Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Searstown

Rusty is a living, breathing, alarm clock as I am reminded each morning at 4:23, two minutes before my phone alarm goes off. The  only place I can walk him at that hour without fear of tripping over mangrove roots or getting lost in the woods, or worse getting bored walking the same few suburban sidewalks is to drive 25 minutes to  Key West,  city of light and smells and interest.  One day I found myself  not keen to drive an extra twelve minutes to Mallory Square so I stopped at Searstown on the eastern edge of town. To my astonishment Rusty became totally absorbed in the place, trotting back and forth nose down. He didn't miss Duval Street at all. Good boy!
Downtown Key West has produced pictures for me for years but like most people the urban/suburban industrial grime of the shopping centers had passed me by. Being driven to record as much of key West as I can now I figured I might enjoy a different view. And it turns out I did so I brought Rusty back. Who needs Mallory Square for a backdrop?
In the years before the pandemic I think my pleasure at eating at Outback was one of the conch-iest things I did. Native born residents of Key West love Outback and I do too, much to the chagrin of visitors who ask me where do the locals eat? Miami Subs and Outback I say, because it's true.  Conchs love Outback because its good value unpretentious and its warm and efficient in a town where finding good help is getting harder and harder. Now of course after the virus fiasco every outing will be an adventure. I think we are meeting friends at Off the Hook next week so that will be a start.
            
Sears Roebuck is continuing to fade into memory but the signs are still posted. Sears created the modern shopping mall experience for Conchs in 1965 offering services and seen only on the mainland, and the company paid well and gave employment for life. In the age of Amazon where you shop and they drop Sears sounds quaint and I suppose in the end it was. I can't stop thinking about how Sears was the Amazon of the wild frontier supplying settlers with catalogs and shipping by US mail. Going...going...
                   
When we travel and stay in hotels which are modern roadside accommodations thus usually plunked right next to shopping malls which are similar to Searstown, though of course much bigger than this. Just like at home if you plunk Rusty down in a Hampton Inn he wakes up like an alarm clock and I, even more grumpy because I'm not at work and entitled to sleep,  assemble room key, leash, plastic bags, phone and camera and creep out of the hotel to explore at 5 in the morning.
       
By now it was close to six am and the early workers were starting to show up. You have to wonder how many jobs they have to hold to pay rent. Stock Island is under threat of development and no one would say the trailers there are a joy to behold but they are cheap-ish and house many of the low paid workers that keep Key West functioning.
           
I took a complaint call on Sunday from a resident of Casa Marina, the posh neighborhood, saying someone was sleeping in the car on her street and he made her "uncomfortable." She wanted him gone by the time she got back from church. Okey doke. I did my duty and a police officer cleared the suspicious sleeper from the street. ( That will be me next year - don't think I'm not taking notes on how to avoid being noticed...).
Later the man called and wanted to know why he had been moved along. I explained that those calls are a response to citizen complaints and I wasn't sure what is illegal about sleeping in your car during the day. He told me he works the night shift at the airport and he was tired, too tired to drive safely home to Miami and he wanted to take a nap before he started the drive. I sympathized and I think he understood we are all cogs in a bureaucratic chain. I felt bad for him, much good my empathy did.
Here's the thing: more and more people are coming to the Keys for better paid jobs while living on the mainland in more affordable housing. It's been going on already for a while in the Upper Keys that are closer to Homestead and Florida City. Nowadays it is starting to happen with greater frequency even in Key West. This situation must be giving community leaders for pause but there is no sign of any sense of urgency about how to make the Lower Keys sustainable with workers committed to the community.  I find it extraordinary and disheartening.
Even in police jobs that pay well the cost of housing and the economic commitment required to raise a family is too much. For officers from out of town there is no family support to help raise children while spouses may not make enough money to on one of these hospitality jobs...It takes luck and persistence to have all the possibilities line up so by contrast its much easier to live well somewhere else and there goes the exodus.
                                
It's never been easy to live in Key West and I suppose its safe to say when we landed in town with the idea of remaining we had no obligations and our boat gave us a place to stay. After that it was having a plan combined with persistence and of course good luck. Nowadays it seems as though having a comfortable berth in Homestead might be just as useful. That's a hard concept for me to wrap my head around, working by three hour commute. I belong to a different generation, we did things differently then to land in Key West, we walked from our boats.
And so, after fixing absolutely nothing in my head it was time to go home to bed. Just another magnificent sunrise over US One.