I have to confess, this winter as usual has got to me. Key West is not the first tourist town I have lived in but it is the first where local residents and visitors mingle so much. The difficulties of close quarters confinement with too many people is a known stressor and I am not immune. Not at all. Mostly I struggle with long lines of slow moving cars trundling the Overseas Highway into town. Not that big a deal when riding a motorcycle.
I like the train tour of the island because I enjoy history and I have an old fashioned curiosity about useless stuff that modern education eschews; stories that tell us about where Key West came from and how it was formed. Stories that have no pecuniary value at all. Except to the businesses that sell tickets and they make plenty of loot.
That's the constant thread that weaves the tapestry of Key West together. The interests of business versus residents sometimes seem to work in concert and at other times they seem to work against each other. The tension is at it's highest in winter.
In winter the three groups of Key West occupants, for want of a better term, jostle together in the very small space of the two mile by four mile island. Year round residents watch the snowbirds flock to town after the first winter blizzards Up North and together they wait for the hordes of vacationers who follow as the cold and the long nights Up North in turn get to them.
This city of 23,000 nominal residents gets an estimated 2.5 million visitors according to the Chamber of Commerce. Many of them come during the summer, families when school is out and Europeans on their annual holidays but winter is when the town bulges. And is crowding causes frustration.
Snowbirds generate a reputation for petulance, complaints about parking problems, bums and public drinking peak about now when the snowbirds start thinking of their summer homes waiting for them in towns and cities rendered closer to perfection by absence and distance and the presence of long lost grandkids.
Snowbirds create lines in restaurants and clog parking but more importantly they pay property taxes year round without homestead protections and limitations, but they use services just a few months in the year. And they know they contribute so that adds to the tussle between benefit and entitlement accruing from making those payments to the county tax base.
Cruise ship passengers are another bone of contention. Supporters say cruise ships bring cash in port fees and spending money ashore while detractors say the money spent strays no further afield than Lower Duval and the ships require harmful dredging and create horrible pollution that kills the reef and fouls the air and water. There is also the argument that Key West should cater to wealthy visitors and seeking to increase cruise ship traffic works against that proposal.
This is Spring Break season, talking of classy tourism (!), and my nights at work dispatching police and rescue are spent tending to the needs of drunks in all their public forms. Yet we have to remember that they too are another leg upon which stands the stool of the Key West economy.
Youngsters and oldsters riding scooters wildly and treating Key West street like a private carnival ride are another irritation. Tell that to the many operators of rental shops.
This guy, below, with the weird life jacket is going to his second or third job tying up or casting off cruise ships on the waterfront. A friend of mine has made a lucrative sideline out of this work which requires attendance at all the odd hours ships come and go. Like so much work in Key West showing up on time is the key to longevity on the job.
All these people, all this activity is why I ride my Bonneville into town every chance I get in winter. The ease of parking is a big thing and the pleasure of the ride too of course, from my little suburban home 25 miles out of town.
In all the calculations about cost effectiveness and value for money and peace and quiet the effect of the military presence in the Lower Keys cannot be forgotten. spouses work in the local economy which benefits from their access to military health care, and the bases offer technical civilian jobs for locals seeking a decent career in a town that lives off hospitality or the government to the exclusion of all else. Check out the clothing, all the protective gear and reflective gear on this rider and you know he's off a base.
I suspect I am mistaken for a rider off the bases as I commute in long pants, jacket gloves and helmet in a town that sees most riders in shorts and sandals.
I'm all about being practical on my bike, a place for everything and everything in its place when I ride:
So I expect I look like a visitor when I ride into town all loaded with luggage and gear, carrying a camera and a bright eyed desire to see and learn and enjoy. I'm going to leave the anguish about all the tourist and snowbird issues to the professional anonymous moaners in the Citizen's Voice. Sometimes Key West gets too filled with issues at the expense of too little pleasure.
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