Monday, June 30, 2008

Dawn Ride

It's cold inside the KWPD building all night. My wife calls me a polar bear because I survive the air conditioned chill in my shirt sleeves, but when I step out into the lobby a few minutes before six its a hot muggy rainless morning in Key West. The Police Department Communications Center has windows and I can look out into the parking lot during our twelve hour shift but there are those nights I miss the occasional passing squall because I'm too focused on the computer screen and aren't I surprised to find the Triumph wet when I step out of the building? I took the beach route out of town this morning, passing by a colleague's house to make sure she had sorted out the car trouble she had reported was going to make her late for work. "Ride safe!" she urged me and I suppose to her I must have looked vulnerable perched on the green machine swaddled in Kevlar and plastic. I felt like a God, sweeping through the barely lit streets empty of people and traffic and light, unstoppable and free of obligations and constraints.

The camera thought Smathers Beach was roiling with fog when I switched it on. That was just the effect of sudden exposure to the warm damp breath of morning after a night in the dry sub arctic office. While the picture looked evocative I had to stand around for ten minutes enjoying the dawn and waiting impatiently for the Camera to adjust to conditions. Testing, 1,2,3:The mass of humanity jogging by on the sidewalk didn't even notice me standing there peering into the black box and grumbling. I have a lot of patience to learn as we go in to the Peak Oil period and high energy tasks start to take longer and longer. Waiting for a camera to get ready to take a picture will require the same patience as waiting for a bus. Good things come to them as wait:Above is Smathers Beach looking west towards the harbor and not a soul in sight, while below the view is east towards the Airport. These pictures make Key West look like a beachy resort town. It's amazing how easy the illusion is to foster with just a couple of pictures. The ride out of town was easy this morning, not much traffic, not much headwinds and an open dry highway. The Bonneville has hit 13,000 miles since I bought it last October and I have slipped into the groove of familiarity with it. The handlebars fall right to hand, my feet fit comfortably tucked up on the foot pegs, the engine response is smooth and full of torque, the clutch light, the gearbox smooth. The engine with stock exhaust purrs quietly at sixty miles per hour across the Saddlebunch Keys. I manage to offend a dawdling Debonaire Air Conditioning van by passing him easily and quickly where the speed limit increases to 55mph, and he eventually puts down his cellphone or his sandwich or his newspaper, whatever the distraction was, and floors his boss's accelerator, damn all expense in a mad effort to catch me up so when he does manage to grow big in my mirror, I use him as an excuse to pull over and take a picture of this castle in the air:I miss riding in Italy, where most drivers pull to the shoulder to let motorcycles go by, and pause at stop signs to give right of way to let the bikers disappear ahead of them. Here instead passing is a comment on manhood and even women drivers get upset because they want to dawdle and you don't, so as you pull past they speed up as though to deny my 865cc twin the open road? Days when I want to dawdle I pull over when vehicles catch up to me, days when I want to go faster people hunker down and block my way. People are weird. The clouds are fascinating by contrast, all bunched and black and full of empty threats of rain.As dawns go today's was a bit of a bust, some mornings the sun rises all angry and red illuminating the horizon from end to end with white rays of light bursting from the edges of the clouds like a renaissance painting of the Transfiguration. Though I'm not religious there are mornings when I am surprised God in a white beard doesn't appear from behind these stunning arrays of light and cloud to descend onto the Overseas Highways and present me the Ten Commandments, or in a fit of absentmindedness to demand the life of my eldest (and non existent) son. The burning bush by comparison to these light shows was but a feeble ember. I ride with awe on my face and wonder why everybody doesn't pause in their commute to drink in the beauty of it all. But they don't, they're too busy, and on a pale colorless morning like this I hardly blame them, but I stop anyway to enjoy the gray and steely views and force myself to take a picture:It costs me a few pennies more to fill my three point two gallons of fuel at my neighborhood Chevron, since they don't give me the five percent rebate I get with my Shell credit card . Nevertheless I like to patronize my local business. Three point two gallons of 89 octane with 141 miles on the trip odometer three miles per gallon? All this open amazing road all 27 milesof it from my workplace, enjoyed for less than the cost of a con leche. Why do they commute by car?

