Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Key West Homes

Real estate in the Keys is supposedly getting more expensive again. One can only wonder about such "news" considering how well packaged information is all around us. I saw this fa├žade held in place to create an illusion of restoration for a house which will be, to all intents and purposes new.

Key West has lived through uncountable cycles of boom and bust since it was formally founded in 1828 and the story is told of how in the Great Depression a plan was mooted to give up and evacuate the islands where eighty percent of the population was "on relief." Since the 1960s when the Navy cut back and the city plunged into another depression, real estate has fueled a rise in the city's fortunes, and tourism has created a web of connected jobs and business and attractiveness.

A small sub tropical island filled with exotic vegetation, a large collection of preserved wooden homes and a near perfect winter climate has to attract people with money. I believe modern communications have enabled the continuous interest in this little town in the Gulf Stream. If you read the hundred year old newspapers when the railroad came to town you will read comments opposing the railroad connection as it would change the fundamental isolation of the island, for the worse they feared.

Prior to Flagler's railroad arriving in January 1912 you could take a boat out of Key West or drive a winding dirt road and a collection of wooden bridges and take two long ferry rides, a very long all day affair to get to Homestead if you even had such an exotic thing as an automobile. The train took seven easy hours to get to Miami in comfort for anyone with the modest price of a ticket. I'd say things changed a bit in sleepy Key West!

When I first came here it took five hours on my Vespa to ride the old two lane highway built in 1938 on the old railroad bed and bridges. In 1981 Key West was the back of beyond. The internet brings the world to one's door for business and pleasure. Satellites brought TV for those that watch the infernal box, and a new modern highway built in 1982 puts Key West within three hours of Miami for a determined attentive driver who knows the road. Modern planes fly in and out despite the short runway and mail and package services offer overnight delivery even from here, on the fringes of reality. To live in the Lower Keys today is to be integrated into the electronic world of North America. You can run your business from a winter porch here as well as you can from Up North. Most of the time anyway; sometimes lack of reality intrudes long enough to make type A people a little frustrated!

Gay men were attracted to a navy town in the fifties when the love that dare not speak its name needed outlets out of the mainstream of public consciousness. That period led to an appreciation of the physical beauty of the crumbling Old Town. Conchs were delighted to sell up and buy modern comfort in ranchers in New Town. The era of openly gay Key West was born, but the beautification of Key West pulled in straight money too. Nowadays Key West is pricing itself out of the Youth market, gay or straight. Old white people with money can still afford million dollar part time cottages and they come in droves now, making winter time Key West resemble Boca Raton and Royal Palm Beach more than one might like.

Soon the empty palace shown below will reopen for a few blessedly short weeks, the car will be uncovered and part two of the well heeled life will resume for the coldest months. This is not the Bohemian craziness of literature that intrigues the modern day visitor, the seekers of an alternative life style fueled by Art and alcohol and student digs and altered consciousness seeking a new and better way to reinvent the wheel. Key West today demands a well regulated life for long term working class residence.

If I were young I'd still choose California as I did 30 years ago, the Golden State still leads the world in innovation and youthful energy. Perhaps I might prefer a center of exuberant study, Austin with its amazing music scene and oil endowed university, or New Orleans and it's truly particular culture, or Boulder and it's Great Outdoors, or New York for true lack of affordability combined with excitement and opportunity. Key West simply costs too much and offers too little to the young and ambitious.

Key West still attracts young people of course, but the restless kind seeking a break from reality, sailors and bar staff, a nice break year, safe in the US making a small living instead of hiking the Andes or taking trains round Europe.

I think I have one of the best jobs going in Key West and clearly I am not alone. Our turn over rate has pretty much stopped as no other work offers the combination of pay and benefits of police dispatch a high stress job in a town determined to be laid back. Of course not many people can work in a 911 center it turns out, it takes peculiar talent apparently, but I am the oldest dispatcher at 56, the other dozen employees range from 45 to 25 roughly, and our latest trainee is in her 30s married no children and shocked by the high cost of living compared to life in Chicago. The youngsters mostly have family support in town but overtime is highly sought out to support life in Key West.

