Monday, May 31, 2021

The Holiday

RIP David Thorpe

 David Thorpe was an English photographer who kept a blog about photography and wrote with the sort of self deprecating wit I enjoy. He made YouTube videos and photography with an emphasis on gear which interested me less. Obviously video spread his name further afield which is nice, but his written words were gold. He died of cancer May 26th and amid the usual online lamentation I found myself revisiting photographs from his time as a newspaper photographer. He posted this picture below, of refugee children in Central Africa. His  picture and his commentary are typical of the man, the thinker and photographer. I am not one of those who thinks "everything happens for a reason" and  I question the how people living comfortable lives can suggest that it does, in the face of these horrors:

"Covering the Rwanda genocide changed my view of the world. I realised how utterly bloody awful life could be if you were unlucky enough to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time. And I realised (maybe not realised, more understood, felt) how lucky and privileged are most of us. We just take it for granted, as we would.

Look at these kids. In the West, they would probably be being taken to school by their mum or their dad. They'd have friends and warm bedrooms and fish fingers. Here, in a camp in Goma, they have nothing. Their parents are murdered or have died from cholera. They have just been hosed down to clean them.

I went on this job with my friend and (then) colleague Stuart White. We were camping with Oxfam people, surrounded by death. Late in the evening, we heard music. In the darkness, we made our way towards it. There was a hotel. There was a band playing and the restaurant was full of aid workers. We went in and ate a 3 course meal with wine.

It was surreal. I still find it hard to believe. Why were we eating a 3 course meal in a restaurant when a mile away people were keeling over from hunger and disease? Because we're worth it? I don't think so. Because we're lucky more like it."

He took pictures of war and celebrity, of human interest as he calls lovely animals-with-people pictures, and he thought about life as it is lived. But even in the small things, the weirdness of everyday living gave Thorpe cause to ponder and say something profound:

"A few years ago I went into a Darty electrical retailer in France to buy a digital clock alarm. it was €3.95. I unpacked it, plugged it in, set the time and it worked perfectly. But there was a little voice inside of me saying “this doesn’t feel right”. Like anyone else, I’m happy to buy something that’s a bargain but this struck me as somehow immoral. I may sound mad but it should have cost more. I’m used to good value for money but this went beyond that. If it had been three times the price it would still have been good buy and I would still have bought it. It was worth more than that. It just seemed plain wrong to me."

I miss David Thorpe already and I never met him or told him how much I appreciated his wit. He made no bones about being baffled by the technology he loved and explained so eloquently:

"I remember one day being in Hampton Court Park when a robin landed on the handlebars of my Brompton bike as it leaned against a tree. A charming little snap. I needed to act fast but simply couldn’t get the Lumix G9 to fire. It seemed to have a mind of its own. No amount of fiddling made any difference. I switched the camera on and off to reset it to my standard Custom setting and got my focus back. No joy. The robin, having watched my bumbling, ascertained that I was not threatening its territory and therefore had no need to peck out my eyes. So it flew away."

