Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Key West, The End Of The Road

I took the title of this essay from my first picture shown here, which I made at the end of Blimp Road, not far from our new home on Cudjoe Key. I heard voices coming from the mangroves and expected to see kayakers rounding the corner coming back to their pickup truck. Instead a group of pedestrians came splashing back, long necks in hand. So, if you want to go boating and really save money forget paddling - try walking!
I posted this next picture on my Facebook page, a place for occasional, real time pictures, not words. I am no longer surprised by the ability of Key West to handle professional idlers. Visitors don't handle them so well, many call 911 freaked out and the more I try to reassure them the less they believe me that we handle these people. Memorial Weekend saw lots of people in town and many of them were freaked out by the drunks and it occurred to me that this is my normal. I'm sorry if you come to Key West and see bums (and visitors) passed out. It's not the best part of living here. It just is what happens daily in a frost-free zone devoted to the sybaritic pleasures of the hangover.
In one way or another almost all people here work to please the visitors and even though their grammar syntax and spelling sometimes leave something to be desired, the work gets done. Need your bags stored? Look for them at the turminal...
It's been a long weekend for those of us that worked in the police department, and we in dispatch always short staffed. I think a lot of people in town this holiday weekend had fun, and we workers make our fun where we find it between urgent calls. We have a new trainee starting soon in dispatch, the sole survivor of the last batch of six applicants and I was musing out loud about how the entire city operates when we can't fill our ranks in a job with livable pay, great benefits, and good hours. How I wondered do employers hire people who are paid half what we get, no sick leave, paid vacation, old fashioned pension plan and proper health benefits?
My young colleagues are fast food connoisseurs, not that they don't eat at sit down restaurants but they know the lay of the land in those places that serve food in a bag in a hurry. How do they find staff? Not well they said to me, I who don't eat at drive throughs much. There followed stories of crazy food orders filled by staff who seemed to lack a clue...Veggie flat bread replaced in the bag by a sausage croissant...Want cream in your coffee? Don't count on it...Hash browns half cooked and half frozen and dumped in the bag so they cover everything else... I love the stories, told through laughter by my colleagues interrupted by phone calls and radio traffic, sentences dropped and picked up as work allowed. The stories remind me that Key West sometimes tries to imitate the mainland but it doesn't quite work. Yes it's a franchise, but not quite the way you might expect.
If you want fast food the range is limited, Wendy's, McDonald's, Burger King, Dairy Queen, IHOP, Denny's, Dunkin Doughnuts, and a couple of sit down chains TGIF and Outback. When I'm on the mainland I like to try stuff not available here, ethnic mostly, like Indian or Vietnamese, but my coworkers crave places I am not familiar with, Sonic, Chipotle, Macaroni Grill and the homophobe chicken place. I think a lot of it has to do with craving what you don't have, a weird human genetic flaw that crops up in the most unexpected places.
There are those who think living at the end of the road is a privilege, as if longevity and eccentricity confer status. It's a nice conceit in a society that on the whole prefers to venerate wealth and fame and beauty. Dropping out is a suitable alternative for those who like to answer the question "Do you live here?" In the affirmative. When asked I reply that I work here but live up the road. I ruminated on this page a few months ago about living in Key West itself but my wife and I decided upon mature reflection that life in the city conferred few advantages and more disadvantages. Saving money by not commuting was negated when my wife hit a job in Marathon. The ability to visit bars without driving is not much use to us and we still get into town enough to let us feel connected, yet apart. Writing this overlooking our canal with no sounds of sirens or planes or traffic is an immense privilege in a world filled with noise.
When I lived in California similar pride of place was expressed by incomers who described themselves as refugees from reality who could go no further west in their efforts to escape snow or regimentation in uncomprehending families or cruel fate (unspecified). I liked the mountains close by the sea, the woods and the acceptance in a community where everyone had migrated and where one was from, mattered not at all. I was young and liked living in town where the lights and the girls and the events and culture were. In Key West one of the hardest cultural differences to overcome for me was the mixing of locals, winter residents and visitors in a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of people. In Santa Cruz tourists drove off the freeway, down Ocean Avenue in a constant stream and spent the day at the beach boardwalk. We locals lived separate lives, in other places close but separate. There were no locals' discounts to differentiate us. In Key West there is no separation, the end of the road bags everyone in one small place.
We may not have fast food but there is a hospital, not much respected in some quarters, and the ambulances run back and forth much as they do anywhere in this US. Phones work like they do where you live and packages are delivered with no island surcharge. I find it difficult to disentangle the ordinary from the unexpected, I find it hard to know what outsiders see as unusual anymore. Too often the end of the road is sold as a permanent vacation, but as my idea of time is to explore, not drink in a bar, I am occasionally at a loss yo know how visitors see this little town. It's sold as a drinking town so I am surprised when people get astonished by the sight of the inevitable effects of excess. The ambulances are there for them too.
Making do with less is I think the theme of life here. It's unAmerican to conserve we are told, in the face of declining resources worldwide, and technology will save the lifestyle of conspicuous consumption we love. But in Key West large homes are rare, cars are optional, and high prestige cars mean not much in town where they can' the serviced. If you have a sense of balance and can ride two wheels conservation comes naturally, not labeled as a (subversive) lifestyle. My dentist rides a scooter to work. Don't be surprised to see women formally dressed and in heels riding through town. Bicycles do manual labor. It's not a response to climate change and the certainty of rising oceans, it's just a sensible response to local conditions.
Making do with less is a seductive mantra isn't it? It's not easy to do, I'll tell you that. I thought my wife and I were living compact until we moved, and boy, I moved tons of boxes to get us into our new place. The end of the road is a place of paradox, more so than most places I've seen. You'd think that by living close to the edge the principles of conservation, ecology and preservation would be not just a priority but a way of life. Oddly enough it's not. Some people get it, but those who live here to escape aren't necessarily interested in the state of the reef, or how to improve the trash stream. Just waking up daily is achievement enough in a town with an absurd cost of living, and where the seduction of pleasure outweighs the seduction of conservation. Hang overs cost real money on Duval Street.
I doubt I can achieve the proper Buddhist state of letting go, but I do try to live mindfully, enjoying what I can while trying not to let the outside world bother me, and it does. It bothers me that we as one of the richest nations can't work together for the general welfare, what the Founders intended as the most good for the most people. Jesus told us to be our brother's keeper, despite Cain's contempt for the idea, to be mindful of the least among us, (Acts of the Apostles 20:35) but we seem collectively to do a piss poor job of that, preferring to believe that least among us are a pain in our collective rear end, which they are! Freedom is our watchword, but freedom to live on the streets seems rather harsh to me in a world of declining jobs and increasingly expensive energy.
Yet Florida has a solid budget, Key West is trundling along, and our new home has two bathrooms and a solid dock on a canal quieter and cleaner than the one we used to live on. What's not to like? Besides my county seat is inhabited by people who still know how to wield a dustpan and brush in public places. Self reliance, old world style:

I don't live here, I walk my dog here, I work here, I visit friends here and I get entertained here. Tomorrow I'm having lunch here. Come on down, the end of the road is lovely, warts and all.