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Geiger Key

At Mile Marker Ten on the Overseas Highway there is a Circle K inconvenience store attached to a Shell gas station, and next to this hub of commerce lies a two lane road heading south. Anywhere else in the US there would be road signs and so forth indicating the allure of Boca Chica Beach and Tamarac Park and even possibly Geiger Key Marina, but such is the self effacing nature of the Keys even long time residents of the great City of Key West have never been down this road. Have motorcycle will travel and even though the weather was not photographically alluring at the end of this windy, cloudy week, I took a detour.

Many years ago I was bringing Emma home from an afternoon at Boca Chica beach, which is where this road dead ends and I was pulled over by a Sheriff's motorcycle cop with a hand held radar. He pulled back from the car when Emma awoke from her torpor and started barking loudly- she was a typical Labrador, all deep throated bark and never a bite. I got off with a written warning because my alibi on the back seat was proof positive I was out for a ramble and not rushing to get anywhere. I mention this because Monroe County Sheriffs patrol the beach frequently and "strictly enforced" may not be too much of an exaggeration. It is a drag though as the roadoffers smooth riding with even a few interesting curves. This part of Boca Chica Road is actually Big Coppitt Key until one crosses is a small bridge separating it from Geiger Key proper:Shark Channel, east of Geiger Key has seen an increase in anchor out boats, many of which I suspect are liveaboard homes. The waters around Key West are becoming more inhospitable as expensive beachside homes spread across slivers of formerly open land used to park dinghies. The result is an increase of anchor outs further up the Keys:For Key West residents not used to the wilds of the Lower Keys this particular island is known for one thing, a bar of course, and a place that likes to rival Schooner Wharf as a slice of the "old keys way of life." There are no signposts to Geiger Key RV Park, Marina and restaurant but its there hidden away off a side road:Alongside the working dock there is a sort of Tiki bar and a decent restaurant serving, of course, fresh fish. There is a certain sense of humor required to run a place like this, which styles itself the "backside of paradise," but success brings with it the usual crop of complaints. There are more homes scattered around Geiger Key than might at first appear and the arrival of live music and lots of patrons at the marina caused the usual rash of grumbling, which the business appears to have weathered:And there is what passes for a small muddy park just beyond the marina where one could stand and contemplate the mangroves if one felt so inclined. Sitting isn't an option as the pea rock isn't that comfortable:If one seeks a well-to-do tropical lifestyle such as is frequently touted around Key West, one doesn't seek it on Geiger Key. This is a rather more down at heel neighborhood, more like a comfortable old pair of bedroom slippers than a pair of name brand high heels. Homes around here are either double wide trailers or their newer replacements, homes, frequently modular, on stilts:Either way their occupants get to enjoy waterfront living, decent sized yards (by Keys standards) and a certain level of privacy guaranteed by the absence of tourists or tourist related advertising. Canals were dug into the rock decades ago when such acts of environmental vandalism were not only permitted but encouraged in Florida's mosuqito infested swamps, and the happy result is easy access to boating in lots of places otherwise landlocked in the Keys. There are two types of canals prominent here:This is a regular boating canal with direct access to Hawk Channel and the straits of Florida. A double wide for sale on one of these canals is advertised at $499,000 though I doubt the owner will get that sort of asking price at the moment. In 2005 people were lining up to buy these trailers at those prices, until Hurricane Wilma flooded them out. In the next photograph w see what's known as a swimming canal, a place where engines are not allowed and access to the canal is shallow enough that only a kayak could possibly might make it in and out. This particular canal emerges into the shallow back country of Boca Chica Key, the navy base west of Geiger Key:These homes on canals are grouped into a small community known as Tamarac Park, not to be confused with the city of Tamarac on the mainland. Realtors advertise this area as "Key West" frequently because the zip code is the same as the city's (33040) but that's just because the post office in Key West delivers out here. This is unincorporated Monroe County, and as rural as one can get ten minutes from the city of Key West:Supporters of urban chickens in Key West frequently make the claim that were the fowl removed from city streets insects and the dreaded scorpions would make life unbearable. Those claims notwithstanding there are wild birds, quieter and less invasive that quietly go about the same business. I prefer their gentle dignity myself, but tourists don't want to see egrets and herons and ibis gently pecking the public flowerbeds of Key West. They want chickens, until they settle in Key West and learn the pleasures of being kept awake at night by barnyard fowl. These guys are just minding their own silent business:The other big disadvantage of Geiger Key is that it sits next door to Boca Chica Naval Air Station, a large military airport just across the water. Even since the island of Vieques, next to Puerto Rico was closed down as a military base, flight training has been moved to Boca Chica and the Florida panhandle. The result is frequent low passes by navy jets and concomitant noise. This of course produces complaints and counter complaints ("aircraft noise" versus "sound of freedom") with the Navy patiently pointing out they have been there longer than anyone else. Indeed every time a development is proposed in their neighborhood they protest for safety reasons and the county moves smoothly ahead supporting further civilian development which will lead to more noise complaints etc etc... Outside the rather limited developed areas Geiger Key is a swamp of mangroves and shrubs and these rather peculiar grasses. There are trails among the mangroves but because I am a law abiding sort I don't even try to slip behind the institutional green hurricane fences put up by the Navy and I limit myself to yearning from afar:Of course I happen to think even mangroves are enhanced by the presence of a Triumph Bonneville:Well worth a gallon of 89 octane even at $4:25, in my opinion.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Mid Truman Mid Night

