Sobering Thought: High Time We Re-Think Gasparilla

Another Gasparilla Parade has come and gone, and the familiar refrains have played out in its aftermath.

To many, Gasparilla remains engagingly raucous, inimitably colorful and just free-wheeling fun. A celebration of self that’s uniquely Tampa. It’s this city’s signature event – 103 now and counting. And it looks great on those Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce brochures and Tampa Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau DVDs.

And who doesn’t like a world-class street party? Especially one that’s preceded by a one-of-a-kind, paean-to-pleasure flotilla.

To others, the trashy sideshow now trumps the parade, per se.

I used to be solidly in the former camp. Even threw beads from a float while a member of the Krewe of Mambi. Liked the camaraderie, the diversity, the costumes, the music – and enjoyed the look of appreciative kids and, yes, comely lasses who you could accommodate with a targeted toss.

But that’s the parade. An event that hordes of teenagers are – by the starting time of 2:00 p.m. — barely interested in or even aware of.

From the perspective of parade-route property owners and those merely proximate, teen-aged drunks and trespissers are the norm. And, I, for one, no longer think Bud Blight is worth it. Especially now that the Children’s Parade — with accompanying air show and fireworks — has ratcheted up in significance and size. It now draws some 200,000 attendees.

As a result, the Gasparilla Parade itself approaches anti-climax status.

Put it this way. The week before we are reminded that you can put on a mammoth parade for all the right reasons, including an animated civic celebration. It’s a family affair sans drunks and punks – yet still embodies Tampa’s pirate-culture cachet. Families actually wait in line to use the Port-a-lets. Imagine. What’s not to like?

With Gasparilla, what’s to like about teens behaving badly? There’s only so many police who can be shoe-horned into South Tampa — and still not feel that a veritable welcome mat has been extended to criminals elsewhere in the city.

But more to the point, what’s to like about parents who enable deplorable — sometimes injurious — behavior? That’s really the root of the problem: Loco parentage. And you know who you are – even if you are in continuous cell-phone communication with Skip and Flip from the various ground-zero venues. Assuming you can even hear anything decipherable amid the loud-speakered cacophony.

I’ve often wondered: What happens when these kids go home at the end of Gasparilla Day? What – or who – awaits them? Even if they’re staying at Biff’s or Buffy’s house, what do Biff’s or Buffy’s parents think? Or care? Or not. Is it all written off as some alcohol-fueled rite of passage that is somebody else’s problem? An annual exemption from norms? Nice message. Pass it on.

And how do the Tiffanys and Taylors and Madisons get out of the house looking like MTV strumpets? Or are these the same households who, a few years prior, thought it was Halloween cute to dress up their 9-year-old girls as Britney Spears?

I live near St. John’s Episcopal Church. Each year it sponsors a Gasparilla “Safe House” for the underage who overindulge. It’s a praiseworthy effort. Doubtless it has prevented the merely inebriated and the flat-out passed-out from fates much worse. Some of its visitors leave by gurney.

But it also dispatches this message: “Gasparilla. It is what it is. The unacceptable is expected; let’s at least try to mitigate worst-case scenarios.” Not unlike passing out condoms in high school. Let’s cut our losses and concede to the forces of inevitability.

Here’s another message: Given the reality that you can’t parent somebody else’s kids and the odds that something much worse than a Sunday hangover will eventually happen, let’s make a pre-emptive move. Eliminate it.

I know; I know. But arguably Gasparilla is now bigger than this one parade that is an all-call for teens and a siren song for alcohol-induced behavior.

Eliminating it leaves you with the burgeoning, unalcoholic Children’s Parade and the relatively raunchy night parades in Ybor, as well as the Gasparilla Arts Festival and the Gasparilla Distance Classic.

Something for everybody.

Except, of course, those who miss 45 tons of trash, ad hoc neighborhood urinals and too many teens driving the porcelain Buick through the streets and alleys of South Tampa.

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