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Standing, Not Walking

I feel stuck in a  rut at the moment and I don't know quite how to get out of it. A fellow I met on the road many years ago remarked that he expected me to run out of words sooner or later. Bob Leong was one of the nicest people you could hop[e to meet on the Internet and made friends all over the place. I thought he was wrong and I told him so at the time. 
Aside from riding motorcycles Bob was an avid Corvette owner in his corner of far Western Canada and on a  trip to the heart of Corvette-land in Kentucky, you might call it a pilgrimage, he died in his sleep in distant 2014. As sudden and as unexpected as it was, his death caused all of us that knew and liked him to sit back a second and think. I remembered his words and even after he was no longer around to debate with, I continued to disagree. Now I wish he were here to help me unravel this conundrum that he had predicted: some day you will use up all your words.
I'm not sure if I've squeezed Key West dry and thus am ready to see something new, or if, as I believe more likely I am ready to see something new and thus am failing to see Key West in a fresh new light each day. It is a conundrum. Thinking about it put me in mind of the wisdom of the late Bob Cheong.
The every day beauty is here, but my ability to capture the essence of daily life here is slipping through my fingers. I cannot believe reading about the tightening noose of lack of economic sense in this community makes for interesting reading. I am constrained from writing about my difficulties at work where we have 15 budgeted positions and only eight of them are filled. Going to work constantly short staffed  is wearing me down, I admit it.  
Normally the rush of people this time of year slows down and for a couple of months before family summer vacations we see a period of quiet, of refreshment after the winter crowds. This year as usual Covid has changed all that and the pent up desire to travel and be away means Key West hotels are full and some of the money lost during the height of the pandemic is being made up.
I am told the city itself has done okay during this time of stress, with cautious budgeting and planning for the worst, so the city according to our union negotiators is not in bad financial shape. Good news I suppose for people looking at a long term job situation. But Key West as I frequently point out has an astonishing capacity for reinventing itself and surviving. 
 I keep walking Rusty, taking pictures, seeking new angles or shapes or perspectives, different light, sticking with an awkward lense to force myself to see and not take things I've seen for twenty years for granted. I want new horizons and different challenges and ther thought of learning to see on the fly, as we drive by makes me nervous. I know what to expect in the Keys, rainy season or dry, morning noon or evening or night.
Places I love, the origami tree shadows against the colors of the setting sun, the clouds of summer, the shadows of noon with the sun overhead, the irritating sweat of summer walks fogging the camera and my glasses and my mind. It's what I know. It's safe. 
Time for a change, time to risk making a mistake, time to see new things and new places and put my view of them on this same page. My wife is wrapping up her last school year, her last class is taught, she has some papers to shuffle and graduations to attend but he career as a teacher is over.  Next week she starts her new and important job of Chief Planning Officer for the Alaska to Argentina expedition of 2022. Rusty the Chief Security Officer has been practicing sleeping in the van under the air conditioner these hot summer days so he is transitioning nicely. I am still showing up at my desk holding to the routine. It seems unfair but my wife says she started working before me all those years ago. 
Florida Keys
This time next year I hope to be in Alberta, or the Yukon perhaps, depending on the snowline. Bob Leong country, as it were. I wonder what I shall be seeing. This page will still be here, I've added a url to it already, but it simply forwards along with Key West Diary  to this same page: conchscooter.blogspot. A different photograph, a new tag, the more things change the more they will stay the same. I hope new words will come with new environments and I hope my camera will reveal them to my eye.  

Friday, May 28, 2021

Slices of Life

I mentioned to a friend how this new distillery in town, very fashionable, was trading on the Hemingway connection, and her reaction struck me then, a while ago, and sticks with me now. 
Only in Key West she said, can you advertise liquor using a long dead literary figure; everyone else uses bikinis and sunsets. She had a point, so now when I walk past the distillery I take the Hemingway connection as a compliment to the modern class of Key West drinkers. The rum itself isn't bad either.
I asked, he said yes, and told me his name was Bushman. I really think I need to take a trip to the sunset at Mallory Square, long overdue to update my database of street performers.  The people I remember are long gone. swept away by hurricanes and the virus.
In the photo above I was photographing the appalling agglomeration of wires and fortuitously a pigeon flew into the frame. I was listening to a discussion of photography taboos and the removal of wires from pictures by computer is one such. I can't make up my mind if the mad nests of wires add to or detract from the charming weirdness of a town exposed to the elements and which would benefit from burying the wires. Too expensive they say. Below we see a typical outdoor scene in Key West. random wires and phone lines and junction boxes slapped outside buildings, Jimmy Buffett's studio in this case, slapped with a. coat of paint and called good. Good but ugly.
The pizza place on Greene Street, run by an actual Italian who ones for New York, is up for sale. Apparently some organization that rates these things puts Duetto in the top ten pizza places in the country. That boggled my mind, but then again every day we are bombarded with best this and that irrelevance. It is very good pizza by my standards. Their focaccia sandwiches (piadini in Italy) are Americanized and very good too.
The light was rather poor so the two cyclists who ran into my frames were moving too fast for the shutter speed set for stationary shots. And yet this guy illustrates perfectly the day off in Key West. Bucket, rod and bicycle and off to fish. At speed past my camera.
This guy rode into the picture which was going to make a point about parking. At first I was irritated at myself. Then I saw the expression next to the no parking sign. I was reminded how maddening parking has remained in Key West over the years.  Too many cars and too few spaces. 
I am forced to the conclusion that life is a matter of mathematics. I haven't quite fleshed out the proposition but I think that at the heart of all human aggravations numbers are the explanation. Luckily you can't blame numbers for anything as they are blameless. Real estate in Key West is become so expensive even tables are shrunk in size to accommodate more customers in less room.  Yesterday's bar stool is today's table:
Webb Chiles put a burr up where burrs are not wanted when he pointed out to me the human population in the Southern Hemisphere is only 20% of the global total. Since 1981 the US population has increased by about 100 million people to a grand estimated total of 330,000,000. And they all have to park their cars, and some days it seems like they do it in Key West.
No idea what this trio was doing but nowadays cell phones carry photographs and sometimes they are well worth peering at. I hope these were. 

