Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Mario Sanchez

I was in the Key West Art and History Museum at the Old Custom House on Clinton Square and I determined that I wanted to enjoy certain pieces of art. For instance "The Old Neighborhood" below:
Sanchez  was self taught, drawing his pictures on brown paper bags and translating them into wood carvings. Pretty amazing:
As  you check out my rather angled photographs (it's not easy to adapt to the lighting and stream of cruise ship passengers!) you'll notice that Sanchez's "photographic memory" includes no street chickens. I was also checking out the Works Progress Administration watercolors from the 1930s and they too show no wandering chickens on the streets of Key West. Promoters of the fowl say they are a tradition. Not that I can see...
 Cigar making is also recorded by Sanchez:
Below you can see the reader keeping the makers of  cigars amused as they roll their leaves. Cigar making was a big deal in key West after socialist revolutionaries from Cuba failed to oust the Spanish and got ousted themselves. They came over in exile and got to work making cigars. However Key West's peculiar problems reasserted themselves  even in those days  and  the bosses found cheaper land in Tampa where they created Ybor City and made that the cigar capital of Florida.
Hot bollos are Cuban falafels if I can be so crude. Essentially they are spiced ground black beans deep fried and utterly delicious. Five Brothers make a good version but in Sanchez's art they were for sale on the streets. Happy days!
 In the picture above you can see the street car rails for the horse drawn carriages.
Sanchez also turned his hand in his outdoor studio to creating fish of which I photographed just one. Grunts were  a precious food during the Depression when they were  a staple in the impoverished city. 80% of Key West's workers were on Federal assistance at the time and the city went bankrupt. People ate grunts and grits and were happy to get them.
Key West changed quite a bit to accommodate the railroad in 1912 by building up the north shore where the train arrived and unload people while rolling freight cars into ferries bound for Havana. Since that earth removal things have stayed pretty much the same shape around the edges. The interior map changed with the construction of Sears shopping mall in the 1960s and the expansion of the population into New Town where people could have a garden and a ranch house with modern conveniences.
 Back in Sanchez's day there were stories to be told:
Which commentary refers to this:
I have read the newspapers discussing the arrival of the train in January 1912. There were lamentations that the service would wreck the Key West spirit, that of an isolated island. Many people had never seen a train before that fateful day. Flagler's railroad took all day to get to Miami with it's load of people and Cuban winter fruit and it never turned a profit till it was wrecked by a hurricane in 1935. Below the picture showing the arrival of the first train.
In those days it was possible to drive  a car to he mainland but there was a ferry from Big Pine to Matecumbe and another from key Largo. It was an epic journey made easy and comfortable by Flagler and his slow moving train (25 mph maximum speed on bridges). Sanchez provided an invaluable and beautiful record of those days.
" I know my modest art isn't good, but people like it hey?"

Monday, January 30, 2017


I got home yesterday morning and it was raining so hard  Rusty agreed it was going to be a no walk morning. He chewed my arm by way of compensation and followed me to bed.
By the time I got up  around lunch time it was still raining and the temperature was hovering around 61 degrees. I hate talking about temperatures in the Keys as in winter everyone thinks 61 is warm and they only understand how cold it feels when they are here on vacation and accidentally live through a cold front.
It is damp and when the wind blows it is cold. Even if 61 would be a warm Spring day where you live around here it is cold.It just is, take my word for it. Or throw out your winter wardrobe then go outside in shorts and sandals. That's Keys life in winter.
The funny thing is  most people enjoy the change and I count myself among them. On a couple of conditions, firstly that the weather doesn't last too long, a couple of days at most, and that it not get too damned cold. So far things look on track to satisfy my requirements.
I decided against riding the Bonneville to work not least because I don't like to get wet feet and hands on my way and have to sit around in an air conditioned dispatch center all night with damp extremities. Besides which I have no desire to ride in these brisk temperatures. 
The drive into town  was so slow and so dreary as I was at the back of a long line of very slow moving cars- 38 in a 55 is not acceptable no matter whose island time you are on-  so of course I started wishing I was on the Bonneville so I could take on a few cars at a time and work my way to the front of the line. Most people have no idea how to pass a slow car on a  two lane road so if you are stuck 20 cars back there you stay. Unless you are on a  motorcycle...
So I listened to the radio and pulled over in a  stupor of boredom as I got into Big Coppitt. I had time enough I figured to take a few pictures and then hop back on the highway and get to work in plenty of time. And so it was.
Looking at the boats scattered round the bay south of Highway One I was glad not to sitting out there listening to the rain all day. Even if I did have to sit up all night listening to 911 calls and police radio traffic...it seemed like a fair exchange of labor for a snug berth ashore. 
A five minute stop put the slowpoke out of sight and it was  a steady drone into Key West from Big Coppitt. I arrived dry and in plenty of time.
Think about that. I left my dry weatherproof home in my weatherproof car and arrived at my weatherproof work...and I missed riding my motorcycle. I would really suck at living where they have proper seasons.

