Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Real Keys

I was walking Cheyenne last weekend in the backwoods of Big Pine Key. As we get deeper into winter and more people show up around here it gets harder to find some outdoor space to be alone. In some fit of wild optimism I went towards the Blue Hole and found the parking lot was packed. Cheyenne weirdly enough wanted none of it, briefly sniffing in the bushes and backing up rapidly towards the car as more people clutching hydration bottles strode down the fifty foot path to the viewing platform looking as though they were seeking adventure in a place so arid there is no chance of convenience store water for a hundred miles. I looked for somewhere more remote and came up with a side street leading off into the pine woods. This truck reminded me of the character Doc Ford in Randy Wayne White's novels about Sanibel Island.


I know of another such operation at Bay Point, perhaps its part of this one I don't know, but when I read the novel featuring a collector of sea life I thought it sounded an impossibly unlikely career choice but there again in a world where people feel the need for indoor fish someone has to find them. I have never understood the attraction of watching fish swim around in one's living room, but there again I suppose watching a Labrador shed on your carpet is also an acquired taste...


Further up the street I came across a more conventional fishing operation, lobster traps and all.



There's a canal in the back with access to the channel and, like a farming operation this location won't bother residential sub-divisions. Fishing is the way most people made their living in these islands before the advent of mass tourism. Fishing has been pushed out of Key West and where these kinds of operations used to function now you'll see tourist cruises.
I like to eat fish though I heard a story on This American Life, doing the investigative reporting that strikes fear into the heart of dullard All Things Considered and the upshot of the story was that about half the fish you eat is not the fish you ordered. Indeed some restaurants serve "artificial" calamari made from unmentionable parts of a pig. That gave me pause. Even I have heard that some restaurants serve scallops made from sting rays which I find appalling. I see these small businesses and hope this reality is some insulation from the reality of fish sold under false pretences.


I have no desire to romanticize the life, partly because earning a living from the sea is similar to earning a living by farming, which is as hard as it can be lucrative and is always dependent on market forces and the weather, which are both out of the workers' control. As in farming where sudden frosts or floods wreck crops, in fishing cold snaps storms and so forth wreck catches, not to mention the high costs of fuel.


And yet, despite the fragility of the life and daily tasks people persist. I guess its a living for people who have trouble with school work or sitting still indoors. What appeals about it to me is that these kinds of yards, seen from Stock Island north, in ever fewer numbers, are a direct link to the past. This is the world Hemingway did write about when he wrote of Key West. These aren't mythical pirates or freebooters, these are people who live to fish and fish to live and you won't see them in Key West Bight. More's the pity I suppose, though smelly fishermen won't attract tourists. Or perhaps their authenticity or the authenticity of their catch might?
Cheyenne enjoyed the peace and quiet out here.






Anonymous said...

I think Randy's Doc Ford is, in a fashion, a homage to Steinbeck's "Doc" from the Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday and Tortilla Flat books. And Steinbeck's Doc was a homage to the biologist Ed Ricketts.

I really like photo #2--hope that way of life there can continue.

Rob said...

I fished for a living briefly when I was living in Key West. A friend of my dad had a small operation and needed help, so I'd meet him at dawn every morning over off 4th Avenue on Stock Island.

We did rod & reel mainly, and fished for yellow tail and grouper. For the handful of months that I helped him, it seemed that we had more bad days than good, but we caught enough for him to pay the bills. It was miserably hot, I got sick a few times from the diesel exhaust fumes, and it definitely was not glamorous, but that job is probably one of best that I've held.