Monday, March 8, 2021

Staying Aloft

It is a Sunday in the height of the winter tourist season. Highway One is packed and Key West is busy, and in a couple of weeks my wife will be fully vaccinated. I hardly dare say it out loud but we are thinking about taking an evening out. Masks, caution and all, but yes, an evening out. I feel slightly apprehensive and not a little surprised. Wearing a mask and staying distant are the new normal.
It's odd how humans adapt to normal. That tired old story about heating water up slowly to boil an unsuspecting frog is not actually true according to scientists who've tried according to James Fallows in a slightly dated 2006 opinion piece in The Atlantic magazine. However what does seem to be true is that if we are required to live with a  previously unimaginable inconvenience we can get used to it. I wear  a mask reflexively nowadays and when eventually it may become no longer necessary I shall feel slightly odd.
People call me at work demanding to know by what authority Key West requires outdoor masks and these Facebook lawyers want to engage with me in arguing the validity of the rules. They are finding out what lesser mortals have known since the beginning of time: you can contest the rules but even if you are right you may end up spending money and time to prove it. None of these Facebook lawyers seem ready to be the Rosa Parks of the anti face mask movement. They just like to argue with me, a mere civilian with no authority over anything about mask wearing and who is not going to joust about the rule making decisions of city management.
I cannot wait for masks to be history.  Next I propose we take to Facebook and argue that stores cannot require us to wear shirts. I can think of nothing more important for the Supreme Court to get tangled up in. I demand to see nipples while shopping. I mean really, people who could even be your neighbors are very peculiar;  they don't mind the chance of spreading infection to make a political point as stupid as my fictional demand to indulge in shirtless shopping. I like the fact my retirement home has wheels to allow me to move to a safe distance as needed. I don't really want to be given Covid by my neighbors, not even were it in a  sound political cause which it isn't.
When I was a youngster I craved a motorcycle like this elderly BMW, the touring monster of the 1970s and 80s. They still make a version of the air cooled flat twin, though much more sophisticated, heavy and yet perhaps relatively speaking not so much more expensive. It was too much money for twenty year old me and most likely it was not a chick magnet which matters at that age, though I was always of a more practical bent seeking to complete journeys with no mechanical troubles as a priority over even dating. Looking at the machine parked in the Meadows in Key West I was reminded of many journeys undertaken in my youth on unsuitable, but affordable, motorcycles.
I brought my last remaining motorized two wheeler to Key West on Friday, a 17 year old Vespa 150 which we've owned since almost new when the previous owner lost her nerve after 200 miles and put it up for sale not a mile from where we live now. When my wife advertised it on Facebook she got an avalanche of offers much to my surprise.

I quite enjoyed my final 23 mile ride in the afternoon sun, keeping up with traffic on Highway One, thinking about journeys past. My wife who was following  a few miles behind in the car, was, she told me, freaking out the whole way. The only ride she could think about was my near fatal crash in 2018. She was glad when I parked the Vespa at work and got in the car with her. I'm supposed to meet the buyer tomorrow or Wednesday to sign away the title at the Tax Collector's office. And that will close the motorcycle chapter of my life which started when I was 12.
I may buy an old age motorcycle when we finish traveling but this will be the first time since 1971 that I will be motorcycle free with intent to stay that way. Oddly enough I feel fine with the choice. The van is even less sexy than an elderly practical BMW motorcycle but I can tell you unequivocally it's a lot easier to park and sleep with a van than it is grubbing around in inconspicuous bushes with a motorcycle. I think it's true that in old age you seek comfort more than you do as a youth. I certainly do.
We spent Friday evening emptying the van, putting foods and clothes and camping gear upstairs in the air conditioned house. The idea is to prevent mold and to allow the van to circulate air inside the vehicle during the hot summer months. We are so understaffed at work this year I am doubting I will get a three week vacation but if we do get time away we shall simply restock for each trip. We have a pretty good idea by now how to load the van for long term living but taking stuff out gives as un opportunity to re-evaluate exactly what might be worth not taking with us. One of the great things about change is the opportunity it forces on you to think about what you own and why. We are jettisoning stuff like a dirigible dumping weight trying to stay aloft. It feels good and it makes the journey feel closer. No more motorcycles, for now.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Birds On Sticks And In Flight