Wednesday, May 26, 2021


I went to the Key West Bight for inspiration. I was feeling blue as I have been through much of the viral months in Key West, struggling not to yield to pessimism, hoping for better times and now trying not to be surprised when the most pessimistic predictions have been proved wrong. Life is coming back sooner and faster than expected. Covid isn't over but Publix has more vaccine than it can use and if you can get a jab anytime you want at a grocery store it means not to be vaccinated is a choice. And in case no one noticed the whole vaccination thing was paperwork free and dollar free. Show up and get jabbed was all it took once the production lines ramped up. Once again we are lucky to be Americans, not Indians or Brazilians or other people suffering the torments of hell more than usual at the moment. One bipartisan effort that worked, President Trump ordered it up in a hurry and President Biden got it out to the people the precious vaccine.
Key West is full of visitors, and I don't just mean Rusty. I saw the van in the photo above and figured to myself the slogan represents Key West, the 21st century version, quite perfectly: Full Service Adventures. In a world where going to a theme park is termed "an adventure" Key West serves up adventures in controlled environments with certain outcomes. And tons of people want just that after being cooped up virally for a long time. Of course, if it were a real adventure with a possibility of not returning or losing a limb on the way, the enthusiasm might be dampened, but full service adventures are ready to go.
When I had lunch with Robert he told me of his out-of-town visitors, the sort of people who force locals to indulge themselves in vacation activities usually ignored. I love to ride the Conch Train when visitors with a taste for history come into my life. Robert the retired conservation activist took them to The Fort. That would be Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, the island cluster 70 miles west of the southernmost point. He was shocked to discover on his attempt to secure reservations on short notice that he had to apply for stand by status like a hapless disorganized airline traveler. 
The day trip to the brick fort in the middle of nowhere, my visit in 2009: Fort Jefferson, was postponed for a day Robert told me, as they regrouped and planned to get in line at five the next morning to be at the front of the standby line for the single daily trip at 8am. Weren't they surprised to find a pair of newlyweds already waiting for the boat ride when Robert showed up at five am. The early birds had missed a place on the boat the day before when they took standby  less seriously and they were determined to see the civil war fort on theoir Key West honeymoon. Robert said he got the very last seat on the sailing, such is the demand for trips in Key West at the moment.
Key West went bust in the Great Depression when 80 percent of the population lived off  government "relief" payments. You can read about it in Hemingway's To Have And Have Not, a book set in Key West in that period and not universally liked for its depiction of poverty and wealth. Those were hard times but the city came back.
Julius Stone was one of those characters celebrated these days in the history of Key West. Born into wealth that his family lost n the Depression he got a government job handling relief programs in Washington. He was assigned to Key West to shut the bankrupt city down and possibly evacuate the Keys on the grounds they had no economic future. He came and saw a different future and built the tourist industry we see today - fun n the sun year round. Then he went on to carry out some shady deals and fled in exile to Australia where he died in obscurity, poverty and disgrace. A great story, thankfully lived by someone not me. 
Walking the docks I saw two essentials for modern boating, speakers above to keep the sandbars entertained at full volume, and something resembling a  yoga mat below, that I saw on more than one boat. Perhaps they really are adventures?
Anyway Stone's legacy wasn't the scamming and obscurity but it was the notion of Key West as party town and despite a few ups and downs since then the partying has continued. Smuggling has also continued until the recent changes to immigration laws preventing the settlement of Cuban refugees. Before people smuggling cigars and rum were popular items in history that gave Key West its wild frontier town reputation.
So even though cruise ships still aren't sailing people arrive by plane and fill highway one each and every day - I've never seen traffic so slow! - and the adventure continues.
The waterfront legacy continues. In Hemingway's time these recreational docks were mostly open space filled with commercial fishing boats. This frou frou Historic Seaport snow job replaced the commercial shrimpers only thirty years ago and I remember when there were still shrimp boats in Key West. Now they are docked in Stock Island where their messy colorful adventures are far from the tourist eye.
Nowadays Key West is home to pleasure craft and people who live on their small frumpy boats are relegated to the waters outside the expensive marinas. I think Julius Stone would be impressed to see how the changes he started have developed and strengthened.
Not everyone has yielded to progress and I find myself sharing space with the Have Nots, a few hold outs, sleeping in public in defiance of the neworder of wealth refining Key West.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Mallory Square

