Sunday, April 19, 2015

Spring, Keys Style

I read how folks Up North are stepping out of their winter caves and breathing the fresh clean air of a new season. They admire such long forgotten delicacies as sunshine, sprouting buds and ice- free lakes.

Down here the mangroves continue to look green, the sky looks blue and the clouds a puffy white chugging overhead pushed by the cool crisp breezes typical of Spring in the subtropics. Gambusia fish are no longer used in trenches to fight mosquitoes, and as you can see this one on Ramrod Key is still full of water And mud even though we are at the end of the dry season. I guess these things worked in their way.

Cheyenne wouldn't mind a bit of northern cold but afternoon highs around 90 degrees take the energy out of a girl. I'm good with a crisp dry winter and a hot steamy summer. Remember my disdain for seasons in the next ice storm

Hurricane season is next, starting June First technically. Being season-free doesn't mean everything is perfect, just not cold and not being cold is a Good Thing. And I stand ready to disagree with my dog on that point.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Road Works

 It is the decade of road construction in the Keys it seems like. The money spigot is open and public works are getting funded. Which I suppose is about time especially as we are told most bridges across the US are in desperate need of long deferred maintenance.
I am not at all sure what each and every job is, some seem to be fiddling with bridge structures, while other projects are clearly part of the 200 hundred million dollar sewer installation, an attempt to give the reef some relief from human fecal matter which is polluting near shore waters and killing off the coral. Among other problems  for coral which include agricultural runoff from Big Sugar in the Everglades. Big Sugar has bought political protection to allow phosphates to run off but sewers are finally on the agenda after 20 years of prevaricating. 
The harsh reality is this work should have been done twenty or more years ago at a  time when the Federal government was more inclined to support local infrastructure projects and grants were more likely than bonds. As it is property owners in the Keys face substantial bills to pay off the bond, not to mention paying to hook up to the new system as soon as they get it done.
These days we view the turquoise waters, blue skies and white puffy clouds as normal scenery but the old timers keep telling us the waters are far more cloudy than they used to be and if you have enjoyed coral in remote parts of the world the coral bleaching in the Keys is apparent and appalling.
The good news is this work will get done, it will get paid for and as a bonus the heritage bike trail the length of the Keys is coming along as well. As they tear up the dirt to lay sewer pipes bike trails are being paved on top.
Its unfortunate  that the state of Florida can't incorporate the old Flagler bridges more effectively into the trail but there is no money to sustain them now, and there is certainly no money to build bike bridges across the parts that have been removed to allow boats to pass where the new bridges are taller. 
The heavy winter traffic is subsiding but the construction is continuing apace so the struggle to stay mobile continues. It's worth getting out though, for views like this:
 And Cheyenne needs her walks, mostly in the early hours when its cooler.

And slowly we see the results of the work, as the  "bridges" opened for service in 1982 get their finishing touches and are revealed clean and restored for us to use every day.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Friday And A Movie

