Monday, September 22, 2008

Keys Living

I've been forced to ruminate on the question of how to live in the Keys and the answer doesn't come easily to me. People who read this blog want my advice on how or whether to move to Key West and I find myself unable to find an easy answer. I am living in the Keys pretty much by accident. My wife and I left Santa Cruz California by boat, we sailed here and stopped to make money and continue sailing but a funny thing happened. We liked it here, my wife's arthritis got bearable in the warm climate and we ended up selling our boat and our California beach house and bought our cabin on a canal well outside Key West. And to my surprise I found myself dispatching fire police and rescue for the first time in my life. A job which gives me lots of free time (rare in Key West) and the satisfaction of occasionally being able to help a stranger. Plus it pays enough I don't need a second or third job which is a common predicament in the Keys.My haphazard approach to starting a life in the Keys has the effect of causing me a fair bit of embarrassment. It seems ridiculously easy. Yet how can I advise others that this is the right place to be? It's worked great for me and my wife, but Key West is a strange place and it has a habit of rejecting people, especially people who dreamed and schemed of living here. How can I tell whether or not to move here is right for you? More importantly how can you tell? Here's a few clues: Do have a taste for adventure? How do you cope with the unknown? Are you ready to say goodbye to family and friends? Does your career matter to you? And now we find ourselves in that time of year when the leaves turn yellow and the breath starts to be visible Up North and a snowbird's thoughts start to turn towards Key West. And here I am, effortlessly floating along on a happy cloud of humidity and tropical funkiness. Oh lucky man, to quote Lindsay Anderson, though less satirically.

On the subject of satire I don't think the good Methodists on Eaton Street have really taken up adoration of the stars in the firmament. Even if they had there are tons of churches in Key West, alongside the tons of bars, and both institutions try to offer solace to the displaced and the lonely, of which there are far too many at the end of the road. This is a noisy dirty raucous town where living accommodations are cramped. My two bed, one bath home measures just 800 square feet (75 square meters approximately). And every summer I wonder if Mother Nature is going to huff and puff and blow it all to hell. My wife and I have Plan B, which is to move back onto a sailboat if we have a crisis that tips us out of balance and the mortgage becomes too much. Could you do that? Is your sense of self caught up in owning stuff, living in a big house, shopping in fashionable malls? How do you feel about the possibility of seeing your wheels underwater during a summer hurricane?

