Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Duval By Night

It's the iconic neon sign that says Key West to visitors who come looking for history and Hemingway and all those cliches that sell the Southernmost City. Because I live around here I tend not to see that which is under my nose every day, it's what we all do when we live someplace where other people like to visit. You get complacent which was the thought uppermost in my mind when Cheyenne and I found ourselves strolling Duval at six in the morning.
I am not much good at bar hopping, I'm not good at small talk, I get my etiquette muddled up and I don't like noise. I used to like the Porch until it got loud and popular so my idea of a drink is a pint at Finnegan's Wake a traditional Irish pub with a decent selection of draft beers. I have never had a drink a Sloppy Joes or Ricks though I have manged to sit at the counter once at Captain Tony's. I prefer the modern bright bar a Braza Leña on Caroline Street where you can get bottled beer only and a plate of Brazilian grilled meats. It's ironic that I could go daily to bars that visitors look forward to visiting as a vacation treat.
I'm not a shopper and find myself astonished when I come across shops I've never heard of, like the iPhone repair shop above. At work, if I didn't have a computer with all the Key West businesses listed I'd be lost trying to figure out where many of these little Old Town businesses operate.
To me Key West is the best walking town in the world. I love the secret corners of this town, the stairs to somewhere, the alleys and pathways, the profusion of plants and the funny little signs.
They are all the oldest bars of somewhere as though age invested them with value. The funny thing is this place started out as Hemingway's bar and when Sloppy Joe had a falling out with the landlord he moved to a new bar that he named aft himself and that became Hemingway's favorite bar. They tell the story over and over and the bars all claim Hemingway's patronage. They sell beer in nasty plastic cups and sell trifles as souvenirs and everyone's happy. They don't miss me!
A couple of hours ago these streets were packed with revelers seeking out the Key West that sells itself so well. By the time the pink Crocs got on the scene everyone was off home sleeping it off and the janitors and cleaners and the happy Labrador had the place to themselves.
It was surprisingly cool for July after a lot of wind and rain had blown through and taken away the heat and humidity. I enjoyed myself doing nothing much more than trailing around after my dog who was in morning after heaven.
An hour after I passed through here the city's public works team had the place spic and span and ready for another day of frolicking.
Check this line of trash you suppose there are enough? Cheyenne was over the moon.
Flooding is a constant in Key West when summer dumps on the city and Charles Street got its share of puddles.
Smokin' Tuna has been around for a while on Charles Street and that's always a good sign. Colombian Grace, the newer restaurant on Petronia Street has gone and yet Salsa Loca, a Mexican joint with apparently no fixed address will not die, as it's now re-appearing on Petronia Street. I have no idea how people can start businesses in this economy and far less how they keep it going, but happily optimists abound.
Chickens are everywhere and they love to get their pictures taken. Like Hemingway the chickens are part of the history and myth of this town. Hemingway loved his home above Havana, Finca Vigia, "Overlook Farm" but put in ten years in Key west fishing writing and traveling. I may be wrong but I don't think Key West today would attract the great man.
Myth or reality? Who cares. Visitors come to get away and the same can be said of those of us who choose to live here.
My Key West is best before sunrise. Yours is yours to figure out, chickens and all.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

21st Century Road Food

I love summers in the Keys, the heat, the bright sun, the drama of thunderstorms, the empty streets and unlimited highway travel. And because I like it so much I also greatly enjoy taking road trips out of the Keys. The best trips are when the children are in school and their harassed parents are too busy to be clogging freeways and rest areas and back road access to interesting places. Unfortunately my wife is a teacher and her free time coincides with the little dears and their families' vacations so there is a certain amount of inevitable cross over.

Celo, North Carolina

My schedule allows many more spontaneous weeks off here and there in the year because I work a peculiar schedule, somewhat lopsided, a week of almost all work and a week of almost all off and I love it. Exhaustion followed by tons of time spent with my camera and my dog, the perfect schedule. So sometimes I get to go for a ride by myself and sometimes I get to take my dog to Pennsylvania to get my scooter rebuilt. So the long and the short of it is I have a lot more experience of being on the road than you might expect from someone who lives in a community pervasively opposed to taking a trip more than five miles from their homes.

