If you talk about Key West much with people you get their measure by how much change they have seen. Some people wear longevity in Key West as a badge of honor. "I've been here since..." as though they should get merit badges or special privileges for having hung on as long as they have. I first came to Key West in 1981 so I can play that game even though I didn't stay as I wanted bright lights in the Big City (of San Francisco). The point really is that Key West makes its mark when first you settle down and then as the city changes and evolves you lose your bearings.
I remember breakfast at El Cacique, a diner on I think the 100 block of Duval and I remember it fondly as the destination for walks Curt and I took across Peary Court when it was a baseball diamond and a grassy space off White Street. We tied up our dinghies on the seawall after we rowed in from our anchorage outside Garrison Bight. I don't want to go back to those days. I think if I asked Curt next time I see him he might actually want to go back. Maybe if I talked to him for a bit I would change my mind. In point of fact I can say that spending time to write this essay may have moved me to change my mind...I want the Good Old Days back!
CVS at 12 Duval is gone, but it's been replaced by a bigger more modern store across the street...
The thing is places like Key West imprint themselves on you when you decide to settle in them. This happens in other cities that demand a lot from new residents. As time passes and things change the old timers get frustrated and they see "their" new home being wrecked by incomers who aren't at all like they were when they arrived bright eyed and bushy tailed. I am guilty of this myself though I try to keep my feelings to myself when in mixed company. I have had people spit at me for being late to the party and thus not worthy to live here now because I preferred Northern California for a couple of decades. "Preferred" is not my word but it reflects the reality of my life at the time, I had to live there to exorcise certain demons and once done I was ready to live elsewhere. I knew it would be Key West because California is cold in spirit and in weather.
But because I chose not to stay when I had the chance (chances actually, it was more than once) I have devalued my currency as a long term resident of The Rock. I was a quitter and people who don't tough it out are second rate. I have no regrets as I really quite enjoyed my life in California even if it was too cold and damp and the ocean froze my bones. In turn I look at Key West today and think to myself "Would I move here today?" I look at the endless lines of highway traffic, the moaning about everything in the newspaper, the stratospheric house prices (again!) and I tell myself, no of course I wouldn't move here now, the place is ruined!
But it isn't really. Key West has lived through many many cycles of this kind of economy, the haves and the have-nots. Hemingway wrote about it, many people wandering through have noted it, but Key West attracts monied people who fondly imagine they can kick back in Key West, mingle with hoi-polloi and let their secret artistic muses run rampant for a bit. Then they button up their personalities and their homes and head north to be proper people for a rather longer bit. Those few of us who hold down the fort for them are the colorless bureaucrats, the front desk clerks, the servers, the sweepers and housekeepers, who make Key West work while the drunk and dispossessed are there for the color and ambiance. It's always been that way and we are all interchangeable.
We blend into our roles like the guy in the photo above becomes not a tourist taking a picture but a post supporting the stage he is standing on in the half light, himself rendered invisible by his own shadow. When your supporting role in the daily drama that is Key West becomes too much, or too repetitive, or too boring, or not fulfilling you move on and complain loudly about how wrecked Key West has become as the door kicks you in the butt on your way out. Some bright eyed replacement is in the wings ready to be Bohemian on demand in the Conch Republic's Human Family- Come One, Come One At A Time.
(For Trips Available Call...)Maybe it's time for Key West to smarten up its act. This circuit of the wheel may demand cleaner streets, better sidewalks, improved drains and fewer power cuts. For a while it may well be the turn of the rich old foges to enjoy the Southernmost Everything. For a while there it was the refuge for gay men, then they found better opportunities elsewhere as America forgot to hate them too much. For a while it seemed like we of the dreary middle class had a moment in the sun, surviving the 2008 crash, the endless hurricanes, re-building, operating social services, expanding small time quality of life issues like recycling and bicycling for all. But now those efforts have been set aside to pave the way for wealth.
I hope wealth will get bored with Key West after not too long, and maybe they can retreat to Hobe Sound and Scottsdale and Palm Springs and put Key West on the passe list, been there done that and got bored with it. I know there are people who fervently hope Key West will bust out and become a year round destination for people with money but I'm secretly hoping (not so secretly anymore I guess) that Havana will become the chic destination in the sun for money on the East Coast. I hope the story lines of romantic Mafia casinos, Meyer Lansky-style will attract people who currently just adore their Conch Cottages in Hemingway's town to move south and admire Finca Vigia, the home Hemingway really loved above all, and buy pretentious palaces in Castro's strong hold and let us sink back to a fishing village torpor.
