father who made them.
Who knows…maybe in 60 years when I’m long gone and forgotten, this picture of a woman standing in front of a poster will show up in some creative person’s futuristic writing, telling a story about a frustrated photographer who was known for stealing butter dishes and how he wandered through the streets of Tampa long ago.