It's cruel to call a man before noon on a Saturday. Especially if said man put away his final glass of wine at 5 a.m. But my pal is a careless bastard. "I'm finishing a job in Tampa Palms and will be by your place in 20 minutes," he said. "If you don't answer I will beat your door down, wake you up ... and then buy you a new door, later."
I made the mistake of chuckling.
"Come on, it's a beautiful day out," he cajoled, switching to a softer approach. "Let's get lunch, get a beer in ya, and you'll be fine."
He had a point. I'd planned to put on my old-lady sleep mask, curl up under the sheets in the fetal position and not rise until long shadows covered the hot, black asphalt surrounding my apartment. But the idea of having a little food/booze in my system didn't seem bad. After all, it was Saturday.
My persistent pal and I decided to meet at Rick's on the River, the waterfront hangout in West Tampa.
I prepared to turn left on Columbia. At the stoplight, a mess of lunatic kids was trying to raise money with a dubious car wash. My car was covered with a thick film of dust, pesticide and bird shit, but I drove past them, just like I drove past the house with the huge, handwritten sign that read "Glorify God," which also made me nervous. I was relieved to see the sign that said "Rick's on the River."
The place is Old Florida at its cracker finest. There's an aluminum roof, exposed wooden beams and plenty of splendidly tacky signage like the "Malio's Parking Only" notice that hangs near the outside crapper, which is a dead ringer for the ones found at highway rest areas.
Our table on the sprawling, sun-soaked patio overlooked the murky Hillsborough River. An old, boxy houseboat docked nearby would have made a nice place to call home, I thought, at least until hurricane season arrived. Gaudy million-dollar mansions lined the opposite bank of the river, while ugly, cramped apartments surrounded Rick's. Chances are, folks dwelling on both sides of the water put in equal amounts of work each week. But that's just the way it goes, eh?
Rick's clientele last Saturday included mostly graying hippies and crusty bikers in denim shirts with the sleeves chopped off. To expose their biceps. Hard-looking women sat dutifully at their sides. Bob Seger's "Night Moves" blasted on the house speakers. I concluded within minutes of sitting down that I liked Rick's.
"One of these servers is pregnant," my buddy said as we surveyed the area for interesting faces. "My friend knocked her up. He's marrying her, I guess."
Actually, about three of the women working last Saturday at Rick's appeared to be with child. But not our server; our server was a skinny redhead, young and cute in a princess-of-the-trailer-park kind of way. I liked her. She would have been a fun date at a Hank Williams Jr., concert. I was thoroughly pissed when my pal started grilling her about what he should eat.
"What's good?" he asked when she arrived to take our food order.
"Well, the grouper is good," she answered politely. "It's not in season now, but this fish here [she pointed to the menu] is really good; um, a real popular thing is the combo platter, um —"
"How are the burgers?" I interrupted in an attempt to save her from my buddy's interrogation.
"Half-pound, they're thick with —"
"Sounds good," I said.
She smiled. Why was my buddy making this poor, adorable, freckle-faced doll sweat like a dyslexic at a spelling bee?
"What about the Philly cheese?" he pressed.
"It's good," she replied. "But it's not one of my favorites."
"It's all right?" he asked suspiciously.
I tried to eye-stab my pal, but knowing him for nearly two decades, well, I knew there was no stopping the stubborn son of a bitch.
"I've never really had a whole one," she said.
"Is it the special?" he croaked.
"I don't know." She was starting to sound a bit testy. At this point, I was hoping she would tell him to just order and quit being a pain in the ass, for chrissake. I was starving, and already in need of another beer.
"Do you like Philly cheesesteaks?" he asked.
I shook my head in disgust.
"I mean if you never eat 'em," he reasoned. "See, I like Philly cheesesteaks."
I had a strong desire to strangle him.
"They're good," said our server, with a nervous giggle.
"OK, I'll give it a try," he said. "But if it's nasty, I'm blaming you."
She started to walk away, and then, over her shoulder, flashed a delicious smile that made me want to pull her into the river with me so we could make wild redneck love for all to witness.
"She's cute," I reminded my pal.
"She didn't do a very good job of selling my sandwich," he replied.
Rick's on the River, 2305 N. Willow Ave., Tampa. 813-251-0369.