Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Brigadoon By The Sea

It was brought home to me recently in a couple of conversations that I have had that "Brigadoon" is no longer a cross generational metaphor. Three people under the age of forty that I spoke with had no idea what I meant when I said Key West is like Brigadoon, the mythical town where time stands still and no one can leave. The fact that the younger generation has never heard of Lerner and Lowe doesn't alter the fact that Key West is becoming, in my own mind at least, a mythical town where the normal rules don't seem to apply.

I find it embarrassing when I talk to people (older or younger) in other parts of the country and I hear tales of woe. The economy is the ubiquitous lament and I hear horror stories of lay offs and cut backs and unlikely hopes for improvement. How's Key West? they ask. And I am forced to say, fine, and the truth is it makes me feel slightly embarrassed. How is it that Key West, among all destinations in the Sunshine State is seeing higher than ever tourist counts? It's true, Key West remains a prime draw, despite the fearsome recession/depression sweeping the planet.There is a lot of theorizing that goes into considerations for the whys and wherefores of Key West's success and my own belief is that as a destination Key West remains a great place to visit, the weather is mostly excellent and on top of those perennial draws Key West is also a safe reliable destination close enough to home with a touch of the exotic. Thus a habitual Caribbean traveler or a sun worshipper who might like the Seychelles can get some of that sunny beach pleasure here for a lot less money. Plus one can consider that for a Miami resident a car trip to Key West is a world away in less than a hundred and thirty miles. A weekend in Key West would cost a lot less than Madrid, or Rio or Cartagena de las Indias .

Whatever the reason they keep coming and bringing their money and Key West benefits from the attention. Which is not to say everything is perfect. Consider that had this recession followed a period of normal economic stability people would be feeling the pinch, but the last decade before the recession was a time of debt fueled boom so the depression today is a decided downer. There are homes in foreclosure and owned by the bank in these islands of course but not like the mainland. There are unemployed down here too, but many simply choose to leave the islands when they lose their jobs and go home to their families so statistics look unusually rosy. On the other hand Key West is a place that does have jobs, though housing remains exceptionally expensive, especially for renters. And the quality of places to rent isn't always great though frequently they are picturesque.The peculiarities of life in a small insular town at the end of a long peninsula aren't easy to explain to people who have never lived here and I frequently hear how other places are very similar. Not so, in my opinion. Key West's isolation makes life here an especially complicated dance. Consider something as simple as dating. I'm married so I hear the horror stories from those less settled than I, but the reality is obvious. A bad date can have a huge impact on a social life in a town where paths are constantly crossing. Isolated communities require particularly adept social behavior because if one violates the mores isolation and rejection is complete. You cannot simply drive thirty minutes to a new town, fresh bars and be a stranger in an unknown social scene. There is nowhere else to go and if a newcomer makes a faux pas the repercussions will be endless. I frequently note that Key West seems to reject some people and welcome others, apparently at random and in defiance of how much someone may think they want to live here.I feel lucky to live here, not least as the economy of our globally interconnected world crumbles. Contraction is the new social and economic order, not yet recognized by our leaders at large, and in Key West we seem to have a society uniquely adapted to our new circumstances. Social strata are poorly defined by status symbols here and a bicycle is as useful to a millionaire as to his residentially challenged neighbor. Key West's climate requires no heating oil, and vegetables grow in winter. It may be too hot sometimes for Cheyenne but for me endless sun and heat in an eternal summer is just what the doctor ordered.
So, in conclusion, how is life in Key West? The answer is, if you have a job you like, a motorcycle to ride year round, a partner you can rely on, and a few friends, life is awesome. Surprisingly awesome in fact. I'd recommend it whether or not a recession were mowing down the municipalities Up North. As it is perhaps Brigadoon's biggest drawback is that the legend doesn't allow one to leave. Ever. I'm lucky that for the first time in my life I am happy to be stuck in a job, in a routine, in a town with a healthy budget and no awareness at all of the misery sweeping much of the rest of the world. Long may it last, and thank you very much for the two percent raise, city commissioners. I will endeavor to spend it locally, right here in Brigadoon.


Singing to Jeffrey's Tune said...

Brigadoon. That is an apt name for Key West.

Well, in part I guess. In reading stories, listening to accounts, and watching films about KW in the 1960's-1980's, it was a very different place before big wealth came to town. Since I don't live there (nor did I then), it could be rhetoric vs. reality.

Question for you in regards to Key West rejecting people. Is there one (or a few) common threads where people gain acceptance? I am sure your wannabe readers would like to know (I might - but I have almost given up the fantasy of moving there).

Conchscooter said...

Things always looked better in the good old days. In 1981 at age 23 I found old key west to be excessively insular. San Francisco's bright lights appealed after years of living in the country. Nowadays I wouldn't mind Key West as it was back then, but I am thirty years older.
Broadly speaking it is my belief that to adapt to life in the Keys a working person (millionaires with secure wealth may skip this part) need to learn to adapt.
I tell recruits in the communication center the best way to survive is to spend the first year expressing no opinions and to speak only when spoken to.
It sounds draconian but in these islands you never know who is related to whom and expressing a negative or angry thought will label the new arrival as difficult and the reputation will be impossible to evade. It works on the street too. Come to Key West and tell people that there is a better way to do things -as we did it 'back home' - and you will be treated like a leper.
if you liked it so much Up North go back is a common grumble.
If you liked it here so much why do now feel the need to change it? is another.
I am counting the days till the snowbird hordes return with their need to re-arrange the islands to suit their mid western needs.

