I never really decided to live in Key West, I just sort of backed into it. Life in coastal California was quite pleasant though I never adjusted to the cold foggy summers and wet depressing winters. weather that Californians boast about for suppression of insects and limited amounts of snow and ice, but that left me wishing for tropical heat. Two years sailing through Central America with my ever patient wife and dogs left us with one conclusion: hot sweaty weather is much better for her rheumatoid arthritis than Santa Cruz's cold foggy summers. That was the main impetus to settle in Key West a town I knew from my murky past when I sailed around Florida and the Bahamas. When we arrived in Key West from San Francisco a friend gave us an engine block to anchor our boat while we settled in and looked for work. Key West was funky back then) and we went looking for work riding the dinghy to town from our improvised, no rent mooring.
My wife got hired by the state as a Juvenile Probation Officer riding a round Key West on her scooter checking on her probationers. She was warned parts of key West were dangerous but after defending criminals on California's death row, juvenile probation posed no threat to the former lawyer. Frequently when we rode together on my motorcycle youngsters on the sidewalk would shout out: "Hey Mz Goldman!" with a big smile on their faces and greet her at the supermarket check out to prove they were working gainfully and out of trouble. We had landed in simple small town life with the promise of a state pension, something my wife was never able to sign on to in California. Her pension is smaller than California's would have been, but Florida's pension plan is fully funded, unlike CALPERS (California Public Employees Retirement System) in the Golden state...Twenty years later its the little things that matter, like getting an actual payoff...
I got a job captaining boats which filled my pockets with tips but was a precarious living at best. My wife still wanted a pension for our old age, a notion that hadn't quite penetrated my feeble brain as desirable. She nagged enough that I got serious when we decided to buy a house, not knowing mortgages were free with a smile and a handshake at that peculiar time. I figured working for the police would convince a seller of my bona fides. That and a large down payment got us off the boat which we sold and into a house. There we were settled, pensioned and serious people a continent away from our old life.
I think it's safe to say we suffered from a few misapprehensions as we settled into a new and different life. I never imagined I would actually remain a municipal employee long enough to actually cash in my pension but my wife was always smarter than me in these matters and here I am. The other misapprehension was that we would meet travelers from around the Caribbean in Key West. We thought Key West was the stopping off point for people from down south, as it had been for us, and instead Key West is actually of course the final stop south for people from Up North. It was an adjustment in our thinking we had to learn to deal with.
What we came to learn in a hurry is that most people who end up in Key West come from lives unsatisfied Up North and it's obvious if you think about it for a second. The adventure started in a snowdrift and ends at the Southernmost Point, the end of the road, the catchment area for refugees from daily dreary lives Up North. O expected to find a city filled with people cruising around down south who were in Key West to rest, mnake money and prepare to take off again. I was wrong.
I have never felt hugely adventurous for living in Key West, though I have often felt very, very lucky to have stable work here. I am much less attracted to the vacation aspect of Keys living and much more appreciative of the possibility of living a stable life, earning that necessary pension and not being bound to cope with heavy traffic, ice, and the more formal work environment that tends to prevail in other places. My wife tells the story of when she and a colleague when to a probation conference years ago when such things were paid for by the state and the two of them showed up in the hotel meeting room filled with Juvenile Probation Officers from across the state. "You two must be from Key West" the moderator said immediately. They were the only two participants in brightly colored clothes in a sea of black and office gray.
The other night we went together to walk Rusty close to dusk on a back street near where we live. We were on our way from running chores in Key West and we pulled off to let Rusty have a run and sniff as a reward for too long spent on the back seat outside the UPS store and Walgreens and the scooter shop. But lo and behold there was a snowbird with a prancing poodle type creature in our space... no fault of his of course, much applause for bothering to walk his dog at all even if he was wearing a sportscoat of some sort which looked horribly formal. We left and found another socially distanced spot. That's life in the Keys, from the first snows until Easter all public spaces will be filled, all silent moments will be shattered, all places and events worth seeing will be fully booked. You just have to get used to people being "on island" as they say, as though they were Greta Garbo visiting with a retinue.
