Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Russell Lane

This is hardly a lane at all- it's more of an extended driveway off Elizabeth Street one block west of the Library on Fleming Street. I came across it pretty much by accident and I thought why not? Obscurity deserves it's place in the sun too:
While the lane itself is probably no more than half a block long what really marks it is the magnificent if slightly tired old mansion at the entrance. It features all sorts of nooks and crannies:

And includes rather disappointingly a set of aluminum letter boxes on the porch indicating it's owners have succumbed to necessity and turned it into rental apartments. Did the renter who got this in their apartment pay a premium? I would!I rather liked the side view of the enclosed bay windows through the shrubbery, the barely visible reading lamp hinting at long evenings split between a book and glances into the street:On the subject of shrubbery there were a couple of some type of blooming shrubbery overhanging the lane. I shan't embarrass myself by even trying to pretend I have a clue what they are. One is purple, one is red, that's all I know for sure:I grew up in large houses, my mother inherited a fifty room home and her husband wanted to live in big houses so spacious living was all I knew as a kid. Rebellion came to me in the form of not owning a car and living on a boat. For years I enjoyed living in a space small enough that I could reach all my worldly possessions while sitting under a reading lamp.

Looking back I'm grateful that I had the opportunity to live in a space far too vast for my needs because it knocked out the desire or the need to buy implausibly large homes now that I am an adult:

This summer my wife and I got one electricity bill that just tipped over $200 and we freaked out, now I remember to set the thermostat at 82 degrees (28C) when I leave the house and all the fans are turned off. Which helps me sympathize with the need to cut up a beautiful old home like this. I have no difficulty living in 800 square feet.Russell Lane reminds me that there are innumerable alleys around town, lanes that rarely lead anywhere, and quite a few aren't even marked.

I learned years ago from a Conch that the easiest way to navigate around town is by landmarks. She came to work one day grumbling about a home on a street corner that got remodeled, and I wondered why it bothered her so much. "They changed the color of the wall and i missed my turn," she said. Like most Conchs she wasn't fond of driving and going an extra block threw her off. Russell lane is close to the library and it's marked by a porch and a very bushy fence line:

I failed to click in time on the inevitable dog walker stomping along the sidewalk, but as I left the area i spotted a couple of humans braving the gray damp afternoon hanging out chatting on a porch around the corner.I doubt they knew or cared about the existence of Russell Lane but they seemed emblematic, through the palms of what people should be doing on the magnificent porch just around the corner.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Sheer Decadence

So you live in the Keys and your oldest friend has just got engaged. You have no choice but to get on your magic carpet and fly off to Never Never Land known locally as Little Palm Island:Little Palm island is a lump of sand halfway between Key West and Marathon, a barrier island at the mouth of Newfound Harbor. It is known as one of the most exclusive and expensive resorts in the Keys and a night here will cost you I'm told somewhere north of $1500. However if you really want privacy you can rent the entire island for yourself and your entourage and people do do that. Frequently they arrive by boat and park their motorboats at the island's docks and do what we locals get to do every day, paddle in the water:check out the horizon: and stuff their faces on some really excellent cooking:For the rest of us mere mortals Little Palm is an oasis we get to enjoy for a meal and some contemplation before returning to the drudgery of daily life on our own self-serve slivers of paradise. Locals get a break so for somewhere less than $100 US each ($150 for you I think), we plebs get a ten minute boat ride to and from the island (private boats are not allowed to dock for anything less than an overnight stay), a fabulous brunch (gratuity included) and a pause in the stress of daily life in the shade of the magnificent lounging area next to the docks:

Robert and Dolly came by our house and we drove them a mile up the highway to the Little Torch Key marina where the launch is docked:Down the canal, and out into the open waters of Newfound Harbor on a magnificent sunny day:We took the comfortable seats inside the cabin allowing the visitors to toast outside in the heat of the day. Dolly doesn't really hang on every pearl of wisdom that drops from Robert's lips but she did tell us she is learning something new every day from hanging out with him:

Robert moved to the Keys in 1976 ("The Bicentennial"he points out) and has never looked back. He's worked all sorts of jobs including as a lobster fisherman and a business manager but these days he operates the Marine Sanctuary boat out of the Eco-Discovery center at the Truman Waterfront. It's his dream job and it was with some shyness he told us he'd got engaged, news that completely floored me. So naturally I viewed this as an opportunity to waste some cash and be decadent. What a glorious waste!

