Friday, October 31, 2008

South Beach

I spent a couple of decades living in Northern California and the words South Beach conjured up a mental picture of the Italian quarter of San Francisco, hills, Italian stores Caffe Trieste and all the rest. I liked it too, but that doesn't mean I dislike the rather more modest South Beach in Key West. Unlike the San Francisco version South Beach in the Southernmost City is actually a beach, with a restaurant and everything:South Beach is actually the southern end of Duval Street, more or less the last block intersected by, not unnaturally, South Street:This is one of the spots in the city where southernmost everything is located, house, guest house, hotel, etc... etc...because this is after all pretty close to the southernmost tip of the continental United States. The Southernmost House has been owned since 1939 by a prominent family of Conchs and they are currently having a tiff with the city over the status of their building. They want more commerce, their neighbors want less and where previously locals were welcome on the premises now they (we) aren't for casual poolside drinks. Bummer because it is quite the structure:It's quite the pile and people do like their picture taken here:Though I quite like the details, like their brick driveway:Across the street is the more modestly proportioned southernmost hotel, one of the southernmost's anyway:The thing about this location though isn't the architecture though there's lots of it. It's the ocean, more precisely Hawk Channel which sets visitors to thinking. They look out from their perch on the South Beach pier and think about the clarity of the water:And the fact the Forbidden Island lies just over the horizon, 90 miles away, making Havana closer to Key West than Miami, were there a road over there:South Beach is one those pocket parks that a little town like Key West does so well, using and taking advantage of every speck of recreational space:You come, you see, you contemplate a moment, then you leave headed back to the fleshpots of Duval Street:It didn't strike me as much a dog park but a dog might well appreciate the modest pleasures of the little pier at the southernmost end of the island:I find the southernmost thing gets a bit tedious, it's as though one has to make a virtue of an accident of geography that of itself imparts no virtue. I guess Duval Street had to end somewhere and it might as well be here.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Upper Duval

Upper Duval is the bastard stepchild of Key West's most famous street, it's the part of the main drag that gets least exposure and sees less tourist traffic and is, at the same time the most attractive part of Duval. It is eminently walkable and even though it is less treed than the middle portion it has it's own attractions.Art galleries by the dozen, and they tend to come and go in these difficult times. They were offering all sorts of sales as I walked by at closing time:Call it a sign of the times but this realty office was closed and a hand written sign in the door offered body painting services instead. For Fantasy fest only, I assume, though probably body painting pays better than real estate these days:Some shops seem recession-proof, including my favorite ice cream store, Flamingo Crossing:Personally I prefer ice cream to publicly traded sex acts but of you feel the need, the Scrub Club, renamed with the more delicate title of Adult Entertainment, seems recession proof:I think it costs a hundred and fifty dollars to get in the door, and another six hundred to hang out with a naked Eastern European woman. The terms are a little vague, owing to the illegality of blatant prostitution, thus from time to time people call up to complain about getting shorted by the club, and other times frustrated gentlemen callers get angry and police are needed at the club to keep everyone calm. I can think of better ways to spend six hundred bucks, incinerating them on the stock market comes to mind, but some people really do think paid sex is glamorous and not sordid. Weird. Even weirder are the laws that make it illegal to pay for sex. I don't know why anyone cares. Fortunately it's not up to me to make sense of all this convoluted nonsense, and ice cream is still legal though always sinful. And if you don't have naked ladies to peddle, or excellent ice cream, you could very well go out of business like this storefront:And all that's left of the venerable Valladares is the sign:And businesses that are continuing to operate can find their buildings sold out from under them:That last one, the Coffee and Tea House used to be across the street here:And this move was all part of an elaborate game of musical chairs because the building currently occupied by the coffee and tea place used to be where the Banana Cafe used to be. The Banana Cafe moved to the building where Camile's Italian restaurant used to be, until they got turfed out abruptly by a rent hike. The building languished empty for a while and now has a new paint job and the French restaurant has established itself there:For some reason I can't fathom that end of Duval that is furthest south is known as Upper Duval, perhaps because the street numbers are highest here, culminating in 1499 at the beach. In any event Upper Duval tenants have complained in the past that their end of the street got less attention and less tourist traffic, especially from cruise ships which dock closer to Lower Duval. It seems lively enough to me but I just tend to pass through this area. There are tourists enraptured by chickens, of course...or each other...or the need to rest their aching feet......from walking so far down Key West's main drag:Businesses come and go like I say, but bits of Upper Duval have been around for a while:And of course there are new entertainments to check out, this one in place of the old Alice's Restaurant:Alice herself I'm told, may be going to cook at La Te Da:Which I doubt will be inducement enough for me. I am not really flamboyant enough for La Terraza de Marti, and there's another art form I've never figured out, that of cross dressing. Plus I've never really understood why people throw beads at Carnival or Fantasy Fest, beads which end up everywhere, even on the "ignored" end of Duval:Oh and while we're at it, lets not forget that other feeble excuse for a holiday extravaganza, All Hallows Eve.Did I ever mention how annoying it is to have been born on the one day in the year when everyone feels it incumbent upon themselves to dress up in a stupid costume? The older I get the more crotchety I become.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Wheels of Duval

