Friday, August 31, 2012

Audience Indifference


Every week the blue paper KWTN offers hardcore news ("Where Journalism Is A Contact Sport" they say) along with biting commentary and a useful listing of live music around town. This week in addition to some very interesting stuff on the future of Wisteria Island, known as Christmas Tree Island to locals, the music listing had a headline out of The Onion.


Gibson plays at the White Tarpon in the Key West Bight waterfront and he has a playlist of his music that he admits is a challenge for listeners. Good for the Blue Paper for highlighting him. It's what one comes to expect from this sometimes irritating and always unpredictable paper.



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A Strange Night Out

I've heard it said that a meal in a restaurant is a piece of performance art. Diners are there for the food of course, that part of the meal that gets most of the attention but service makes or breaks the meal in my opinion. On that basis eating out in Key West is a hit or miss affair, as professional wait staff are in short supply. The worst of it is that the negative experiences remain in the back of the unhappy diner's mind for a very long time.


I hesitate to recommend a place to friends because in Key West taking pride in your work is a tenuous concept. Alcohol, partying (ie: getting into an altered mental state) takes priority in a town that is home to people who ended up down here for a number of reasons and rarely is that work. Emigration is often viewed as a cure all for those reasons that caused to leave home in the first place, but as they say you bring the cause of your misery with you to the island. And then try to drown it in between spells at work at an eatery.


With that in mind how can I recommend a place to eat? Go, spend your money and hope the staff showed up, sober and ready to have a good night working that will translate into a positive night out for the guests. If any of them flaked for whatever reason there is an excellent chance my first class meal last week will be a crap experience for you this week. And the cost of the performance remains the same.


So when my wife suggested we stay in town last week for dinner I protested immediately and asked why not go to Square Grouper on Cudjoe Key? Four miles from home and with a perfect record of superb food properly served by a crew that has a record for longevity on the job in the Lower Keys, Square Grouper epitomizes value for money when eating out in the Lower Keys and Key West.


But my wife wanted "something different" so I said fair enough with a sinking feeling. I sank even further when our first choice, Santiago's Bodega proved to be closed for the week for renovations. The tapas place on Petronia is actually a fine choice to go for dinner with interesting small dishes, proper service a convivial atmosphere and a great wine list which I define as interesting wines at affordable prices. Had Santiago's been open this essay would never have formed in my head.


Nothing deterred my wife had a second Good Idea so I pointed the bows of the Bonneville across town at the Santa Maria resort at the southern tip of Simonton Street. Had Ambrosia not been closed we probably would have got away with a slightly delayed dinner and from all accounts it would have been good. Their schtick primarily is sushi and though I am no great fan of not cooked seafood I can appreciate a decent meal Nippon style. I grew up in Italy so udon does me fine and properly crisp light tempura makes up for raw eel and pink slabs of dainty fish meat served on seaweed.


This setback stymied my pillion but she rallied valiantly and we rode the Triumph up Duval to 915. This a street front Victorian with indoor seating which is okay and an upstairs area which some diners like for the view down into the street but I prefer sitting next to the street surrounded by banana palms and flicking candle light. It seems very exotic for some reason and reminds me of The Quiet American by Graham Greene. It's just one of those mental associations I permit myself from time to time as irrational as the fantasy may be. Me in Saigon in the French era. Not very likely is it.


Given that sitting out and eating a whole Thai fried snapper would give you heat stroke on an airless August evening I was not completely enthusiastic about sitting indoors there, but I'm a good sport (I'm told) so there we stopped. Well, I needn't have worried, they weren't open for ten more minutes it turned out and rather than lure us with a glass of wine while we waited or some other thing they were a bit unceremonious so we buggered off.


Sometimes you just know you're not wanted. I knew I wanted to be heading toward Square Grouper at Mile Marker 23, but my headstrong wife checked the menu at Martin's and gave the thumbs down. Café Sole got the same treatment because my wife, who likes the café was still pressing to try something different. The record was stuck on the theme of somewhere different to eat.


I know, she said brightening up considerably. Let's try Two Cents on Appelrouth Lane she said. So we did. And we both wanted to like it. I did like the funky little wooden house when it was Martin's before the German eatery lost it's funk and went upscale in it's bunker on Duval. Now the place is just weird.


The tables were set high at chest height requiring seats that are as tall and as uncomfortable as bar stools in a room that is about as warm and enticing as a ships engine room, and as noisy too. The music speaker mercilessly spewed loud classic reggae directly overhead making conversation with my wife impossible. The waiter arrived wafting bonfire fumes of recently burnt tobacco and whispered the specials inaudibly to us so we decided spontaneously this was a mistake and limited ourselves to a couple of starter dishes as my wife finally caved and admitted we should have just left town and gone to Square Grouper instead. Told you so.


