Monday, August 10, 2015

Small Town Tea Cup

I was quite surprised to read the public airing of dirty laundry in the pages of the Citizen newspaper. The public ravaging of Lower Keys Medical Center on the front page and in the editorial was surprising because Key West usually washes its dirty laundry behind securely closed doors. Let me explain.
The newspaper has been engaged in telling stories about the Lower Keys Medical Center, Key West's only  full-service hospital facility and the stories have not been flattering. Lower Keys' owner has been engaged in massive over billing of Medicare  according to the paper and the local facility apparently has too. Then there was the case of the unimpeachable local homeless activist Reverend Steve Braddock who got in a tussle with the hospital which refused for two years to give him an itemized bill. He let them take him to court all of which the paper gleefully and properly reported. Especially when the itemized bill submitted at long last showed vast charges and some mistakes.
Apparently the hospital did not take kindly to this treatment and decided to ban the paper from its hallowed halls and wards and offered patients copies of the Miami Herald instead. Paper racks were removed all under the cloak of various and sundry excuses, no mention at all of a vendetta. The newspaper responded by laying the whole mess out for all to see and at last word some sense of proportion has returned and the Citizen supposedly may be allowed back in to the hospital according to the last headline I read. I haven't seen a public airing of  grievances like this since the golf course banned the public utility executives when the Aqueduct got in a  fight with a private company that won a sewer contract and then proceeded to mess the job up badly, on Stock Island (toilets and showers backing up spilling sewage in homes and the like). The golf course was operated by the private utility and they took their revenge by spoiling the utility executives walks on the greens, retaliation for criticizing the private utility sewer installation.
When you say Key West is a small town it doesn't convey the utter isolation of a city of 23,000 stuck at the end of a very long road completely in the middle of nowhere. Everyone knows, or knows of life in a small town and frequently outsiders equate this small town with what they know of small towns elsewhere.   Believe me when I say Key West is different. I have tried to find my space by living in the suburbs up the Highway, a life on a canal in a silent neighborhood that I greatly enjoy and which represents to me the essence of life in the Keys. But for those brave souls who think higher rents are compensated for by a car-free commute I say life in a very isolated fish bowl carries its own stresses. Not everyone can cope with the unrelenting intimacy of a town where everyone knows everything and any social gaffes can carry severe consequences. If you cross the wrong person or institution in Key West you can easily lose your job and there are no replacement opportunities within a 130 miles. How I have survived and even flourished here for going on two decades I'm not sure. Keeping my mouth shut has been part of it, and for someone like me that can be a trial, let me tell you. 
I have survived partly because I do a job, and I do it well, in an office where not many people want to work even if they can do the work. Our 911 center takes almost 200,000 calls a year and we are frequently understaffed. And let's face it not many people come to the party capital of Key West to work in a police station with strict hours, overtime and all that serious mainland stuff. For some people the idea of creating a career in Key West sounds ludicrous but I feel immensely privileged to have been able to create this space for myself in such an unlikely location. It hasn't been easy, certainly no easier than anywhere else as Island Time, that figment of the visitor's imagination, has no place in a 911 center. 
How other people cling to the Rock is a bit of a mystery to me. Some hold down several jobs, some have longstanding sweetheart deals on the rent and others, lucky or unlucky depending on your point of view have family roots in Key West which gives them access to housing or perhaps jobs under additional intimate scrutiny. 
I meet quite a number of arrivals in Key West, dispatch hopefuls who seek a position in what I consider to be the best job in Key West. It's a tough process of background tests, hearing tests, psychological tests all before you get through the door and our boss starts classroom training. Then they come into the room and one of us starts training these hopefuls in taking actual 911 calls. And if I determine my trainee can't do the job, and many can't I have to advise my boss that this person can't have the opportunity of the best job in Key West. But it has to be obvious to anyone that an iffy 911 operator is in no one's best interest. My advice to newcomers, whoever they are, is to keep a low profile, proffer  no opinions and don't speak unless spoken to. In a general sense its good advice anywhere in Key West, not just in the workplace.  Relationships in Key West are intricate, people sleep together and break up, people are related in the most unexpected ways, memories are long and shared experiences create bonds. A newcomer who steps in and announces a dislike or antipathy can set off a chain of reactions that can land the unwary in the middle of drama or worse. If you think elephants have long memories you haven't seen a slighted Key Wester. 
All this by way of expressing my surprise that the newspaper, generally not a publication given to stirring up controversy got into a public brawl with the hospital. Not that I frown upon it, quite the contrary I think the Citizen did a bang up job of afflicting the comfortable and I'd love to see more of it. Some people refer to the Citizen derisively as a "mullet wrapper" of a newspaper, an epithet of which I disapprove. I hope I have made it clear that stirring up shit in this small town is  a short path to creating revenge motifs in unexpected places. For the paper to even accidentally tread on the hospital's corns is some pretty brave stuff. 
It's funny in another way as well because the paper itself has come under fire, usually from the socially prominent for carrying the "Citizen's Voice" column which is a platform for malcontents to be heard without having to identify themselves.  It's one of the first things many people read after they check the front page. On the  other hand if it weren't anonymous no one would say a word. 
I expect that in public the whole hospital thing will disappear from public view. But I am pretty sure the elephants on both sides will be biding their time, checking allegiances and not forgetting any of this. When something weird happens, a job is lost, a contract is broken, an insult is traded, and no one knows why, just ask yourself if in some convoluted way they had anything to do with a newspaper, a hospital and a storm in a teacup.