Close encounters of the night kind

Good bars and bad luck

I leave Mastry's because someone has come in whom I don't want to talk to. It's a minor detail, but it plays into the story later, so there you go. The venerable, lovable downtown St. Pete dive is full of its usual amiable mix of hipsters, grizzled lifers and plain old regular folks. Mounted tarpon with plastic golden eyes watch tipsy white ladies dance to blues-rock. The music swaggers. Some patrons stagger. A homeless guy wanders in and begins panhandling as nonchalantly as he possibly can, because he's been here before and he knows what'll happen when he's spotted. It's any, every Friday night.

And then it gets uncomfortable, so I slide next door to The Garden.

Like most neighborhood bars and restaurants, while The Garden is HQ for a certain number of loyalists who continue to drop by sporadically, it experiences a slow and cyclical changeover of regulars. It's the kind of place that can be your default meeting place or last stop of the evening for years, and one day you happen to look around and realize you don't recognize anybody, not even the bartenders. Of course, if you keep going long enough — or stay away for five years and then drop by on a whim — the old faces will cycle back around. In the meantime, there will be those nights where you sit in one of the booths, nursing a drink and thinking about all the cool and/or weird shit that happened here back when it was your crew's clubhouse.

So, naturally, here I am, sitting in one of the booths, nursing a drink and thinking about all the cool and/or weird shit that happened here back when it was my crew's clubhouse.

For instance, there's the time I got mugged and beaten up at the corner of Central Avenue and Seventh Street. God, that sucked. After being jacked by three or four young toughs, I stumbled four blocks and into the restaurant, blood running freely from my nose and a nasty scalp wound incurred when I hit the asphalt. The Garden is a pretty nice place, half upscale tavern, half bistro, and the few patrons still enjoying a late snack of salad or hummus and pita were understandably dismayed to have a gore-soaked street-apparition lurch by within arm's length of their meals. Plenty of watering holes would have immediately shown me to a nice stretch of sidewalk where I could collapse and bleed out at my leisure. But Garden co-owner Emmanuel Roux and then-bartender Brad Dixon helped me into the back office, cleaned me up, and brought me a shot of Cuervo that I probably didn't need, but which helped nonetheless.

Ah, good times.

Anyway, I now sit at this wonderful little oasis, getting all nostalgic, until I realize that, fun or no fun, Mojo Gurus or no Mojo Gurus, I'm really not going back to Mastry's tonight. I pay my tab, stride quickly and meaningfully past the windows of Mastry's (facing rigidly forward, naturally), and head for my car.

Once you cross Third Street heading west on Central, the nightlife dies out for a few blocks. Corporate offices, condos and daytime businesses line either side of the street and it can be a solitary walk on even the most happening weekend nights.

Halfway between Third and Fourth, and almost to where I'm parked, I hear footsteps behind me, walking quickly, as if to catch up. I mutter an internal mantra to ward off unwanted confrontation, and begin to cross Central Avenue toward my truck. In the middle of the street, as I edge out of the shadows and into the glow of the streetlights, I see the shadow of a head close behind me. Obviously, the person I was avoiding saw me walking by the bar and came out to have a little tête-a-tête. There are no cars coming in either direction, so I spin around to speak my piece.

It isn't who I thought it was at all.

It's two young men, one on either side of me — both close enough to reach out and touch me without stretching. As I turn to my left to face one, the other circles with me, keeping himself at my back.

I'm getting mugged. In downtown St. Petersburg. Not 100 yards from an enthusiastically partying throng.

Again.

"What up?" says the one I'm facing, a fairly built guy with medium-length dreads that don't quite reach the shoulders of his dark blue sports jersey.

"Just goin' home, man," I say. It's supposed to be firm, but I sound like I'm five and explaining to my mother why I felt the need to decorate the hallway walls with a Sharpie.

I swivel, trying to keep the other, leaner dude with the close-cropped hair in my vision. He darts when I do, trying to stay in my blind spot. The other one never moves. Several blocks east on Central, a car backs out of a parking space and begins to head in our direction; at its current speed, it will get here sometime around noon tomorrow.

"What you got on you?" asks Dreads.

"Nothing. No money. I've got my keys and my Zippo" — I pull my key ring out of my pocket with my left hand; my lighter with my right, and hold them up at him.

Dreads looks at my keys, looks down the street toward the string of well-lit and populated storefronts at Third, looks back at my keys, looks over my shoulder at Skinny. The world's longest couple of seconds goes by. Then Dreads jerks his head minimally, and the two of them are gone, around the building at the corner of Third.

I stand there, unbelieving, for, oh, three-eighths of a second, then run for the truck. As I point the keyless-entry fob toward the fast-approaching driver's side door, I slow down, then stop completely, standing there next to my vehicle and staring at the little plastic piece of remote-control technology. It looks an awful lot like a car alarm, doesn't it? It's even got a little bright-red PANIC button toward one end. I remember Dreads taking a couple of good long looks at my keys less than a minute ago and nearly fall over.

Thank you, General Motors.

And you ... you be careful, okay?

Scott Harrell can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or by e-mail at [email protected].

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