Little Palm has 28 cottages, a spa, a pool some beaches and a restaurant packed onto its five acres. The island has electricity and one phone in a shed-like booth for those desperate to call home. There is also a TV room for those unable to abandon the habit, however cell phones are banned in public places and television is not provided in the rooms. It is a real retreat and everything is quite beautifully appointed:It's kind of rustic but not really... and service is impeccable, which must be a mighty strain for a Keys lodging and, I really don't want to sound like an advertisement but Little Palm is really great fun and highly enjoyable. I say this despite my reservations about such appalling decadence in the middle of a world that has enormous difficulty sharing the most modest of necessities. For instance alongside the numerous cold food buffets we got a menu of hot dishes which are more like samplers, pork loin and fried yucca seen here:Or tuna on crispy rice:Doesn't look like much does it? But you can order as many of each dish as you want, in addition to the seafood, cold pasta, vegetable and fruit and pastry buffets from which you help yourself. We tasted French toast, pancakes, soup, eggs Benedict but skipped the scallops and some other thing I can't remember. They also have a do-it-yourself vodka and champagne bar as well as a $13-a-shot cocktail menu. Really this place puts you in mind of Marie Antoinette. I think Robert and Dolly enjoyed it as much as we did, despite briefly suffering the same pangs of bourgeois guilt:The waters of the Straits of Florida were sparkling in the sunshine and there was a cool fresh breeze (it seemed so to us!) blowing in off the water. Oh and then there was the desert tray, with a special message for them:My wife and I enjoyed our tray every bit as much as we watched Robert scrape the chocolate lettering off theirs...rum raisin ice cream, miniature ├ęclairs and Key Lime pie. Oh dear and I had quite a caffeine buzz on after our third pot of coffee. Or was it four? I lost count, as Julio kept whipping up a constant stream of stuff for our table.This was Robert's first visit to the island but on a previous trip my wife and I got a tour of the island thanks to our friendship with an employee, so we knew of the charming alleyways, the upstairs spa, whose recollection gave Dolly an ecstatic look as she remembered immersing herself in a hot tub overlooking the open waters below.


We took the first brunch ferry of the day at 10:30 and after some lounging we caught the 2:00pm ferry back, though no one pushed us to leave. We arrived at the dock as The Truman was pulling in:
And disgorged a number of twittering visitors, a wedding party it seemed facing a bill whose proportions I find it hard to imagine:


And their abundant luggage:Which was loaded into a hotel dolly, equipped not with the usual casters but with substantial rubber tires, suitable for a little off-roading necessary to get to the rooms on the island:Everyone noticed the heron standing in the shallows near the dock, and for a moment it seemed hard to differentiate between the bird and people behind it. The big difference became apparent when Phil the piano player (whose wife is a a teacher alongside my wife) pointed out the humans were mere guests while the heron has been living full time at Little Palm for 15 years:We should all be so lucky.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Survive The Savage Sea

