Weekly Planet staffers said goodbye to an old friend last week. Some were relieved to be rid of the increasingly inconvenient, creaky and cantankerous old dame who, quite frankly, ain't what she used to be. For others, she's still beautiful and fascinating — despite the long years and hard miles on her — and worth all the trouble she could be. For them, going to work will never be the same again without her. But don't start sending me happy retirement cards just yet.
I'm talking about El Pasaje.
For six years, until moving out last week, the Weekly Planet made its home in that beautiful red brick building with the shady scalloped arcade in front and lush courtyard in back. Built in 1886 and modeled after an Italian Renaissance villa, it was the second brick building in Ybor and remains one of the loveliest and most evocative spots in all of Tampa.
Non-native Tampans probably remember it best as the building at the corner of Ninth Avenue and Avenida Republica de Cuba where Cafe Creole served po'boys, mudbugs and cocktails for the better part of two decades until closing last year.
But long before that, El Pasaje housed a hotel and The Cherokee Club, a private gentlemen's enclave for the power elite. For 50 years, men announced their candidacy for governor in the club's second-floor ballroom. Teddy Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Jose Marti were among the hotel's guests. Marti is Cuba's most beloved martyr. He was the apostle of Cuban independence from Spain. Ybor City was a major source of support and inspiration for his efforts, and he spent a lot of time here, working with labor leaders, lectors and newspaper editors to organize the resistance and raise funds and support for war. He died fighting in one of the early battles. The plaque outside El Pasaje quotes Marti as saying when he stayed here, "I feel happy amongst warriors."
Of course, such an old building is bound to have its problems, especially after many years of disuse and neglect. The heating and air conditioning never worked very well. On especially cold winter mornings, your hands and feet could actually go numb if you didn't have a space heater. In storms, the electricity often blinked off. As for the plumbing, you'd be lucky if the only problem was that the toilet wouldn't flush. If you weren't lucky, the bowl would overflow, and you'd have to hot foot it out of there before your shoes got soaked.
There were strange noises in the walls that I always thought were bats, and one particularly wet year, the entire first floor flooded, water seeping in through windows and under doors.
Some offices were dark and dank; others blinding heat boxes in the afternoon. But they also had exposed brick walls, huge arched windows and exquisitely crafted tile floors.
We shared the second floor with a lesbian bar called, in a delicious stroke of irony, The Cherokee Club. We had our staff meetings in the club's Bordello Room, a garish purple parlor with burgundy velvet settees, a pool table and chairs made to look like giant leopard high heel shoes. It was not a place for being conventional or pretentious. It reminded us that we had escaped the world of generic cubicles and fluorescent lighting, of lockstep thinking and rigid rules. It was a place to live up to, a perfect home for an alternative newspaper.
Staff Writer Dave Jasper spent the night once, in hopes of meeting El Pasaje's resident ghost and writing about the encounter for a Halloween issue. Other staffers sometimes stayed overnight in the offices rather than drive home after partying late in Ybor. Cooper Cruz was robbed at gunpoint in the parking lot one night. Once we found a condom in the scrofulous old orange sofa in the editorial suite. It was the same sofa Janet Reno sat on when she visited during her campaign for governor.
The balcony overlooking our parking lot was the place to be during Tropical Heatwave. In addition to having a great view of the action, we had our own keg and bathrooms that, cranky as they were, still smelled better than the Port-o-lets. One year, a stranger managed to sneak in. We let him stay until we found him in the archive closet, peeing into a plastic cup.
I occupied three different offices in El Pasaje as I climbed up the corporate ladder and back down. My favorite was a corner room with windows on the east and north sides overlooking a wrought iron balcony and inner courtyard. To me, it was one of the best rooms in the building, and I liked imagining Winston Churchill reading the paper and smoking a cigar, or Jose Marti planning Cuba libre, the liberation of Cuba, in the very spot where I sat.
Friday nights I usually worked late, and often, I'd be hunched over my computer, trying to figure out how to squeeze 32 pages of copy into 28 pages, while handsome lesbians toasted the weekend on the terrace outside my windows, and yuppies whooped it up in the courtyard below.
That's when I'd pour a shot of rum into my little china teacup and toast my fellow warriors: that ragtag band of oddballs, freethinkers and contrarians who worked so hard to put out a paper with an independent voice every week — and the editors of those long-ago firebrand newspapers of Ybor City. I pictured them working late into the night 100 years ago so that the lectors could read to factory workers in the morning as they rolled cigars and planned a revolution.
Contributing Editor Susan F. Edwards can be reached at [email protected].