When I am on the road alone, food is a tool and you know what that means, fast cardboard and caffeinated caramel water with fizz. Actually inconvenience stores are doing much better when it comes to choices, and though we can't get away from the whole packaged, transported and chilled lifestyle you can find apples and bananas at gas stations along with sandwiches made from bread that is at last trying to have substance.
I have traveled enough to know that it is decidedly different across the pond. However to be fair let's remember a couple of points. When you stop for road food in Italy you are eating products made in a country the size of Florida, more or less. Cross a border and you won't find any foods that resemble Italian food in Austria, France or Slovenia. Individual cultures produce their own foods and that's what makes travel in Europe so interesting. Yet here in the US you can find the same products from Key West to Seattle, equivalent to traveling between say Gibraltar and Moscow. That has its good points and it's bad points too.

The joy of travel here in the US is the natural grandeur, the simplicity of a uniform language and currency and a largely amalgamated culture. No passports, no language barriers and perfect freedom to drive uninterrupted, unquestioned and free from interference. The European Union has done a lot to break down barriers but they aren't the United States of Europe by a long chalk, which is great for us who visit. Also if you find a dish you like in Italy once you cross the Alps get your taste buds ready for everything to change. And in my opinion no one makes uniformly delicious food like the Italians. You may prefer French cooking and someone somewhere prefers German cooking to Italian cooking but that's not me.

Latitudes Cubano sandwich with sweet potato salad.

And you know what I find interesting? The US is catching up. This amazing country has proved over and over again it has the capacity to re-invent itself, that is the true meaning in my mind of American exceptionalism. This country has been corned for three generations and we are all suffering for it. It's not that corn is bad but too much of anything is bad and we are dying of an excess of corn. Corn syrup clogs every packet of ready made food and we are fat as a result. It's not just over eating, it's also eating too much processed food. And we eat it because scientists manipulate it to appeal to our bodies, not our minds. Salad doesn't stand a chance compared to manipulated fat sugar and salt. This problem is becoming world wide as multinationals spread the gospel of fast food. Slow food is the ironic name of the movement born in Italy and growing world wide to get people to eat well.
Roast pork and balsamic vinegar sauce in Reggio Emilia, Italy
The irony as far as I'm concerned is that technology is coming to the rescue. That sounds all wrong when you agree with me that techno-food is not a good thing, convenient yes and cheap too but not good. Techno food requires uniformity and quality is represented by consistency and repeatability. Technology is our friend. Look at this log, I couldn't do this without the energy that makes computing possible, digital technology makes photography affordable, at a very crude level I grant you, but this kind of picture taking works for me and Google stores my pictures for five bucks a month, virtually unlimited storage on picasa at that price. For next to nothing I have my own printing press. Amazing stuff eh? Technology is at our finger tips or on our heads if you notice motorcyclists riding around with tiny video cameras planted on their helmets making them look more than usually asinine. I am no fan of video, home productions bore me as the art is in the editing and I like still photography to highlight my words. If you don't believe me go to YouTube and search "motorcycling the Florida Keys" and prepare to be bored. Actually you've probably already done that and now you know why editors are such valuable technicians. Nevertheless I see lots of absurd looking video gadgets employed in the most unlikely places:
So now we all have the power of the electron in the palms of our hands (or the tops of our heads) and this has changed road trips for my wife and I. Our tactic used to be pick a back road, drive and look for lunch. Now when we want lunch on the road my wife whips out her iPhone and starts searching her various preferred websites. Hmm, southern soul food? Seafood? Barbecue? Vietnamese? And every single one of these places has a big sign in the window begging us to like them on social media websites.
No Name Pub, Big Pine Key

It used to be that tourist traps could survive based on one time customers and I'm sure there are still many dives that can continue to pull that off but as today's youngsters become middle aged and hopefully have money to spend, restaurants will have to survive in a Trip Advisor/Facebook world and that is already happening and destined to become the norm.

World class Thai food in a Brunswick strip mall, Georgia

On our recent journey to Asheville we took off on Highway 301 to take a break from the freeway and we stopped at a local restaurant filling with locals who had, judging by their formal dress, just finished with church. Oh good we thought, this place looks popular. It was but it wasn't terribly good, bland, unseasoned and apparently serving a crowd of hungry locals with no choice. Everywhere else was closed as we discovered after lunch and drove away through a somnolent southern town shuttered for a Sunday. We'd have done better to have stuck to Interstate 26 and looked for somewhere to eat in Columbia. Oh well, live and learn.