I was waiting for my wife last night on Duval Street so I pulled my camera out and took a few pictures, while I hung around skulking and snapping getting hungrier by the minute. The end of October is the beginning of the end of lean times in Key West, and though the numbers aren't in on Fantasy Fest there were quite a few people wandering Duval at dusk.
Currently we are in the throes of a cold front that has dropped temperatures to below 70 degrees (24C) with north winds freezing our socks off. But before the front it was quite reasonably warm and not too humid at all. Many of the tourists this time of year are Europeans, taking a trip to warmer climes after the grand kids are back in school, but this year with the early arrival of cold weather there seem to be lots of early snowbirds in town. And they are joined in riding around, on mopeds, bicycles and electric cars by locals who take pleasure in not having to use a car.

Reading the Citizen of the Day entries on page three of the newspaper one sees repeated, time after time, the notion that the weather is a big draw for people who move to Key West. Which comes as no surprise though you'd think people interviewed by the paper could come up with something more...imaginative? Laid back lifestyle, the weather, the water... Being able to do without a car is also an attraction for residents of Old Town in particular though even if you live slightly further afield a bicycle or moped is entirely adequate. I enjoy seeing people who in most places in America wouldn't be seen dead riding a "moped" out on the streets, getting on with their daily lives:Visitors like to enjoy Key West sometimes as an extension of the theme parks they know and love Up North, so cycling is less transportation and more a diversion:Though pedaling is optional on Duval:The pedi-cab drivers tend to be, for whatever reason, Eastern Europeans and they pedal up and down Duval holding hands-free, glottal phone conversations apparently with thin air.I can't imagine its much fun as a way to earn a living but I guess they keep fit. And they aren't snowed in. There are other ways to get around including hybrid cabs, which get 38 miles per gallon, though with gas prices around $2:50 a least for now:There's also a relatively new car dealer in town selling Canadian electric cars called Zenn (zero emission no noise, out of Toronto). They are limited currently to 25 miles per hour but the dealer told the Citizen they were selling like hotcakes when they started up:Some people buy the rental type electric vehicles and when they are sold for private use they can come with proper doors and flat beds and accessories to make them more useful. The rentals are everywhere, for those that don't want a scooter:Some people like to drive regular cars and they are available too, convertibles preferred by many even if they don't always convert them:Chrysler Sebrings are handy cars in the Keys, where exotics are harder to service and get parts for. My wife really had a hankering for a Saab convertible but the Sebring has worked out well for her. She always converts hers. Just around the corner from Tropical Motors I saw...a visiting Sebring!There is a certain amount of distancing from rentals that goes on in the Keys. My wife has a personalised licence plate holder on her Sebring; scooter riders adorn their vehicles sometimes:Though the decorations aren't always Fantasy Fest beads. Rentals generally have plaques on the baskets identifying the rental company. Some scooters are not of the type that are available for rental, an Aprilia 500 would be one of those, tucked away at a private parking parking lot:In the end though the absence of internal combustion is what makes living in Old Town so... livable.A nice round town station wagon, several gears, mudguards, and a basket to haul the groceries home from Fausto's. Some slightly less new bicycles are carefully locked up, as all bikes are at risk for theft. Stolen bikes are worth reporting as they do turn up again in the city from time to time, and a police report identifies the original owner. Some though, appear to be beyond help:Bicycles are always a symbol of youth and childhood even in cities where they aren't used as daily transportation. Part of me envies the youngsters I see riding around treating Key West as their playground:Of course as we grow older and wearier we may find a tricycle more to our taste. Or perhaps it's just a better way to haul stuff around town, because I see lots of them:I guess I must look odd when I roll up wearing my helmet and jacket and gloves, fresh in town from my 25 mile commute, but the Bonneville does a dandy job of getting me around town as well as getting me into town. My wife on the other hand keeps her Vespa 150 at work and rides it around town almost exclusively. It's rare she'll take it home. When the Bonneville and the ET4 are parked together it means the Conchscooters are probably doing something nearby:In this case fillet of tuna on a salad for her, and a burger poivree in a crepe for him, at Duval's nicest French restaurant Banana Cafe, now in new and more spacious digs a block away from it's old home:At last she showed up, and even let me taste some of her roast potatoes. Well worth waiting for.