The Nao Santa Maria has returned to Key West which arrival has been duly photographed and so forth. When I strolled by last weekend I was reminded of the effort it took me to get aboard on it's last visit to Key West. I was using a cane and relied on my arms to pull me around the ship as my legs were not very functional. I enjoyed ambling by just like anyone else with two legs, on this fleeting sighting.
The ship is a re-creation of the vessel the Italian Christopher Columbus used to discover the land named for Amerigo Vespucci, another Italian explorer. The irony is that Columbus discovered the Bahamas for his Spanish patron and colonized, not very well and with great brutality, islands in the Caribbean but he never set foot on the country we call America. Unlike Columbus the modern Spaniards have electronics, mechanicals and modern appliances to a degree. 
I'd rather ride a modern motor boat if that were the choice between the Santa Maria and a modern power boat. Even though sailing has progressed over the centuries, particularly since the creation of plastics, the fundamentals remain the same. Sails, ropes, balance and weather predictions are all parts of the equation. I enjoy sailing as an intellectual pursuit but I find as time runs out I want to travel and see places up close. I find it stimulating to think Columbus sailed the course he chose because of the prevailing winds and a modern pleasure sailor would do the same to avoid head on confrontations with wind and wave. One hopes climate change will not soon change those patterns.
The modern way to chase fish is to drive hard through the water. Altogether different.
Jesus loves you, and yet the rest of us stroll past with no idea how to behave any differently. Homelessness in Key West waxes and wanes with the seasons but there is a hardcore group who prefer to live outdoors and avoid the free shelter and all attempts to tame them. I think life on the streets must be incredibly boring but the homeless I have talked  to look at me as though I am crazy when I say that.
19th century brickwork at the Clinton Square Mall, a former warehouse for the traders docking at Key West. I trust it too will outlive us.
A decorative motif from the same building:
And this terracotta I noticed, really noticed at the Custom House on Front Street just around the corner. And no, its proper name is not Customs House. It is singular.
I can't make up my mind if it is pretty or angular and ugly. It sure does look uncomfortable from any angle. Good luck to those young people aboard.

Monday, May 24, 2021


Walking around Duval Street Saturday morning was a moment of time travel for me, a return to 2019 before the wretched virus took over our lives, a time when people came to the city to drink and enjoy a form of vacation that never much appealed to me, but pays my wages. I got to Duval with Rusty before the morning clean up was complete so you too can see the detritus of an active down town. In a time of pandemic that is hopefully over, I view the sea of plastic cups as a sign of a return to normal.
On the other hand the chickens taking over the center of Duval Street reminds me of the same time last year when there were no visitors, when everything was locked down, and chickens and dead leaves occupied the streets, It was eerie and gloomy even though we knew we were living through a moment in history that would end soon, it lasted longer than any of us I think, expected. I took pleasure in walking mask free, legally, without my glasses fogging up. At this point in Florida vaccinations are going begging so if you aren't vaccinated its not owing to any failure in supply.
Sloppy Joe's was closed owing to the early hour but that is how the building has looked for the past year.  The progress of the virus is now being measured in the developing world, where lock downs and death are the order of the day. Borders remain closed and the poorest of the poor are deprived of the fundamentals of daily living. It boggles my mind how disordered the world is, where supply cannot meet demand and where distribution of available supplies, food, medicine and sanitation defies the widespread availability of life support systems. We have abundance and they have scarcity.  
Cruise ships are nowhere to be seen yet and I think tat's probably a good thing. Far too many stores are closed and downtown has a scrawny abandoned  look that doesn't seem appealing to the kinds of visitors who seek jollity and cleanliness and order. I have debated in the past my preference for clean paint and uncluttered sidewalks with friends who say the rundown appearance of Key West adds to its charm. Sometimes I think they are correct as I am not by nature in pursuit of cleanliness and order, but when people are invited to my home I give the place a brush up and a vacuum to make it presentable.
Key West is far from presentable at the moment. Check the following pictures and see all the weeds and the dirty paint and general sloppiness. I'm not talking about the bottles and plastic cups scattered as they are cleaned daily by city workers before tourists wake up. But when I see weeds positively flourishing I ask myself if this town is ready for tourist prime time?
Scuffed paint, torn signs flapping and high prices seem an odd mixture of ways to entice tourists. The Mayor has spoken of encouraging wealthy tourists interested in Key West history and art and culture but were I that sort of visitor I'd stick to Naples and Palm Beach.
The Red Barn, one of my favorite haunts is closed till further notice as it has to be. Where as I have no interest in the return of cruise ship stores for myself, the possibility of live theater being curtailed would make Key West a lesser community in my opinion. 
The clock tower on Old City Hall was her target and I understand that. I've littered this page with pictures of it, including the slice torn out by Hurricane Irma, promptly repaired by the city. I look at the street and wonder what does go here in the evening while I am sntg at home with my wife and dog 25 miles away?
Urban forestry flourishing.  Weeds everywhere...
It is my internal contradiction, I'd like to see it clean and tidy, even as I acknowledge that the sort of tourist sought by the mayor doesn't sound terribly appealing to me the fact is that in the long run Key West needs to sort out a plan and a vision and attract weed loving tourists who enjoy a run down pirate town or people of wealth who want and expect clean efficient service delivered on time. And are ready to pay for it. It is a bit of a conundrum.