My own love affair with Key West has been been one of those slow fuse entanglements that has grown on me. For a lot of people one visit ignites a desire to live here that will not be denied whether or not it is ever fulfilled. For my wife and I settling in Key West was a long drawn out decision, as my wife had deep roots in California and I too had found a decent life in Santa Cruz, a town that in those distant days was more weird and more stimulating than most, so a move to Key West was not made in an effort to escape boredom. We sailed into town tired after two years traveling with a need to make money and a desire to return overland to the Golden State whence we had set out on our catamaran.

But we landed here in the boom years and jobs were abundant, optimism was burning up the city and yes, the weather was delightful! My wife the attorney had always wanted to try teaching and so desperate were they in Key West for a professional willing to trade affordable living for good weather she grabbed a job, her arthritis hurt less and we sold our California home. Now we live in a millionaire's playground and gentrification has left us working people far behind. Wealth inequality in the US is real and growing and affecting all of us, though we pretend to ignore it.

You know Key West is special because the more you try to define its charms the further they skip away. Climate change is finally being taken seriously by some radical types like scientists who suggest most of the Keys could be drowned in fifty years. Not surprisingly in our short term culture the idea that sea levels may rise mightily in a few decades is pretty much ignored in daily life here. Sure, we make uncomfortable jokes about rising seas but real life goes on. And helicopters will lift the part timers out of here at the last minute and take them to their compounds on higher ground. Gentrification continues of course along with the graying of a funky little seaside town with perfect winter weather, lovely architecture and astronomical prices.


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Tourist Life In Key West

We are told that the largest number of visitors in the Keys congregate in Key West and over the course of a year this eight square mile island accommodates 2.5 million of them; this in a town four miles long with a resident population around 23,000.

The state of Florida is celebrating the five hundredth anniversary of the landing of Europeans in the state, not at Plymouth Rock but in the Flowery State where St Augustine prospers today, the city that has been continuously occupied by Europeans longer than any other in the country. They brought no Thanksgiving myth because they knew they were here to enslave and despoil and take home wealth to the greater glory of God. These weren't religious fanatics ejected from their homeland for extremism and heresy, the Spaniards were the point people of a new business model for the New World. And according to the rather silly one line reminders of the Great Florida Anniversary they brought beef steaks to the new world according to our local grocers, in the spirit of early Spanish commercialism.

"Steaks come from Spanish cattle brought by conquistadors..." To me the message is cryptic at best, but this is a modern world, where reading thinking and disagreeing is old fashioned and time consuming when time is everything, they say. Has anyone else noticed these pennants and wondered who wrote them and where do they get their facts? They are all paid for by commercial outfits and they are as brief as tweets so perhaps we should enjoy them for their color and festive appearance, not their facts as presented. I'm pretty sure steaks do not still come from conquistadors.

The newspaper recently printed the conclusions of a report claiming nearly two million people have made use of the Heritage Trail in its current fractured form. It sounds incredible to me taken at face value, especially as I can't figure how they reached the number. I mean, do I count if I pull over at Mile Marker 13 on my way home from work and walk onto a Flagler bridge to take a picture of the dawn over the mangroves? Is it a second visit if Cheyenne and I check out the bike path/ fishing bridge onCudjoe Key later that afternoon? And who took the time to count me? If I don't count, why not?

The state has been keeping a close eye on the state of our fair city and while they are in counting mode they also calculate about 850,000 people came to Key a West last year on cruise ships. One third the number of users of the mixed bike/pedestrian Heritage Trail. Supposedly they bring billions of dollars to the City which would multiply by billions more were the city to encourage mega massive cruise ships to stop here. Even so I doubt they will number as many as the users of that blessed trail.

With all this money floating around you'd think business people in this city could afford to fly flags rather than cerements but apparently not. This particular example of Old Glory didn't seem to express any particular personal sentiment other than neglect. I wonder why no one bothers to replace it as they do have ceremonies to dispose of worn out symbols rather than letting them wither ignominiously on the vine as it were. Sometimes I feel like we don't put our best foot forward for the visitors who keep Key West, a city with no modern resources, from looking like Detroit.

