When I Walked Into a Stranger’s House … and Found a New “Friend”

Sunday morning … and the air in Florida was heavy with sunlight. A casual walk across the hotel parking lot left me feeling “stuffy” as if I needed to kick off my sandals and find a sprinkler somewhere to lower my temperature and the time was only 8:15. I liked Tampa, but Tampa was hot!

Susan (my Tampa friend) picked me up and we drove through the quiet Sunday morning streets, She pointed out the abandoned cigar factories, brick fortresses against the blue sky. She told me we would eat at the Columbia for lunch, the oldest restaurant in Florida and the largest Spanish restaurant in the world.

But first she had something to show me. Something, knowing my love of history, she thought I’d like – the Hyde Park neighborhood of Tampa. Back in 1882, after Mr. Plant (of Plant City fame – home of the strawberry shortcake) built a bridge across the Hillborough River, another man built a house. With the bridge in place, more and more people saw the beauty of the land and within 20-30 years, the neighborhood was in place … houses with nooks, crannies, and turrets. Houses not very expensive back then, but houses which have steadily increased in value. Wide, open porches adorned with swings and rocking chairs added to the charm. A pastel paint pallet was used to create a colorful landscape.

As we drove down the streets, I could only describe my surroundings as”dripping” with tropical plants and trees. Spanish moss hung from the branches as if storybook witches needed a place to hang their hair. Occasionally, a sports flag, incongruently hung from a pillar. (So many transplanted people, keeping their team loyalties firmly in the North.)

“How much are these houses worth?” I asked.

“A million or more, I’m sure,” Susan said as she pulled along the curb to check real estate prices on her phone.

And here is where the real fun started.

I got out of the car and took a picture down the street, marveling at the variety of green foliage lining the sidewalk.

Then I noticed a lizard and even though I have lots of pictures of lizards, I took another one, stooping low on the sidewalk. I got back in the car and Susan was about to pull away, when someone knocked on the window.

We had the windows up and looked skeptically at the lady standing there, but she looked harmless, so I hit the window button.

“Were you wondering about that plant?” she asked.

“No, I was taking a picture of the lizard.”

“Oh, well, it’s called a coontie. Here let me show you the red berries. You don’t see them unless you look.” I looked at Susan who looked back at me. I got out of the car. Susan turned the car off and followed me.

And so began a conversation with our own personal Hyde Park tour guide, Joanne. Not only did she tell us about the plants in her front yard, but also about all the houses (worth a million plus) on the street. We learned which ones were original, which ones had been tampered with (and are no longer considered part of the historic register), and which ones had owners who had lived there for 40 years or more (like she had).

After a very thorough tour, she asked if we wanted to see the backyard and we dutifully followed her. She showed us her lemon tree and where the house got in the way of a tree and the two banana trees she rescued when they were digging up land for the Wal-Mart parking lot.  By this time we had been there for at least a half hour and then she wanted to know if we wanted to see the inside … and since we now saw her as our new friend, we said we did.

There we met Henry, her husband who was a retired professor (as she was) and is now the docent at the history museum. We learned about all they had to do to make sure their home stays on the historic register – type of wood in the floors, the fireplace, etc. She then took us upstairs and out on their very Floridian balcony.

Truly we could not have had a more informative tour if we had paid for it.

An hour later we left the house of strangers with smiles on our faces knowing we would never forget the Sunday morning in Hyde Park.

(By the way, although the interior of the house was charming … and historic … I did not take any pictures out of respect for our “spontaneous” hosts.)

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