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“High society in Tampa is a strip club with a cover charge,” quipped a magazine editor on Twitter. The line is funny but it also inspires a vague resentment, probably because it is based on misconceptions both about high society and about Tampa, my home town. I’ve heard many similar jokes this year and, at the risk of seeming churlish, I needn’t bother asking if the joke-tellers have actually spent much time here.
The most recent wave of such jokes came in response to the description of Jill Kelley as a “Tampa socialite” and as the civilian “social liaison” to US Central Command. The implication is that the nexus between Tampa high society and military high society contributed to the exposure of the affair David Petraeus was having with Paula Broadwell. (Ms Kelley is the Petraeus friend who notified the FBI after receiving harassing messages from Ms Broadwell.)
The snobbish insinuation of the jokes is that high society requires New York Rockefeller levels of wealth. This is silly and beside the point: the phrase itself includes an obvious element of relativity. To be a social climber requires only a ladder to climb and rungs above yours.
The Kelleys bought a waterfront house on Bayshore Boulevard that they couldn’t afford, with the bank now trying to foreclose. They became members of the Tampa Yacht and Country Club, where they are probably among its youngest. And they hosted elaborate open-air parties that made the gossip columns, including the now-infamous time that Mr Petraeus showed up with a huge motorcade.
There is indeed a Tampa high society, and part of what Jill Kelley did was to take the normal steps of someone trying to ascend to it. It was only the abnormal steps that make her story at all interesting beyond the actual scandal – the dubious bankrupt charity she ran, the $2m commercial property loan that the Kelleys have now defaulted on, the delusional boast that she could use her military contacts to broker a billion-dollar South Korean coal-gasification deal (Google it).
But the more offensive assumption in the jokes is that Tampa resembles the mining town in McCabe & Mrs Miller – dirty, small, over-run by strip clubs and the licentious toughs who frequent them. Among the other stereotypes are that the city is an expansive housebuilding suburbia gone mad, has great steakhouses and is a “military town”.
Yes, there are too many strip clubs but they’re limited to a few parts of town and most residents hardly notice them. Tampa did overbuild in the 2000s and suffered badly in the subsequent bust but, like the US in general, its economy is emerging from its funk. The steakhouses are actually quite good. Try Bern’s if you visit.
MacDill Air Force Base and US Central Command, which Mr Petraeus led, are a big deal here but let’s keep some perspective. We’re talking about 14,000 soldiers in a city of 350,000 people and a commercially diverse metropolitan area of nearly 3m. Not exactly what you’d find in a Pat Conroy novel.
Since returning to report on the scandal, the local people I’ve spoken to have expressed their support for the military but, above all, they just want the whole thing to go away.
The city does have its characteristically American flaws: terrible urban planning and traffic jams and too much crime in some neighbourhoods. Living in New York now, I sometimes lapse into my own regrettable snobbery, thinking I’d never move back to my sleepier home town.
But I also remember what I liked about growing up here: the soft blend of normal and quirky; quiet leafy streets and boozy nights at the bay front bars. But also a city where the ghost of a fictitious 18th-century pirate named José Gaspar pervades the culture – the biggest social event is the annual Gasparilla Day parade. We were proud enough of holding the title “lightning capital of North America” that we named our hockey team after it. And we recently beat our (only) rival, Miami, to win the crown of World’s Best Cuban Sandwich. Tampa also has just enough ethnic diversity of the kind that makes Florida something apart from the Deep South, weirder and less easily labelled.
After the Republican National Convention, the Petraeus scandal is Tampa’s second turn this year in the international spotlight. Given the same jokes that circulate each time this happens, it’s no wonder that for many who live here, that is two turns too many.