Fear Not

Dragged Kicking and Screaming

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Although I consider myself a pretty bold person, there are things that daunt me to such an extreme they induce heart palpitations. I want to know there are exits, that the sales people won't laugh at me or that I can simply make it out alive. I have to drag myself into a place to figure out that my fear is generally less than the treasures I find. Here are four places where I took my white knuckles for a field trip and lived to tell the tale:

Indian Bazaar Boutique, 2319 E. Fowler Ave., Tampa

It takes a lot of courage to walk into a store where sizing is unfamiliar, arrangement is different and even before walking in you fear even your left nipple won't fit inside the largest size they carry. Even bangle bracelets come in sizes. Some so small, I could wear them as hoop earrings.

In the Bazaar, though, I find the heady company of self-assured women who shop unselfconsciously in bras next to the busy window, stacking up piles of colorful, beaded and richly ornamented clothes. I don't even know the curse words in the language they are speaking, but it is comfortable and lilting.

One of the secrets to the sari, an outer garment worn chiefly by women of India and Pakistan, is a hot, stiff petticoat. The other one is safety pins. Far from looking cool and self assured as I exotically imagined, I look not unlike a cardboard fabric holder ravaged by children and abandoned on a Wal-Mart floor. In trying to assist me, the salesgirl accidentally pulls up my skirt. She runs out of the dressing room laughing.

It is here that I begin contemplating a greater mystery than what a Scottish man wears under his kilt. I wonder what a traditional Indian woman wears under her sari. The answer, I believe, is the same.

The clothing in the store is constructed with seams that can be altered quickly. By the cash register is a sewing machine used to make on-the-spot alterations. Shopping at the bazaar is not a fast experience. It is a slow act of grace, of weighing options and learning about the unfamiliar. In the middle of it all, I begin to rethink the mall and what it has taken from us.

We've lost the slow sensuous pleasures of adornment and sharing with our sisters a secret language of beauty.

Signs with the Red Hand, Madame X in Bradenton

Fortunetellers who promote themselves on streets with the universal sign of the red hand often get a bad rap. In my experience, it is best to go to people others refer you to or those connected with active, respected new age/metaphysical/ spiritualist stores or ministries.

Despite an overwhelming fear of walking into a stranger's house with open palm and purse, I try out a psychic on a well-traveled street in Bradenton. Her multistory house is bright, full of light and very colorful. She sweeps into the room, tall and elegant with the mannerisms of a queen.

"You have a long life …" she says.

"This is the bad news, right?"

"Two women hate you," she adds.

And she proceeds to note a few other things I can honestly say have little to do with the average populace. In an instant, I feel understood. That perhaps this woman knows the breadth of my soul.

"So this bad luck," she continues.

"It isn't really bad luck," I offer, "worse things have happened to most people."

"I could pray for you. Meditate. $200 an hour."

Frankly, I want to cry as I feel betrayed. It is a variation on the old "you're going to die in three days unless you bring me a rooster and $500" routine where the point isn't so much praying for as preying on others. But then there is a part of me that thinks $200 is pretty cheap for good luck.

Which is precisely how they get you.

Picadily Sports Bar, 2806 E. Busch Blvd., Tampa, 813-931-4624

Walking into a bar with few windows distresses me. For years I've driven by the Picadily and read the signs out front touting two of my favorite things: "the coldest beer in town" and "the best Philly cheese steak sandwich."

In all my fears about this simple fortress of the tipsy, the truth is I'm the scariest person in the bar. The boys are watching Matlock reruns.

"I think she's sweet on him," a fellow observes.

And so she is as the conversation veers to the best ice cream and banana splits. Topics I'm sure I've never covered. Frankly, I'm a bit ashamed. The service is flawless, the people are kind and lively.

The beer is the coldest in town. The Philly cheese steak is the best. Held together by a masterful amount of Swiss cheese, it lives up to the sign. The pimento is a great surprise and even the roll is deserving of South Street.

As an X-denizen of the City of Brotherly Love, I found its claims to local fame to be a bit modest.

Portales Restaurant, 11042 U.S. 41 S., Gibsonton, 813-672-0126

I heard a rumor from a voodoo priestess that this establishment was amazing. For me the drawback is that the language of the realm is primarily Spanish. This language has humiliated my efforts to tame it for decades. It's a bit off-putting to be reduced to baby babble because you're language deficient. However, it is worth it. Particularly for what I have called the "ugly salsa." This salsa varies in color from a light red to a dark brown. It is watery. Runny even.

It is not pretty.

It is crack. It is so good that thoughts of it come to you for days after eating it. I bought some to set up in my fridge as a shrine. Not to eat it, but honor it.

Like a good mojito with mint that is torn and bruised, the cilantro in the salsa meets a similar fate.

The restaurant is connected to a grocery store that sells human-size piñatas for about $25. For the same price as a parking ticket you can beat the hell out of a cowboy, mermaid or a really big baby in diapers.

Good times. Buenas épocas.

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