Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Many Happy Returns

To say its annoying to be born on Halloween is an understatement. I am made to feel somehow ungrateful that people across the planet are choosing to celebrate my birthday but its just that I spent 35 years figuring out who I am, and I'm not ready to disguise myself as someone else, thanks.

Would you entrust your property to this person, Wilma?
You would if it were Halloween at the Key West Police department; she's the assistant property clerk...My colleague Diggy was bummed because he thought we still had to wear our uniforms in Dispatch. We probably did, but still...
That aside I'm 50 and that's supposed to be a cause for crisis. Disappointment on that front too, for anyone expecting me to be worried, fearful or morose. I'm entirely happy to be 50, I have no regrets and I am currently enjoying robust good health. I'm happily married, I enjoy my job and I have an excellent commute ( except when Sheriff's deputies share the road with me as one slow poke did this morning. I had to sit back and just politely enjoy the half-moon view). My colleagues are always available to offer a laugh and change the mood, and at the end of a work day I feel like I've contributed some good to my town.

Beyond immediate gratification (Motorcycle! Motorcycle!) I can look back at a full life and as I start the final third I know I have to capacity to squeeze every drop out of every experience, and take advantage of the mindfulness I have developed over the decades. I am content.

Quite content that Tropical Storm Noel appears set to wipe out a few third world islands (Hispaniola, Cuba, the Bahamas) and spare us all but a week's worth of strong winds and occasional short downpours. Tha fat lady has yet to sing this hurricane season.

Yesterday the wife had a surgical consultation for a wrist operation she is having in December to straighten up a tendon that is going awry so we got to drive around Fort Lauderdale all day. Traffic sucked, there was a jam on I95, another jam on the Turnpike, the streets around the hospital were backed up thanks to construction and on the way home Krome Avenue fro Highway 27 to Homestead was a tailgaters dream, heavy rain, a railroad crossing (closed! Never before at that spot!) and only when I got on Highway One was I able to cruise at 65/70 all the way home.

We stopped at Ikea, their first Florida store, and were thoroughly disappointed. Its supposed to be a cheap and cheerful high quality home furnishing store, and I immediately felt i was in some sort of student housing barracks, square lines, everything in stark primary colors, white black and red primarily, no warmth, no style as I know it. Oh yes, there was pressed board in evidence all over the store.

The food court was different and we came home with some arctic bread (?), cheese, chocolate and crackers all wrapped in Swedish.

My wife got me a Triumph T shirt when we stopped by Pure Triumph to pick up my license plate for the Bonneville, so the day wasn't entirely wasted.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

First Cold Front

This time of year if its raining here, its throwing a blizzard of snow around up there. And that spells trouble,even in paradise,because I see a damp newspaper in the drive.

Its rained a lot this summer, but today's drizzle is the mark of a new season. The winds are out of the north today and I can hear the sounds of trucks on the Highway, three quarters of a mile north of my house. When the prevailing winds blow out of the southeast, all I hear is the soughing of the trees around the house. Actually what I listen to when I'm inside the house is the rasping of the central air beating off the outdoor 90 degree heat and 100% humidity of the long summer months.

Right now the a/c is OFF, sliding doors are open, to the 74-degree air outside, and I can hear the dripping of rain off the eaves. Its a great day to be off work, with a book (Kite Runner) and a pot of tea listening to that lovely rain filling the cistern. As long as the cistern is full I don't have to run the gruesome chlorinated aqueduct water into my house and that's always a good thing around here- the tea tastes tons better when made with rainwater.

I will miss the long bright days of summer especially when we switch the clocks back next week I will only get home after dark, too late to take the boat out and go for a swim. Its getting to be time to put the boat on the trailer, change the oil in the outboard and put it away for the winter.
The end of October also means Fantasy Fest, a celebration initiated 30 years ago to bring some life to the dormant city in the doldrums of October. All this week the highway has been littered with laden motorcycles and out of state cars as they pour into Key West where the downtown is filling with inappropriately costumed Midwesterners anxious to prove they are only respectable at home. Here they are determined to be perfect satyrs, portly, inebriated and acting stupid in public. The business community thanks them, as does the local paper, with the weekly Arts supplement dedicated to their adoration of the heterosexual tastelessness on display. I like the Gay Pride parade earlier in the year, not only because its fun, and funny but because its participants actually know how to pull off their public exhibitionism with panache. The straight folk, among whose ranks I count myself, just look dorky when exhibiting themselves. I keep mine firmly under wraps, thanks.