Sunday, January 29, 2017


It must have been twenty years ago my wife and I were driving around Eastern Europe. We rented a car in Prague and set out to explore the newly opened up world that had been locked away behind the Iron Curtain. It was September and tourist season was over which gave us the flexibility to drive, find a hotel and spend the night without worrying about reservations. The trip also had an air of adventure as travel in Eastern Europe was still a rarity and we crossed paths with horses and carts, East German Trabant two-stroke cars and lots of Russian Ladas. Our teal colored Opel ( a super powered Chevy Metro hatchback) stood out like a beacon among the dull brown and gray Communist cars. People stared as we passed. 
We toured Hungary and tasted wine and  crossed Lake Balaton on a ferry. We drove through Slovakia through their new border with the Czech Republic after their recent split. It rained and the roads were muddy. We stopped and changed money, in Poland we were handed bundles of zlotys in different shapes and colors. I was puzzled fearing being duped. No they reassured me new money and old and they were honest and correct. In the Tatras Mountains of Southern Poland we bought matching sweaters and socks it was so cold and we had no winter clothes. We looked like gray fuzzy caterpillars in the uncured wool. It was all an adventure and we hardly knew what we were doing. Budapest confused us and Auschwitz gave us indigestion.
This was in the days before the Internet and we ended up in Karlsbad, known nowadays as Carlovy Vary or in English Charles' Baths, It was a spa town with natural hot springs stuck in a narrow river valley, a canyon almost in my memory. We walked the winding streets and felt like we had walk-on parts in Death in Venice so we should have been dressed in Edwardian clothes, starched collars and flounces, instead of modern sloppy wear. We bought crystal glasses as the Czech crown was not a powerful currency against the US dollar. My wife brought them home wrapped in a sheepskin rug (for our dog) and we have the glasses, large for water, medium wine and small for liquor in a  complete set, to this day. We also brought home a slightly more macabre souvenir too.
We hiked up the side of the canyon on a wooded trail to some sort of overlook mentioned in the guidebook. I had thoughts of the Reichenbach Falls where Sherlock Holmes met his death but there was no water here, just moss and pine trees and a somber encroaching dusk. We met two women on the trail, one about our age around 35, and her mother, older grayer wiry and walking easily along the narrow path. We all paused to admire the view. "I grew up here," the older woman said as we looked at the little town in the valley. She told us her story.
They were German Jews so you know this isn't going to end well, especially when you understand they grew up as Germans in a part of Czechoslovakia populated by ethnic Germans. Hitler annexed the Sudetenland in 1938 and absorbed the ethnic Germans into the Fatherland while expelling the Slavs to the rump of their country. It was to redress a historic wrong, Hitler said, arguing all Germans should be united. Of course that didn't include Jews and the older woman talking to us told how she escaped. Thanks to her father who anticipated the horrors to come she was sent to America never to see her family again. She found their names in a concentration camp ledger and the numbers tattooed on their arms but she also found the record of their murder. 
Why just you? I asked my head full of puzzlement. There wasn't enough money to pay the Nazi bribes to get everyone out nor the money to buy the family tickets to America. Her parents had to hope for the best and they wanted their daughter to live. There was no exit for them. We stood looking out over the city and listened to her stories of life in pre-war Karlsbad. Her daughter dropped in comments to her mother about how she had never spoken of this or that. We walked back down the trail and as we strolled back to our hotel our guide pointed out this and that building from her store of memories. The Germans gathered here she said, our friends lived there she said as we walked the narrow streets. We were transported back 50 years. The memories were powerful.
I think of that encounter often these days asking myself what should I do as I watch clouds gather and intolerance and anger grow and fear replace confidence, while trust becomes too high a price to pay for joy. We have collectively forgotten the past and I fear that means we are doomed to relive it. What to do, I wonder and I have no answers. I now stand a very good chance of becoming a victim of my own complacency - "That could never happen here" - and I trust it won't. But it doesn't look good right now.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Trees In Old Town

No summer clouds, just perfect golden light in the later afternoon in winter.
I posted a picture to Instagram similar to this with a comment regarding the tree commission. Its an organization in the city that is required to sign off on trees that need to be cut down. The need to destroy old growth in the city seems to vary and there is a constant stream of anonymous complaints in the Citizen's Voice about trees that have been removed. 
An interesting side note I find is when you look back at photographs of old Key West, say around 1900 you will notice that there were far fewer trees in those days. Streets were white coral rock ground down to gravel lined with white picket fences as we see today. However there was much less green canopy. Below the 600 block of Eaton Street at that time with  a low wall in front of 620:
Image result for key west streets 1900
Photo Key West Library

I am told the reason for the lack of greenery is explained in part by the lack of water. Piped water only came to Key West in 1942 for the Navy Base. The war propelled the public expense of running water down the highway from the South Florida Aquifer. Before then everyone caught rain water and if they failed the cost of buying water was not easy to digest apparently. So it wasn't worth wasting on decorative foliage.
Happily these days despite or because of the tree commission there are plenty of trees in town. I'd always like more of course but I don't deal with the aggravation of leaves and neighbors and stuff.

Carsten Lane captivating Rusty:

But you have to admit a little greenery or a lot makes all the difference to the appearance of a home.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Key West Bight

Summer calm in Key West, daily highs around 80, nighttime lows near 70. Perfect.
A walk on the boardwalk through Key West Bight, known to some as the Historic Seaport. 
Public toilets - lovely! convenient! However the idiot graffiti artists asks us to flash after each use.
 So why does anyone plan not to flush? 
The harbor water taxi which ferries people to and from anchored boats. A smooth dry ride.
A cabin top picnic enjoying the almost setting sun.
I liked the picture and apologize for the fuzziness. Harbor rats doing their thing. 
Reminds me of the good old days.
There's lots to do: drink, feed the birds or fish, take pictures, watch the boats...
Or you could attempt all at once:
They call the sunset boats packed with passengers head boats or cattle boats. 
I stopped for the pause that refreshes, focaccia at Pizza Duetto my current downtown favorite snack.
The owner is from Verona and we talk Italian together and discuss the merits of emigration.
He misses New York sometimes even as he makes a success of Greene Street. 
Boats and bicycles. 
Selling tickets for the headboats as the sun sets and makes everything look gold.