"Key West Police" I answered the phone Thursday night in the usual way and found myself speaking with the US Coastguard Officer of the Day.
"I need you to run somebody," she said down the secure telephone line that confirmed her identity for me. I don't check wanted people for just anybody that calls, in case you were hoping... She spelled out the name for me, letter by letter and wasn't I surprised to realise I knew the guy. It was no surprise to me when he came back not wanted. Just a routine check was no surprise, Law Enforcement like to make sure felons don't slip through their fingers. What was a surprise was what the Coastie said next:
"We picked him up after he got lost at sea, twenty five miles out from the Dry Tortugas." And with that she hung up leaving me wondering what the hell I just heard. That's the nature of my job; even the most compelling stories usually have no ending. I first met Mike when I was working at Fast Buck Freddie's and he was weaving palm fronds on the planter in front of the Department Store on Duval. I liked talking to him, in between hauling boxes because he enjoyed his life, living on a boat and making enough money to do exactly as he wanted. He was comfortable, happy even, living on the edge:
And so it happened Friday afternoon that I was leaving my chiropractor's office and heading for a cup of coffee when I saw a familiar figure up ahead under his trademark straw hat. He crossed Duval Street ahead of me and got involved in a conversation. I was fiddling with my camera taking pictures when I got my second surprise in two days when he came up to me with a big grin on his face. "Hey," he said, "I lived through five days lost at sea." I don't initiate conversations with anyone which start with "I ran you for wants and warrants last night..." That kind of stuff is rather private, especially if I find a warrant! "I'm glad the Coasties found you," I said when I explained to him that his name had crossed my computer screen the night before. He grinned with the sheer joy of being alive, and I was glad to hear his story because I had been wondering.
The story was that Mike had decided he didn't need to be weaving palm fronds during bike week, the noise of the motorcycles was too much for him as he crafted his fronds on the sidewalk so he decided to take off for some sailing west of Key West. The problem came when the winds picked up and the seas got bigger and suddenly the mast,on his 24-foot Tanzer, came down and when he tried to get the stick back up with his halyard the bolts supporting the foot of the mast sheared and the stick went over the side. That left him rolling in seas he estimated at 18 feet, with the current dragging him out into the Gulf of Mexico. "Next stop the Yucatan!"
Confirming what a remarkable man he is, he chose not to panic. He saw a boat on his first day drifting but it declined to stop. He burned all his flares trying to get it to notice him but the boat kept going. "Smuggling Cubans or drugs," was Mike's estimation. "I got some rainwater in my poncho, funneling the water through the hood into my gallon jugs. I added hot sauce to make it taste good and sucked on mayonnaise packets for something to eat. "I grabbed seaweed from the water and shook it out over my frying pan. That got me a couple of large shrimp, and I ate them shells and all." His eyes gleamed at the memory. "You can survive weeks without food but I really needed that rainwater to stay alive." A National Marine Sanctuary patrol boat came alongside to rescue him after he was spotted drifting by some Navy jets training overhead. He was far out into the Gulf of Mexico by then, still not panicked, still working to stay alive. They fed him five meals-ready-to-eat to assuage his ravenous hunger on his way home.
Mike lost everything but his manuscripts (he's a writer of course!) so, unsolicited, I dug into my wallet and forked over all my cash. Mike was sucking down a beer but he grinned. "I'm gonna get me some Fausto's chicken ," he said. With my coffee money, and he was welcome to it.
Next time it rains I won't grumble, and when next someone else grumbles about Bike Week I'll tell them the story of the palm frond weaver and his Bike Week from Hell. We all need a little perspective from time to time.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Newman's Own

A new headline when I awoke this afternoon, something to take our minds off banking failure and bombs in the Indian sub continent. I have to confess I am bummed, but not surprised by the news of Paul Newman's death. There was a charming pre-obituary in last month's Vanity Fair and the name-dropping story confirmed my wisdom in thinking of him as a person worth admiring. I think we would be in a much better place had more people his self deprecating self knowledge and less of the preening stupidity public figures seem so proud to express. His death is just another confirmation I am growing old.

