Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Night Alley Ruminations

I find that from time to time my brain wanders and the journey is triggered by almost nothing, a scent, a noise or a view be it ever so brief. When I was out wandering Solares Hill a while back I discovered all sorts of illuminated angles under the street lights. This shot of a cement path took me back to a visit I made to the Bay Islands of Honduras when I was sailing the Western Caribbean a decade ago. My, how time flies.

The Bay Islands sit off the North Coast of Honduras just out of sight of the mainland, and out of mind for most people. They are steep hilly lumps of rock surrounded by reefs, their major claim to fame. Divers love to visit these islands as development is limited and the waters are relatively pristine. For sailors the islands are a comfortable stop on the route to and from Panama and its always useful Canal. Another weird attribute is that they were settled by English speakers and now the islands are in a death struggle between native English speakers and Spanish speaking migrants from the impoverished mainland. The smallest of the three main Bay Islands is a place given over to diving, with a small town and a couple of cement roads. The town of Utila is crossed by cement paths, just like the one in the picture. And for one second I was back in Utila, walking the dogs before we went back out to the boat for night.

It happened that I found this strangely decorated house, a place I had not previously come across that shone with a particular light under the street lamps. I thought the car sticking out of the house gave the place an odd look, like a car parked in an art gallery.I wanted to go in the garden and sit at the tile topped table, but I figured if someone looked out they'd throw eight different kinds of fit so I limited myself to picture taking and moved on.

It is fashionable to hang one's laundry out to dry, in an effort to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, or to reduce the chances of burning the planet to a crisp, take your pick of the cause du jour. Hanging clothes out to dry in the Florida Keys is one of those things that are so eminently sensible it is a wonder they even have to be mentioned, but like solar water heaters and recycling hanging out laundry is one of those activities that are still much in the minority. The Keys recycle one quarter of the waste stream that mainland Florida manages. Solar water heaters are a rarity, and putting solar panels into the grid is such an eccentric idea no one can bear to speak of it- yet. I offered to be a guinea pig to keys Energy and they failed to respond. Still, I operate my house on my rain catchment system and I turn out unnecessary lights (I like a gloomy pool of light in a darkened room when I'm reading, what can I say?) and yes I hang my laundry up to dry under the house. So does this Key Wester, in what I thought was an evocative photo:I like the feel of air dried clothes and I hope the fabric will last a bit longer and get less shrivelled in the process. Plus its a green thing to do. I am nothing if not in the avantgarde. Very cool, that's me.

I have been having difficulty walking for the past couple of days. I think I was a little over zealous in the exercise department and my knee swelled up like a rather hot throbbing grapefruit, a most disagreeable sensation. There's nothing like hobbling to restore one's sens e of what is valuable and important in life. Old folk used to chide me when I was a kid by telling me that if one had good health one had everything. Well, I believe them now. And what's more my Triumph got another flat tire after I parked near the marine engineering lab on the last day of classes at the college. I suspect a fastener scattered by some careless students got me my flat tire. I maintain my equanimity through it all, especially as my wife loves to fuss over me with ice for my knee, hot tea and sympathy for the rest of me. And I get to look forward to some more motorcycle explorations not least because the great City of Key West is sending me to Tampa this weekend to learn how to be a better dispatch trainer. My horizons are expanding, more training for me and lots more roads to roam to get there.

On the subject of staying green one has to wonder why at sometime after four o'clock in the morning people leave their lights blazing. Me? I have an excuse for wandering at that hour, I am on a most virtuous lunch break, but most people are horizontal sawing logs. Which is not a time they need lights on around the house. But luckily for me they leave 'em on anyway.

These restored wooden homes look just lovely in the middle of the night.

Summer is moving in, a time when people grumble about the heat and humidity and when I hear them I wonder why they live here. I read about snow melting and the end of winter for people cooped in Up North. One of the best things about living in the Keys is not dreading winter. Even when I lived in California, a warm state for many people I found myself hating the prospect of winter. Santa Cruz is a place of heavy rains, bone chilling cold and the temperatures rarely get down to freezing. Mud mud everywhere and cold feet every morning. Summer in the Keys is rainy season- just one more advantage, in that when it rains its positively hot. I don't even dread hurricane season, words I shall doubtless live to regret. Be that as it may there are many people Up North who have had to survive their own weather catastrophes and they don't get turquoise water to accompany their disasters.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Rose Tattoo