And the lesson learned is that in order to eat well, and sensibly and to support worthwhile local businesses we use our phones. Think about the power of the phone, not only is it a web search tool! It is also a reservation agent the old fashioned way with a call placed to the business, and then it is a guide that will lead us directly to the restaurant no matter how much it is hidden away in a suburban strip mall. Local five star secrets are exposed by smart phones and smart users. It amazes me.

Flakowitz Jewish Deli Boynton Beach,Florida

I know I am probably at the back of a long line of people who have already figured this out well ahead of me, but this new way of travel has the potential to make huge changes across the landscape of America. I hop we will move past the tired image of crappy food mass produced and uniform in every respect as the sole source of roadside eating. I'm not saying fast food has no place, because God knows when I travel alone...! But what I am saying is that we can support and sustain local kitchens in a landscape that has been overrun by uniformity. I know it's a quixotic thought considering how many visitors to Key West demand chain food, this in a town filled with quirky local stuff and pretensions to local ethnic cuisine (imagine that America!) so it's not going to be easy to change eating habits bit it's no longer required to live in New York Chicago or Los Angeles to find world class food.

And what the smart phone means is that interstates no longer need to be viewed as the road to hell. They aren't involving or even interesting but they are fast and efficient and can even be tasty. A friend of mine used to say you have to drive more than a mile from the freeways to find decent food to eat. That may still be true, technically, but you can find your way to a good lunch with no trouble at all these days and a twenty minute detour can be well worth your while. Especially as people you've never met will be giving you their advice over the Internet and like good neighbors, directing you well. What an amazing world we live in. Lucky us.


Monday, July 29, 2013

Key Weird

I found this commentary on Slate Magazine by Florida correspondent Craig Pittman. Its at Slate On Florida and you can find plenty of Florida commentary there. I figured you might enjoy the Florida perspective so I offer the essay here bracketing my pictures of the Keys.



A few months ago I was in Key West and happened to overhear a conversation that could have occurred nowhere else. An art gallery owner was chatting with a writer about a mutual acquaintance. The gallery owner mentioned that this person claimed to have attended the very first of the island's annual bacchanals known as Fantasy Fest back in 1979.

“Now remind me,” drawled the writer. “Was he the nun with the enormous plastic phallus? Or was he one of the dueling Joan Crawfords?”

What is the weirdest place in America's weirdest state? There is a strong argument to be made for the town frequently referred to as “Key Weird.” This is, after all, the home of a guy who routinely bikes around town wearing nothing but a G-string and a homemade stovepipe hat. It's a place where the U.S. Department of Agriculture got into a legal snit with the operator of the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum over permitting for the home's many six-toed cats. And it's the place where a legal dispute developed over a cache of valuable emeralds that one treasure hunter testified he found in the Gulf of Mexico by following a map he bought for $500 from a guy in a bar.

Key West tour guides love to tell the bizarre tale of Carl Tanzler, aka Karl Tanzler, aka “Count Carl von Cosel,” an X-ray technician who in 1930 fell in love with a tuberculosis patient named Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos. When Elena died the following year, he paid for her burial in an immense mausoleum he’d built. Then in the dead of night he dug her up and brought the corpse back to his home. He kept her decaying remains there for nine years until her sister found out. Put on trial for grave-robbing, he was exonerated—because the statute of limitations had expired.

Still, I have friends in South Florida who contend that Miami is far stranger than anywhere else in the state. They cite the case of the guys who carried a shark, bleeding and gasping for breath, onto the city's Metromover in the middle of the night, then ended up leaving it, dead, in the middle of a street. (A photo from the train wound up on Dave Barry's blog.) Believers in Santeria often leave dead chickens and dead goats on the courthouse steps in an effort to sway trials. So many have piled up that there's a voodoo squad of janitors assigned to cleanup. And then there's the Causeway Cannibal, aka Miami's face-eating zombie, Rudy Eugene. You may recall Eugene stripped naked and chewed on a homeless man's face while high on ... bath salts? LSD? Angel dust? No, just plain old Mary Jane. The victim's life was saved by a police officer who shot Eugene dead but also accidentally wounded the victim.

Central Florida produces its own brand of landlocked weird. Right now, for instance, about half the Lakeland Police Department is facing suspension in a huge sex scandal that involves, among other things, an officer requesting to drink a woman's urine. And let's not forget all the weirdness that goes along with Disney, such as allegations that both Donald Duck and Tigger groped female visitors.