I will be off work Saturday evening before the chaos begins, so I'll park the Bonneville by the Police Mobile Command Center to keep it safe and I will drag myself to a friend's balcony overlooking Duval Street where my wife and I will enjoy ourselves critiquing the parade and taking pictures.
Then serenity will descend for a few more blessed weeks until the permanent winter snows up north push the hung over Lotharios back south for a winter of feeling frisky in the keys.
This is the season to wake up in Dispatch where we have been comatose ( apparently) since summer vacations ended and the visitor count fell of a cliff. The drunks will soon be loose and fighting and vomiting and waking up the neighbors.

" Key West 9-1-1, where is your emergency?" all day, all night, all winter long.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Fire,Hurricanes and Siegelman

I find it hard to imagine how a state of 30 million people can evacuate half a million and find somewhere for them to live. Yet this is the second time in two years Americans are evacuating en masse. The extent of the fires burning up Southern California is hard to imagine. 1500 homes destroyed equates to the City of Key West reduced to embers. And here we are, sunny tranquil and hurricane free- for now! All those spring predictions of a summer to dread failed to materialize in the Keys this year. Unlike fire season, hurricane season threatens every summer, and we just get a cool winter to refresh us before the next round of threats. Summer fires in California destroy the brush that holds together the manufactured slopes that slip slide away in the heavy winter rains. There will be lots of possibilities this winter across Southern California.

Southern California is a desert and sucks the water out of the Colorado River, the Sierra Nevada (Snowy Mountain) range and anywhere they can get water. And when the winds blow, as they do down the desert canyons, they send the flames tumbling before them. And its hot and dry this year, doubtless attributable to Global Warming, the cliche du jour, the same warming that is going to raise seawater and drown South Florida.
Living the middle class life these days feels a bit like going to war- the economy is wrecked (Merrill Lynch posted $8 billion in losses today), and where you live determines how you die, drowned burned or run over. In fact I got cut off yesterday evening on my way out of town by a car that decided to turn sharp right when he realised he'd missed the 1st Street turn, off North Roosevelt. Layne was riding alongside on her ET4 and seeing I was okay on the ground took off after the Mitsubishi and forced him to stop up 1st Street. He apologized and in the same breath claimed I was riding inside him (in my own lane!) and it was my fault. He was Vietnamese and put his hands together and kept bowing and saying sorry and on and on and blaming me as an aside. Layne was angry but I shooed him away when I found no damage. I toppled gently and kept the machine off the ground with my elbow and knee and leather shoe.
My wife remembers Don Siegelman, the former Alabama governor from their time at college together. He announced back then he wanted to be governor of his state and she remembers thinking "Not him! He's not smart enough!" And she was wrong. Now he's been sentenced to 88 months in prison on a bribery conviction. And a Republican attorney is charging Karl Rove with using the US Justice Department to bring down a prominent democrat who might have been a solid presidential candidate! We met Siegelman's wife last year in Birmingham, during a road trip to New Orleans (Katrinaland) and she protested they were trumped up charges, sounding for all the world like a loyal wife. I wish we had been convinced at that time. Not now when its obvious to one and all.
A ruined reputation is worse than all the fires, hurricanes and motorcycle tumbles in the world.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Other Burdines

"Burdines? Theres a Burdines in Marathon?" I've heard that query more than once when I told someone I was going to the second-largest city in the Keys. The name gives the impression that a magnificent clothing emporium has mushroomed in the midst of the economic blandness that characterizes Mile Marker 50 and environs.
No such luck, because this Burdines is a place to buy food, watch the water and contemplate the pleasures of life in the Keys. The last time I was there a table full of elderly tourists next to me was blathering on to the waitress about how they were from "far up North," and even though the conversation was tedious and predictable I did get a fresh appreciation for the 87 degree, breezy, sunny October day.
Burdines is a combination of businesses, operating a fuel dock downstairs on the channel that leads to Boot Key Harbor from the west. Upstairs is the Chiki Tiki Bar, funky, thatched and open to the breeze. They also rent boat slips and a lucky few live on their boats within feet of the burgers and sandwiches served with old fashioned informality (a painted mousetrap to hold your check) and old fashioned real lemonade for thirsty motorcyclists anxious not to get DUI'ed...Usually I like the $9 Green Chile Cheeseburger but the Chicken Florentine looked an interesting burger alternative and I decided to risk it. Its easier to change longstanding habits when lunching in the company of a friend who, unlike my wife, doesn't know I always order the green Chili Burger . The chicken burger looks pale and flaccid, as it consists of ground chicken mashed together with feta cheese and shredded spinach, but it has a surprisingly exotic combination of flavors. It didn't need the ketchup I spread on the white meat in order to add unnecessary flavor- the feta and spinach gave it plenty of zip. Diggy had a fish sandwich, and even though he says he isn't keen on dolphin he woofed it down happily. We shared the big basket of salty spiced fries, made with real potatoes, revealed by their uneven shapes, and the potato skin incorporated into their texture. They go nicely with the patty melt too, a greasy burger if ever I saw one. I may be sticking to the exotic chicken on my next visit.