It's getting hotter in the Keys, finally, the winds are dying down a little this week and the sun seems brighter and the sky bluer and the clouds whiter. It takes a little more effort to sit out and hold a book on one's afternoons off. Summertime is a good time to be hidden indoors for a while after getting overheated outdoors. Sandratee put me in mind of the local movies section of the Big Pine video store.It's based on a play by Tennessee Williams, a writer who did actually spend a fair bit of time in Key West and the movie though not set in Key West was shot partially in the city. This is described as Front Street (actually Duncan Street in Key West, apparently) by the taxi driver of the unnamed Gulf Coast city (in Mississippi) where the action takes place:There's a lot of indoor action though I should point out there is a car chase and a shoot out so there's something for everyone. Anna Magnani got best actress Oscar for her role in the 1955 film, playing a wild Sicilian emigrant who gets widowed and has to get her life back on track. Aside from the fact she bears a striking resemblance to my mother who's been dead these 35 years she plays a "pleasantly plump" (not my description) housewife who goes to pieces in a rather public and humiliating way. And she learned to speak English for the role.Along comes a man, "the body of my husband with the head of a clown" played by Burt Lancaster who literally jumps for joy at their first date, which scene alone is worth the price of admission:Its a movie filled with drama and shouting and misunderstandings, young love, old love and lots of banana trees and a couple of street scenes from Key West in the good old days. I was surprised by how little St Paul's Cathedral has changed since 1955 (in the film it became a Catholic church!) and I quite enjoyed the exotic dancers in a downtown bar wobbling gently and seen only from the waist down, their antics rapidly overshadowed by the mother of all cat fights. there was a lot about this movie I had forgotten. Not least the clown up a mast:The young truck driver has to overcome not a few obstacles to hunt down his Sicilian flame the Baronessa Serafina delle Rose but her daughter played by the 30 year old (!) Marisa Pavan has a tough row to hoe too. Lots of tears.It was a great romp and being as how Tennessee Williams wrote it there's no certainty how it will all end up, tears before bedtime or not. The chorus of Italian crones was the best touch of color of all, not least because they were real Italian speakers and let rip in their native tongue from time to time:Rose Tattoo has been released in a new digital version which has to be good news as I understand video cassette players are getting as old and out of date as I am. I just wish there was a real crowd like this to enliven a hot summer afternoon in Old Town. I guess the cinematic version will just have to do.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Ramrod Key

My street, in response to queries:

We had a homeless dude on Ramrod Key last week. He approached me while I was launching my boat at the community boat ramp, a time when I carried no money. He looked lost and mistrustful like a stray dog, and I wondered what his story was but he had only one thought: alcohol. I think he may have arrived on a jalopy with Illinois tags that is still parked in the dirt across from the gas station (and source of beer) but he has gone, and I never did get a picture of him, wandering the gas station forecourt like the ghost of Hamlet's father.

Ramrod Key is a lump of land, a blip on the highway really at Mile marker 27, and I doubt most people with the wild light of Key West in their eyes even notice the place on their headlong flight south. Don't think that bothers me because I like living here and the fewer the better as far as I am concerned. I'm not actually the official curmudgeon of Ramrod Key but I do like to point out that I live on the least friendly street in the Lower Keys. My neighbors glower when I roll by and I don't even have loud exhausts on my Bonneville! Suburbia has its drawbacks.

Boondocks is Ramrod's greatest claim to fame probably, it's a tiki bar with a fried food restaurant and periodic events to draw in the punters. On a night with a north wind blowing I can hear the thumping band noises from my home a mile away. That's when I've got the windows open and the air conditioning off. The cool part of Boondocks is the miniature golf course, the only one of its kind in the Middle or Lower Keys, and like anyone who lives close to an attraction I rarely go to play over there:

Yesterday Boondoocks was holding a MG car show, which was pretty enough:I'm thinking it was a secret plot to decimate the population of elderly MGs in the southeastern United States. How else do you explain the offer of free beer for their owners:The negative about living in the 'burbs is that one's friends who live in the Big City 25 miles away tend to be reluctant to get in their cars and drive out to visit and tipple and find themselves subsequently unable to drive home. I enjoy the commute, not least because it gives me a reason to ride the Bonneville. When I lived in Key West I got rock fever, with nary an excuse to get out and see the bridges and the waters alongside Highway One. Besides Ramrod Has most of what one needs day to day. Plants:...quiet back streets, with my bicycle substituting ably for my Triumph:Not forgetting the best deli north of Key West for a good long ways. It's part of the Five Brothers empire, an "empire" of two stores, the other being the deli on Southard Street in Key West. This one is named rather unimaginatively, Five Brothers Two:

Open seven days and serving strong dark Cuban coffee which any self respecting visitor should tank up on for the half hour drive to Key West. Of course for those with "wet lots" ( houses on canals, with which the island is criss-crossed) there is boating too:For those without docks of their own the Looe Key Resort will provide a bed waterside overlooking the motel's own docks. Or better yet for those seeking a snorkeling experience Looe Key has a boat, what captain's call a head boat:

I don't pay a lot of attention to all this stuff, seeing as how I live here (not at the dive shop) but there;s plenty going on, on Ramrod Key: And if Boondocks isn't enough bikers (and cage drivers) can stop in here for live music from time to time:And booze in the other World Famous Tiki Bar:And, in between pouring the beer they advocate paying attention to motorcyclists, because we are everywhere, sometimes on pedal bikes too:When I decided to settle in the Keys it seemed obvious that one would want to live in Key West, in Old Town of course, caught up in the romance and beauty of the narrow streets, greenery and cute houses and all that. The reality is that Key west is noisy and cramped and crowded and romantic but I like riding my motorcycle, I like the peace and quiet of my neighborhood and I like having lots of shaded parking for my Bonneville, even if underneath my stilt house isn't a proper garage:Gas is around $3:75 for a gallon of regular, pretty much the same as elsewhere and living in Old Town within cycling distance makes sense if your only alternative is a cage. For a lot of people that convenience, and the excitement of urban life is enough. For everyone else God knows, there's lots of real estate for sale, on every street:
Prices aren't dropping though which is a little weird. Sellers still expect to get more than half a million for a two bedroom twelve hundred square foot house. I don't see many of them getting sold. Any of them, anywhere.

This is my neighborhood, well away from my employers at the Key West Police Department, far from Mallory Square and Sloppy Joe's, no jets circling overhead, and for whatever reason no barking dogs, squawking chickens or squalling children on my island. Its an oasis for me, with pizza delivery, a decent hardware store on Summerland Key, next to a video rental alongside a post office. What more could a suburbanite want? A fishmongers on Cudjoe Key four miles away and a couple of decent (and several indecently cruddy) restaurants.There's a bench on my street where the drunk hung out for a while but the neighbor across the way was raking it up recently, reordering the plants so we can ride by and admire the symmetry, not that I've ever see anyone else actually use it. It looks nice.Which should be enough for all of us.

When I'm feeling more than usually introspective I think about our neighbors a hundred miles to the south living their embargoed lives on the hidden island. It occurs to me that I live with more stuff within a long stone's throw of my stilt house than thousands of Cubans see in a year. For me ordering videos on Netflix (I have no television reception at home, by choice, neither satellite nor cable) or picking up a Mexican dinner at Coco's for half a Cuban doctor's monthly salary involves no more indecision than "what do I feel like?" Yes, gas is expensive, and a motorcycle helps but my wife and I with no children and no debt other than our (fixed rate) mortgage are worried but not strapped, like many other North Americans who have started to wonder what petroleum at $120 a barrel really means. Here in the keys it means tourism, sunshine and showing up for work on time. As always. I hope the equation remains as simple Up North where our tourism income comes from.

Friday, April 25, 2008


An hour to burn of a Spring afternoon so why not check out the lighthouse on Whitehead Street?
The first thing people remark on about the lighthouse is how far it lies from the beach. There is method to the madness because the original wooden structure was washed off the beach in 1847 so they then decided to build the brick one a little bit inland. And here it is at the corner of Whitehead and Truman in the middle of Old Town. The tower is supposedly somewhere near 90 feet tall and the light inside still works, powered by a solar panel, but it is a tourist attraction these days:Its a ten dollar admission fee (10%off for local ID) and with that you get a chance to go shopping for gee-gaws:You get to peer at the old Fresnel lense that sits inside the admissions building looking very glassy and fierce:
The lighthouse museum complex is quite the little compound, a grassy, tree-covered complex of buildings which includes an 1887 lighthouse keeper's house:Its a wooden home with luscious honey colored tongue and groove paneling all round inside:There's the usual audio-visual presentation along with a ton of knick-knacks from the period, including clothing, household items and the like to illustrate the life and times of 19th century residents. The dark interior contrasts nicely with the sunburned exterior:There are 88 steps to the viewing balcony at the top of he lighthouse, and it comes as something of a surprise to me that the place is wide open and anyone can stumble all the way up to the top. There is a sign advising children under 16 need an adult in tow, which isn't a prospect I would relish, what with all those steps winding their way up the tower, keeping up with a youthful bundle of energy:
The copper hose next to the stairway was installed when the light converted from kerosene to acetylene which must have seemed like an improvement to all concerned. I took the steps by storm, and happily didn't meet anyone half way up. There is no room to pass, it would be an intimate affair and these people are tourists so they have no clue how to alleviate social discomfort with small talk in awkward situations...But in the fullness of time one reaches the top and there one finds a fresh breeze and safety wires strung everywhere:
I lucked out on the day I chose to climb the tower as there was a fresh westerly breeze blowing and the air was cool and invigorating. It was on the west side where one can see the lump of La Concha Hotel rising about the little houses of the city. I took a picture of a cute Conch cottage......a church (with La Concha bigger in the background)......the roof of the Hemingway House...