You could also argue that the Florida Panhandle produces more weird news on a regular basis than anywhere else. Look at the stories that wind up on Fark with a Florida tag. At least half of them come from the police blotter of the Northwest Florida Daily News in Fort Walton Beach. And it was the Panhandle community of Vernon that became known as “Nub City” for all the rampant insurance-related self-maimings.

That said, I have to tell you that I think Ground Zero for Florida Weird is Pasco County, a semirural area just north of Tampa.


The cops in Pasco County are constantly dealing with strange cases—Tasering a runaway kangaroo, for instance. In Pasco County a first date—with a man wearing a red mohawk and a spider tattoo—may result in a stolen car. A gang of teenagers planning a burglary may huddle together like a football team and pray, "Hey, God, get us through this. We know you don't like this, but get us through." It's not unusual to see headlines like this: “Fetish Model Indicted in Pasco Sex Party Slaying.”

Part of Pasco's weirdness originates from the fact that it's home to a lot of people you wouldn’t expect to find grouped together in one spot. In the 1970s it was a hotbed of Mafia activity, as documented in the book and movie Donnie Brasco. Now, instead of the Mob, it's got nudist resorts. By some accounts, Pasco is the Nudist Capital of America. The nudist resorts produce a steady stream of stories, such as when a nude woman went swimming with her nude family and was attacked by an alligator. She was saved by her husband kicking the gator in the head. (Did I mention he was nude?)

The different cultures of Pasco County often don’t get along. In 1990, a coven of Wiccans got into a shootout with neighbors who contended they were Satanists conducting sacrifices. In 1993, the Ku Klux Klan joined the Adopt-A-Road litter patrol, kicking up a fuss among people who lived along the road they adopted—even though the Klan promised to wear safety vests, not white robes, while picking up trash on the roadside.

For my final piece of evidence that Pasco County is weirder than anywhere else in Florida, I refer you back to the case of Key West’s romantically obsessed grave robber, Carl Tanzler. After his trial, he moved to Pasco County and wrote his memoirs. He died there in 1952. Near his body, authorities found a life-sized effigy of his beloved Elena.

I admit the conclusion regarding Pasco County took me by surprise. I think a lot of Key West's weirdness these days is forced. Eccentricity feels more like a tourist attraction than an external expression of an internal need. It doesn't hurt to come to Key West, check it out and prove me wrong.




Sunday, July 28, 2013

A Living

This is the time of year when in defiance of the norms of Northern Hemisphere living, life calms down a bit in the Key West 911 center. Winter when the ranks of part time residents swells, along with the numbers of tourists, is when the place gets busier. The nice part about the job is that you never quite know what you are in for but whatever does happen we have a plan of some sort to deal with it and after all this time there really isn't anything much that freaks me out, which is as well as I am in charge of the room all night. The other nice part is that whatever the weather we are snug at the top of the police station. I really like my work place. I arrive just before six and the administrative staff have gone home, the officers are in briefing downstairs and upstairs the day shift dispatchers go home leaving us to turn down the lights and settle in for the night.

I am in one of those phases, long may it last where I am working with two people who suit my temperament and whom I can trust completely while we are at work. Nick and Shannon are both around 30 years of age and both have maturity beyond their years which makes it easy to share the room with them for twelve hours at a time. I trained them so they know how to take calls, how to share responsibilities and how to ask for help when they need it because you never know what odd thing a caller may need at three in the morning and I have been here longer than the other two dispatchers combined. I surprise myself sometimes by how much I know from years of being here.

One of the major character defects we tend to uncover in candidates for the job is the inability to sit still for twelve hours at a time. You had better know how to entertain yourself on summer nights when call volume drops off and you have only your own resources to keep you mentally engaged on those nights when the town is at peace relatively speaking. Shannon is a voracious reader while Nick is endlessly fascinated by car design and his new hobby of learning to fly. Me? I check out motorcycles and riding online. I call it a mini vacation spending a couple of minutes studying riders around the world doing something fun, in the minutes between the return to reality as one desperate call for help follows the next. I took the time to take a self portrait simpering horribly. The roof has been undergoing repairs but because we can never shut down the communications center the construction people had to rig a tarp to keep dispatchers and computers dry. Its a glamorous job but we soldier on no matter what.
Hurricane season is upon us and the thought that one may come our way is in the back of one's mind but of course all contingency plans are in place. We haven't had a hit in several years and I was surprised to find how few dispatchers have any experience with storms. The good part about working twelve hour shifts is that we get time off to compensate, two nights on and then two nights off. somehow I have learned to switch my sleeping patterns at will which makes life a lot easier. There again I have been working nights as long as I can remember, most of the 9 years I have worked in the 911 center. Its a paradox that I have found a job I enjoy, a job that I have held longer than any other in a town that celebrates not working. It's odd but I'm probably happier being here than there:
I just passed my ninth anniversary and when I think back to July 5th 2004 I really had no firm belief I could do the job let alone stick to it considering I had no experience whatsoever. Now I'm hoping I've got another 16 years in me doing this, what I hope will be my last job. In all my years of traveling and working here and there and failing to make a plan the last thing I would have expected was to find myself dealing with computers and telephones and radios and reassuring a lot of worried people from an office in a police station. I am rather looking forward to winter, when hurricane season is over and when the town is packed and we get the majority of the 180,000 calls we handle every year. Truly life is unpredictable, never quite so much as in a 911 center.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Key West Traffic Light Hell

