Monday, December 24, 2012

Key West Christmas

It's difficult to know whether one should be smug or miffed sitting in the sun wearing shorts, listening to the silence of a neighborhood filled with the absence of sounds created by temporary neighbors working off their party hangovers. On the one hand it's always pleasant for a lizard be basking in summer sunshine during the winter solstice, while on the other hand the less reptilian side of myself is forced to admit Christmas isn't properly defined without a chill in the air. This year we got both, so as usual the Florida Keys come through for the weather impaired, warm and bright for those of us that need it, and chilled and cool for the traditionally inclined. My canal side dock looked warm and sunlit but it felt like a cool day on the windswept steppes
Sitting at home wrapped in blankets on the couch sucked a fair bit. I was reluctant to turn the heat on as the heater coils in the reverse air conditioning get dusty from disuse the rest of the year and they give off a distinctive "singed cat" smell when you fire up the heat the first time and as my wife, who chills more easily than I, is away I figured tea and blankets would do. Besides I just received Jack Riepe's new book so I had something worthwhile to read.
It felt like a proper Yule to me, cold and wearing socks on the frigid bamboo floors, wondering if the sound of palm fronds rattling windily on the gutters is the equivalent to snow clumps tumbling off pine needles. I had promised to work some overtime Saturday night so I made a plan. Instead of tearing myself away from a snug nest of warm blankets at nine o'clock at night I determined to go to town early, get a sandwich and watch a movie and then amble over to the police station, put in four hours to cover lunch breaks for my overnight colleagues and to help with the midnight flood of calls and then ride home in the glorious cold dark of the empty Overseas Highway.
The thing about Christmas in the Keys is you can't avoid it. For some people the electric icicles are a celebration of their escape from the real thing. For others the fake snow and palms decorated like pine trees are ironic statements while a third group decorate with nostalgia and longing in their hearts. For my part as averse as I am to the whole Season of Goodwill and it's commercially induced stress I enjoy the light show wherever I find it and ignore the unspoken messages inherent in the celebration of snowy winter in a place where winter is a pale imitation of its Nordic frigid self.
There are the usual complaints in the paper about the lack of Christmas decorations in the city leading to inevitable declines in visitor numbers leading to loss of city income followed by visions of bankruptcy and social disaster. Ho hum. The Citizen's Voice is always hijacked this time of year by the winter snowbirds who rejoice in their four month long Bitch Fest about everything that should be changed in Key West to make the Southernmost City more closely resemble the dullard conventional towns they have left behind for the winter. Parking, bicycles, road construction, noise, drunks and irritating neighbors. It's a wonder anybody wants to spend winter in this nasty little town instead of enjoying the civility of Kansas or the industriousness of Duluth or the personality of Peoria. I sigh and remind myself to live and let live. Check this inventive, grounded, city-specific celebration of the season. By day:
After dark:
Tell me this celebration of the season, combining proper Christmas colors with artifacts of the city's commercial fishing and boating history isn't clever and sentimental and worth all the plastic dangling made-in-China Santas you will find in most municipalities? It's too bad the commercial fishing has gone to Stock Island but you can't have everything.
People laugh at me when I complain the temperatures have dropped to the mid sixties or upper fifties while they quote appallingly low figures from the towns wherein they are stuck, moving by snowmobile and husky. You would be surprised if you came to Key West in the middle of a cold front expecting me to be full of shit (yet again). I have heard many toughened Northerners admit temperatures here feel much colder than the numbers would indicate. It happens over and over again as visitors find themselves surprised by the unexpected viciousness of sixty southernmost degrees.
I think the frigid nature of the cold fronts cans be explained in part by the rampant humidity, the openness to the slightest of sea breezes, the nature of construction in these parts where homes are poorly insulated and geared towards the free flow of hot summer air. Besides, the human psyche is affected by the expectation of overwhelming heat whatever the time of year in Key West, city of eternal summer. You need to go further south, to the true Caribbean for that.
Winter catches all of us by surprise. While I was at work I got a 9-1-1 call from a small convenience store, and the clerk was severely agitated. I feared a robbery from the panic in his voice but I managed to help him articulate the problem as a fire in the store. I toned out the fire department while Nick sent a couple of officers for traffic control and soon enough we got reassurance over the radio. They had the heat on in the store and smoke was coming off the dust encrusted heater coils. "Singed cat syndrome," I called out to reassure Nick who laughed in sympathy. We've all been there if we've lived in the Keys for any length of time.
Some people love the cold of winter and I like the chill - at first. I enjoy the change of season and the first cold fronts. But winter lasts four months at least and it gets old. I work with youngsters who have never seen snow and they make expeditions Up North to find someplace where they can try out the joys of snowball fights like "normal" youngsters. One of them told me he felt gypped by snow. "It looks soft and gentle but it's nasty cold sticky ice disguised as feathers." I don't miss it at all; I thought Santa Cruz California was far too cold in winter, season of frost and mud blessed with an icy ocean year round.
They tell us Key West is a Caribbean tropical island, and it's none of those things. The Tropic of Cancer is sixty miles south of the Southernmost Point and when I listen to Havana's Radio Reloj (590 and 950 am) they report cold fronts sweeping the north coast of Cuba just like we have here and they are tropical! This little peninsula is well north of the true Caribbean so when I get tired of cold fronts I start yearning for the hot endless summer of Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands, or the baguettes of Martinique or the goat roti of Grenada. And yet...
Life is compromise, and the Key West compromise isn't so bad. The cold fronts aren't so cold, the traffic isn't that bad, the whiners remind us to be grateful and the convenience of not being an actual island is inestimable.
Happy Christmas wherever you are freezing your toes off, from the almost tropics, on an almost island, set in a sea which if it isn't Caribbean makes a pretty good job of looking like it.