Aside from the view from Burdines up Boot Key Harbor which lies in the middle of the city of Marathon and is home to hundreds of anchored boats, one gets a view out to the west, towards the Seven Mile bridge and the open waters of the Straits of Florida.

That all should be dessert enough, if beauty were a substitute. However when visiting Burdines with Diggy I felt an obligation to introduce him to another delight that my wife generally forbids me when we stop by.

Burdines calls it a deep fried Key Lime Pie, where they roll a slice of pie in a tortilla and fry the hell out of it. Diggy swooned as he spooned and described it as a key lime pie flavored funnel cake. He still talks about it.

We waddled back to our motorcycles, and puttered up 15th street back to the Overseas Highway. "Been looking for this place ever since you first mentioned it, " Diggy burped contentedly as we waited for a break in traffic. "Hard to find, but now I know."

Paradise found for them as know.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Homeward Bound

Sitting on the sidewalk in front of Pure Triumph I got a bird's eye view of the hectic morning traffic of the metropolis, the three lanes of stop-and-go cars heading into downtown on Highway One. Its a whole different world here, even as the clock closes in on ten o'clock, and its a healthy reminder why people think I'm crazy when I express pleasure in my modest 25-mile commute. My chunk of Highway One is almost never stop-and-go, and the views are quite different.

Pure Triumph is an enthusiast's store, a place staffed by grizzled men with funny accents, tattoos and an obvious history for the past glories of the Triumph marque. I feel a bit of a fraud because I have no history with the past glories of Triumph, and I want nothing to do with opening up the exhaust or squeezing a few more horsepower out of my 865cc parallel twin. I rejoice in the relaxed state of tune that gets me to 90mph before I know it.
I have come to the store for the "first service" an oil and spark plug change and a general check of my machine. I've also ordered the Triumph fabric saddlebags ($250), to give me somewhere to carry my crap while I'm out and about. Over time I've found a lockable top case and fabric panniers give me a good combination of storage without overwhelming my motorcycle with bulk. Large hard panniers are wonderful things but they tend to make the motorcycle cumbersome. I need storage for my waterproofs, my tire pressure gauge, my sunscreen, a couple of extra bungees and a rag or two. I'm going to work, not Patagonia. The other bag gives me room to add stuff along the way, like groceries, and while I'm at the movies i can lock my helmet in the top case.

While the Trumpet is in the lift in the well appointed service area, I sprawl on a leather couch, turn off the TV and peruse the motorcycle magazines piled by the coffee machine. Michael, the parts guy is chatty, and we talk about motorcycles- he actually owns and rides a Triumph Daytona, a whizz-bang crotch rocket with a smaller engine than my "classic" but with almost twice the horsepower (and its a few pounds lighter to boot). On the subject of boots I decide to buy a pair of reinforced motorcycle boots with ankle protection. That's another $145 on my bill, but I know my wife, who doesn't nag, likes me to be responsible, and take care of myself. if she's got peace of mind while I'm riding I'm happy.The motorcycles on display are always worth checking out too. A used T100 ( a heavily chromed edition of my Bonneville), lovely in red and black is still on the floor, on consignment from an owner who is asking $6500- not worth it to me when I got my own for $1200 more. Apparently not worth it to someone else either who bought a new T100 and added slim leather saddlebags and a Triumph windshield as extras. There are several cruisers on the floor too, Rocket Threes, 2300cc's of conspicuous excess, as well as the feet forward Bonneville Americas and Speedmasters, clever variants on the Bonneville twin cylinder engines. The Scrambler is gone, sold presumably despite it's gruesome pea green paint job.