Mid Duval Street

Duval Street exerts it's fascination, it's the heart of the city of Key West. It's where visitors want to be, and it's frequently where residents don't want to be. It's the street that garners lots of attention from the city commission, it's the street that needs to be cleaned up- the problem child with it's obscene t-shirts, panhandlers, garbage, public intoxication and human weirdness. It's the street that if it didn't exist, as the saying goes, they'd have to invent it. Take away Duval and you end up with any old small town America. Duval Street is the heart of the contradictions that exemplify modern Key West.
People are frequently surprised to discover that a small town like Key West has distinct neighborhoods- Old Town, Casa Marina, The Meadows, New Town, and the area known to Realtors as Mid Town (White Street to First Street)- which can also be broken down into various streets and areas. Thus it should come as no surprise to learn that Duval Street itself can be split into zones. Everyone will have an opinion but roughly speaking the street comes in three pieces, Lower Duval where the tourist bars are, Middle Duval where the shops and stuff are, and Upper Duval at the southern end where there is generally less activity, which has been a sore point for some merchants who wanted to increase their share of cruise ship business. The middle part of Duval is also home to the better known gay bars on Duval, in the 700 and 800 blocks.
There was a time when Key West really was a gay haven, a small Navy town out of the mainstream and away from the public eye, and that was a good thing in light of the intolerance prevailing. Nowadays I hear that the trend is, and has been for Fort Lauderdale to attract the young up and coming gay community and some of my gay friends lament the loss of cutting edge status. Myself? I'm straight so I'm pretty much indifferent to the issue. Frankly I'm indifferent to the bar scene as a whole, though I kind of prefer the music from 801, the disco queens belting out across the street, rather than the dull noises groaning out of Sloppys and the Bull and those other straight dens of iniquity. The Bonneville I parked in a sea of dancing queen noise and it appears my motorcycle is as indifferent as I am to the blandishments of disco:The weather lately has been ruffled, lots of breezes cooling what is usually the hottest and stickiest of months and it was a delight to the skin to be out on Duval at two thirty in the morning. I was not alone. And this viewed from across the street seemed a companionable moment though they rather seemed to be letting the side down with their slovenly manner of dress. I mean I dress a bit like that and I expect better from my gay neighbors:
I find Key West generally is an evocative town to wander during the nighttime hours, as much as it is during the day. And even on Duval there are quiet corners waiting to be caught by the all seeing camera eye. I am always fond of the scooter culture that permeates Key West, and when I see a scooter neatly parked it reminds me of the good fortune of people who can stand to live in the city, in that they can substitute four wheels with two. Like this Kymco:

I always used to think I wanted to live in an apartment, in a city, able to step out and see the bright lights all around. My wife disabused me of that notion early on in our marriage and I guess she's right though the sight of a compact flight of stairs like this makes me wonder if city dwelling might not be in my future:

I'd like to be, but I am not the type, to shuffle out in my under shirt and carpet slippers to stand on the stairwell overlooking the street down below watching the world go by. Perhaps I should go back one day and lounge around and pretend I live there...a city dweller for an hour.

And what about this anonymous alleyway, does this not scream age and history and nowhere near modern day America?
It might be Havana or Prague or Dijon but certainly not Florida in 2008. Actually that is exactly what it is. Or this:This is classic Key West architecture and its yours for the asking, judging by the realtor's sign:It takes a fair bit of luck to operate a long lasting business in Key West. Martin's German Restaurant used to be on Appelrouth Lane, a little hole in the alley place but it has since grown to this on Duval, all blue and exotic:When I see a "For Rent" sign in an empty shop window I tend to get gloomy and mutter to myself about these weird economic times and financial melt down and the like:Of course stores come and go in the natural order of commerce these days but it is a bit unnerving nevertheless to see empty windows on the main commercial tourism street. The convenience store on Olivia appeared to be doing land sale business among the young adults, mere shadows really, hovering in front:
People ask me sometimes if there are dangerous neighborhoods or places where one shouldn't walk at night in Key West. I am not the best person to ask about stuff like that as I tend to wander at will at home and abroad and so far I have never come to any harm. I find Key West a totally nonthreatening environment to wander around in, night or day. Young people for the most part are polite and civil in a way that strikes me as very old fashioned. They step aside for an old gray beard like me shuffling along the sidewalks and they never behave in a way that might be construed as threatening. I walk, I take pictures and no one bothers me. That's city living as far as I am concerned.An hour seems too short for a lunch break some nights and I had to make like a leaf and blow. Like these guys all energized by the sight of a transvestite ambling along the darker part of the sidewalk across the street talking with a friend.I found it rather touching that somebody still lives in Key West who is moved to pull a sharp U turn in the middle of Duval to check out the blond wig and endless masculine legs tottering down the sidewalk. It's good to get downtown every now and again and see innocent amazement in all it's glory.