It’s funny how certain smells bring on specific memories. My grandmother’s house, for example, had a certain scent – cigarette smoke thinly veiled by copious amounts of Lysol spray. If I smell that unique combination, I’m transported back to my grandmother’s house for a weekend sleepover, complete with episodes of Fantasy Island and Planter’s Cheese Balls. I don’t believe this an uncommon phenomena (well, except for the cheese balls); many people have scent-activated memory. Another such memory that’s quite strong? Walking into the gas station on the corner of 53rd Street South and Gulfport Boulevard. It takes me back almost ten years, to Hurricane Charley.
My landlord, also a mortgage broker, had somehow convinced me, a struggling freelance writer, that I could afford property in the Art District. Armed with nothing but optimism, I bought a home with a mother-in-law suite on the corner of 23rd Avenue and 58th Street and promptly filled the big part of the house with tenants. Together we weathered one hurricane after another in 2004, but the one that stands out in my mind is Charley. We were supposed to evacuate, but I had no intention of doing so. I hunkered down with an Internet connection, my DVD collection, and rations from Sammy’s.
Sammy, for those of you who don’t know him, owns and runs the gas station at 53rd Street and Gulfport Boulevard. Inside this gas station you will find the tastiest Cuban sandwich this side of Tampa (and I think it surpasses any Ybor City Cuban I’ve tasted). Yes, I get my Cubans at a gas station. Joke if you must; I am not the only one. With world class restaurants in town, Sammy more than holds his own – it’s not uncommon for him to run out of sandwiches by the end of the lunch rush. Walk into Sammy’s every morning and you will smell what I mean: the aromas of garlic, butter, pork and ham press together into a symphony that assaults your nose and makes your mouth water. If you’re not too terribly fond of veggies and fruits, you could live off of what Sammy sells.
For Hurricane Charley, I did. Sammy had a pizza oven back then, so I stocked up on Cubans, roast beef with horseradish and pizza. Sammy’s deli counter got us through the storm.
Despite my happy memories, I should never have tried to be a landlord. I sold the house at the height of Gulfport’s housing boom, which made me happy. What made me sad was that, because of the housing boom, I couldn’t afford a single family home in Gulfport – remember, this was when the tiniest, run-down homes in Ward Four ran close to $200,000 – so I bought a house in the south side of St. Petersburg. It was nothing like Gulfport, but it cost very little. I got what I paid for and ultimately left because I feared for my safety. Bartlett Park, despite Kenwood-esque 1920s-architecture and brick streets, couldn’t hold a candle to Gulfport. When I left I headed for the beach, where I stayed until this week.
One of the up sides of a bust economy? People who didn’t ruin their credit or buy during the housing boom can buy a lot more house now than they could have eight years ago. Couple that with a rent increase and El Cap and I decided it wouldn’t hurt to see what houses on the market looked like.
We had every intention of buying on the beach, and we looked from Indian Rocks Beach south to the Don CeSar. The offerings were, to say the least, depressing. We found lot of 1200–square foot boxes with questionable decorating decisions, no property, and high insurance rates. We did not want to spend the money to live directly on the water, so that left us with limited choices.
Shortly after New Year’s, El Cap and I were in Gulfport when he remarked it reminded him of his hometown. Perhaps, he suggested, we should look at homes here. I reminded him of the longer commute, the absence of a body of water in which either of us would ever swim, and the charming yet persistent friendliness of a community like Gulfport (no one has ever accused either of us of being “people people.”)
Nevertheless, we cautiously started looking at Gulfport homes. When a huge house on a double lot in Ward Four caught our eye, we did our homework. We pulled crime statistics. We talked to the police. We pulled the building card, the sewer card, and the permit history. We drove through the neighborhood at all hours. We talked to neighbors. We may or may not have driven the building inspector to drink over a few open permits. The Planning Department earned their salaries when it came to this house, I assure you, but that’s another column for another day.
The house and the neighborhood passed muster, and this morning I write this in my new office, a wood and terrazzo sunroom in our Gulfport home. I have to tell you, as good as it feels to be back, nothing compares with the way it felt this weekend. I had a small army of friends here, helping paint over some questionable decorating decisions (ask me later about the black and brass urinal and the blue paisley drapes and wallpaper) and I offered to go get sandwiches. I walked into Sammy’s shop, and even though I hadn’t seen him in years, he greeted me by name, smiled at me, and asked, “What can I get you, honey?”
The smell of his sandwiches took me back. It hadn’t changed, not in almost a decade. It reminded me of so many little things, like my misadventures in rental property, eating Cubans off the wax butcher paper during the hurricane that missed us, countless morning coffees in confetti-colored Styrofoam cups. But it also reminded me of how Gulfport, despite its many problems, is an enduring community. The smell of those sandwiches, as odd as it may sound, reminded me of every reason I fell in love with Gulfport.
It’s the smell of home.
Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com, or look for her at Sammy’s sandwich counter.