I am not myself of late, of that I am convinced. Last week, right before a dinner party with friends and strangers I sneezed a loose crown right out of my mouth and into the ocean on an afternoon swim. Ka-ching! $650 for my share of the bill-just another setback in a series of contretemps that have plagued my life since the household air conditioning died and the lap top bought the farm (Thanks Joe- it's working again!). The dinner party was complicated by the absence of my front tooth, though I fashioned a temporary out of white play dough and escaped detection, much to my surprise. Chewing cheese and crackers in front of a room full of strangers with play dough in your jaw takes lots of concentration I discovered.Last night I went for a walk down Truman Avenue and forgot my new tripod which would have made picture taking so much easier. But I made use of found objects, crates, trash cans and light posts to discover what I could picture.This is the heart of the city at night, police officers gather here at the intersection of Truman and White Streets to drink coffee between calls, though last night the only vaguely police related vehicle was my Bonneville as calls for service seemed endless, including a scooter rider who rode through a fence and smashed his head. A helmet would have saved him a ride in the ambulance and a drill into his skull to "relieve the pressure." What pressure I didn't dare to ask the ambulance crew. Instead I took a lunch break around 1:30 and parked next to a little Conch cottage for sale. I wonder if they will get anything close to the $650,000 asking price for this "cute" 2-bedroom?And you've got the convenience of a busy gas station right outside your bedroom window. All this at a time when rumor has it real estate is tanking in the US. Nobody said Key West is grounded in reality; why would I keep a diary if it were?
Truman Avenue was known as Division Street before President Truman took to vacationing in the Southernmost City every opportunity he got, while in office. The street is essentially an extension of the main drag into town, North Roosevelt Boulevard, and where the four lane road becomes two lanes at Bayview Park it changes it's name and becomes a slow and congested conduit to the Mecca of all visitors, Duval Street. Old Town starts at the White Street intersection which is also as it happens where several among the weird and wonderful local businesses that give Key West it's color also like to call home:When is a bike shop not a bike shop? When the landlord's real estate office burns down and he needs to relocate upstairs. I found it quite telling when the realtor admitted in the paper that he would like to return to White Street but there may not be enough money in real estate these days to allow him to make the move. God knows the realtors' association is spending a fortune advertising to try to get people to buy homes. The bike shop seems to be doing okay, every square inch of space packed, as is usually the case in Key West:I am not much of a shopper, I insist on pointing out, but this shop window struck me. I like the term "upholstery" not least because it's not a term (like "haberdashery") one sees that often in modern shopping America. But it's on display on Truman Avenue along with cushion covers of a typically Key West leafy style:Upholstery certainly isn't the oldest profession, as old fashioned sounding as it may be. For that one wanders across the street to the not inappropriately named "Bare Assets" because for reasons lost in the mists of time it has been deemed illegal for men to pay women for sex, so this rather sordid and sad activity has to be masked with all sorts of euphemisms:They are advertising for help among women who want to "make money, have fun and always feel safe." The ad goes on to say that they offer "full nude pole dancing lap dancing, and VIP rooms and private champagne rooms." Call me cynical but it quacks like a whorehouse to me. I am forced to rummage around the want ads owing to the fact that I have never been inside Bare Assets and I confess I would rather drink champagne alone than in their company.
Having made it past the two businesses focused on that which we are supposed to never forget how to ride we come to the other physical obsession: Key West boasts lots of yoga and spa and fitness centers of one sort or another. This is one of two gyms in this very part of town. The other, more bzarrely is located behinmd the used bookstore, a place that deserves an essay of its own. I find Iron Bodies about as intimidating as Bare Assets. And while we're on that subject there is another outlet that never seems to have a customer but that appears unlikely to go out of business:And you thought the Internet made "Adult Stores" passe. Truman Avenue should be renamed Euphemism Way, come to think. I did like the bike rack, a very Key West touch I thought.
Some people try to make a living using their cerebellum and fail:And some stay in business. I liked the homely abandonment to the night of this architect's office. It looked like a stage set to me, blueprints, desk chair and artwork all laid out just waiting for the players:On the one hand the desk offers splendid people watching possibilities, on the other all those people get ot look in as you doodle your work day away. I wonder how architects face up to the reality of Key West architecture, rooted in ship's carpentry, rigidly encoded and hemmed in by tradition and expectation. There are some nice examples on Truman Avenue:There was also another example of Key West architecture across the street with a fine example of a shadowy Key West resident taking in the midnight air, warm and humid, and greeting his friends and neighbors in two languages, as they passed beneath:Further up the street is a business (no, not that!) which my wife has enjoyed with friends as I am not excessively fond of raw fish served on rice balls. Don't get me wrong, I'll eat sushi and sashimi but not with the gusto demanded by the price. Kyushu enjoys the sort of architecture that I notice every time I ride by and though it cannot be obvious in this picture they shade their window panes with white paint to simulate rice paper. I find it charming and goofy:Across the street, sort of kitty corner to Kyushu is one of those confounding addressesKey West specialkizes in, Wong Song Alley. When I first received a call for service on this street early on in the 9-1-1 center I had no clue where the nice lady was calling. "Yes," she sighed, "the cops always have trouble locating this address." She was very patient. So, as I always do when I get an address I don't recognize, I took a ride to find this secret alley. It's not really hard to find especially if tou are looking for it, though I discovered it is hard to photograph effectively. I include this shaded picture in homage to Wong Song Alley's elusiveness:Wong Song it turns out is a bit like Sasquatch, and photography only increases the doubt...look hard under those trees, stranger, and find a grassy lane that leads away to the south, they say it was a wong song, though what the white one was I wouldn't know.
Truman Avenue, White Street to Wong Song Alley, so much in so little space, the hallmark of all Key West.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Early Duval