Sunday needs not many words. 
I gathered a few recent pictures of birds.
Four birds, the fourth is camouflaged:

Florida Keys
My camera is not ideal for BIF -birds in flight - and were I to want to be a wildlife photographer I should get a proper set up. I take these pictures merely to serve my pleasure in seeing Nature at work.
The emptiness of the mangroves which I love is heightened by the occasional bird at rest.
Not all birds are completely benign, ospreys lurk... resting between fishing trips. 
And turkey vultures take wide sweeping circles looking for dead meat.
White phase herons have light legs, egrets have dark legs. You decide.
Pelicans, slow and measured in flight like big amphibious airplanes of old.
This one below is a frigate barely visible, carefree above the line worker.
I think these are palm warblers if I got my identification correct, gathered like a choir ready to warble at Old Bahia Honda.


Saturday, March 6, 2021


For a change, I said to Rusty, we are going to walk New Town. He looked dubious. What? He said. No alleys? No empty bottles, no abandoned pizza? The list went on. No I said, just an abandoned department store.

Sears opened in Key West on November 4th, 1965, to celebrate my father's birthday. Not  really ( do I need to say that?) but it did open new vast vistas to residents of Key West hungry for fashions and discounts and the ability to touch tools before you buy them. There had been a catalogue store downtown before the actual store opened bringing the products right to the shoppers. I rather think the death of Sears, a store that never adapted to the 21st century, affected a  lot of people who paid attention to history. They were the Amazon delivery service across this country as it grew and developed in the 19th century. The Sears Roebuck catalog connected homesteaders across the West to civilization in Chicago. Who needed the internet to carry out e-commerce?  

Walking past Outback, one of my favorite restaurants in Key West, fast clean not expensive and friendly, I noticed a pair of clean feet. Not I suspect a denizen of the streets, but most likely a feeble one night stand drunk unable to shuffle all the way home.  I get lots of calls at work from people missing family members who don't come back after a  night out. Sometimes I say gently, alcohol in this town gets the better of good intentions. Oh no they say, shocked, she isn't like that! Not Up North she isn't I think to myself but Key West gives people license to behave in uncharacteristic ways. Luckily this isn't a violent town and the aberrant drunk always comes back to the hotel bleary eyed and embarrassed the morning after.

Rusty was wrong and he liked wandering around the shopping center. I think we might do this again.

The driver and vehicle licensing center used to be on South Roosevelt near the airport. They moved to Searstown which I think is a better location. I go to Marathon to do mine ever since the county closed the part time substation in Big Pine. I find the staff in Marathon quite friendly and easy to work with. Mind you Florida gives you six years on a  drivers license and will renew you by mail if you have your real ID star and no tickets. Pretty simple.

These days for some reason not known to me Publix has two stores in New Town. We call them (with some imagination I think you'll agree) New Publix and Old Publix. These designations are losing validity in a town with a  transient population and we are having to move to the K Mart Publix and the Sears Publix. And now Sears has gone kaput. I wonder what we shall end up calling Searstown after the passage of a few years?

Searstown was a big change for Key West in the 1960s. After Henry Flagler built up the north shore of the island for his railroad in 1912 what you drive on and call North Roosevelt Boulevard has become part of the fabric of Key West. The salt ponds that were trapped by the new rail line were turned after fifty years into a shopping center with all modern conveniences and the lonely road that followed the line of the railroad tracks now found itself the main artery to the new in town shopping center. Sears transformed Key West.

We don't think about the expansion because the island would seem to have contained all the land you'd ever find here. But in the 19th century Key West had a stable population count around 12,000 all crammed into the corner of the city that faced the water. The African American community was pushed to the back, away from commerce in what we now think of Bahama Village though that neighborhood was called rather less complimentary names in the past as you might imagine. There are still old timers who call the police talking about "Black Town" and I have to button my lip and take the call. Er you mean Bahama Village? and they ignore me. 

