I found myself caught in a crowd on the sidewalk in front of the world's most iconic bar...It sounds like the opening line of a joke, and if Sloppy Joe's isn't the world's most iconic it is certainly Key West's. I know this because a woman in the knot of people watching a Conch Tour Trolley getting stuck in front of an obstinate driver afraid of backing up, said loudly in my ear:" Now I can get a Sloppy Joe's t-shirt," with the sort of excitement mixed with reverence I have heard among crowds attending a Papal Blessing in St Peter's Square. I was a bit surprised.
After the red car backed up enough to release the extremely patient professional driving the trolley the crowd started moving but not before several more people around me muttered"Sloppy Joe's" in various tones of excitement. Really? I hesitate to admit it but I have never had a drink far less food at Sloppy Joe's, nor do I really want to as I am not a fan of crowds nor am I very inspired by the sort of food offered to a transient customer base. It seems the bar has done a bang up job of advertising itself.
Sloppy Joe Russell has gone down in history as Ernest Hemingway's buddy in Key West. He ran a bar that wasn't, it was a speakeasy as during prohibition places selling alcohol were not allowed. As odd as that sounds I have wondered from time to time how life might be if the intemperate and incompetent weren't encouraged in their social stupidity by the lubrication of alcohol. I'm not complaining really as they are a form of job security for me, even as they sow discord in families and danger on the roads. Moderation is not a word one associates with Key West and alcohol unfortunately.
Sloppy Joe created the Blind Pig which he opened May 5th 1933 when prohibition ended and he became legitimate. That place was located where Captain Tony's is today and that's the reason they claim to be the original Sloppy Joe's... In 1937, by when he had changed the name to the Silver Slipper his landlord increased the rent from three to four dollars a month and they say he bought the current building for twenty five hundred dollars in 1937.
One of the other legends about Sloppy Joe's involves how all the patrons of the Silver Slipper helped Joe Russell pack up the bar and hauled the entire contents up Greene Street to the current location. The Hemingway House used to tell the story, and still may for all I know that the urinal used as a flower pot in the garden was an artifact from the Silver Slipper on Greene Street taken during the move. Apocryphal but a cute story.
Then the name is anther story. Apparently there was a Jose Garcia who kept a bar called Rio Havana and it was known for being a mess with melted ice all over the floor and Hemingway suggested that place as the inspiration for the name Sloppy Joe's, not directly attributable to Joe Russell directly then. Who knew?
The funny thing to me is how durable the place is and bars around it come and go. The Lazy Gecko apparently had a landlord falling out and a place that seemed as stable disappeared. IC Doubles claims to have entered into an extended vacation which has prompted Facebook speculation that it isn't coming back and so it goes.
I saw these pigeons keeping the Bull and Whistle (and Garden of Eden, the clothes optional bar on the roof) under observation. Rick's, Irish Kevin's Captain Tony's and Hog's Breath are part of that grouping of apparently permanent bars in downtown.
But for some reason Sloppy Joe's is the one as Hemingway's pull is as strong as ever. I remain astonished by the power of the writer's name not least because he only lived in Key West twelve years and claimed his home in Havana as his favorite place to be, which you can see here, Finca Vigia, from an essay I wrote in 2009.