Then its time to go, almost before I'm ready, full of water and motorcycle articles, an imprint of my bottom firmly planted on the leather couch. My Bonneville is becoming my own vision of this classic thoroughbred- bags in place, exhausts firmly muffled and a can of weatherproofing spray in the newly attached saddlebag.They come with a plastic "water resistant" cover in its own pouch, but I'd rather make the fabric as weatherproof as I can because I'm reluctant to add to my woes when it starts raining, by fumbling around with a motorcycle pannier condom. The weather looks threatening as I pull out of the Pure Triumph lot and faced with a 170 mile trip home I'm determined to make the most of it, come what may. I'm on the mainland and I want to ride.
The freeway out of of Fort Lauderdale is a long sweeper of a modern highway, rolling artificial hills surrounded by the developer's dream of endless tract homes, large malls (mauls) inadequate water supplies and the sole attraction of "convenience." It takes twenty miles of 6 lane highway to break free of the mess, and by that time the waterlogged Everglades are lining the roadway. Naples ahead, Miami to the south and Highway 27 crossing the freeway shambles, marked on the horizon only by a long line of power poles. The junction off Interstate 75 shows South Bay to the North and Homestead to the south, a minor paradox explained by the location of South Bay, which is a depressed farming community is on the south shore of Lake Okeechobee.

Highway 27 lives in my memory as a wide sweeping highway with more vertical dips than horizontal curves passing cane fields, orange orchards and small towns loosing their economies but gaining snowbirds all the time. Coastal Florida has priced itself out of many people's range but inland Florida has acres available for development, and affordable too. Highway 27 offers a four lane drive-by for all of it. This far south its path clips the Everglades and I find myself far from the crowded downtown streets of coastal Florida. The clouds are clearing and the sun shines down on grasslands, miles and miles of watery grass.

Krome Avenue breaks off to the right in a sweeping curve and takes off in two lanes towards Homestead. This is farm country, lots of actual Mexican field workers, nurseries, trucks, tractors, pick ups, mud and vegetables. Long straightaways interrupted by traffic lights and cross streets, but the Bonneville is a point and shoot kind of motorcycle, almost all in fifth gear, picking off bored motorists one at a time, sneaking past 18-wheelers at the front of long lines of 30mph traffic. Krome is deadly in a car, its a challenge and very rewarding on a motorcycle.

And then Homestead, tidy, quiet and agricultural, it reminds of nowhere so much as Mexican California, perhaps Watsonville in rural Santa Cruz County. And then there's lunch, a late lunch but worth the wait, the best Mexican in south Florida. And so home, tired, to bed.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

1000 Miles And A Service

The Overseas Highway in the dark is one hell of a ride. The air is warm at 5:45 in the morning, at least 80 degrees, even in mid October, the rainy season is still upon us so stretches of the Highway are wet and glistening from the passage of recent downpours. The air smells of salt sea air and little else as the restaurants are closed, the bars are closed and most worker bees are still snoring before 6 am. Its too early to able to spot the blue flickering screens of morning televisions ( an abominable habit says the former radio newsman in me), marina docks are devoid of people as I rumble by, glancing at the orange dock lights illuminating the boats bobbing alongside the finger piers.

Speeding is tricky when its dark because a set of headlights catching up with you from behind can either indicate someone in a hurry or a deputy anxiously closing the distance to initiate a traffic stop. My tactic when i see a pair of headlights fast approaching in my mirrors is to slow down to the speed limit plus 5 (5mph over the limit garners you only a written warning, the maximum penalty by State Law) and wait and see. Often its just another speeder who flashes by as I dawdle along, but not always. Its the same when I spot a pair of side lights glowing on the Highway's shoulder. Sometimes its just a bridge fisherman organizing his pre-dawn hobby in the trunk of his car. Other times its a Highway Patrol officer operating a laser radar gun. One zap and you're fined.

