It's that time of year again, when we look back with nostalgia at the recent past. As I clean out my desk full of old notebooks and interview tapes, I'm finding all sorts of stories from 2007 that you never read, from a report on a porn awards show to the search for my FBI file.
So, here they are, my director's cut of the last 12 months:
1 A free education. Like thousands of other Tampa Bay residents, I started out 2007 by attending college. With one difference — I wasn't enrolled. But, bound by the belief that higher education should be free for all, I infiltrated USF-Tampa's first week of classes.
After parking, I found the largest lecture hall and followed a horde of students inside. I made my way to the back of the room, next to a young brunette in her pajamas. Bored by the lecture on chemistry, I snuck out, wandered the campus and met Alyson Kendrick. She sits in on classes, too.
"Most professors will let you do that, as long as there's room," she said. "But I'm doing the papers. I'm doing everything. I'm just not paying for it."
2 Roughing it (smoothly). Last winter, during the annual migration of snowbirds, I came across one of the more interesting species: the RV park resident.
At the Happy Traveler RV Park in Thonosassa, Bill Frohnaeur, Jim Ressler, Larry Smith, Jerry Castille and Jack Brewer were sitting in the shade of a RV drinking beer and arguing sports. These seniors typified most RVers: they came from working-class backgrounds in the Midwest and chose Florida for the warmth, lush scenery and plethora of outdoor activities.
But I learned that the RV park circuit is changing. Several campgrounds have been sold to condo developers, and as RV parks dwindle, prices rise at the remaining sites. Last year, Happy Traveler RV Park charged $350 a month for a spot; this year, it's $500.
"I think our biggest concern is how long is this park going to stay here," Brewer said. "Pretty soon, they'll price us out of the market."
3 Enemy of the state? I've always been a little paranoid. But, like the popular shirt says, "You only have to be right once to make it all worthwhile." And so, earlier this year, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Federal Bureau of Investigation asking for my FBI file.
I fantasized about what would come back. Did they know about the protests I attended during college? What about the prank calls in high school? Could working for Creative Loafing get me my own dossier?
I waited as weeks turned into months. Finally, a thin envelope arrived. I ripped it open, half-expecting it to be a handwritten note asking me to meet an agent on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge for "some questions." But, alas, the paper I pulled from the envelope simply stated: "No records responsive to your FOIPA request were located by a search of the automated indices."
4 Gossip king. Back in May, I received a call from Jason Prentice, creator of Talkingex.com, a free website that allows users to post information about their ex-lovers.
"Just like cigarettes have a warning label, we're just giving you the information so you know who you're dating," he said.
It sounded like a lawsuit waiting to happen, but Prentice insists he's covered under the 1996 Communications Decency Act that shields website providers from lawsuits that arise from online postings.
I asked Prentice, who is engaged, if his name could show up on the site from a jilted ex-girlfriend. He laughed and said, "All my exes are in Texas!"
5 Legal aid. As this year's city and county budget crisis raged on, the county's law librarians were particularly concerned about proposed cuts that could shutter their doors.
I visited the Pinellas County Law Library, located in a small space on the Pinellas County Courthouse's third floor, and browsed the aisles filled with volume upon volume of law journals, reports and self-help guides, like The Tenant-Landlord Handbook and How to Win Small Claims Court in Florida.
"Many of our customers are disenfranchised," librarian Rebecca Frank told me. "They can barely use the copier. Some can't even find the door out."
Luckily, the law libraries suffered only minor cuts when budgets were passed a few months later.
"We find the legal issues of citizens are more complex and we're finding ourselves doing more with less," Frank said.
6 Animal cops. A few weeks after the Michael Vick controversy raged in the media, I decided to tag along with one of Hillsborough County Animal Services' investigators, Buddy Butler.
We drove around Tampa in his square white truck filled with rattling cages, responding to calls about a cat hoarder ("They say they're taking care of them, but you can't take care of 125 cats") and two animal cruelty complaints. A 15-year veteran of HCAS, Butler said dog bites are the least of his worries.
"Animals I can handle," he said. " People? They can be a little more difficult."
7 Please pass the cooter. In October, I drove to Inverness for the fourth annual Great American Cooter Festival. I witnessed cooter races, cheered on Miss Cooter 2007 and watched a Cooter Idol contest. Sadly, I did not get to eat cooter (the regular vendor pulled out this year).
This might be a good time to point out that "cooter" is a Southeastern U.S. term for turtle, specifically red- and yellow-belly sliders, although some people call "cooter" a double entendre for a certain part of the female anatomy.
Despite a hubbub over the name in 2004, when some citizens questioned the city's sponsorship of the event, the festival continues to attract people from all over the state. Even Comedy Central has done a skit on the event.
Speaking of cooters ...
8 Dancing with the (porn) stars. There are few Tampa Bay events as wild as the Nightmoves Adult Entertainment Awards Show, the nation's third largest event recognizing the porn industry. I attended this year's 15th anniversary held inside the Clearwater club Bricktown 54.
The red carpet was a who's who of skin flicks: Jesse Jane of Pirates, the infamous movie filmed at the St. Pete Pier; male actor Ron Jeremy; and dozens of directors and producers.
One actress, Delilah Strong, almost seemed offended that I didn't recognize her from starring roles in Bubble Butt Bonanza and College Invasion. So she removed her shirt and showed off her 34D chest. Maybe if I didn't recognize her face, I'd at least recognize her boobs.
Because at this party, that's what passed for a business card.
9 Mapping free fruit. Earlier this year, I came across the website for Fallen Fruit, a Los Angeles-based project of three artists who advocate "liberating" fruit. As part of their project, they map the fruit (and vegetables) in various neighborhoods that overhang public spaces like sidewalks, streets, parking lots or alleys. (The lawfulness of picking this "public fruit" is up for debate.)
Intrigued by this concept, I set out to map a few St. Pete neighborhoods. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any fruit in public spaces. I could see it — in people's front yards or hidden in the back — but without setting foot on their property, completely inaccessible.
10 One trashy tour. On any given day, tourists visiting Tampa Bay can choose from an assortment of attractions, from the Salvador Dali Museum to Dinosaur World.
But there is one excursion that you won't find in the pamphlets distributed by the tourism bureaus — Bridgeway Acres, better known as the Pinellas County landfill. And yet, the 700-acre facility at 118th Avenue in St. Petersburg has everything you'd expect in a quality theme park: wildlife, preserved artifacts, modern European technology, plus the added bonus of free souvenirs. And somewhere buried among all that refuse is an education, too.
As it happens, Bridgeway Acres does offer public tours. So, on a cool December day, I met with sanitation technician Rick Clarke for a short trip into a landfill that handles 5,000 tons of rubbish every day.
If visitors could buy a postcard from Bridgeway Acres, they'd surely choose a photo from the top of the South Landfill. The view, aside from the bulldozers and McDonald's wrappers, is stunning: St. Pete's downtown stands proudly to the south; the waters of Tampa Bay shimmer to the east; and downtown Tampa lies on the horizon. At 80 feet above sea level, it's one of the highest points in the county. And it's growing.
The trash heap is projected to reach 150 feet, which would make it visible from I-275. And that's just this mound. Bridgeway Acres has nearly 200 more acres to expand upon.
"Seventy percent of this doesn't need to be here," said Clarke. "It really just makes you see how wasteful we are as a culture."