I wish I knew what the formula for Keys transplantation is, a measure of indifference perhaps, luck or top flight planning and a large bank account to help smooth the rough edges of the move. I've emigrated more than once in my life and I know that it takes a great deal to up sticks and move on, there has to be some powerful propellant, a desire to escape perhaps or conversely a need to see what's over the horizon. But the motive force, whatever it is, has to overcome a great deal of inertia, and that is no bad thing else the world's population would be in a state of constant upheaval. Unhappy childhoods only occasionally seek compensation by moving away. Most of them live out lives of quiet desperation, as the poet put it. Key West is where you come when you are firm in your mind that you want to put the quiet desperation behind you. All sorts of closets are thrown open in Key West. For me it's a year round motorcycling climate, and I have to confess I found coastal California too cold for me, which makes me a weather wimp of epic proportions, in a land where blizzards are to be expected over much of the country in winter.I find it enormously irritating when people established in some occupation or condition turn around and smugly affirm to the wannabe that "I was lucky, it was much easier back then." And now here am I affirming the same thing myself about making the move to Key West. It was easier a decade ago, not easy but easier. There weren't enough people to do the work, and if you had a place to live you were pretty much qualified for any job you chose. Not so now, the jobs have evaporated, senior people in government entities are sliding down the seniority ladder and holding on to positions vacated by junior people who have been laid off, in the cascade of evaporating funds. We live and die by tourism, and tourism likes cheap oil, and now we have lost the cheap. So where do we get our money when the tourism dries up? Our wealthy residents feel the pain much less of course and glad we are for that; they fund our theaters and our winter Arts events and we get carried along on their coattails. But this isn't a wealthy town for lots of people and we take our fun as cheaply as we can. Budweiser over Real Ale every time.Cheap entertainment: the Tropic Cinema, a marked improvement in the Key West quality of life scale I say. Modern Key West is modern thanks to the Web, satellite receivers, mail order, all the connections made electronically with the outside world that bring us closer to real life. But not too close. The allure of Key West is contained in those attitudes that make it so hard to live here sometimes. The relatively high cost of living breeds indifference to the finer things. Year round working folk don't take the time to recycle many of them, time is precious when you are always working and the extra steps to live clean and green seem like an unbearable burden. Political involvement is limited because backing the wrong horse can close your life down, and political activism takes time and effort. To live in key West means to survive with few options where people in mainland USA are crowded by too many choices. I have but one road to ride my motorcycle on, my neighbor has but a handful of stores to shop at; a decent job is a career for life, with no possibility of change and little chance of promotion. I would hate to recommend someone used to the variety and choice of Up North burn their bridges and "come on down." On the other hand I can think of no worse way to reach one's death bed than to have failed to reach out and at least try to grasp the dream. And most days I look out at the primary colors flickering in the sunlight and it feels all too dreamlike. Even on rainy days life feels expansive to me, you can still take it outdoors, whatever it is:
Imagine living a life where the climate is on your side, even at its hottest, it will be cooler than a hot summer afternoon in Cincinnati. At it's coldest it would be very tough to die of hypothermia. Imagine living in a world where no matter how odd or eccentric you were back home you are now a run of the mill upstanding citizen. In the Keys you dress up or dress down and suffer no judgement. You can be yourself in short which, if that is not a prospect too scary to contemplate could be liberation in its purest form. You get to ride the open road on your terms, and the question is, can you stand the freedom? Will you become just another southernmost alcoholic when the bars of the cage are thrown open?
My other irritant is people who think they can see into the future. I lay no claim to such powers but I am reluctant to imagine a survivalists' dream where the cogs of civilization have imploded. I don't doubt we will see huge changes. I expect the Keys will become more and more a restricted playground for the rich, and I imagine my future will be something like the workers' situations in super wealthy enclaves like Aspen and the Hamptons. I can't stand the fashion conscious enclaves of Miami already, whatever will I do when the really rich tie up their boats on my canal? Keep on keeping on I guess, for what choice do I have? I can't go back to the restrictions of the petite bourgeoisie Up North. When we decided to settle in Key West I told my wife we had found the next best thing to a California bowl of granola on the East Coast, full of fruits nuts and flakes. True, it was less so than my first view of key West in 1981, but it was still in our estimation eminently livable. In many respects I find Key West much more livable now than decades ago. Of course then I was in my twenties and looking for ambitious adventure, now I'm in my fifties and would be happy were Key West to revert to the sleepy fishing village it was then. But don't be fooled, that was a tough life, there was no money, there was much less stimulation of art or intellect in many respects, and those that came to live here lived a hardscrabble life fishing, bar tending, and telling tall tales. Nowadays the difficulty is measured differently, and in my opinion the rewards of freedom and self expression are greater even as they diminish elsewhere, crowded out by electronic entertainment and abundant accumulation of stuff. You can't accumulate much when you live in 800 square feet. And if this is the life you want, you and only you will have to reach out and grasp it. If it isn't and you have found peace wherever you are, consider yourself lucky. If you are still searching you have my empathy, and encouragement. If you are asleep on the sidewalk waiting for a date this guy knows your pain:

Life's a Joke that's Just Begun... W.S. Gilbert's words, not mine, but I try every day to appreciate the sentiment, so that when this modest life of mine is done I will be able in my last moments to console myself with the thought that I lived my life consciously, and struggled every day not to waste a moment. Key West helps me in that.


Singing to Jeffrey's Tune said...

I have thought on this subject many times. My thoughts have always come back to the "push" would be the hardest for (the "push" to pick up sticks). I have done a few times and each time it is different.

The part about adapting and that "Key West rejects" some people is intriguing. I think you hit it on the head. It is about lifestyle changes that most people are unwilling to make. Which is way people continue to diet, smoke, and drink. They cannot change their lifestyle.

However, I think people always want to do something different is because they are in love with the idea of change, not so much the willingness to change their lifestyle to accomplish the change. Which is why I think Key West would reject people.

Good advice though from Conchscooter IMHO. There is never a good time and things are never easy (or everyone would do it).

Janson said...

Great post -- and great blog!

In 1998, I very nearly moved to Key West. I'd wanted to for a long time and found myself at a crossroads, with most ties from my past severed and an open, unknown horizon before me. It wasn't so much a "Wouldn't it be great" situation -- but rather "Should I?" A battle of competing priorities. In the end, I opted for another road... ultimately to Oklahoma (of all places). But hey, that's where I met my wife, so ultimately it was the right call.