I hope the sexy allure of the Forbidden Isle will be a strong enough flux capacitor to clear the money crap out of Key West and make having a little place in Havana all the rage. Imagine, all those places you've read about in the history books coming alive with floor shows and booze and glamour. You too could be drinking where Hemingway drank, La Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio in the actual Cuban Tropics. Forbes Magazine is already busy promoting the story;
Back here on planet earth the little backwater of a Conch Republic will still get its flow of wide eyed adventurers from the middle west middle classes, enough to keep the town bubbling along, an audience for the scrappy well tanned Bohemian refugees posing as pirates in Key West but themselves from those same places and classes Up North. English spoken here, rule of law, greenback rules, all familiar and just a little wonky, but never scary, dependable old Key West. No pesos no Spanish no Mafia (that you can see) in Key West. Cuban coffee: yes, decidedly but sold under sanitary supervision and up to code:
Me? I'd like to go to Cuba one day, but I'm in no hurry. It feels like exploitation to me right now, the people there frantic for contact, for dollars for recognition that they exist. I've seen that same fierce desperation in other miserably impoverished places in the world and I don't like it, in Honduras, on the streets of Calcutta, in Nigeria as I rode my motorcycle through fields of abject suburban misery. I want to see Cuba after it has picked itself up a bit. Yes, I know box stores and corporations will be there but where I travel I can find unspoiled places yet, where people have work and above all have hope. Not desperation and where they live local lives for local people. McDonald's in Havana and Santiago won't necessarily pollute Cienfuegos or Matanzas or Pinar del Rio right away will it?
I saw the flatness of Communism in the Soviet Union, the drab daily life of people truly oppressed and I didn't much like it. I see Cuba from this side of the Straits bursting out of the strait jacket of the Special Period, of orthodoxy, of imposed lifestyles and I hope they keep pushing and unraveling the constricting lace of that jacket of hopeless conformity. But until they have set themselves free I'd rather see other places, enjoy other lives. Contrary to popular belief not everywhere south of the Rio Grande (Rio Bravo del Norte) is hopeless. Poor perhaps by certain definitions but not always miserable. Mexicans don't view themselves as hopeless victims of narco-culture even if gringos like to tar them with that brush. Mexico is actually vital and alive and brimming with history and culture and industry. Much better to see Mexico first and Cuba later.
And so we wait and see and Key West evolves and changes and because we have lived here a while we think perhaps change which is inevitable can only go one way, from bad to worse, and we will be the losers. Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes even the inevitable gets derailed, and Havana is the big unknown in Key West's future. They have I am sure much greater capacity to absorb huge cruise ships and all their thousands of passengers...let's make Key West a destination for smaller ships those that seek out offbeat destinations, the Fred Olsen lines of the world.
People will tell you Key West is going down the toilet, and sure they have a point. When a city panders to only one group of citizens at the expense of others the future isn't bright. But consider this: the conventional in Key West has a way of turning out not to be wise. Conventional wisdom in Key West gets turned on its head. Perhaps a future with less money, less growth, no expansion might be the best thing that ever happened to the Southernmost City. With any luck we will connect our sewers of money and lack of taste and desire for eternal growth to flush all the garbage across the sea and let Havana our sister city from the past suck up some of the debris, all of the debris we don't need. Flush away Key West!
Who would I like left over? A few artists, musicians and itinerant makers of things that taste good and look good and cause intrigue in the imagination. I'd like fewer name brands and more Stock Island Nikes, people who say fuck without wondering nervously who they have offended, transvestites because they are traditional and drunks ditto and I really wouldn't mind ATMs that offer more languages than English and Spanish. I'd like Key West to lose some money and some attitude and to learn you can do more with less and have fun while doing it. It's Havana's turn to chase the pot of gold, let them at it and let's us go back to being eccentric and well read and well schooled and well traveled and polite and fearless and if we have to lets be just a little financially poorer. It's what Jesus would do. Maybe.
(PS; I miss Joe Bageant)
(PS; I miss Joe Bageant)