Most of my life, and I have just entered my 58th year, I have never felt a sense of place. It is disconcerting this late in the game to find myself feeling connected to a place, especially a place as demanding and unforgiving as Key West. It is also irritating that my sense of place finds me connected to a spot that so many people find themselves attracted to. Were I to find myself drawn to a small windswept village in the Bolivian Altiplano say, it could be a village to call mine own. If a pimple on the expansive frigid tundra drew me and demanded I called it home, me and my huskies would live unmolested by reasonable people in the outside world. It would be unnecessary to find myself worried about sharing where I lived. But everyone and his brother likes Key West. Even people who despise tacky Florida and hate mosquitoes and fear alligators can be pleasantly surprised by Key West. For me to feel connected to this spot requires that I stand patiently at the back of a very long line. I hate what Key West has done to me.
With love comes fear of loss. I want to leave Key West when I am ready, not when circumstances require it. The thread that keeps one connected is thin and tenuous and relies on work and money, patience and desire, and the willingness to give up so many other things, material and mental, that one finds oneself questioning the value of this attachment. I know of several young Conchs who have left, who will be leaving and who scheme daily to get off the Rock. Some want lives away from family interference, some have ambition, and some want to prove they have what it takes. Others want seasons, some crave cold air, some think snow and hunting in the woods are better than palms and fish-filled turquoise waters. Most are bored living with less in the land of excess and abundance and choice and vast landscapes.
I have seen Conchs and incomers leave and come back, their tails between their legs, glad to get a second chance eager to prove themselves. I think of them when I crave change or see potential for life elsewhere. And yet I find the livable landscape outside the Lower Keys is shrinking. As a place to live and work Key West is exceptional. I know this theory goes against the common perception but given a couple of requirements there is no better place to live. You must have good work at adequate pay. Abundant pay is unavailable but a living wage is attainable with some skills, dedication and a readiness to abandon ambition. Given that and a willingness to see beyond vacation town stereotypes and you can have a good working life. You avoid traffic jams, you have job security if you don't threaten established workers with ambition, you don't have to justify having a personality and your car is never snowed in or covered with frost, your wardrobe can be modest, you can find yourself working with people who understand why you are where you are. I think of retirement in Key West as a problem. Life without structure here leads to a lot of difficulties for people who are used to it and suddenly find themselves free and surrounded by idleness, drink, and no accountability.
Key West liberates me from conciousness of self and that is a tremendous gift. To live in these islands means not that you avoid judgement which is unhappily the human condition. But it means that judgement has no meaning, that life requires you to set your own standards and to live by them. You are your own judge and jury and if you fall short you let yourself down. The consequences are yours to deal with and that freedom can be devastating. It's like reveling in the freedom of the adult university learning environment after the curfews and restrictions and supervision of high school. In Key West you are an adult and if you lack grit and self discipline this town will spit you out. Which is not to say you can't be an alcoholic or lazy or incompetent but if you are you have to find the strength to compensate. No one will judge you if you spend the weekend puking drunk as long as the hangover doesn't prevent you from showing up to do your duty whatever that may be at the appointed time. They may not want to be your friend, or maybe they do, but if you can hang on to your grip on the Rock despite all, you will have their respect as a fellow survivor. If you cross dress or live in a broom closet or don't have a car or wear used clothes your choices are yours.
This attitude of live and let live is endangered and more so every year. Native born residents of Key West would prefer everyone leave and allow the somnolence of a long deceased fishing village off the map to be resurrected so they could get back to Brigadoon in the Tropics. Given that the past is another country Conchs live a separate life, a private world of connections habits embarrassments rivalries and vendettas out of public view. They are grateful for the money, resentful of its source and wish fervently for as little disruption as possible to their freemasonry of the past.
The greater difficulty comes from incomers who love the place so much they buy dirt and own their place with all the pride and self assurance of those who form snap judgements and who know best. It is an odd phenomenon to see people who love the Keys appear for a few weeks or months a year and then demand change to make this unique spot resemble more comfortably the unsatisfying place whence they came. It happens all the time and the rationale is that they bring wealth in their wake. It is too bad they don't bring a sense of joy, or a sense of community with their expectations. This is not a place where money buys you respect.
When I first saw Key West in 1981 I was not impressed. I wanted city life, access to the arts, excitement, not a dusty life on the margins which I had had in abundance by the time I was in my early 20s. Today in the twilight of my active years I, like the Conchs, would be delighted were we to turn back the clocks and sweep way 30 years of progress and change. However I have spent my adult life in pursuit of sensation and experience, and have failed spectacularly to live a proper life of responsibility, routine, family and child rearing. So for me Key West is not at all the refuge for the empty nest responsible adults who seek freedom from the shackles of routine and responsibility. For me Key West grounds me in precisely the values of work, reliability, routine that have escaped me for the middle years of my life. I am respected at work, an environment I love, and which offers me a pension of all things. It won't be enough to live on in Key West but in retirement I plan to be busy seeing the corners that have escaped me thus far on the planet. I look forward to living cheap under palm fronds in various places that will have me reminiscing about my years in America's Paradise. So now, as in my past, I live everyday in the present as much as I am able. That is just another gift this extraordinary place gives me.
My formative adult years I lived in California where I learned to try to live sociably, I had lots of adventures, true stories with uncertain outcomes. I tested myself outdoors, I traveled, I worked at a series of improbable jobs, I saw war and human misery as a reporter, I wrote about injustice and hope and tried to tell other peoples' stories from their point of view. I observed politics and watched the erosion of community values I believe in. I never quite felt at home in a state that sets too much value on appearances and status symbols and one upmanship. My wife, a native Californian resents my characterization of the Golden State as glib and unfeeling but I fear I never felt, nor do I now, feel hip enough to justify my life among people who take life very seriously and will adopt any passing fad as Truth as long as it promises health and vitality and enlightenment. My natural scepticism makes me wearisome company among people who value wheatgrass juice and incantations over strong genes as precursors to a long productive life. In Key West mumbo jumbo or Mary Jane or too many mojitos will get you to the same chakra of societal acceptance. And because I reject all, this is where I deserve to live. I am on my own astral plane and no one really gives a flying duck. Least of all me.
Years ago I set out to explore America on my Vespa and I essentially by-passed Key West and was seduced by redwood trees Sierra Nevada mountains and university students, old movies and wildly varied exotic California cuisines never before seen by me the European country bumpkin. Lucky I did else I'd have got resentful and thrown Key West over like so many young people do, treating it as a temporary stop on the road to better things. As it is I am here now, coming to terms with the fact that the search for a better home really is over. I have spent as long here as I did in Santa Cruz and it is absurd to think that I should still be wondering if there is some other Shangri La, some Valley of Eternal Youth more suited to me than this irritating, run down, pedestrian, overly sunny, isolated lump of land, too small, too crowded, too flat, too boring, too expensive, too monotonous, too close to Miami and too closed to Havana, too too too...