Friday, August 13, 2010

Danette's Key West

Maurice and Danette, visiting from Denver.Lunch at Azur, mimosas in the middle of the day set me back a bit. Alcohol and noon day sun cry out for a nap when mixed.I had managed to miss Denver and Danette on the epic drive home from California. Luckily I already knew she would be showing up in Florida for a vacation. And a chicken sandwich.I had long wanted to try Azur's Salade Nicoise and finally got my chance. My wife went for the Snapper Benedict that would have served the two of us all by itself. Actually we did share the dishes as required by Jewish marital law.We talked, Maurice it turns out works for the Denver school district so the conversation turned for a while on how it is to work in such a small district (Monroe County) or such a large one (Denver).Maurice it was who turned Danette onto vacationing in Key West and she has become an enthusiastic southernmost tripper. A teacher turned librarian the dream of living in the Keys is there, but Maurice hinted at the tight knit nature of family that will keep the wannabe Conch at home. Which is the best of reasons if you ask me. Being a nomad, I have always had a certain sense of envy in the face of people who find contentment close to one place all their lives.
It's hard to explain the peculiar nature of daily living at the end of a very long, very isolated peninsula. I failed in this case in my effort to reassure that life in the Keys isn't necessarily a universal panacea. I have noticed over the years how Conchs (konks, people born in Key West) cope with the close knit nature of life in the island city. They develop the ability to mask the aggravation of close human contact, they smooth over the surprise or vexation that a situation forced upon them by proximity may cause. Anger in a town where you will be passing each other daily is an unfortunate manifestation so good manners and reticence prevail, as much as possible. In a sense it is a holdover from a past era of greater good manners forced on all people everywhere, limited in those days by the immobility of the age of the horse as the primary form of locomotion. People all over the world didn't move much a hundred and fifty years ago, at a time when when Key West was new, and social mobility was a fantasy everywhere. You lived and died where you were born, for the most part. Nowadays anyone who grows up with a toe hold on the island tends to hold on tight and pass the toe hold down through the generations. Which, in the 21st century has become an unusual practice, with the advent of social mobility on the mainland. I have found it's some few irritated long term incomers who expect deference in their daily transactions with lesser mortals, those who had the bad taste to arrive after them, when Key West was at the zenith of it's earthly perfection, a status ruined by late arrivals. A conversation that starts "...I have lived here for X number of years..." doesn't usually end well in my experience. The speaker acts as though one is under an obligation to their longevity and though I am able to speak convincingly of Key West in 1981 when I first rode my Vespa here I find the whole condescending expectation of servility based on longevity to be rather annoying. Especially as Conchs don't usually behave so crassly in public. Unlike we immigrants they don't have to claim longevity, their place in local society is assured, behind a veil that hides them from us. It all makes for a society with a pecking order of Byzantine complexity, as immutable as time and secretive and complex as the Topkapi. Explain that to conch wannabes, if they even wanted to hear it. Key West's bland coconut filled facade is terribly seductive, and it is the goal most usually sought after by visitors. To consider living in Key West reequires a certain lack of ambition and a profound inner seeking after stasis. Key West has an odd habit of rejecting some people who come here to live, certain that they will find their place in the sun. Others like me who land here almost by accident find a quiet, unambitious niche, even without seeking it. The mountain dwellers left the wife and Cheyenne and I at the sidewalk. Key West, the visitor's paradise was theirs to explore for a week and I wished them well.

I think I should go mad were I to live here and wish to live somewhere else, as my time on earth is running out. I feel lucky I live where I like to be. I feel especially lucky to have a place in the sun where I don't impinge on the Conchs and rarely cross swords with the crass incomers and where my lack of ambition makes living in the Lower Keys a matter of tugging my forelock and collecting my pay check, and going home to behappy with with my family and those friends who may well have lived here a lot longer than us, but don't feel a need to impose their longevity on those around them. There are lots of these fine incomers if you are lucky enough to be able to discover them, and the loud, brash kind can easily be avoided. I find life here very good on those terms, and I pity those who come seeking to leave their mark on a self contained world that actually feels no need at all to know how things are done Up North. Of course nothing is as cool as when I first came to Key West in 1981, when everything was better, more laid back, friendlier and in general nicer...than it ever could be now with all it's new faces and crowds and blah blah blah. Come on down Danette, the water's lovely and there's always room for a couple more. No matter what the Turkmen in the Topkapi tell you. "Key West was great when I got here and now it's gone to hell..."