I was quite pleased to see mine was not the only classic Vespa in the lot when I stopped on Eaton Street to check out a movie at the Tropic. IT appeared to be a 2005 P150, a rather slower version of my white 200, but in a sea of scooter conformity it was nice to see. 
The movie I was going to see was Seymour: An Introduction directed by the actor Ethan Hawk and recommended to me by my wife. She was correct. I like a good documentary and this one, about which I knew nothing, got me thinking about life in ways few movies do. I came out of the cinema, back into daylight with my mind in a ferment. I am certain I will have to see this again on Netflix but I fear the effect of being in a large dark room with no distractions may be impossible to recreate in my living room at home. Seymour, a piano teacher has grasped the fundamentals of life, living alone as he does in a tiny New York apartment. The room is a refuge as well as being a classroom which he uses to draw in his pupils from the outside world where once he was a successful concert pianist and from which he is now a detached observer.
I did not do so well when I arrived at the cinema ready to present my membership card, ready to give money and ready to be entertained into thinking. There was a slightly anxious volunteer at the cash register, most likely busy still mastering this trade masquerading as a retirement pastime, and I should have noticed. She asked me what I was there to see.
"I want to see more piano playing," I said, punning brilliantly. She was not amused and  all I did was fluster the poor woman."You want to see..?"  I bought a bottle of water as penance and retreated to the darkness of the screening room with my hard fought ticket. 
 Sauntering out into daylight, rejoining the world I saw the Vespa pulling away down the street and I took a picture as fast as I could fat finger the camera. Then the Vespa sputtered to a halt and I trotted up to say hello, at a not auspicious time. She kicked it a bit and then gloomily announced to the sex starved Harley riders in attendance that she had run out of gas. Her gauge was broken. An announcement that doesn't  cut much ice with me as I have no gauges on my Vespa of any kind. 
She said she was in a hurry and I backed away after I got the stalker vibe from her. I wonder sometimes why some people end up with vintage or fumbly old fashioned machines in a world filled with convenience. I mean it takes a bit to choose a scooter with gears and a kick start in a world filled with modern ease of use. Yet perhaps in other circumstances her old school ride gives her the joy I get from mine. It didn't seem like it under those circumstances but as it was I seemed to be out of sync with the world around me so my retreat seemed a good idea.
By then my gas-filled scooter was sitting next to this swoopy silver thing. A Harley customized to within an inch of it's life. I was caught admiring it by the owner who swaggered up flipping his keys in his hand. 
 The dude with the yellow cap is working on customizing the black Harley Davidson in the picture below, the guy behind him trying to avoid the camera has been caught up in the business of chromium plating the silver one for a few years. Suddenly my day looked up as they told me their story of coming down from Baltimore to escape Spring in the forties (brr!) and they took a day trip to Key West on their rumbling monsters. 
They went left and I went right to seek out a geocache on my way home. I saw some scooter renters admiring the Harleys lined up behind them at the light at Duval Street and then I was gone. On my way to mid town I passed the new city hall construction at the former Glynn Archer School on White Street. The stately building is being gutted to make way for a new city hall at a cost they say of around $20 million. The refurbishment is becoming a political issue in the election for mayor as  cost overruns may be on the horizon. Already the city has had to shuffle its accounts to put one and  a half million into the project that was not previously budgeted. While I appreciate the science of numbers, and the dismal science of economics, I think Key West will benefit from a municipality worthy of the town. Too often in Key West things are done shabbily and with a fearsome lack of vision. I think Mayor Cates has done a good thing pushing this construction job, and I trust it will become a symbol of beauty and solidity in a city that sometimes seem to dedicate itself to short term profit and shabbiness at the expense of the long term view.
I didn't find the geocache on my first visit, I rarely do, but I appreciated having my attention drawn to this magnificent buttonwood tree on Seminary Street. It's still there somewhere, the little camo box and I shall find it one day.
I like that picture of the gnarled buttonwood. It expresses to me the promise of heat and torpidity of summer that will soon be upon us. Actually I think a lot of people find that to be the case already but to me 82 degrees is not summer when there is a fresh cool breeze blowing and my clothes don't automatically stick to me when I step outdoors. That I relish and it will soon be here. Swimming season!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Night To Day, Key West Transforms

