Sunday, February 28, 2021


The movie recently released on Hulu (and in those theaters that are still open) has caused a few ripples among people who live in vehicles.  Its a story of the usual reaction among people who think they know more about a subject than the people who made the film. Most of us aren't secret agents or jewel thieves so it's easier to watch an adventure film for pure entertainment than to watch a film about something you think you know.  This film is about a woman living in a van, on her term she is houseless, not homeless. Van life has hardly anything to do with this form of being a nomad. It's not going to change my life.

The story is simple enough. A woman, Fern, becomes widowed before the film begins and we see her packing up her life in a small town in Nevada after losing her job and she drives away from her storage locker to live life in her low top older white van. Its not a comfort machine but she has a toilet (vividly portrayed in use as Frances McDormand doesn't hold back) cooking facilities and a bed. The whole tone of the movie is slow paced, meditative and unhurried. Its dark outside, snowy and cold much of the time. Fern goes hither and yon, finds temporary work, makes friends and lives a low key van life. She is supposed to be standing in for older workers, many women, who have made little money earn less on social security and find a mobile life better than being on the streets. Fern has opportunities to live in a house, to return to her family, to find love with David Strathairn and she makes her choice. Van Life? Retirement? Solitude?  

For me life in the United States has been a stroke of luck, or genius on the part of my youthful self. However I have skated by with decent jobs when I wanted them, no family obligations, no expensive divorces no child support. In many respects I have lived a charmed life, assisted in no small measure by a  forward looking wife and a pension plan. For many Americans old age is no golden retirement, no happy fade to black but a struggle to maintain sanity and mental health, to maintain relationships and find a way to live with not much money. That's not van life. Swankie has cancer and a limited time to live. Saying good bye to Fern is a tough moment in the movie. (In real life she is hale and hearty and doing fine in her van). It's not van life. Its people in vans living on the edge of dissolution.

What strikes me as a bit odd is how the generalizations sweep everybody who is affected by the movie. When I decided to have a mobile retirement I found myself deluged by  Instagram pictures of youngsters living their "best life" as the cliché has it in immaculate vans and the skimpiest of bikinis as though that was my goal. I'm really not delusional. My own path is somewhere I hope between the  forced van dwellers at the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (below) in Quartzite and the mad YouTubers making money off the self delusion of dreamers paying others to live their fantasies.
I am very fond of Bob Wells (pictured below in an unflattering portrait) an Alaskan who was forced into a van in great misery by an unhappy divorce and who quietly and efficiently adapted to life in a  van, hunkering in the desert and learning how to make do with a social security check by his account of $1100 a month. He has a stale website where I found him but he has moved to YouTube where he makes some $75,000 a year, by others accounting and attracts the usual band of desperate trolls and character assassins. He has loosely organized a charity designed to help equip people with simple rolling homes to get them out of homelessness and into vehicles, he has advice and encouragement for the lost souls forced into vehicle living as well as the luckier people who choose to do as he does. He makes a cameo appearance in the film and reveals his own pain and it is perhaps that couple of minutes that has galvanized van dwellers to do so much navel gazing around this movie.
My own thoughts about Nomadland center on the work of former Key West resident Barbara Ehrenreich who documented in old fashioned books the plight of the working poor in so many different guises.  To me, from my middle class unencumbered perch Nomadland speaks much more to that reality than the reality of life in a  van.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Birds, Mangroves, Deer

Snowbirds aren't just human in the Keys. Winter migration sees a ton more birds in the skies and among the leaves and roots of the salt flats.
I am not a bird photographer which is one massive specialization. I think of myself as a documentary photographer which is a catch all category useful for someone who writes a diary and illustrates it with pictures. The idea of spending ten grand to buy the equipment to photograph birds in flight and hovering honey bees seems slightly insane to me, who has no plans to make a career of this. A retirement plan that involves living in a 70 square foot van doesn't leave much room for photo printing. I am small picture digital nomad. 
I love the mangroves, pools of water, reflections, colors and silence. I do miss mountains and trees and valleys and stuff but I cannot hide the fact that the road life will present some challenges. It is said, with plenty of justification that staying in place makes it easier to go in depth, to learn a place, to know how to photograph what you want. I am going to be challenged by the road and I hope I can rise to the challenge.
Meanwhile these are pictures of places I know and places I like and I'd like you to like too.