The eastern end of the island was a dairy farm and open space until development happened and the Conchs downtown wanted modern ranchette homes with dry roofs and air conditioning and garages like normal America.  They got them too, leaving the African Americans downtown to watch the invasion of outsiders who thought clapboard wobbly wooden homes were cute and transformed them into guesthouses. The Navy pulled back from key West about the time Sears was built and Duval Street fell into disrepair. The whole island pivoted to the new sohpping center.

A modern multi screen cinema! Competition too for the drive in on Stock Island and the greyhound racing and the cock fights. Modern America was coming to the southernmost city. The Regal was refurbished right before the pandemic shut it down. Then a car crashed into the steps and wrecked the handrails. And now it looks like this. 

It all feels like a symbol of the changes we are going through in how we shop and entertain ourselves and live in isolation that we all fervently hope will end soon. I wonder will these places reopen? It seems inconceivable that they won't.

Around the back is a stretch of Northside drive, with low income housing opposite the scenic rear of Searstown, it's trash dumpsters and loading docks. Key West doesn't have land to spare if you want to operate a modern city here. When I visit the mainland and take Rusty for pre-dawn walks in shopping centers there I am always surprised by the expansive nature of commercial construction with landscaping and broad avenues to drive delivery trucks upon. Not here.

Mariners Cove above was built to provide affordable homes for people connected to the sea but that restriction has died out with time. All that's left is the name. Below you can see Publix gearing up for another busy day. When I worked nights and drove home at 6am three Publix trucks were usually strung out n formation on the highway going home to Miami after making their Keys deliveries. They drive fast too so if you couldn't pass them, or didn't need to pass them more likely, they pull over  at one point on the highway and reset their logs with a rest break near Sugarloaf School. Every day the same routine that keeps the Keys supplied. It makes you understand how dependent we are on the Overseas Highway.

Further along Northside Drive there is the back of Stadium Mobile Home Park, a collection of a couple hundred trailers, homes for the working classes that keep Key West functioning. 

The trailers are as far as I understand it owned by the occupants and rent the land in some sort of condo system. You will see trailers for sale around $20,000  sometimes which seems unbelievably inexpensive in Key West. The thing is you are living cheek by jowl in accommodation that has often seen better days. 

In much of Old Town Key West houses have little or no offsets. Stadium is the same if not worse. Parking can be an issue, street parties can annoy neighbors and in hurricanes mobile homes are the first to be evacuated. By Key West standards this is as affordable as living on land can get.

Overnight sleeping in your car isn't allowed in Key West, hotels need the income. Vehicles over 20 feet aren't allowed to park on city streets. All this is known to city residents and they watch like hawks, ready to call 911 if they spot a midnight violator. In summer sleeping in your vehicle is a feat of strength, take it from me who has learned to run his air conditioning all night off his batteries in his camper van.

When it opened Key West Sears had the biggest sales of any store it's size in the country. It had a monopoly along with Winn Dixie selling groceries next door. 

Sears was the store that managed everything, sales of course but also appliance repair including home service and a beauty salon with latest fashions. Developer Ed Knight was responsible for convincing Sears Roebuck to open a store in this small town and he piggybacked the shopping center from it.  And now it's all gone.

Back to the Triangle, where US1 turns into North Roosevelt Boulevard which  creates a triangular three way intersection. There we find the endlessly slow traffic lights and the road out of town on a modern well marked highway.

