I have walked many cities around the world from Calcutta which turned into Kolkata when I wasn't looking to East Berlin which vanished one day in October under a capitalist load of mid winter bananas and multi colored neon advertising. Other cities I have walked have lasted longer and are more conventionally appreciated than Key West. St Paul's on Duval isn't the cathedral at Rheims and La Concha isn't the Hassler Hotel at the top of the Spanish Steps in Rome Luxury 5 Star Hotels Rome, Hotel Central Rome, Hotel Special Offers Rome, Luxury hotel Italy . But Key West is Key West. I'd rather stay at the Eden House than the Hassler anyway. Key West Hotels | Hotel in Old Town Key West | Eden House Hotel, Key West, Florida, 33040
So far Key West has managed to avoid becoming all of a piece. By that I mean this small town is a city that has signally failed to unify it's theme into one story. Real people live here alongside the pirate tourist myth, millionaires come to Key West to slum it in the tropics in a town where chickens walk the streets and drunks vomit in your landscaped yard at four in the morning. And woe betide you if you complain, Key West does not need you and you can return to conformist suburbia anytime.
But if you do you will miss world class sunrises such as Moscow could only dream about. You wouldn't see the charming little antique stores masked by vast spacious modern trucks advertising them in turn.
History is everywhere in Key West. Perhaps this little town lacks the Circus Maximus that Rome treats as dreary useless open space but it has it's signposts to the past abandoned with the same aplomb that Sarajevo pockmarked it's ancient Mussulman souk with unrepaired bullet holes during the recent internecine unpleasantness in that unhappy country.
I am no fan of public chickenry but I far prefer that we celebrate the "former fighting cocks of Cuba" (a chicken myth on a par with the history of buccaneering in Key West). Instead my eye is drawn to the empty beer bottle abandoned on the garden fence. And you thought I was exaggerating when I spoke of passing drunks vomiting in your yard? Alcohol fuels vacations, parties, gallery openings, fund raisers, funerals and anyplace where two or more peope are gathered in anyone's name for any reason whatsoever.
This funky little town produces world class art and literature and on occasion food. It bathes in a climate a few people would kill for. Others think its just too hot but weirdos abound and everyone has a right to enjoy snow and sleet and slush if they so choose. The great joy of walking Key West can be what you make it, treading in the steps of great writers on vacation, pursuing paintings made in the tropics or, if you are off kilter like me seeking out oddities that thrive in the rich loam of creativity that sinks into a heap at the end of the road. For instance do any of us want to know what "unsalted solids" are and which restaurants use such deliciousness in their menus?
Love is always in the air in Key West ad if love falls short one night stands could be the next best thing. Cheyenne is a creature of purity and she pays no heed to sudden infatuations. She struts on by radiating disapproval like a Russian babushka or a Cuban abuella who has seen it all and despairs of the lower impulses of human nature. Cheyenne's admirers are everywhere.
Parked next to Harpoon Harry's we see the full range of sublimity and ridiculousness. This is a town that encourages cycling and yet the newspaper is full of anonymous rants of drivers who argue cycling is perilous and inconveniences rapid travel. Others think scooters are purposeless machines designed to kill on contact and other still argue that driving a sat spacious vehicle the size of a cigar maker's cottage is an absurdity in its own right. That an uncountable number of two wheelers can fit into the space of one truck makes a point, though such comparisons create discomfort.
I was asked what he worst thing about living in the Keys is for me. Because I choose to live outside the city the various frustrations of an alcohol fueled tourist economy bypass my suburban home and for me the limitations of a single highway rate high on my list of irritants. Check out the yards of signage on this business, the place that repairs my electric motors and pumps, they are an attempt to keep order on a disorderly society. I watch tourists cross streets against red lights putting their intoxicated bodies at risk, chancing the destruction of their dust catcher souvenirs under the wheels of an urgent vehicle struggling to leave the gravitational,pull of Duval Street. They think it's Disneyland is he common complaint. Visitors prefer not to treat Key West as a real place.