The rich odor of burning rags announced the imminent arrival of two small glasses of eight dollar Tempranillo an inexpensive Spanish wine that packs no surprises usually. We sipped very slowly and waited for the duck nachos and scotch egg to arrive. The sun was setting and the view across Appelrouth Lane would have won no beauty awards in a travel magazine contest for Inspiring Sunsets I Have Seen.


The Quack Quack nachos, laboring under a nursery room name were a disappointment, a small dish of whole wheat nachos a big lump of inexpensive sour cream a few vegetable bits and some insipid gray pieces of greasy meat, it looked like the product of a Soviet military kitchen. Fourteen dollars please, hidden under a coating of cold grilled cheese. The scotch eggs were okay, three quail eggs hard boiled, coated in sausage meat and fried in bread crumbs. A Scottish delicacy, enough said. Eight dollars please. All this delight came to something close to fifty bucks with tax and tip. Phew! The music was still loud so we grumbled once we were back in the street and could hear ourselves think.


The whole Key West thing was such a bust we went to Square Grouper anyway just because, and had two six dollar glasses of Tempranillo, fried eggplant with goat cheese and fried calamari appetizers and took home a slice of peanut butter chocolate pie to eat with Netflix. Corey our waiter mentioned the place was closing for the month of September which made our decision to stop by all the smarter...


We mentioned our evening fiasco in Key West and he was interested to hear our take on Two Cents. "I was wondering why I hadn't heard anything about them" he said. I had hoped Two Cents was going to be the vanguard of a wave of new and interesting places to eat in Key West, but so far I'm disappointed with two visits under my belt and no more. I'm glad we have a few old reliables to fall back on but at a time when eating out is a rare treat I have no interest in wasting money on places that don't get the function of a restaurant, a place where the food and service represent hospitality and a welcome to a hungry traveler off the street. The number of places I trust to get that right I can count on the fingers of one hand. And I don't give two cents for the rest.



(Pictures taken at Ohio Key)

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Thursday, August 30, 2012

I Live With Coconuts And Jack Riepe Envies Me

I had a conversation with Jack Riepe yesterday and consequently he rounded up, apparently, his coterie of neighborhood lunatics to descend on this modest page and flood the comment section. For those of you who have not seen riepe's comment cohorts they are something to behold. That being the case I figured I might as well hold this essay over a day in the hope the fumes from the comment section will dissipate into the ether and not into my pink clad iPad. I encourage you to go to his website and order several copies of his book, at www.jackriepe.blogspot.com I have ordered my copies and look forward to reviewing it here when it arrives. His previous effort was a great read and he assures me this new book is his best effort yet.


One thing I didn't do properly when I was preparing for Tropical Storm Isaac was to knock down my coconuts before the strong winds arrived.








My home is surrounded by mature trees loaded with nuts and in a storm they can become lethal missiles.






I lack the strength agility and skill to climb a coconut tree like one sees in residents of other Caribbean islands so about seven years ago I popped down to the hardware store and bought one of the best most reliable tools ever:







It extends about twelve feet and as hard as it is to wield at that length, this venerable tool can still cut down the nuts from a great distance and I'm lucky because my home has a wide balcony wrapping the entire house. The wide wood balcony makes it easy to put up hurricane shutters and to trim encroaching trees.






I am not a fan of power tools as they need care and maintenance and they make noise and they smell too. So instead I use a machete. I don't care for sports either so we have no need of TV reception which leaves me behind in the red blooded masculinity stakes. Instead I wield a machete and I have a whetstone to keep a blade on the big knife.







Coconuts aren't native to the Keys but they are ornamental and tourists expect to see them in these sub-tropical islands. They produce tons of fronds and lots of nuts when mature. Coconuts in the wild don't look much like the brown hairy orbs you can buy in first world supermarkets.






I like to drink from my nuts while working in the heat and to do that I rest the coconut on a brick and hack the pointy end with the machete. The coconut comes from the tree wrapped in resilient fibers which cover the nut and the meat inside the hard shell. In decades past copra, the white meat was preserved to make coconut oil which has fallen into disfavor in much of the first world.






The brown nut is hidden inside the fiber. Normally I clip the fibrous covering from the pointy end and cut the nut to access the water inside the meat. For clarity I've stripped the outer fiber from this entire nut:




Inside you'll find maybe half a pint of water and it tastes sweet and refreshing. I've tried mixing it with ice and rum or vodka or gin but I find it tastes best direct from the nut.






The fresh meat is sweet and very filling. For those that care you can grate it and dry it and call it copra. Below we see a professionally trimmed tree, as ordered by some snowbird sitting out hurricane season Up North.