Duval Street, hotbed of iniquity and vice, home of unbridled drinking and wild street parties, fights, vomit and rivers of spilled beer and islands of abandoned plastic Dixie cups. If there is a heaven and a hell I expect my hell will be Duval Street at 2am for the rest of eternity. However at 9 am filled with Blue Heaven's pancakes and buzzing from several cups of strong coffee Duval Street looks almost human to me.I went to Blue Heaven but many people looked happy enough breakfasting at the scene of last night's debauchery while these two fine specimens of vacationing womanhood were enjoying their private terrace at La Concha, ignoring the toiling masses in the street below their hotel:The cab driver saving gas by keeping his windows open while he waits for a fare:The street sweeper cleaning up the debris in the gutters:Then there is the city employee hosing down the sidewalks to prepare the street for fussy visitors who prefer not to wade through trash on their way to get toasted:Some are already busy at the bar in Sloppy Joe's at 9:19am (I checked my watch): And I am forced to wonder how many tourists in Key West have ever seen The Bull looking like this:Nothing quite so forlorn as a bar all closed up. I caught this guy, an advertisement for a real living wage if ever I saw one, toiling up Rose Lane: All those beer bottles that get thrown away empty, not recycled, arrive on Duval by human power, even in the early 21st century. And there is the vendor at Duval and Eaton who will spend the day getting toasted on his own (by the sun) selling Key West made trinkets. He starts his long day hauling his cart into position by hand:While across the street at St Paul's relief is at hand if only one has the patience:And don't forget the lunch time organ recitals which are delightful and free and start at 12:10pm and last about half an hour, in the cool recesses of the church.
Even at breakfast time Duval Street has its share of tourists, if you want the main drag to yourself its best to get here well after 4 am, which is when the last bars close though the crowds will take a little time to disperse. Or show up sometime before 8 am when the street is almost empty except for the early workers buying coffee and cycling to their places of employment along the street. By 9:30 Duval is waking up:

The operator at the Hyatt booth was kind enough to help out some faceless visitors seeking directions:Some other early birds on Caroline Street were getting last minute instructions on bicycle riding, as they wheeled off their rentals:Bicycles are an excellent low stress way to get around town, especially if you're on vacation and it doesn't matter if you show up sweaty and hot. Mopeds are a close second and for those who rent cars I found these next two pictures, shot on Charles Street, to illustrate an obvious parking point:
Bear in mind these are likely locals vehicles and it usually doesn't pay to park like a local in Key West as parking enforcement and property owners usually know and recognize vehicles that belong in outlandish spots. Technically its not legal to lock a bike to city sign or street lamp but it would be an unlucky tourist that got her bike removed by Public Works during a brief stop. Riding the wrong way down a one way, even on a bicycle can get you a ticket, especially if you have a shitty attitude. As far as parking goes you can't beat a bicycle. And, by the way, if you have a few extra bar stools you don't need this is where you can dump them apparently:
Telegraph Lane is not quite as neat as Duval, because this is the tacky back side of Duval Street the place where the work gets done that keeps the illusions whole on the front side. It's also a short cut to Front Street and a place where rain puddles making it even more disreputable after a summer thunderstorm.

Back on Duval I walked past these family types and I could have sworn I heard one of them remark on the similarity of a bong in the window to one they had at home. I must have imagined it:I've remarked previously on the rather poor taste of many of the t-shirts displayed on Duval Street and some people think bongs, typically used to smoke marijuana shouldn't be on sale either. But there they are all lined up for inspection. Rather more prosaically there is a small grocery store on Duval Street and goes by the name of Shorty's, and I've never even stopped off to buy water here, but for some reason, probably because the air conditioning beckoned, I stepped in.It was quite the revelation actually, like a real grocery store with all sorts of useful items for the forgetful tourist. I ended up spending $13 on stuff that looked pretty good to me. I got the Turkish coffee as a taste test for my wife who has a trip planned there (Turkey, not Shorty's) with some girlfriends in September, and I'm quite partial to Patak's curries so I bought a couple of meals in a box I'd never seen before. I've since eaten one and they are quite decent too, hurricane food or for a quick dinner at work:
My final tour de tourist was to tag a group of cruise ship visitors who were getting a guided walk around downtown. I missed most of the speech on La Concha but I think he was going on about suicides from the top of the hotel.Most tour guides tell the story that people who jump always leave behind a glass of chardonnay at the top of Key West's tallest building. Don't ask me I've never checked. And with that crowd shuffling off I found Duval starting to wake up with both eyes open and thus it was time for me to go home and enjoy the last hours of my "weekend" off.