As the dawn comes up its a reminder of why living in the Keys is so special. Dawn anywhere is a wondrous thing, especially as one grows older with the increased awareness of the finite number of dawns left to to enjoy, but this year's heavy rainy season has produced spectacular light displays at dawn and dusk. The view from the top of the 70-foot Long Key Bridge, called for some reason Channel Five, opens up the full array of pinks and purples and grays hidden in the shifting cloud layers, spreads them across the gunmetal ocean surface and reflects streaks of orange between the cloud layers, like a portraits of the second coming in Renaissance art. The Bonneville, a triumph of modern craftsmanship, purrs along steadily, sweeping through the curves, wide open to 70 mph in the 55mph constriction of the two lane highway. Checking for cream and black FHP cars is prosaic but so necessary, even while god's handiwork is on show, the rising sun an irresistible distraction from the necessary preservation of one's driving privilege.
The drive to Pure Triumph of Fort Lauderdale for the motorcycle's first service is a 165 mile mixture of all the types of roads one can take in the flat lands of South Florida. After the waterborne curves of the Overseas Highway we slip off to the right (keep going straight, really) at Mile Marker 106 and take Card Sound Road, a wooded series of humps, dips and sweeping curves that has a nominal 55mph speed limit. 80 mph is entirely feasible on the smooth (no trucks!) surface of this back road alternative to the construction zone that is the 18 mile stretch of Highway One, the more familiar entrance to the Keys. There's a one dollar toll at the card Sound Bridge where Monroe County meets Dade County, and the toll booth is an excellent deterrent to the mass of tourists who take their lives into their own hands on The Stretch, source of many bad accidents owing to its lack of passing spaces.

After card Sound Road rejoins Highway One at Florida City the Bonneville needs gas, I'm 105 miles from home with 60 to go and I'd rather stop and get gas here than find a pump in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Florida city is a strip mall of junk food and gas stations, a Holiday Inn and some no name brand flea pits and a "Last Chance Saloon"- the last cold beer for 18 miles! Whoo, who can ride the Stretch without one last mainland beer for dutch courage?

From Florida City its the terminus of the Turnpike with four one dollar tolls to exit 55, Downtown Fort Lauderdale. I pause to suit up when I see a thick black rain cloud dumping on the roadway up ahead. By the time I get there swathed in nylon the raincloud has moved off to the Everglades to the west, and only a thick sheen of water lies on the road to assure me the rain wasn't in my imagination. The turnpike is a mass of cars jockeying for position through western Miami, and the Bonneville is starting to loosen up so I'm running 70 to 80mph and I'm starting to feel the need for a windshield. I hope my Parabellum gets here soon, this is tiring. I arrive at the shop at 9:45am, giving me 15 minutes to read the latest edition of Vanity Fair, sitting on the sidewalk, like my youthful alter ego of years ago, traveling by motorbike, scruffy and dusty.

This motorcycle makes me feel young again in so many unexpected ways!

Friday, October 19, 2007

Vignettes II

New mayor, new house prices.

I've never been one to think that the President has that much direct influence over the economy of the country, even though the White House incumbent loves to take credit for a strong economy (and dump on Congress in the event its not). The City of Key West is suffering not a little from anti-tax legislators in Tallahassee who are determined to undermine the fabric of the state by cutting already low taxes even further. The other thing that has changed noticeably is the decline of house prices, thus further reducing the city's income. Both Mayor Macpherson and Challenger Weekly are in a run off for the second round of voting, with Weekly expected to win. What that means for the city isn't the least bit clear as neither candidate has confronted this new state of affairs head on.
What is clear is that plans to create "affordable" housing have come too little too late, as usual. Its now possible to buy a market rate apartment for around a quarter million dollars, roughly equivalent to deed restricted homes planned, but not available for the near future. The housing bubble has burst, formerly high prices have pushed many people out of the keys, and when help was needed none was forthcoming. These days homeowners with large home equity loans are forced to sell for what they can get to satisfy compliant banks who will take what they can get on their crap loans.
Now the city faces a tight budgetary future and we seem likely to find ourselves being led by a man who couldn't govern the city successfully when the coffers were full. Oh dear.

Bye bye my Vespa?
My beautiful vintage red can be seen parked in various locations around town bearing the red F of a For Sale sign. I've had a few calls, people looking for a desperate seller, and that means I get to ride the red bomber a few more times when I take her home for a clean up and a battery charge. I try to hold on to the experience of riding the Vespa because I fear it will fade all too fast after she goes to a new home. It really is a big black couch compared even to the long flat seat on the Bonneville.