Anonymous said...

That's the same advice I give to people moving to Montana(plus please don't say you want a sales tax like you had in another state, we don't want the regressive tax).

No snow in the lower elevations yet. A cold 40 degrees at noon today. I took a hearty mile walk and could almost see my breath.

Can't wait until I land in KW in 13 days!

Bob from Livingston Montana

Chuck and the Pheebs said...

Yes - a Brigadoon.

The Pheebs found work in less than a month; decent pay with great healthcare benefits. I'm hearing we're down around 4% unemployment.

One must accept KW at face value. Comparisons to the mainland are the first sign the toxins one sought to escape are within.

You also have to accept everyone knows everybody. You're life is transparent. Not many make the jump from an isolated, dysfunctional life in tront of a flat-screen (I had someone from the mainland tell me they just couldn't LIVE without TV - how sick is that?) to a place were your life's intimate details are known by all.

Also - you're in regular contact with people who you may not agree with; people whose lifestyle does not match yours. if the sign on Island House, a gay men's resort, advertising "Hot Naked Sundays" offends, then maybe this place doesn't work for you.

Finally - it is NOT Margaritaville. It is a town with flavor, populated by people with texture.

captkeywest said...

Every now and then I am compelled to break into my archives...

first the poem; then the joke !

In 1997 this poem was reported to have been found in a trunk at a storage area on the Navy Base. Author unknown, this poem was written by a serviceman stationed in Key West during the War. When the brand new Sculpture Garden at Mallory Square was dedicated in late 1997 a time capsule was buried at the Sculpture Garden containing information info about what political issues were happening (Standard Time Capsule Stuff). Included was a copy of this poem and if they open the time capsule as planned in 100 years, people will again get to enjoy this authors work, Dated 1942

Beloved Key West

Key West, oh Key West you moth eaten town,
Your unpainted houses should all be torn down.
Your winters are damp and your summers too are hot,
The air is humid with mildew and rot.
The land of bad colds, of sore throats and flu.
Of stiff aching muscles, pneumonia too,
Your people dull witted and God, what a bore.
Your streets are filthy as spring now approaches,
This materially adds to your crop of cockroaches.

The home of side porches and bumpy thoroughfares,
With slovenly girls and their awful bland stares.
You live among roaches and don't mind the rats,
And all seem to thrive on mosquitoes and gnats,
You don't speak English, you talk Cubanese,
Inhaling sewer gas which you think is the breeze.
You make us pay double for all that you sell,
But after this war you can go straight to Hell!
And when you reach Hades and Satan greets you,
You'll feel right at home, for he's a Key Wester too!

Yes, Key West. oh Key West, it isn't all gravy,
To be plunked at your feet by Uncle Sam's Navy.
Have you ever wondered why none of us grieve?
Why all of us welcome the first chance to leave.
The worst of it all is you think you are swell,
You think that you are perfect - that gripes like Hell.
You're rotten, you're dead, and you think you're alive.
You think you're a place - instead you're a dive.
You're not worth this paper, you're not worth this ink,
You can take it from me dear old Key West, YOU STINK!


the Joke ..

A man from the Midwest dies and goes up to the Pearly Gates. St Peter says, "You have a choice. You can go up to Heaven or you can go to the Florida Keys."

"Well, let me see both," says the man. So St. Peter takes him on an elevator down to the Keys and when it stops, the door opens. He sees sailboats sailing across a beautiful blue ocean, people fishing and diving, swaying palms, and wonderful night life.

"Hey, this is cool! This is for me," exclaims the man. "but let me see Heaven just for the heck of it."

They take the elevator up to Heaven. When the door opens, the man sees people playing harps and sitting on clouds . Pretty boring he thinks.

"No doubt about it. I'll take the Keys," says the man.

So they get back in the elevator and go down. When the door opens, he's pushed out into a fiery landscape filled with brimstone and demons with pitchforks. As the Devil grabs him and leads him away, he screams, "I thought I was going to the Keys!"

St Peter calls back " You ARE in the Keys. But Yesterday you were a tourist. Today you're a local."

Chuck and the Pheebs said...

Good stuff, captain!

I'm in Guam right now, and that poem applies to 80% of servicemen and women around the world. They wish everything to be as it is in Wichita, or Omaha, or whatever place they're from. Seems to be a constant in the minds of the arms and legs of the military. I've heard the same lament from many a place.

The Keys aren't for everyone - for this I'm thankful.

Anonymous said...

The Keys are rather sparsely populated because they meet the needs of so few people. The desire to live close to family trumps geography for most people.

Key West happens to be one of the thousands of places in this world that people call paradise. I find that people who live in "paradise" and build part of their identity off that fact both common and incomprehensible.

The people in Omaha are not much different than those in Key West, Hawaii or Montecito. People are only truly different in East Goshen.