I'm not sure its a subject one should bring up at the dinner table in polite company but I am a fan of summer time. I like the time change in Spring and I regret the reversion to short evenings in the Fall. There: I've said it. 
Taking Cheyenne into Key West is an opportunity tom me after a night off work to see the city in the dark as dawn is still not creeping into the sky much before 6:30 so if I wake up at five Cheyenne gets to enjoy the cool early morning air for her walk. And enjoy it she does, asonly a dog can, with nose to the ground:
That she was blocking a driveway was attributable either to her inability to read or my inability to influence her but no one was awake to see her cluttering up their access to the street. Key West is worth admiring after dark:
I like the play of shadows and light and to see  it unencumbered by anyone else is a special privilege. Sometimes we forget how unusual it is to have such easy access to the largest such collection of antique wooden homes, the largest such urban agglomeration in the US. Please note I was walking about before the bakers were up. When I was a kid I went on a field trip at school half a century ago and I still remember the smell of rising yeast  at the bakery. The baker told us wide eyed seven year olds that he got to work at 2 in the morning to make sure everyone in town got fresh bread for breakfast. I have no idea why I remember that but I do. So now I am stuck with this notion that bakers should be up half the night as a matter of course. Apparently not:
I took the pictures a few nights ago when the moon was rather more full and that added to the effect of shadows and light.
I have been following the roaring debate about Walmart coming to Rockland Key in 2017 and as you might imagine the comments in the paper are not all positive. If I were to paint the reaction with a broad brush the Conchs are for the most part delighted to have access to mainland convenience, they say, at mainland prices. Opponents argue that if you want access to Walmart better you go and find them rather than having them find us. The fear is of course that local stores will wither, traffic around Rockland and Big Coppitt Keys will get even more tangled and Key West will lose it's off kilter eccentric cachet.
Obviously the Walmart thing is happening and equally obviously the net result will have to be seen. My wife the inveterate shopper likes Amazon, a company noted for having if anything less respect for employees than even Walmart and they deliver just about everything. So if protecting local stores is the goal I'm guessing the online market place has already shredded a  lot of that. I suspect  grocery stores will have a tough time dealing with Walmart, more so than art galleries, T-shirt shops and trinket  stores which is pretty much all Duval Street is good for these days.
As to Walmart sucking the soul out of Key West, if that ends up being the case it won't be for want of effort by a whole slew of characters already in Key West.  The thing is Key West is a town that is torn apart by many interests all of whom appreciate the unique nature of this little jewel. However the goose is being decidedly strangled by those seeking the golden eggs of climate, coral and character. It's inevitable and this town does not come equipped with the defense mechanism inherent in many college towns who raise cadres of social scientists, environmentalists, tree huggers and the like who leap to defend the ephemeral values of which I write. In Key West money talks and everyone else needs a job. 
So bit by bit the town degrades and old timers bitch about how the soul is gone and I suppose to some degree it has evaporated under the onslaught of millions of visitors and an unrelenting advertising campaign stressing mass tourism and cliches. And then when the mayor has a vision, not  ahuge all encompassing vision but a modest goal like creating a worthy city hall all the bean counters leap up and shout about taxes and waste and government and blah blah blah forgetting that they take cruises all over the world to see the wonders created by previous generations. The Parthenon, the Roman Forum, the Eiffel Tower, Windsor Castle, Macchu Picchu - none of these wonders were created by the minds of the public works critics who inhabit the fabric of Key West. 
The grandeur and the delight of things worth seeing have to be built and sustained. These gorgeous wooden homes, these narrow lush streets, this town built almost by accident from ship's timbers needs to be sustained and Walmart won't do that but Walmart alone won't wreck it either. Indifference, lack of vision and failure to lead will do Key West in if this unique community has perforce to be destroyed.
Sure, I would rather not see Key West making a space for crass commercialism but I'd also like to see this town take care of its workers. One wants to shop locally but too often local service sucks. I'm sorry to say it but it's true. It's not just underpaid workers, its owners of businesses that offer shoddy service, indifference and bad manners as their selling points. I have no idea if Walmart will be able to educate a workforce to do better but their selling point is cheap everything all the time and the people who will flock there won't expect decent service or good manners because they only see the cost of what Walmart sells, not the value. So, yes I think Walmart will contribute to the degradation of this city but it won't wreck it singlehandedly.
I got this photo from Facebook and I've never been to Denmark so I have no idea if its true but I have read that Denmark enjoys the world highest standard of living with excellent free health care, education and powerful social services. And apparently decent wages:
Too bad the drones at the drive through window on North Roosevelt don't speak Danish I guess. Sucks to be them, right?
Some days I feel like I'm standing on the edge watching the city slide into a worse future than its past, and on other days I suspect that once again the future will elude us and time will pass and things will not be as bad as they could be, not as soul destroying as the negative nellies like to imagine they will be.
Meanwhile the views are excellent, and some timeless monuments stand out, untouched and reassuring. Like the Eden House:
Long Live Key West. In whatever guise.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Lincoln's Dog