...and this amusing guesthouse that used to be a gay hang out and when I was a boat Captain I used to recommend families visit the lighthouse forgetting there were scads of naked old men all over this building and its pool. Oh dear, but these days its gone straight so the excitement is gone:

There is a fair bit of greenery all around the city even after the heavy hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005 wiped out a number of trees, but there are spots that show a lot less trees:And in the distance always the beautiful blue waters around the city:Back on Earth after a harrowing enough descent even without meeting anyone down below, there was shade to enjoy in the grounds:And a little traffic watching on Whitehead Street:

This week the city is celebrating Conch Republic days, a lighthearted end-of-winter celebration that in some measure remembers the wilder days in Key West when wrecking was a legitimate way to make a fortune. The lighthouses pretty much put paid to that as they helped keep ships off the rocks. As a sailor, I still appreciate the role of lighthouses in helping find one's way at sea though a lot of people think GPS has put paid to the usefulness of lighthouses. And so the world turns.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Swimming Season

The disadvantage of living in the sub tropics is that the blood thins. It really does, though some people think its a joke. When temperatures drop below seventy (local zero) it starts to feel seriously cold. The lowest recorded temperature in Key West was 41 degrees and I have seen 50 degrees (10 Celsius)on the thermometer which was as cold as I ever want to see again. Thus it is that when people from Up North come down to splash on the beach in December and revel in temperatures around 70 degrees locals are wearing sweaters and boots and dusting off their winter wardrobes. When I read of people motorcycling on a lovely 40 degree day I shudder. So for me, swimming season is when the water is 80 degrees, preferably higher.We're not quite there but we are definitely getting close. Last week I put the boat in the water and tied it up at the dock behind my house. Having a house on a canal is a wonderful thing, and sea waters are close enough to 80 degrees now that swimming will be an almost daily activity till the second cold front of the Fall. Choosing between the motorcycle and the boat for recreation will cause me some severe indecision between now and November.My house lies about a quarter mile from the open waters of Newfound Harbor along a canal that is bordered by quite a few homes and mangrove bushes. It seems crowded but it's quite wide enough for the snorkeling boat that leaves from Looe Key Resort each day and takes a few dozen people out to the reef 7 miles south of Newfound Harbor. My neighbors keep some pretty impressive boats at their docks:When we bought the house my wife and I decided we wanted to scale back and get something small and simple to tie up at our dock, a boat that we could use with very little effort or preparation each day. We ended up with a 14-foot used Dusky self bailing center console, and it has no lights or electronics. We have a 25 horsepower Yamaha that can push the boat up to 23 miles per hour, as I have measured it. For a sailor used to lumbering along at 6 mph such speeds still seem astronomical. The Yamaha also uses very little fuel which these days makes casual boating very easy to enjoy:In addition to not enjoying getting blind drunk every day I dislike fishing which puts me in the minority camp in the Keys as far as recreation goes! I love to swim though and having the ability to jump in the boat and go for a quick swim any day of the week is a big part of the pleasure of summer for me. My wife gets home at say 3, we get in the boat and go swim till 4:30 and I have time to shower off the salt water and get to work by 6 pm. That's another great reason to work nights, the afternoons are still mine to go swimming... On my days off it stays light till past 8pm this time of year so we can be out on the water for a long time in the evenings. This is the corner of the canal as it turns out into the open waters:That's Newfound Harbor beyond the channel markers, an almost circular body of water whose shores give wave protection from any direction the wind blows. Our neighborhood association planted a bunch of official looking channel markers after Hurricane Wilma trashed the old ones. The channel is cut from coral rock and is only wide enough for one boat at a time:But once out there is an abundance of places to drop the anchor and enjoy the water:In the distance here is Little Palm Resort, at the entrance to Newfound Harbor, where they charge up to $1200 for one night in one of their cabins. It's a resort where wealthy famous people sometimes commandeer the whole island all for themselves to live for a week in privacy the way I live all the time...You can see a big white blob which is a boat tied up to their docks:Little Palm is actually a very cool spot, much nicer than I imagined it would be before I went there. And for $125 a person you too can take a ride out on their launches (only overnight guests can use their docks) and have a bang up brunch on a Sunday morning. Its sounds grossly extravagant and it is, but once a year we treat ourselves (with a locals discount. Hey my wife is an absolute bulldog when it comes to sniffing out those discounts!). You get the usual buffet choices and the chef cooks up as many sampler breakfasts as you can order and eat. Unlimited gluttony, as it were.

Swimming season is here at last, and soon it will arrive no doubt in Minnesota's ten thousand kettles and at the beaches of Cape May and Cape Hatteras and all the way to South Padre Island. For me this is where I like to plant my swimming flag, amid the mangrove islands of Newfound Harbor:Ten minutes away from my house.