I have composed so many Letters to the Editor in my head I have no precise idea why I never got around to composing one on the subject of traffic lights, and then sending it. You get 350 words and they are pretty generous with their willingness to publish. The fact is perhaps there are several issues that are vexing me at the moment and traffic lights seems a bit too personal to make a scene over. Nevertheless when I saw this front page photo on the Key West Citizen I had one question for myself and that was not answered, or even posed in the short paragraph.

The article was pointing out that the city has a new style of traffic light to install, one that is made of a kind of plastic that is lighter and cheaper than the metal ones used previously. That's all well and good and laudable but my problem is something else.

Here's the thing: why do we spend so much time sitting at red lights while the cross street is empty? It's a simple question and as much as I hate to quote how "they" do it "Up North" let me say I have seen the future and it is lovely. Every time I visit Santa Cruz California I am astounded by the speed with which traffic lights change. The amount of time spend idling, and thus polluting the air with fumes and noise, is reduced to almost nothing. Traffic flows smoothly and cars don't race to catch a light nor is there any reason to run a red light. It's amazingly effective. And get this: they have motorcycle sensitive loops in the road and bicycle sensitive loops in the bike lane next to the sidewalks. It is amazing and if I miss anything about life in Santa Cruz it's the swift changing traffic lights.

In Key West traffic lights are hell. I don't want to go into too much detail but there are certain lights around town whose timers I have studied and I can, with 90% accuracy, beat the red light by taking a one block detour to pass the light by. It amazes me how few motorists bother on their repeated drives to notice how much time they waste sitting at a red light with zero cross traffic. I meanwhile am making three extra turns and am long gone by the time they look up from their texts. Its not a matter of speeding or driving fast, its simply a matter of ambling past a traffic light that seems stuck on the red for no visible reason and there are lots of them that can be bypassed. Check out this truck on Eaton at Duval.
Waiting, waiting, waiting for no reason. No crossing traffic. He waits so long he starts anticipatingbthechange and edges forward. Is this a good use of time, or fuel? Does this help safe driving? Why make him impatient when all we need is a traffic computer to monitor the weight of vehicles in each direction? I don't know why but he pushed out into the cross street anyway:
Blame him if you like but he has my sympathy.

In the end what I'm trying to point out here is that it isn't a matter of my finding a way around some of these incredibly delayed lights, rather I would like for people not to feel like a red light merits being run, because if the light changes rapidly and sensibly the red will be of no consequence. Besides that the less time cars spend idling the less noise and fumes they emit. But I see no sign that any of these insanely lengthy lights that create traffic jams are going to be modernized. And I further understand that eventually when the Boulevard is finally repaved there will be more lights than there were before. Oh joy!

Friday, July 26, 2013

Tropical Storm Dorian Takes Aim

Well bugger. The National Hurricane Center has called it again. Earlier they predicted what we see today, a weakening of the low over the Bahamas which has brought the storm's track further to the south. Now the prediction puts the storm north of the big islands of the Caribbean, the so called Greater Antilles, whose mountains tend to break storms apart. Yet the current track is not curving far north which means Key West looks like a possible target. The good news is track prediction this far out is not completely accurate, but strength prediction is reasonably accurate so we can hope this thing won't strengthen into a full blown hurricane, and the National Hurricane Center is holding that out as a possibility at this stage. Wind and rain and not too much of either, please!
As of Saturday morning the National Hurricane Center in Miami is downgrading TS Dorian and is predicting it will fizzle out into an inchoate rainy mess over Puerto Rico. So much the better.