The climate is lovely if you like heat but humidity, rain, salt air and seawater corrupt more efficiently than the rust and moths of Biblical fame. I am not delicate when it comes to sanitary requirements, I have used toilets in places that would make your hair stand on end at the mere thought, but I cannot understand how the exterior of a store that sells high fructose corn syrup that passes for food can look like this on the outside. Many people come to Key West because it is exotic, they think, but not likely to test their ability to go "native" in some alien culture. A lime of paint and a fresh poster might enhance that belief, you'd think.
The electric bicycle has been around for a hundred years and is just now finding its place in a world running short of cheap energy and long on harmful emissions. Key West, a small flat town of almost Manahattan-like density is perfectly designed for the electric bicycle to make a comeback. This rusting hulk, sinking back to entropy, overgrown by weeds, forgotten and unused, left behind in apparent perfect working order symbolizes for me the hope and the loss that Key West ends up embodying.
So in that case rent a fishing boat and go out and do all the netting you can stand. You just have to,pay for it.
What is so particular to Key West is that one can hardly understand what is sublime and what is ridiculous. The parameters of the world Up North don't always apply here. Sometimes they do but sometimes they don't and you can't tell when they do and when they don't. Is a smart cabin cruiser tied to the tottery wooden dock sublime or is it overkill for a funky former shrimp dock? For me the sky blue, ridiculously bright skiff is sublime, simple functional and easy to run. It would make a terrible place to sleep but a fine place from which to swim. Or net. Or fish.
Key West Is the great leveler, the city where wealth means less than connections. How often do I hear people complain that they paid large sums of money to rent or buy a home in Key West and they shouldn't have to put up with any of the complaints outlined here. Sorry, I want to say but Key West isn't going to change anything unless the people who own the city want it to change. Pay as much as you can afford, but like a new employee promised a better rate of pay "later" expect what you see to remain as long as you also remain in the city. Change does happen but nothing you do say or want will make it happen
Come and spend your time and your money, bring a luxury boat or RV or a pocket of cash or a limitless credit card and enjoy what you can. I love living here, I enjoy the helplessness and the consequent absence of ambition. In this way Key West is truly different from the "mythical mainland" incomers like to talk about leaving behind. Here ambition will get you nowhere, or at best it will get you a one way ticket to Palookaville in the time honored phrase from the Hollywood waterfront. Or possibly a ride out to camp in the lovely and wild Dry Tortugas, the most sybaritic of wild and undeveloped National Parks. No cliffs to climb, no bears to fear, no trails to hike, nothing more strenuous to do than take a gentle swim and a warm seat under a sea grape while the sun goes down. Beer and pizza on the ferry on the way home...
Why Henry Flagler wanted to extend the railroad to Key West is a bit of a mystery. Ostensibly it was to ship winter tourists to the sun and winter fruits from Cuba to New York. Reading between the lines it seems more likely he just had a burr up his butt and needed to satisfy the itch as only an oil baron could. In the event the railway made no money and roused the ire of people who preferred slow complicated access to the outside world by boat. The railroad and it's seven hour connection to Miami would ruin the island way of life they said, preferring to make the trip by bridges and two ferries and a full day's drive at least, to get to the Big City in 1911.
You can buy a piece of paradise, throw up a fence and call it good. You can tell people how things get done Up North and how much better things would be down here if only... But in the end you will just end up pissing people off. If you want efficiency and effectiveness, vision and planning, there are better places to live. If you want to practice letting go live in Key West. A life without ambition really isn't so bad. Sublime or ridiculous? You decide.
Me? My ambition extends to trying to figure out how to grow ivy over a wall like this:
I hope Key West remains a mixture of sublime and ridiculous scenes, that ambition sinks into entropy like the electric bicycle, that somehow this mixture of evanescent hope and down to earth difficulties remains in the same precarious balance into the years ahead. I shall play my part seeking to disturb as little of the loam of eccentric absurdity and failed argumentative development as I can. I shall complain, as one does, yet not expect change or improvement. The next time someone bothers to ask what is the worst thing about living in the radius of Key West I shall say 'sub tropical entropy' and then I will smile and say that's the best thing too.