Sand to Sunset

What you see here is a barge waiting to offload its cargo on the ritzy development of Sunset Key. In a few weeks snowbirds will be returning to their multi-million dollar homes on the exclusive island just offshore of the city, and they will want to see nice clean sand all around. After all thats what one expects in the tropics, coconuts and sand... so the tug in the photo is hauling sand to Key West from the Bahamas where the resource is abundant. God alone knows how much they spend on this pointless operation, but in the rocky keys where sand doesn't come naturally,its worth remembering we are still part of the USA. And in the USA if there's something you want but don't have, just throw enough money at the "problem" and it will go away, as if by magic.

A fool and his money are soon parted.

Legal Rider.I have been nagging Diggy for some time to get himself organized and finally he did it. It was a sneaky trick on my part, but I lured him out of Key West on a pretext (lunch) and he bit, so to speak. In addition to an al fresco fish sandwich Diggy got dragged by me to the DMV office where, before he knew it he was sitting down to take the motorcycle endorsement test. Not a minute too soon because in 2008 the State of Florida is finally implementing a 4 hour classroom requirement for new motorcyclists. It'll cost $200 but its worthwhile if it helps educate juvenile delinquents to stay intact on a motorcycle. "I was kind of worried about taking it," he confessed later to me. That was all part of my dastardly plan. Being a Conch, Diggy would rather lose a leg than lose face, and his biggest fear about taking the test was being seen to fail.

"Watch," he said, "I'm gonna go in, fail and there'll be someone I know watching me." As a prognosticator Diggy sucks, because he passed and there was no one there to see him do it. Except me, and I think I was only forgiven for ambushing him thanks to the excellent lunch that preceded the testing ambush. His biggest problem was hiding how pleased he was that he passed. He rode home like a man with nothing to hide.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Key West Zoo

It is an irony that my wife teaches in the one room classroom at the Monroe County Juvenile Detention Center, which is a massive structure on stilts parked right above the Monroe County Sheriff's Office's Petting Zoo. Its ironic because her students are not allowed to pet the animals they can almost see from their cells. They might leap the barbed wire, like POWs and run...The downstairs inmates find their time at the jail to be restorative, there is no feeling that to them running might be a good idea. Trustys from the adult jail get the privilege of working at the farm under the supervision of the civilian "farmer" who is charged with looking after the animals. I'm told it is a much prized job and confers status on the orange suited prisoners who get to lift and carry for the farm's inmates. The inmates vary: I've seen horses, a donkey, pigs of all sizes, lots of ducks, friendly inquisitive goats and other more or less barnyard animals. Vets volunteer their time and skill to help restore the battered arrivals.
To the outside world, principally guide book authors, the existence of the farm is something of a surprise. They are shocked the Sheriff of all people runs a petting farm at the jail. However there is a great deal of poverty on the keys in our diverse world down here and it should come as no surprise that humans living on the brink of a very deep financial abyss mistreat their animals. Also Cuban and Haitian migrants, arrivals from some of the poorest places on the planet have very different animal husbandry standards than those of middle class parvenus like yours truly, so it happens from time to time that animals get abused, and even sometimes get saved from that abuse by interfering Sheriff's deputies. Cock fights get broken up, abandoned farm animals are found. Those are the lucky ones and their spirits and bodies are mended in the serene little petting zoo under the juvenile jail.

They in turn introduce fresh young Conchs to the concept of Farm Animals. Children growing up in Key West should know how to fish, but a farm is an alien concept because there is no agriculture anywhere in the Keys. Central Florida is littered with post-and-rail ranchettes raising show horses, and south central Florida is a vast open tract of cow ranching to rival that of the Far West of popular imagination. In Key West the only tractor you will see is the blue machine that cleans the dead seaweed off the public beaches. So children get to learn life lessons at the farm, and very cool it is too. Eccentric perhaps to an outsider, but like so many things in the keys it makes perfect sense that the Sheriff treats abused animals as just another part of the law enforcement equation.

For many reasons Sheriff Rick Roth was the first Republican candidate I ever voted for. Keys politics being the topsy turvey jumble they are, he wasn't the last.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

New Lamps For Old

Buy a Vespa and you'll get told all about how Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck rode around Rome on a Vespa half a century ago.
Buy a Modern Classic Triumph and what you'll get is a misty eyed memory of Steve McQueen's escape from the Stalag or a slender youthful Marlon Brando asking whats on the menu to rebel against- a wild one meeting a doe eyed waitress in dusty Hollister, California. (I should point out here that even though Steve McQueen is credited with wanting to leap the barbed wire on his camouflaged Triumph {camouflaged to look "German"}, the stunt was performed by the legendary Bud Ekins who died recently).

