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Tuesday, Sep 02, 2014
Steve Otto Columns

Otto: Espinosa offers a few crumbs of Tampa’s history

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Jack Espinosa was already there, standing in the book section of the Oxford Exchange, looking like a rumpled Ybor City version of Columbo behind dark sunglasses.

I was a little surprised he had picked the Exchange for lunch, abandoning the black bean eateries of West Tampa for the more frou-frou South Tampa place best known for its high teas in the afternoon.

The place is not only a dining hot spot, there is a small bookstore and Jack was already working the poor woman at the register for not having his book,“Cuban Bread Crumbs,’’ in stock. She had no clue that Espinosa’s real skill is being the funniest guy in town.

“You got all these dead people,’’ he said, pointing at books about Freud and Tolstoy, “and you even have her,’’ he motioned at a pile of books authored by former Mayor Pam Iorio.

And the truth is, although Espinosa was half-kidding, “Bread Crumbs’’ is the sort of book the place needs; something that exudes the flavor of the Tampa and Ybor City Jack grew up in. I wanted to talk a little about his upcoming and second book he calls “Saca Fiesta,’’ which he tried to explain in several ways that still escaped me except that he sees himself as the “Saca Fiesta,’’ a sort of one-man festival.

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“It’s going to be mostly my show business stories,’’ he says, which ought to be something for a guy who did all the old B-clubs in downtown Tampa along the way.

“In fact, I did some shows just a few feet away in the old Park Theater,’’ he said of what is now the University of Tampa’s David Falk Theatre. “It used to be back in the day (late 1940s and early 1950s) there were theaters where there were always competitions for singers and comics. “In fact, I won a contest at the Park to go to Cincinnati and go on national television.

“This was a big deal. I knew this was going to launch my career. Nothing came of it, but I went to New York anyhow. I won’t say I was desperate, but I got what was the worst job I’ve ever had, and I’ve had plenty.

“It was down at the docks unloading bananas. You had to walk down this narrow pier and stand by a platform and wait for a 180-pound bunch of bananas to drop down on your shoulder. I think I lasted about three hours. My left shoulder was listing so far I could barely stand up. At least I didn’t fall in the water.’’

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There’s a serious side to Espinosa and he wanted to talk a little about our lack of knowledge about history and the ominous current events going on around us. Fortunately, that didn’t last too long and he went back to his tales of Ybor and West Tampa.

Eventually he gave up New York and came back to his birthplace and went back to doing comedy in the local clubs. He was good enough to go to Cuba and then come back to Florida to do the nightclub circuit before settling back in Tampa. “Well, I was a school janitor at Plant High,’’ which he was, although when I showed up at the school he was my fencing instructor (swords not stolen goods) and he was teaching social studies.

He went on to become an assistant county administrator and later worked for the sheriff where he was the public information officer, the guy standing in front of yellow tape marking the crime scene and explaining to the media what happened.

Now at the age of 70-something he is back teaching history at the University of South Florida’s extended learning classes.

But the truth is wherever there is a crowd, even if it’s a puzzled waitress, he is still on stage, looking for a laugh. It was easy pickings at the Exchange where we spent 15 minutes just trying to crack open two individual catsup bottles that were wrapped in layers of plastic. He did that while simultaneously convincing the waitress he was a famous author.

You can still catch his act if you happen to be in West Tampa sometime just before the sun rises in one of the little coffee shops where he starts his day. More often than not it’s the West Tampa Sandwich Shop, where he holds court with a half-dozen characters you might have run across in his “Cuban Bread Crumbs’’ book. Pull up a chair and listen in and you will learn a little bit about this town that I guarantee you won’t hear anywhere else. Some of it might even be true.

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