Monday, 3 a.m. It's last call across Tampa. Late-model sedans with tinted windows cruise Dale Mabry Highway. The Mons Venus' parking lot is full of them. Across the street, a group of men congregate outside 2001 Odyssey. Raymond James Stadium — dark and empty — looms at my right. Opposite, hidden from the road, is the Drew Park neighborhood, riddled with adult video shops, strip clubs, massage parlors, homes that double as porn studios and unmarked brothels. A few blocks further north on Dale Mabry is a bright red neon sign that reads "The Diner." It's pointing to Pop 'N' Sons, about the only business on the block that's open at this hour.
I park near a streetlamp. Three young men get inside their black two-door and return to the suburbs or maybe to the apartment they share out by USF. The newspaper rack outside Pop's looks full, but the papers inside are a day old. I grab one anyway.
The lights inside Pop's are bright against the white walls and hard on the eyes. The room is big and clean, sterile and cold like a school cafeteria. There are dozens of booths. Each one's covered with what looks to be new plastic. The color scheme is red and orange. The floor is brown squares. It's enough to give a person a headache.
Across from the entrance, in the center of the room, is a Formica counter with seven red stools. Squiggly light blue lines (they must drive the stoners mad) decorate it. I take a seat on the far right, next to the hanging banana and the cake with the yellow icing. The workspace in front of me includes a milkshake mixer, condiment containers and soda fountains. There is a rack of small Kellogg's cereal boxes: Frosted Flakes, Apple Jacks, Corn Pops, all my childhood favorites. The clock on the wall depicts a scene from a 1950s diner where burgers cost a dime.
The only other customer in Pops is a guy in his early 40s. He sits looking sad in a booth near the entrance and drinks soda from a plastic cup that's tinted red. He has a paunch and short, graying hair and wears a short-sleeve blue button-down shirt and pleated khakis. I don't get a look at his shoes.
A stout woman in her 60s hands me a menu. Her name is Patsy. She has worked at Pops since 1981. She remembers when the place was a beer joint called Lum's. I ask Patsy what kind of customers usually stop in at this time of night.
"Drunks," she answers in a slow drawl.
I order the breakfast combo: two scrambled eggs, bacon, home fries and a pair of biscuits for $5.25. I also order a cup of coffee and a glass of water.
Patsy pours my coffee from a near-empty pot that's probably been cooking for several hours. I douse it with two thimbles of creamer and a long pour of sugar. The Beach Boys' "Little Deuce Coupe" plays on the house speakers. My food arrives in minutes.
I hesitate before digging in. There's a long black hair curled around my rubbery strips of bacon. This is odd, since Patsy and both the cooks have white hair. I eat the bacon anyway. The eggs are runny and oily, but I eat those, too. By the time I get around to the home fries, they taste chilly, like cubed flesh. The biscuit is dry, crumbly; I take one bite and discard it. I accept a refill on my coffee.
A nervous-looking man in shorts, sandals and an oversized shirt enters and approaches the counter. He places an order that includes eggs sunny-side up. He asks Patsy how long it will take. She tells him about 20 minutes. He informs her he's going to the restroom. Two police officers enter shortly after he walks away. The nervous-looking man never returns.
"You look like you just lost your best friend," says the older cop with the mustache to the sad guy drinking his soda.
A younger, chunkier officer joins the mustachioed cop. The two cops sit down at a booth near the door and drink coffee, leaving after 10 minutes or so.
Two old men enter — one looks like Joe Redner (grey hair slicked back) but isn't — and are joined by a 30ish woman and what appears to be her teenage son. It sounds from their conversation like maybe all four work together. Or maybe not. The one who resembles Redner glares at me as I try to eavesdrop. I turn back around and mind my own business.
The Everly Brothers sing "All I Have to Do Is Dream." Chuck Berry does "Sweet Little Sixteen." There's a doo-wop number I don't recognize.
Two guys in their 30s enter. One has matching hoop earrings and a goatee. His friend has one of those thin beards that fit the face like a chinstrap. They place their orders and go outside for a smoke. They return when their food arrives.
It's 4 a.m., and Patsy sees that I'm ready to leave. I meet her at the cash register and ask about the wilder episodes she has witnessed during her 26 years of servitude here.
"Some of the stuff I've seen here ..." her voice trails off. "You don't want to write about."
Pop 'N' Sons Diner, 4812 N. Dale Mabry, Tampa. 813.875.9005.