I have no idea how to be a parent, hence my child-free state but when I observe this kind of multi-tasking my pleasure at being child-free is only reinforced. Sometimes I feel looking after a dog is more than I can manage. Luckily Cheyenne is smarter than most so she doesn't need much supervision and indeed she tends to look after me. She never permits me to smoke, for instance when we are out walking.

These next two pictures are a a Thanksgiving gift for a dude in southwest Florida who has been reading this blog longer than anyone and who indignantly asked for more artwork from the Green Parrot recently.

I hope this suffices Jeffrey.

Cheyenne wanted to know what the pesky rooster was eating. She doesn't chase animals but she does eat scraps.

I'm never quite sure why millions and millions of people come to the Keys. I came to Key West in 1981 by accident looking for a ferry connection that wasn't there, but nowadays you can check everything on your phone and serendipity is vanishing faster than you can enter an address in your phone. Maybe I like traveler's palms because I fancy myself a traveler. Perhaps because they make pretty and exotic any banal wall. Perhaps because there isn't an app for that.

I know the weather is a draw, and snowdrifts would diminish the appeal massively. We considered moving to the San Juan islands but Washington's high standard of living and civility couldn't outweigh the burden of gray skies drizzle and frost. Were I a pot smoker I'd have to say I made a bad choice but I'm not so I get to live under a permanent sun, ride a motorcycle year round and encounter Pickelhaube graffiti.

Key West has its reputation for being Key Weird and that's tough to live up to in a world shared with Bangkok, New Orleans and Berlin. On the other hand Key West's weirdness is a kindly gentle type of peculiarity. It's made in the USA, no foreign languages here or square shaped currency or blatant immorality. Body paint and pasties do not a red light district make.

But this town is filled with myths and stories and even a little history and everyone loves Hemingway, the bigger than life myth maker. His bar, or not his bar depending on which bar you prefer, draws people. Cheyenne doesn't much care for history, she strolls right on by. I like history which gives me hives when people tell talk about piracy and wrecking in the same breath or Hemingway and Tennessee Williams and make up stories. History is never enough, everything has to be boosted.

You know what? Key West is fun. You can enjoy it sober or drunk, as a visitor or as a resident. I took a cruise once to see what that was all about. My wife and I visited Cozumel, Grand Cayman, Jamaica, all starting with a first stop in Key West. Key West was by far the most interesting colorful and varied stop on the route. I say that as someone who enjoyed touring and exploring each stop but has no plans to repeat the cruise ship experience. I wanted to know what it was like and I enjoyed it actually but I have other things to do too.

Maybe those two and a half million visitors have a point. Why not learn to enjoy a small town with architecture, history, myths and stories and a way of life that is hard to replicate in a land of suburban malls, four lane streets and full service economies. In Key West a bicycle serves as a station wagon and your neighbors may not be just like you.

Some people even let their dogs cool off in puddles right there on the street. Key Weird indeed, come on down the weather's lovely, mostly, even if not right now. NWS for the latest weather.



Monday, November 25, 2013

Gratefully Cow Hunting In South Florida

I drove to Sarasota last week, 300 miles to deliver my dog to my wife who was at a teachers' conference there and who had a plan to drive to Pensacola with Cheyenne and spend Thanksgiving week in the panhandle with my dog and her friends, leaving me to cook my own meals and work plenty of overtime in Key West. Which is luckily an interesting place to discuss my favorite holiday of the year.

