They were amazing days, Ybor City in the 1980s, when cheap rents, artistic appetites and youthful hedonism collided to create a bohemian subculture that thrived, then (of course) burned out, and has not been seen since, to this day.
Paul Wilborn’s Cigar City: Tales From a Creative Ghetto, published this week by St. Pete Press, is a loving look back at that era, which he paints as a sort of mashup of Paris in the ‘20s, Puccini’s La Boheme and the flash-bang glitter parade of Studio 54.
Wilborn, executive director of the Palladium Theater, was a Hillsborough County journalist in those days; as a member of the “Artists and Writers Group,” he was also a party planner, one of the architects of Ybor’s famously drunken Dionysian celebrations of life.
Yet every one of the short stories in Cigar City is fiction.
“I wanted to make them fiction because it was so much fun to see where these characters went,” says Wilborn, whose scripts for St. Pete’s Radio Theatre Project feature similar fictional story arcs.
Still, “The book has a certain journalistic nature to it, because I’m reporting on a place and a time that I knew really well. So all that research is here” (he points to his head). “But I really liked finding these characters and seeing where they were going to go. They always surprised me. Authors say that all the time, but it’s really true. At the end of one story, I realized ‘That woman is pregnant.’ I had no idea.”
Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely … on purpose. “There’s a character in one of the stories who is a version of me,” Wilborn explains. “He’s a police reporter for the Tribune who does a story about a character – and ends up killing him, basically. But while that was inspired by these things that I did, that character is very different from me and a lot of things that happen in there are very different. These stories just wanted to be written, somehow.
“The character in the story called ‘Red Letter’ is based on a woman I knew who told me she stripped – on the side, to make money – as famous characters. I thought ‘Now there’s a story.’ But she was nothing like the woman in the story.”
Each story is Cigar City is accompanied by a stunning black and white photograph by David Audet. “We were partners in Ybor in all these crazy things,” Wilborn explains.
A year or two ago, he adds, “David was putting these photos up on the internet, and we started thinking ‘We really ought to do something with these.’ I picked photos that I thought would at least represented the story in a way. I knew that I wasn’t going to write literally to the photos; I knew there were great photos that would fit.
“I didn’t feel like it was a literal era; it was kind of a magical era.”
Cigar City is Wilborn’s first book. “My thing was, every day I’m going to get up and go build something toward this. I did it on vacations. This got written in France, it got written in upstate New York, Tampa, St. Pete, everywhere I went. I love the process.
“And I’ve always liked short stories. I’ve written four or five over the years, none that I thought were that great. But this was a project that worked for me because it was about a time period that I lived. I pretty much just thought of nine stories and wrote ‘em.”
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