I still absolutely LOVE and adore the Keys, but am personally quite happy to simply visit (as often as I can). The road can lead to some unexpected places, if we're bold enough to keep scootin' along. And now I'm in beautiful Alaska, of all places. Another place I've long dreamed of living in -- and a place that is, for the most part, deeply gratifying.

And who knows. Maybe in twenty years I'll end back in the southern peninsula of Florida. You never know, that slippery trickster called The Future.

Zora Neale Hurston said it well: "You got to go there to know there."

Janson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Heinz N Frenchie said...

We enjoy visiting from time to time but could not imagine living there full time.

Heinz N Frenchie said...

We enjoy visiting from time to time but could not imagine living there full time.

Unknown said...

I lived there from the mid 70's to the mid 80's. We waited tables and bartended and partied like we were going to die the next day. I met my wife and moved to Charlotte NC. After Aids came through and took so many godd friends, the ones who stayed and lived, grew up settled down and prospered. Because of property value insanity down there most are very happy and well off. I come to visit about 4 times a year and see all of the changes, but still love it.

Looking back leaving was one of the stupdist things I ever did.

Life on foot, you've gotta love.


Orin said...

I've heard every time a house sells in Key West, a new millionaire is created. It seems that way all over the world; cities and towns that were once home to all kinds of people are being overrun by the wealthy, who inevitably manage to destroy whatever it was that attracted them in the first place.

Seattle is not immune. Being a native and longtime resident who was in high school when the billboard imploring, "Will the last person to leave Seattle please turn out the lights?" was standing watch on Pacific Highway South, I welcome the good that has come over the last 40 years--a more diverse economy, a greater connection to the outside world.

On the other hand, a laid-back, working-class town with a sense of humor and live-and-let-live attitude has become humorless, priggish and in many ways less tolerant. A place that was once famous for being cheap to live in is now very expensive. The 2- and 3-job phenomenon you mention is much more common here, as well.

I talk a good game about leaving Seattle, but I've tried three times and always ended up coming back. I guess for all its faults and pretensions, for me Seattle's still the only place that's ever felt like home...

Conchscooter said...

The properrty thing worked for us too as we sold our California house at sky high prices to buy a much smaller and "less expensive" house in the Keys. Development is staggering a bit right now, which is good, but this is just a pause before the next phase takes off.The keys have been discovered and the fishing village mask can no longer hide the outdoor beauty and mild climate of these easily accessible islands.
I always wanted to like Seattle because there is much to like, it is the most civilized US city in my opinion. But those gray skies killed me every time i was up from California(they hated my tags in Seattle! I always protested I was visiting not settling). Alaska fascinates me and one summer I shall go visit. But to live there? I am not tough enough, that much is clear. Fog, snow and drizzle appall my delicate sensibilities. Not to mention the weird seasonal outdoor lighting patterns.
I am at home in the Keys, much to my own surprise. After all these years of searching.

SalParadise said...

I had couple of vacations in the Keys. The last time felt like I had a glimpse of what it would be like to live there. But I know I just barey scratched the surface.Well your wonderful blog certainly gives me aother glimpse. At present I have no desire to leave my snug bode in the Hudson Valley where I ride my Bonneville and sail and snowboard. But if I did, I'd take your insights into consideration. I love the Keys! Don't change a thing while I'm gone.

Anonymous said...

My husband and I are considering to take a job offer for him at Key West. We visited KW about two years ago, and we loved it. Having said that, I know that living there is very different than just a weekend visit. I do not want to be the adventure pooper, but this is a serious matter.
I like to have family over to visit, but I feel like I'm going to be isolated there. I know hurracains, and I do not like to invest a big amount of our retirement savings on a property that might be destroyed or gone ever 5 or 10 years. In the other hand, We love diversity in every aspect, we are very friendly. Also love simplicity. We find walking barefoot on the sand energizing and even mandatory for balance and mental health.
Do you have any advise or recommendation for us on how to get all the possible perspectives on living on the Keys?

Conchscooter said...

My advice is don't burn your bridges. Rent, don't buy, leave your former life on good terms. Come to Key West with say ten grand and a well sorted car and be ready to burn it all. If at the end of it you can't stay consider it an experience and go home.
All the other stuff, friends and hurricanes and shopping will either fall into place or not. But the basics you can prepare for.