My friend, we'll call her Lola, is a big fan of the The Hub. It's downtown Tampa's most notorious dive bar, but she loves it. In fact, Lola enjoys The Hub so much I fear some day she might become a bag lady, or worse, just so that she can become a full-time patron.
"You know, being a bum really wouldn't be that bad," Lola said during a recent Friday night visit to The Hub. "Think about it: The Sacred Heart shelter is right over there. You just spend all day in here drinking beer. And then you go there and sleep it off."
Lola grinned like she had just made a rather astute observation.
"Well, you'd have to leave some time in your schedule for panhandling," I said. "Because even these cans of Busch everyone's drinking cost something."
Lola rolled her eyes.
Helen, Lola's BFF since grade school, chimed in: "Yeah, I don't think I could be a bum in Florida. Not in the summer; it's too damn hot out."
Lola took another generous pull from her tall glass of rum splashed with coke. Helen and I shook our heads and laughed. Many of our fellow bar patrons looked to be homeless themselves, and incapable of accomplishing much more in life than bringing a can of beer to their lips; we hoped they couldn't hear Lola yammering about how she wanted to be a bum. "It really wouldn't be all that bad," she repeated conclusively.
Lola is that rare creature who can start drinking at 7 p.m. and continue straight through until dawn. She began her buzz early in the evening Friday but didn't let that keep her from nearly closing down the bar. We drank at The Hub from about 8 to 9 p.m. and then made our way to downtown St. Pete to meet some more friends and catch a show. We returned to The Hub at about 1:30 a.m. and left just before last call. Needless to say, it was a long night. The kind you pay for dearly the next day.
Truth be told, two trips in the same 24-hour timeframe to The Hub is hazardous to one's health. They make the strongest cocktails in town. I'm pretty sure of that. On both visits Friday, I ordered tall Tullamore Dew and sodas ($6), and every time the glass had to be 90 percent full of Irish whiskey. I'm guessing Lola's rum and cokes were equally potent. To make matters worse, she claimed the first thing she had put in her stomach all day was the Blue Moon beer she'd gulped down at The Dubliner — about 7:30 that night.
"Well, maybe, I had a Nutri-Grain Bar for breakfast," she said later.
Either way, Lola was hammered when we returned to The Hub. Luckily, she's not a sloppy or belligerent drunk. Just one who feels it's appropriate to start dancing in a dive bar where everyone is huddled over their beers and shots, drinking in silence, as if trying very hard to forget how badly their lives are fucked up. But Lola couldn't hold back when Elvis Presley came on the jukebox and started singing the rockabilly favorite "Money Honey."
Lola: "Dance with me."
Lola: "Dance with me!"
Me: "No way."
Lola: "You did it before."
Me: "And I made a fool of myself. I'm not quite that drunk tonight."
Lola: "Come on!"
Me: "Dance with Helen."
Helen (rolling her eyes): "She'll find someone."
Lola turned to her left. Smiled at the sucker in a rumpled baseball hat who was sitting there next to us at the bar nursing a cocktail. Lola had already smoked his last Pall Mall. Now she was asking the middle-aged fellow to dance with her. Of course, he agreed, figuring he'd get to rub up against this woman who was probably half his age. But that's not how Lola dances. She does those crazy swing moves from the 1920s and '30s that got popular again in the '90s and require mad skills.
"I'll lead," Lola said after firmly grasping the man's nicotine-stained hands.
The fellow didn't have a chance. Lola was leading him around the dirty checkerboard floor, and it looked like she had, well, a drunken bum in her hands, a man not blessed with an iota of coordination. I feared his heart would go out at any moment.
"Can't you hear the beat?" she snapped. "One, two, three, four — see, it's easy."
Not for him.
The song, mercifully short, ended, and Lola and her dancing partner returned to their stools at the bar.
"God, he couldn't dance at all," Lola announced. She thought she was whispering. But she wasn't. I'm fairly certain the poor guy heard her.
Lola tried in vain to find another dance partner.
"How about you, Skippy, Skipper?" Lola asked the bartender.
"It's Scooter," he reminded her yet again. "It's bad enough I got one nickname. I don't need two more."
"Dance with me," she pleaded.
Scooter laughed wearily. "Bad shoulder, bad knee, remember?"
Lola pouted. Took another chug from her glass. Bummed a Marlboro Red from another poor sucker.
The Hub, 719 N. Franklin St., Tampa 813-229-1553.