I found this story on Huffington Post and today is the 150th anniversary of the President's death so they ran the story for that reason. I have rejected revisionist views of the Lincoln Presidency for as long as they have been around and he has always been, in my estimation one of our greatest leaders. Who's to say not the greatest? That he had an affection for his dog well ahead of his time is just icing on the cake for me. It is well known on this page that Cheyenne is the apple of my eye, that unwanted dogs are my preference in a country where producing puppies for profit sickens me, so I thought this essay by Huffington Post's Arin Greenwood is an entirely suitable tribute to Lincoln on this day.
When he was elected to the White House in 1860, Abraham Lincoln left his beloved dog Fido with friends.
And it turns out Lincoln was like more than a few of us whose pets have run of the house these days: He also left to those friends the dog's favorite horsehair sofa on which to nap, as well as a long, specific list of rules for how Fido was to be treated during his waking hours. For example, Fido was not to be scolded if he came inside with muddy paws, and he was to be fed from the dinner table.
Lincoln's attitudes and relationships with animals were in some ways ahead of their time. Matthew Algeo, author of the new book Abe & Fido: Lincoln's Love of Animals and the Touching Story of His Favorite Canine Companion, paints a picture of Lincoln as a deeply compassionate and empathetic person, whose respect for life extended from his fellow men all the way down to the smallest creatures.
                                                lincoln by the fire
The dog in this portrait is thought likely to be Fido. Photo courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society
The book's publication coincides with the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's death on April 15, 1865. The Huffington Post recently caught up with Algeo by email to find out more.
The Huffington Post: Can you tell me about the most important animals in Lincoln's life?
Matthew Algeo: One of his earliest memories was of a piglet he adopted from a neighbor. When the animal grew into a fat pig, his father butchered it for food. Given the family’s meager circumstances at the time, this was perfectly understandable. But it made a deep impression on Lincoln, and probably fostered his progressive views on animal welfare.
I will quote Lincoln himself to fully answer:
“I saw the hog, dressed, hanging from the pole near the barn. I began to blubber. I just couldn’t reconcile myself to my loss. I could not stand it, and went far back into the woods again, where I found some nuts that satisfied my hunger till night, when I returned home. They could not get me to take any of the meat; neither tenderloin, nor sausage, nor souse; and even months after, when the cured ham came on the table, it made me sad and sick to look at it.”
                                      lincoln pig