Friday, March 5, 2021

The Painted Quarry

I look back over decades spent walking the mangroves and I find it astonishing I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I have met people on the trails. This thought came to me last night when a strange woman waved at me from her bicycle. You looked puzzled when i waved at you my neighbor said to me later when I was at home. I had dutifully waved back at the brightly dressed woman on a blue bicycle with no clue it was Paula. Silly me.
Then up the trail I was wandering looking at dead white buttonwood trunks when a flash of artificial white illuminated the trail. A man's shirt I thought to myself, the gender of the occupant given away perhaps by the size of the cloth through the bushes, accompanied by a yellow dot - a dog apparently. I looked back from my buttonwood exploration and no one was anywhere to be seen. The sight of Rusty and I convinced another walker that the trail was reserved for my pleasure. Good man, leave me alone. I don't know what the world is coming to when winter visitors think they can explore my trails at will. 
Clearly, in case my taste for irony escapes you these trails aren't mine at all and I don't drag trash out here to burn it. Nor do I spray paint abandoned cement pipes, nor do I stage them as a secluded paintball field but I do enjoy visiting from time to time. There is a sensation of abandonment out here, all these signs of chaos and urban guerillas chasing around the cement yet when Rusty and I come out to listen to the wind we are alone with the merest hint of traffic on Highway One a mile away across the mud and mangroves.
I don't really see the point of dragging spray cans out here to inscribe these big cement tubes in the middle of nowhere but I suppose art must have it's outlet, even if the art in question is nihilist and of dubious originality.
Rusty and i walk, he sniffs and I make pictures and leave no trace. I once did meet a bunch of all terrain vehicles out here, mud warriors trying to pretend they are in some vast expansive woodland filled with gnarly trails and then they cross paths with an old man in Crocs and a dog who watches them from the cover of mangroves they could never hope to penetrate. A wave and they were gone. Never seen again.
Last spring I saw a pick up truck parked at the entrance to the trail and indeed later I found his camp, clearly visible from the trail and he left behind a mess of pallets, household trash, bedding and the like. It was not a good time to be living in the mangroves with much rain and mosquitoes and I don't doubt he was was not a happy human playing at boy scouts but he should have had the common sense to clean up. Trash engenders ill feeling.
There was a time in the Keys as everywhere else, when these spaces were considered "wasted" if not dedicated to human use, so the best use was to dump crap for free among the mangroves. They didn't do things by halves and i have found old cars,  a Volkswagen bus, a school bus, numerous tires, a cement mixer and on and on. Including this old trailer with a  load of tiles of all things. Just dumped and left to rust and get covered in graffiti. 
These areas were slated for development before attitudes changed. Developers bought the swamps, advertised vacation plots for sale to northerners stuck in snow storms and in an effort to make the uninhabitable useable they tried to suppress mosquitoes. You may remember the bat tower which was destroyed on Sugarloaf by Hurricane Irma. That was a natural mosquito killer plan developed early in the 20th century to have bats eat insects except they hated the neighborhood and left.
Here we have two pictures of gambusia trenches. You will find these all over the back country in the Keys. The bad news is you can trip in them and your fat Labrador can get stuck in them (I miss Cheyenne sometimes) and they are full of mud so when you pull her out you look like the survivor of a very  gruesome disaster. The good news is the rock chewed out of the ground to make them is piled alongside in low berms and if you get three feet up you suddenly get much better views...of flat green mangroves. The idea was to fill them with gambusia fish that eat mosquito larvae and hibernate in the mud in dry season.
Grand fail. But the trenches are left  as are the berms and look what you can see if you are five foot six and suddenly elevated two extra feet. I told you the views here aren't really extraordinary if you expect the Grand Canyon or Yosemite. 
I was out walking one day a few years ago and I heard the sound of a motor purring through the bushes. Imagine my surprise when a gray Vespa 250 came bouncing round the corner. He was cheerfully negotiating the mud and rocks on his $6,000 scooter and we stopped and chatted for a second. He seemed surprised when I told him the trail didn't go anywhere and didn't change much. I rather admired his nerve; I have never gone blindly off road on my scooters in the mangroves. I really do enjoy walking!
I saw Keys Energy improving the electrical lines on the hurricane resistant cement poles. Its a bot early in the year but already this winter we've had a trickle of people coming to the police station looking for hurricane re-entry usual response is "Do you know something I don't, any storms coming?" Being prepared is a good thing but I find that sort of level of preparedness a little unnerving. I think this year I am going to evacuate if they will let me. I never have since 2004 and I think I'd like to try it especially as I have the van. I have to confess a week in the van in the Blue Ridge sounds a lot better at my advanced age than a week in the Keys with trash everywhere and no lights. My last hurricane season I hope.
Never mind hurricanes, never mind the noisy busy world that awaits. Rusty needed to sniff and I needed to enjoy the moment.

Some parts of the back country aren't trash and some aren't even marked by the passage of people, they are just patches of color and light. As the trails should be.