The modern Vespa doesn't cut it as a Vespa to the aficionado of the original two stroke, geared putt putts of the Hepburn era. The modern Vespa has no gears, a powerful four stroke engine and no spare wheel. The modern Vespa is designed to survive and flourish in the modern traffic conditions in over crowded modern megalopolis's. You can argue endlessly about the connection to the old Vespas but there is no doubt it is very sophisticated motorcycle that neither Audrey Hepburn, nor the princess she played, would never have dreamed of- nor Gregory Peck for that matter. Nevertheless walk into any Vespa store in the US and there you will find an enormous picture of them on their 40mph 125 cc Vespa of yore. Alongside them you will see an oversize poster of Charlton Heston in a toga Ben Hur-ing it on a Vespa at the lot of Cinecitta, the hub of Italian movie making in the 50s.
Equally, a modern Triumph Bonneville has absolutely bugger all to do with the Triumphs of the 60s. Back then they were the symbols of rebellion, powerful, noisy rugged and rough. They roared their message through barely existent mufflers, their riders wore leathers, boots and white fisherman's socks turned down over the tops of the boots. I used to dress like that when I rode (an Italian bike) in the England of the seventies. We pretended to be rebels and stomped around on reliable modern, mostly Japanese bikes; no one but eccentric nostalgics wanted a Triumph. We, modern rockers, intended to get where we were going when we took trips.The old Bonnevilles looked a million bucks aside from leaking oil, but what was worse was they had crap electrics and vibrated like you wouldn't believe. The vibrations snapped the wiring harnesses and they stopped, or their headlights died- not for nothing their electrics supplier was known as Lucas- Prince of Darkness. Very droll I'm sure but a pain in the ass when you're planning on getting home at night to sleep in your own bed. But there again people , men, who rode Trumphs back then were tough, and yes, quite likely rude. Imagine that. They didn't take shit, they dished it out and their motorcycles reflected their devil-may-care attitudes. These days we tend to care, perhaps a little too much, about not just appearances or electrics but electronics and vibration dampers and 12 volt accessory outlets and all sorts of extraneous crap. Never mind oil leaks.The modern Bonneville is a pansy machine by comparison, it doesn't even come with a proper kickstart! Just like Gregory Peck and Vespas, Steve McQueen would never have recognized the modern Bonnie, a well behaved, reputedly reliable, purring pussy cat. Just the way I have always liked it, as it happens, though even I should have liked a kickstart... For a lot of Triumph freaks the modern Bonneville is a museum piece to be kept as close as possible to the T120 its based on, wire wheels, chain drive and LOUD. It strikes me as odd, because if they really want the genuine Triumph of their hobbled nostalgia they can go and buy one, fully restored, for the same money as a new Bonneville. Instead they buy the modern classic, enjoy the comfort and reliability and bitch at heathens like me who just like to ride, and often, on a modern machine that just looks retro.
I feel privileged to have grown up when I did, because mine is the generation that wallows in nostalgia and creates demand for superb machinery in all fields; the generation that also requires the recreation of the visual cues that set us off to reminiscing; the generation that demands engineering function that is completely up to date. The Bonneville looks 1960 but runs 2007.
The best of all worlds indeed. Steve McQueen be damned!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Fort Jefferson