Friday, February 26, 2021

Duval Street Normal

I took the van into town and even though it is high season in winter there was plenty of parking downtown. I was surprised to find a space easily one block from Duval. I had had chores to do followed by an evening shift at work so I figured I'd do better to take the van to town and spend the afternoon in relative comfort without trekking home to Cudjoe Key. It was a good plan.
Van Life
I spent some time at Truman Waterfront on an uncharacteristically sunny day off but before I went to work for my four hour evening shift I decided to take a photo walk on Lower Duval to see how the pandemic winter is working out. Duval Street isn't really very appealing as a destination and in this Covid year it has been even less so, which I do find rather annoying.
Properly masked I set off. I am fully vaccinated at this point, a week after my second shot so the mask is more  away to reduce the spread than to protect myself  but having lived through all those months of mask controversy I think it is more important than ever to keep following the rules. And in Key West the rule is wear a mask. These chickens were ignoring the rules and thus setting a terrible example to their numerous offspring:
It was a pleasant afternoon to wander and perhaps to wonder, a warm day and as it turned out not too crowded. I have to say that being protected by the vaccine makes me feel a lot less stressed being even close to other people outdoors, even though I have not yet got any interest in sitting indoors around strangers. We buy restaurant food to go and will for a while I dare say.
The mask ordinance is a tough rule to enforce if people aren't much interested in compliance. Officers are posted up and down Duval Street gently reminding passersby of the rule to cover up but how do you get everyone everywhere to do what they don't want to do? My solution is to stay away.
I thought it was a warm afternoon but not everyone agreed apparently. I came across a study in plaid outside Wendy's at the corner of Eaton Street, properly masked to boot:
Key West

Florida Winter
Social distancing, a term I keep hoping will disappear from our vocabularies before too long. I find it weird to imagine a future without all these precautions, so used I have become to them. I was reading in the paper today that we may be back to normal this summer and indeed my wife, also vaccinated, has bought airline tickets to California this September. It's her first vacation during the school year in 20 years as she will hit retirement this June.  September is a good month to be out of the Keys to avoid heat and hurricanes and a good month to be in Central California to avoid fog and damp.
I have been toying with making a  trip back to Europe to see my relatives one last time before we hit the road in retirement next year but Italy is having a hard time organizing vaccinations and I'm not sure how easy overseas travel will be this summer. I'm not going to have time to take extended quarantines should they be imposed.  I find it energizing that once again such plans can even be remotely considered. That feels a bit like normal.
Florida Bars
Outdoor dining, watching the world go by from the balcony at the Whistle bar...
Key West Bars
...riding a  motorcycle, helmetless for those that dare, Florida winter looking superficially back to normal. I took the great lumpen van back home and enjoyed the drive.
Florida Winter

Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Meadows

I took my little electric Jetson scooter on my lunch break and went to make some pictures. Not just any pictures: I was trying to carry our an experiment suggested in a book I was reading.
The book is "Perspectives on Place" by J.A.P. Alexander and I bought the e-text book version which as far as I am concerned is indistinguishable from a regular Kindle edition.
The idea was to set some limitations and take a series of pictures to illustrate a neighborhood. What strikes me as a bit odd is that I have been doing that for years in Key West  and apparently I was ahead of the curve. 
So I followed instructions and set myself a square format for the pictures in black and white and limited myself to not using the telephoto lens on my LX100ii. Usually I zoom up to 150mm but here I stuck rigidly to 24 mm, the widest possible angle.
 With about 40 minutes at my disposal I scooted up and down some of my favorite streets in Key West which were, in the middle of the day, devoid of humans except for one agitated terrier on a very long leash and a distracted human at the other end of it. I think the dog was surprised to see a circus bear come rolling silently by on a tiny scooter. 
Shadows and light is how I see Key West, especially in the bright white sunlight of winter so here it is:
The scooter started to run down after a while, I hadn't charged it since my last excursion earlier in the week so I aimed for the police station as the speed slowed down. I found myself walking the last 100 yards which was fine  especially as my Apple watch  liked the locomotion and gave me an "attaboy."
The book says one has to create a narrative which is pretty much what I do all the time...
At this point I was walking the scooter so I stopped to make a picture of the surfboards all up on end. And the apartment complex all up on end against the same dark sky. A commentary on the vapid nature of modern seaside vacations. Or something like that.
This last picture is out of sequence but I liked it quite a lot so I thought it was a good place to end this little photographic experiment. Next time I'll try to connect geography, autobiography and metaphor. That doesn't sound at all easy.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Unconsidered Trifles