A statue of Abraham Lincoln with his favorite -- doomed -- piglet in Taylorville, Illinois. Photo by Jerome Pohlen
Then, of course, there was Fido, a mutt Lincoln adopted around 1855 when he was a successful lawyer in Springfield. At the time it was unusual to own a pet with no economic purpose. Fido was a pet, plain and simple. In a way he was a status symbol, proof that Lincoln had risen to the middle class.
You draw a connection in the book between Lincoln's attitudes toward animals, and his attitude toward slavery. Can you lay that out for me here?
This is touchy territory, of course, but I believe the empathy Lincoln felt for animals extended to all living creatures. He recalled vividly his early encounters with slavery when he rode down the Mississippi as a young man.
Lincoln witnessed unspeakable cruelty. He himself was incapable of cruelty. His attitude toward animals and his attitude toward the so-called "peculiar institution" were one [and] the same.
It could be argued that Lincoln’s empathy for animals permeated his politics. From his disdain for slavery to his inclination to pardon Union Army deserters sentenced to death, the mercy that Lincoln tendered even the smallest animals in his youth was magnified in his presidency.
“With malice toward none,” for Lincoln, included animals as well as his enemies. It’s remarkable, really. Even 150 years later, it would be difficult to find another politician -- let alone a president -- whose love of animals and political views were so inextricably linked.
Abraham Lincoln's horse, Old Bob, on the day of Lincoln's funeral. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress
How were Lincoln's relationships with animals different from his contemporaries? How were they similar?
They were very different, in that Lincoln regarded even an ant’s life as worthy of protection. After shooting a turkey as a young boy, the event left him so traumatized than he never hunted “larger game” ever again. It was almost unheard of for a young man on the frontier to eschew hunting.
On the other hand, Lincoln was not, as some animal rights advocates now claim, a vegetarian. Like his contemporaries, he ate much meat: beef, lamb, venison. It was practically a requirement of frontier life.
Tell me about Fido. All about Fido. Including Lincoln's list of things that Fido's new owners were and weren't to do with the dog, when he was left behind upon Lincoln's move to the White House.
Lincoln owned pets throughout his life. Around 1855, when he was in his mid forties, Lincoln adopted a stray dog found near his home in Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln named the yellow mutt Fido -- Latin for “faithful” -- and the dog lived up to his name. Fido was Lincoln’s constant companion, following his master everywhere, from the post office, to the bakery, to William Florville’s barber shop, where Lincoln’s shaves cost $1.25 a month.
After he was elected president in 1860, Lincoln, fearing the long trip to Washington would be too stressful for Fido, left the dog in the care of friends in Springfield. Lincoln also gave the friends Fido’s favorite horsehair sofa. They had to promise to never leave him tied up in the backyard. He was not to be scolded for wet or muddy paws. He was to be allowed inside whenever he scratched at the door. And he was to be given scraps from the dining room table.
Fido was a pampered pet. After Lincoln left Springfield for the White House, Fido practically became the town mascot. He was given free reign, and unaccustomed to mistreatment of any kind.
It was his pleasant disposition that ultimately did him in. One day about a year after Lincoln’s assassination, Fido saw a man sitting on the curb whittling a stick. In his friendly way, Fido went up to the man and put his paws on him. But the man was a notorious town drunk, and he took his knife and thrust it into poor Fido, who ran away, then curled up and died behind a church. So, ironically, the life of complete security that Lincoln had given Fido led in some way to his demise.
                                   lincoln dog
Fido, Abraham Lincoln's beloved dog, in an undated photo. Photo courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
Did Lincoln have pets at the White House?
Yes! His White House was a veritable menagerie, with a dog, cats, rabbits, goats and ponies.
Lincoln was especially fond of the goats. He enjoyed watching them frolic on the lawn. When one of them disappeared, he was despondent. “‘Nanny Goat’ is lost,” Lincoln wrote to his wife Mary, who was traveling at the time. “Mrs. Cuthbert [the housekeeper] and I are in distress about it.”
Nothing more is known about Nanny.
What's your own history with animals? Did writing this book get you thinking about that any differently?
I’m a cat person! We have a big old orange cat named Copernicus (Mr. C for short). He’s a peach.
But writing this book definitely gave me an appreciation for dogs. It’s interesting: Lincoln was neither strictly a dog person nor a cat person; he was that rare sort of individual who loved both equally.
There are many issues on which Abraham Lincoln took a firm, uncompromising stand; however, concerning the superiority of dogs or cats, the Great Emancipator was uncharacteristically noncommittal.
What got you interested in Abraham Lincoln's life with animals?
While researching an earlier book (plug alert: Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip), I visited the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois.
Inside a display case was an old photograph of Lincoln’s dog, Fido. This really struck me, how this yellow mutt had been such an important part of Lincoln’s life that he had him photographed. So I began researching Fido and found that Lincoln regarded all animals with a tenderness that was practically unique at the time.
What were your big surprises or insights, working on this book?
Pet ownership is a relatively recent phenomenon. For example, commercial dog foods weren't mass produced until after the Civil War, when a British company called Spratt’s began selling its dog biscuits in the United States.
The company was actually founded by an American, James Spratt, an electrician from Ohio who went to England to sell lightning rods. The story goes that Spratt noticed stray dogs on a Liverpool dock eating leftover hardtack, the rock-hard biscuits that were the staple food of British sailors at sea.
Spratt developed a hard biscuit especially for dogs, using a recipe that comprised wheatmeal, vegetables, beetroot, and meat—though Spratt was cagey when it came to identifying the source of the meat. His advertisements intimated it was buffalo.
Are there any lessons here, in Lincoln's relationship with animals?
Yes: Never trust a politician who doesn’t love dogs. (For the record, Scott Walker insists he is allergic to dogs.)
           abraham lincoln
A life size statue of Abraham Lincoln and a horse stands in front of the entrance to his summer retreat.
This interview has been lightly edited for length. Get in touch at if you have an animal story to share!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