I've been told that cutting all the nuts at once off a tree can weaken the growth of the trunk leading to bendy weak spots in the tree, like this:



In the event I've got some time before the next storm to cut my coconuts down but I'll probably procrastinate a bit before I deal with them. That's living with coconuts.




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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Hurricane Tool

I realized last week as I was starting to prepare for the arrival of the tropical storm that I could use a new tool in my preparation arsenal. In fact it was long overdue: the humble hand truck.


I ordered it last Friday at the Ace hardware store on Summerland Key and it arrived yesterday morning, $35 and sturdy and simple as I wanted it. You can get trucks with all sorts of bells and whistles but when I was an LTL truck driver I came to depend on my hand truck and I learned then that sturdy and simple are the qualities most necessary when moving stubborn weights around. Cheyenne agrees.


It's dreary but the truck was made in China, Taiwan at least but not in the US, as usual. The Republicans seeking the presidency worry about our religious beliefs and denying us abortion and health care, yet full employment? What an esoteric uninteresting concept!


Some assembly was required, a wheel two washers and a cotter pin, easy enough.


Except - I had to leave out the inside washer on the second wheel as the hole didn't line up...I was rather relieved as the Chinese made hand truck was slightly defective. I'd just read a glowing review of the new CFMoto 650 motorcycle coming from mainland China and I was glad to see even a simple hand truck from the Far East isn't perfect. I have no doubt they will swamp us eventually with I industrial products made properly but not yet.


Even with only three washers the hand truck made everything simple as I moved the garden back to it's proper place.


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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Riding For Fun

I faced a long ride home from Tennessee so I started out heading south on the freeway, where I stopped and came across some real horsepower in the parking lot of a gas station.



Hmm, I thought, they look cute peering out of their box. I hardly noticed the column of thick black smoke in the background.



Years ago I learned that typically gray smoke is from a natural source but black smoke usually means something human made is disintegrating. When I was a reporter I was attracted to black smoke. In this case a truck wrecked and caught fire and as I aimed my motorcycle at the freeway onramp I was redirected by a local dude on an elderly yellow Goldwing. He pointed me down a delightful tree lined state highway as the best detour. He was right.



My turn off was Federal Highway 129 which theoretically would carry me from Knoxsville across western North Carolina and through north Georgia to Atlanta where I would end the fun and pick up Interstate 75 and so south to Florida's Turnpike 400 miles south of Georgia's capital.



Highway 129 is a marvel of delightful road engineering. It's most famous as a section of road known as The Tail of the Dragon through Deal's Gap, astride the Tennessee/North Carolina state line. "Not suitable for trucks"...oh yes!



I paused by the lake to tighten the Bonneville's final drive chain. All of which took ten minutes out of my life as I pulled out tools and a tarp and lazed in the sun fiddling with greasy nuts and bolts. I wanted the Triumph in perfect shape for the ride over Deal's Gap.



This was my second visit to the Dragon and it remains as elusive as any an experience to relate in words. I know there are many many fun roads in this area but the estimated 318 turns on this eleven mile stretch are the adult equivalent of a motorcycle roller coaster. I stopped and turned back a few times and played like a child.



There is an overlook at the Tennessee end of then road and I joined some other sight seers.



A couple of modern classic Ducatis looked lovely.



This kid and his high maintenance wife talked with me for a while about his bargain Goldwing, bought for $5000 and complete with cupholders radios and with room enough he said winking, for a barbecue grill!



This was the spot to enjoy the scenery as I had no desire to join the distracted who manage to enliven the Dragon all the time with their sudden off road antics. Deal's Gap is delightfully free of guard rails and safety signs and all the paraphernalia of road warnings. You are on your own.



The state line at the top of the hill is less than a half mile from the end of the road...



...at the junction of 129 and state highway 28 which meet at the gas station and motel which is famously motorcycle friendly.



I liked the note which explained how to pump gas for motorcycles as though cars don't exist in these parts.



I have an ambition to spend a couple of nights here and devote myself to riding the Dragon early and late before and after the hordes arrive. One day next year perhaps.



Against all expectations I like this place. It is spoken of so much one arrives never expecting it could live up to it's overblown reputation. But it does and the road is great fun.



Just because Deal's Gap was at my back doesn't mean the twisties were done, oh no. I had a full afternoon of spirited riding ahead.



Highway 129 in Georgia was a revelation. I had no idea the northern part of the Peach State was such a divine motorcycle ride. I was having so much fun winding down through the three lane highway I could not bring myself to stop, hoping Wikipedia would come through. This winter picture gives a small idea of the winding road I was riding, two lanes on the uphill, one lane for the downhill.



It was a great ride all the way to Highway 19 for Dahlonega, the Moto Guzzi pilgrimage site for the southeastern US.


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