Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Greatest Show In Town

Visitor: What time is the sunset?
Shopkeeper: About 7:45 this evening.
Visitor: Oh we can't make it at that time. Do they do it more than once?
Quick Witted Shopkeeper: Oh yes, the second sunset starts an hour later.
In Key West "sunset" isn't what the sun does each evening, sunset is an event, a circus, a parade where all are invited to show up at Mallory Square and supposedly watch the orb make its descent hopefully into the ocean, or at least across the roofs of Sunset Key, more prosaically known in history as Tank Island owing to its former incarnation as a storage area for the Navy. And boy, do the visitors show up, because sunset nowadays is big business and lucky for everyone the sun itself doesn't charge residuals on its appearances. This dude was making his home movie with but one object in his lense, I'm sure.I have mixed feelings about people en masse, but it would be churlish to mention my phobia in light of the fact that sunset at Mallory Square is a crowd. That's the point of the gathering, to draw in tons of people to mill around in a small space at the waterfront. And then sell them things. Oh and to look at the sunset, though people will wear their hats:Quite the Roman profile.

The story goes that the sunset celebration started as a bit of an ironic joke. It was the nice Mr Williams who came down to the docks, which in those days consisted of a bunch of rotting, collapsing warehouses on the western edge of town, and toasted the sun's bravura performance, as in all likelihood he himself was toasted, as it were. Because his first name was Tennessee he collected a bit of a following and in between meeting interesting sailors around town, he and his entourage started a Key West habit that has turned into this:The habit apparently got hijacked a bit in the flower power era when young travelers stopped by to sell their wares. A fond memory of a friend in California, a very proper attorney in Oakland, remembers wandering the Sunshine State in a van making a living trading trinkets. She gets a lost, misty look in her eyes when she tells the story of her hippy youth... And then there's the modern trader, doubtless checking the Citizen's Voice column. He's an old hand at sunsets apparently, and enthusiasm isn't his stock in trade.It is quite lucrative working Mallory Square, for some of the performers and traders. So much so there is a committee that runs the sunset celebration and assigns the spaces with some kind of a lottery, I believe. The acts are quite a mixture, some funnier, some more serious, a few are very capable and there are those acrobats that have managed to buy themselves a home and send their kids through college based on their takings at Mallory Square.People grunt all the time about how Key West isn't a family destination though you wouldn't know it from all the small persons littering the square:There's lots to see at Mallory Square and it's not clear who comes to see what. The Coastguard swinging low in a helicopter to check the crowd out got lots of attention from the grounded tourists:And for some tourists, local winged rodents merit attention when they are pecking the ground like their more famous fowl counterparts, the Key West chickens:Everything is new, exciting and different in Key West.

From the first picture it's clear the sun, even in Spring sinks barely to the south of Sunset Key, and in summer the orbit moves more to the north. Which means that if the objective is to actually see the orb sink into the sea there are better options, as Sunset Key will obscure the moment of impact for much of the year. A sunset cruise might be the better option if a view of the actual sunset is what is desired, or even a cocktail at the top of La Concha which does however, charge admission (for sunset! the nerve!). A visit to Mallory Square isn't quite on the scale of Piazza San Marco in Venice, or a visit to "see Naples then die," but it is I reluctantly grant, something a visitor should do once. I like sunsets on my own island, and that's my cue for a gratuitous motorcycle picture on my street, on Ramrod Key:Home sweet home, and be it ever so humble this is sunset just the way I like it:And yes, the opening lines do come from the mouths of babes and innocents and have been recorded from the mouths of Key West tourists, so I hope the joke can be considered my contribution to the saturnalia of April Fool's Day.