Let's face it: we could have left. Easy to say but much less harder to do as the pension plan fills out, the unfamiliar becomes familiar, strangers become friends, and cold damp winter weather fades from memory. With our sailboat sold we settled into our routines as you do. Sometimes we are tempted to moan about the daily irritations but a visit to Miami will set you straight when you live in the Keys. I get annoyed by the slow pace of winter traffic, tourists who forget they are clogging the only road to work or to get home from work, lollygagging at the scenery and dawdling under the speed limit. I guess I am not alone as I have seen a marked increase in Highway Patrol activity this winter so I guess we need to commute a little closer to the legal limit.
There is a weird attitude toward people who choose to live in Florida, part contempt and part envy I think. The envy is obvious as for six months of the year the living is not bad at all and the other six though hellishly tropical are not impossible to survive. The contempt arises from Florida's reputation as home to grifters drifters con artists and crooks on the lam. We all get tarred with the same brush and I think that sense of lawlessness on the periphery of respectability drives some people south, a little bit of adventure choosing to live on the edge. When people look at me with disdain: "Oh, you're from Florida" making the Sunshine State sound like a toilet leak I look back and say how much I like living in a state filled with eccentrics, the place that's home to Florida Man and all the shady characters that inspire Carl Hiaasen. If that puts you off living here you could try Nebraska. I've heard it's not an expensive place to live, but there again you don't hear much about that state do you? Am I being a snot bag? Should I apologize to corn huskers everywhere? Nah, I'm from Florida home of the crass, the ill mannered and the weird.
There is a knee jerk response that comes out of people who live in the Keys when asked where they live. "I live in the Florida Keys," they will say. Oh, you live in Florida then? Well, yes and no. And sometimes one has to face the fact that in a country inadequately schooled in history and geography there are actual living people, Americans, who have no idea where or what the Keys may be. Can you imagine that? Me neither.
In the Keys time served helps to give you credibility. The longer you have lived here the more you can claim...whatever it is longevity in the Keys allows you to claim. It's the notion of a freshwater Conch brought to life. A Conch (pronounced Konk, for heaven's sake) is someone born in Key West, by the strictest definition. A freshwater Conch is supposedly a long term resident of Key West. Except freshwater conchs exist only in the minds of people who feel the need to categorize everything. I spent some time volunteering around some wannabe Conchs many years ago and they liked to prove their own longevity by quoting five digit phone numbers. In the early days of ten digit calling Key West had similar prefixes: 292 through 296, thus you could identify a number by eliminating the "29" and giving out only the last five. This practice continued long past the arrival of cell phones and more varied numbers so if an old timer wanted to put you in your place they'd say "Her phone is 43292" or similar. That would leave the poor newbie to wait for the rest of the number...which would never come unless they begged to be told 294-3292.
When I lived in Santa Cruz, a desirable tourist town on the beach locals never mixed with tourists. The visitors would drive down the main drag, Ocean Street and spend their weekend at Beach Hill overlooking the boardwalk and the cold Pacific Ocean and then drive back to the grime of the Big City in long dreary lines over the mountains to San Jose. Local discounts? Nope. Secret local hang outs? Nope. The two worlds were so far apart they hardly ever met. If I wanted to go outside my zone of normal living I would sneak down to the Arcade at the waterfront and push quarters into the Pacman to mingle among the tourists. When I landed in Key West I found the two worlds were so inextricably entwined in such a small piece of land the desire to prove oneself a local outweighed every other social consideration. I was a bit taken aback. So nowadays I violate convention and take pride in wearing my camera and walk around looking lost like I'm a tourist and I get to listen to people explain to me carefully all the myths and fables they think represent reality in their new home town.
If life at home has grown dreary I highly recommend making the move down south to Key West. Even though all I was looking for was a pension, and I found it, life here has remade me and given me a new outlook and rewarded me with a life I never could have had in California. It takes forgoing ambition, making do, being patient (and I'm not very good at that even now) and a willingness to be happy with less. If the travel bug bites, Key West is a good stepping off place to go much further south, much deeper into the unknown and find true adventures off the beaten path. But that for me will be another story.