Tropic Ocean Airways Cessna Grand Caravan flying overhead.  I thought it looked good but I know nothing about planes so I had to ask a friend for an identification of this strange bulbous looking plane. He said they are workhorses and fly people and stuff everywhere.  
And then I saw another plane overhead and I put it next to a tree for contrast. You can do that with a camera even if you can't sensibly afford a private plane to charter for yourself.
I like the contrast of shadows and light in the perennially sunny keys.
Gnarly mahogany. 
Gentle plaster cast at George Allen public housing:
Some days when I take a walk at lunch I want to go out and see the Key West not usually expressed in the millions of selfies and bright over saturated beach scenes.
Key West always has been a place of shadows and light and odd corners and funny little finds where people express their personalities or fail to follow the accepted paths of decoration and plant growing.
I would cover my house in bamboo (wife permitting) especially the type that doesn't walk everywhere and take over everything. I find the stuff fascinating.
There's a massive cement wall on Duncan Street just off  White Street. I drive by as often as I can. 
It's my kind of privacy fence. And offers some picture possibilities not found everywhere in a  town filled with wood and picket fences.  
Seek and ye shall find somewhere ion Key West. The pandemic gives me time to look. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Simonton Beach

Walking down Greene Street thinking about looking at the water from Simonton Beach I tested the camera settings at the picturesque 90 miles to Cuba store, closed tight. Light and dark looked good, nothing of interest there...
...until there was.  A rooster popped up to check me out and I broke the bad news that officially feeding him would be unlawful. I was wearing my mask so I don't think he got the message. I couldn't be sure if he was defending his fence or asking for a hand out.
Officially the city manager is looking for work. While officially acknowledging the rumor he admitted he was looking for work elsewhere as he feels short changed by his $180,000 salary, second only in the city to the attorney who makes $215,000 according to the newspaper. Big numbers for those of us described by Senator Rick Scott as "little people with little jobs" but apparently the number two position at the Aqueduct pays $20,000 more according to the paper. The other rumor is that the city manager, who got the job by acclaim and no hiring process, is angling for a pay increase and when that urge is satisfied he will stay on and stay in charge of the city. What a weird way to ask for a raise I thought to myself, union member that I am. However it is a glimmer of non conformity in a  town where being normal is more highly prized than ever. Keep Key West Weird.
No dogs allowed. On Simonton Beach. I'm not sure who where when or what brought that sign into existence but I wonder what Captain Tony Tarracino the legendary non conformist would think of it. Especially as his daughter owns the beach bar that probably created the demand for it. 
Simonton Beach wasn't much of a place if you weren't residentially challenged and some people called it Bum Beach for that reason. Now there are beach facilities for rent, beer not out of paper bags and a menu of sandwiches to allow all day lounging on a rented chair under a rented umbrella. 
The sand boat ramp is still there offering free beach access to anyone that cares to swim in the ocean in February. I start swimming when the time changes in the Spring and I stop swimming when we revert to winter time in November. Broadly speaking because I like waters to be at least 80 degrees. Right now they are in the mid 70s which is too cold for my delicate extremities.
Activity, business, tourism. Jolly good. Luckily I have lots of other places to take Rusty but I expect them all to be shut down and restricted as time goes by. The trend seems unstoppable. Progress: I must learn to love it.
As Webb Chiles points out the southern hemisphere has far fewer people living on it than our overcrowded northern half.