It was no surprise to my wife this past Columbus Day when the ride back to Key West from the Dry Tortugas had most of the ferry passengers barfing. It had been honking out of the east for several days, with winds up to 30 miles per hour with no relief, and she knew before she left that the 70 mile ferry ride back from the fort was going to be a bitch. Her buddy Heather was smiling as they settled in to enjoy the downwind ride to the fort. Both Heather and my wife are impervious to seasickness so they had no worries as the tucked into the buffet breakfast provided on the ship. The boat runs every day if weather permits and most days it does permit. Which is one reason Fort Jefferson is less isolated than it used to be, but it still holds the title as the most isolated National Park in the system. The ride also includes a guided tour by Jack, who leads the visitors through the Civil War era fort, and count the million bricks its made of:
Fort Jefferson rises up out of the sea as a solid black block; indeed it looks very much like a floating apartment complex, when it first appears out of the water. I made my first trip there on a sailboat in 1989 and stayed several days anchored out, pausing on one of several trips I took between the West Coast of Florida and Key West. It was and is a great place to anchor. Inside the fort there are acres of greenery, a small campground outside the walls and a very park like ambiance inside the walls. In its time it was a hot dusty place crowded with 1500 soldiers. These days the permanent residents number less than a dozen rangers and their satellite phone, and the grounds have blossomed with rugged plants.Heather has lived in Key West for years and this was her first trip out to the fort. Its always the way, when you live in a tourist attraction you rarely take the time to see the attractions yourself. This attraction is a gun emplacement in the walls. It boggles the mind to think how much effort it took to get these New England bricks here.
Bird watchers see birds, snorkelers can see some of the better reef systems in the ravaged waters of the Keys and the great brick fort is a reminder of the impermanence of human structures; it never fired a shot, it served no military purpose other than a prison and it is always in the process of deterioration; a process held back by the meager National Park funding modern wars permit. In the days when we sailed with our Labrador, the fort was a modest dog walking area as Emma had to be kept outside the walls, per park regs.
Fishing isn't allowed in the national park but commercial fishermen take refuge in the protected anchorage bringing their own brand of stand off-ishness to the isolation. However they are also a source of fresh fish if you have cigarettes or beer to barter while you are anchored on your own boat. Another cool thing about the fort is that the rangers have no supplies at all except postcards and a water fountain. They don't even mind if you land there when arriving from Mexico or other foreign parts as long as you don't nip into Key West on the ferry as they can't clear you into the country. Its a great outpost, only 70 miles from key West yet it's another step back into a slower paced past than even the Southernmost City. Bird Key is reserved for nesting avians during their season in the cluster of barren little islands surrounding the fort.
So my wife got Columbus Day off and watched the trippers puke their hearts out on the three hour ferry ride back to Key West. I got to work; a dispatcher's job is never done.

Monday, October 15, 2007


Motorcycles are dangerous, motorcycles are loud, motorcyclists are not nice.
There's a perception issue to overcome before North Americans will embrace two wheelers as a sensible and low impact way to get around. Looked at by the numbers motorcycles make perfect sense for single person trips. They consume fewer resources than a car to build, they consume less fuel on the road and modern motorcycles meet high levels of emission control standards. For humans who demand the convenience of personal transport motorcycles are the obvious answer. When you add roadway congestion into the equation the notion that riding a motorcycle is good for the planet seems obvious.
And yet...
Motorcycles aren't weather proof, they offer no protection in the event of an accident and they don't stay upright on their own making the fear of falling a real concern for many mere mortals. The fact that you can easily expect to get 50mpg or more, much more, with smaller cubic capacity motorcycles doesn't cut much ice with the naysayers. Who wants to reduce their carbon footprint if they are afraid they will be making a big bloody footprint on the ground?

The other funny thing about motorcycles and the environment is that motorcycles are fun. Most North American buyers get a bike to use as a recreational tool, which is all very well as far as it goes, but it doesn't do much for the environment if the motorcycle doesn't replace the car.

Then there are the seasons, and that makes a difference. There's not much fun to be had skating around on ice, and even rain or the threat of rain is enough to wipe out the fun factor for many"dedicated" motorcycle commuters. All of which reduces the potential benefit of motorcycles to the environment. Finally I believe the fun element of motorcycles puts off "serious environmentalists." There is something dour about the people who are sure the planet is almost beyond saving and everything has to be done now. The planet thing is just too serious for any levity. Which in turn puts off people, including motorcycle riders, who may not be that committed to environmental preservation and who view green worriers as nutters, so they will ride despite the common sense environmentalism of motorcycles. The other image problem of motorcycles is that when used as tools they come under the heading of "cheap." In emerging technology countries inhabitants rate their wealth and status by the size of their vehicles. Cyclists are wealthier than pedestrians, and motorbikes have higher status than that. Car drivers are big timers, and in North America motorcycle commuters are eccentric or poor, or eccentric and stupid, or eccentric and risk takers. In a nation that values image over all else, motorcycles just don't add up- better to be wasteful!

So, you need to get around and transit doesn't do it for you with your schedule. You have 150 days of the year that are warm and dry. You need to carry packages and bags and you don't want to show up at work sweating. So what do you do? Get a motorcycle. Wake up and make your commute fun. You won't be saving the planet and you will be emitting hydro carbons but don't worry about it. Let the hairy fuzzy serious ones take care of that.