It started when Noel lamented he has to drive "all the way" to Marathon (50 miles) for a family get together and I happened to know he was getting white people's Thanksgiving food. His Cuban family is breaking out this year and instead of roasting a whole pig in a metal lined "coffin" they are eating turkey and "what do they call it..?" Noel's sister-in-law Belen struggled to remember the name of the critical non-Cuban ingredient...stuffing! I lamented the fact they aren't having a proper Cuban Thanksgiving with the plantains rice and beans and yucca which gives the familiar holiday a tropical twist. Shannon butted in at this point and said sternly that Thanksgiving is all about eating Pilgrim food and that means Turkey with the trimmings just like the first thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock in..where was it? Maine or Massachusetts or somewhere up there. Besides Shannon, a Florida native went on, I have a turkey fryer. Excellent said Fred a man who knows his food, but Fred is also our resident Curmudgeon truth teller, Conch and Contrarian: The first and only Pilgrim thanksgiving was fish, pine nuts squash and boiled turkey he insisted. Gross we all said in unison imagining big pieces of pink slippery turkey thigh glistening with jellied steam. All I hope is the fire department comes through this year and remembers dispatch on the day with plates of everyone's favorite thanksgiving food (the food you didn't have to cook yourself) as I will be sitting at work all day earning holiday pay while my dog plays on the beach on the Florida panhandle, 800 long miles away. I do not plan to spend the overtime money wisely, though my wife will have her say. Another reason to be thankful else I'd be in penury.

I decided that if I was going to Sarasota to have dinner with my wife I would take the back roads and enjoy seeing the fields and farms that make a total contrast to life along the Overseas Highway. It was cane burning season judging by the coils of thick gray smoke that rose above the fields on either side of Highway 27. Southernmost South Florida is all swamps and mangroves and and rivers of grass, but central South Florida is cow hunter country, all fields fences and and isolated farm houses. Lunch time saw me past the Everglades and in Moore Haven a city on the cross state waterway system, wrecked in 1935 by a hurricane that swept across the entire state, and nowadays decrepit in the wake of the 2008 financial tsunami that has destroyed so many ways to make a living. I drove through Burger King, the least likely carrier of botulism I figured in this wreck of a town, and with my chicken sandwich I sat by the Caloosahatchee River wondering how many lives we have to sacrifice to keep the one percent in caviar.

Cheyenne is not a joyful traveler but but she enjoyed a long walk in Dagny Johnson State Park in Key Largo at the start of our trip so I guess she was doing okay out of the involuntary ride, but Moore Haven didn't do much for her digestion. She walked fifty feet and gave up on the city. I'm thankful for the Kindle function on my phone which puts an actual library in my pocket.

I make a point of pointing out when I am in this part of the world that Florida has its own cowboy culture as different from the Western myth portrayed so effectively by Hollywood as the Seminole Indians are from the movie myths of the Plains Indians. Cow hunters in Florida still exist and Arcadia, a small brick town lost in the vast prairies east of Lake Ockechobee is the rodeo home of Florida ranchers.

In making this drive across the state on Highway 27 and then on smaller roads, dead straight tributaries pushing west and north like geometric divisions of this flat land, I decided I wanted to get some pictures of cows. This is cow country and they call cowboys cow hunters because their animals roam at will across these spaces so I figured I could make myself an honorary cow hunter for an afternoon. My pink Crocs were at home safe and sound and my politics were in my hip pocket out of sight so I figured I could navigate my way as an outsider in this world which so strongly resembled the rolling hils and farms where I grew up, occupied by salt of the earth god fearing conservatives. Farmers the world over!

I'm thankful I emigrated out of the world of agriculture that my sisters love so much. They would see no resemblance in this place of extreme flatness to the hills of Central Italy where they live, but I do. I pulled off the highway to let Cheyenne roam under the huge live oaks set in a park-like setting. Cheyenne probably would have preferred downtown Arcadia and it's dumpsters, but I wanted a quiet rural moment. It was warm and the air was thick with the scent of freshly cut grass, a rare and evocative smell hard to find in the pea rock and limestone world of the salty Florida Keys.

A farmer drove by on his tractor, leathery skin, thick stubble and a cap askew on the back of his head. Cheyenne's presence made me respectable, as respectable as I can get, and we exchanged glances the middle class dog walker and the dust covered son of the soil, as he John Deere'd back to the highway. He looked shy and he half smiled at my indolence and I could hear my brother-in-law laughing at the antics of visitors driving past his Italian fields then stopping to take pictures of his rural lifestyle like it was a phenomenon worth recording. This guy went home wondering how and why outsiders think trees and fields and orange groves are worth recording. But they are.

