Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Seaport

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.