St Mary's Key West

Walking Truman Avenue as the sun was setting I got this view of the complex and it put me in mind of some distant mission, an outpost of the Holy Mother Church in say, Africa, a place where businessmen, missionaries and drop outs went to seek their fortunes from the closed confines of Europe:
But there under the flagpole the scouts were doing their thing. I was a scout once, in England a few decades ago. We were brought up to honor God and the Queen and Be Prepared and we tied knots like they were going out of fashion. It was a simple after school philosophy of being a good citizen. I find the apparent obsession in this country with sex and gays and scouting to be rather odd. I wonder what Baden-Powell would think of it all. Go and build a campfire, put up a tent and don't shit where anybody could step in it was the focus of scouting when I was an English kid. Buggery was not spoken of, and frankly I think it was better. Mind you, B-P was a slightly peculiar fish as it turns out, a subscriber to Mussolini's Fascist principles they say, so perhaps American scouting with its odd obsession with rooting out homosexuality is closer to his ideals of order and subservience to social rectitude. Me? I'd rather go tie a knot in something which was always a problematic activity as I am left handed and knots confuse me almost as much as the rationale for homophobia.
There's lots of history here particularly relating to the War of 1898 when the US biffed Spain and took an interest in controlling some far flung real estate.
Key West is well known for it's bars and alcohol-fueled parties but in point of fact religion has played a huge role in the island's development as well. Jews have had a synagogue in Key West for longer than anywhere in Florida, and not hating Jews on principle was  a mark of tolerance in the bad old days. Catholicism was the religion of the original European settlers from Spain, not a cheerfully tolerant lot in those days and fights between Protestant Europeans  and Catholics were the order of the day. Key West has not been like that and every type of belief has been accommodated without feeling the need to kill each other.
The fact that the Minor Basilica of St Mary's gets to occupy what is essentially a large city block is a mark of how long this church, has been here. In those 19th century days this part of Key West was waste ground on the outer limits of the city which huddled on the northwest corner of the island around the harbor. There was land to spare out here.
 And in some respects there still is.
The expansive grounds feature a recreation of the grotto of Lourdes but in this case instead of medical cures, some people attribute miraculous anti-hurricane properties to this place. In summer when the scientists at the weather service are seeing storms you will see people coming here lighting candles to keep the storms away. 
Apparently they were not enough in 2005 when Hurricane Wilma overcame the grotto and flooded the city to dire effect. But on the whole the track record isn't bad throughout the 20th century which Key West managed to survive after the wrecker of 1909.

There is also an anti-abortion memorial site to the memory of the unborn which sounds like an oxymoron to me. The rather plodding cast of my mind has always made a feeble Catholic out of me. After they stopped saying Mass in Latin I lost interest in the ritual of a sanitized dumbing down of church ritual and my pursuit of common sense puts me outside the world of demons and miracles and mystical stuff that had a home in people's minds before Galileo figured out what was up. I suppose you could argue praying to a plaster cast statue to keep hurricanes away does no harm , but then those same prayers also extend to a belief system that seems to forget that Jesus is quoted as telling people to love their neighbors, not burn them at the stake for being inappropriate. 
The Catholic church may have set aside mysticism and incense but fund raising remains it's strong suit:
I read with some wry amusement this week that the Vatican has rejected the proposed new French ambassador. As usual the Vatican diplomats cloak this decision in mystery but apparently the dapper Frenchman is not only eminently qualified for the job but he is also discreetly committed to living with another man. The Vatican says its not the homosexuality but the lack of marriage status of Laurent Stefanini that makes him unsuitable to represent France to the Holy See. He should  come and open a Consulate in the Conch Republic where there would be no problems. So much for not judging poofs as the Pope tried to claim a while back. 
I like to think the tide of history will sweep all of us forward to a place where bickering about our differences takes second place to the idea that getting along makes more sense. I am forced to  think, especially because I do I read history and pay attention that I am an idiot. Tolerance becomes apparent only under duress. Except in a few isolated pockets among a few scattered populations.
In the midst of what people expect to see in Key West normal everyday life goes on. How the two worlds coexist is hard to figure but humans have long had the very interesting capacity to hold to two opposing beliefs at the same time. When you are angry you call it hypocrisy, when you are in a  good mood you call it tolerance. When you are me you call people inexplicable and just try to to keep making sense of your own life in a town which they say has more bars and more churches per capita than any other town its  size. Sounds likely to me.