I dare say trees like these might grow in the Keys were there soil enough, but the islands are crowded enough that when trees get too big, our leaders chop them down because they pose a threat to the huddled masses who live and recreate underneath them. Here in the wilderness they are free to flourish. I am grateful they get to live somewhere in Florida, and here they grow too vast for my puny phone camera to grasp them.

I wished I had my Kermit chair to sit and read for a while in the silence, but lacking that I made my dog happy for a few minutes in the sand and grass. All dogs deserve joy, for they are the gods of frolic. I see so many fearful dog owners who act in public as they have leashed a cruise missile. Most dogs will be joyful if you let them be and if they haven't been damaged by human cruelty. I like to think Cheyenne is grateful for me, despite the numerous and endless road trips.

I was fully twenty miles from Sarasota when I finally spotted some cows being cows by the side of the road, which put me in mind of the sainted Gary Larson's Far Side cartoons. This one in particular:

Sarasota is a Florida haven of wealth and education and urbane civility, and to juxtapose New College literature courses and millionaire snowbirds with cow pastures might seem surprising but there is no sign of the beach town this far inland. This is Sarasota County in all it's rural glory:

I suppose its time to reveal something not widely known about me, and as unaccustomed as I am to blowing my own trumpet, I now have to reveal I can reproduce a rather intriguing cow moo. Generally I find cows to be curious animals, and when I was a kid I would break out of my boarding school and go for night time walks, as I was always a traveler and explorer I guess. I do remember those Somerset cows would follow me across their fields and I would get to the exit gate closely resembling a pied piper of ruminants; believe me not a happy position when they are jostling you like anxious beggars who see you as their last best meal ticket. This lot in Sarasota meadows took one look at me and buggered off for the horizon as though they'd seen the anti-Christ of the cow world.

I actually became a bit anxious lest a farmer see me across the cow plain harassing his wealth, and here unlike in Italy, I don't doubt farmers travel armed like war lords of small Third World countries. I tried my famous soothing moo and I got some quizzical looks but these cows are selfish bastards because they abandoned me, one of their own, to my unhappy fate, as exemplified by this faremer's gruesome sense of humor: "Abandon hope all cows who enter..."

Through all this nonsense Cheyenne declined to descend from the comfort of our rented automobile, all walked out and ready for her long delayed daily nap.

I hurriedly got in the car, my cow hunting mission as complete as I could make it without actually trespassing... and off we went to meet my wife at the end of her urban conference. All's well that ends well and no cows were harmed in this expedition.

I greatly admire farmers for their tenacity and love of their land, especially as tenacity is not my strong suit and love of the land is a concept I have read of but have no feeling for at all. Especially if that love is expressed by cultivation. We like to sit and watch, Cheyenne and I, as the world hustles by being tenacious and productive.

That evening back in the world of street lights, strip malls and exotic food my wife the explorer took me to eat Peruvian food. We ordered the oddest dishes we could find, dried beef stew, smokey and tart with heavily spiced rice and beans, while the second dish we shared was a heavy creamy chicken fricassee studded with olives and potato chunks. This was food from Latin America as we had never eaten. I am anxious to fly to Buenos Aires to rent a car and tour Argentina from Cape Horn to the River Plate tasting famous Argentine barbecue along the way. We pondered how to incorporate Peru and it's startling menu into this already ambitious proposed tour.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday in the calendar. It requires no particular zealotry of civic or religious pride, it is a unifying holiday by its very nature. Who among us cannot find elements in their lives for which to give thanks? You can thank your gods or good fortune, you can glorify your life skills or your family, but in the end giving thanks is completely universal. Like all such holidays this one is built on myth and legend and sketchy details (fish? turkey? roast pork?) and commonly held beliefs. I like taking one day in the year to be mindfully mindful. I enjoy Thanksgiving even if I am working.

Key West on Dwellable