Monday, January 19, 2015

Key West And Cuba

The newspaper said the new openness to Cuba isn't affecting the Keys. Golly, that was a quick conclusion. Aside from the fact no one really knows exactly what restrictions are in place, and more importantly the punishment for violations is undefined, it seems a bit early to conclude that the path to openness is going to bypass sleepy old Key West.
The Republicans who now control Congress are led by loud voices who favor the embargo so we know that isn't going to be repealed. Which leaves the Communist Kenyan in the White House to do the sensible thing and repeal what he can. At long last. I am betting Cuban cigars those phallic symbols of repressed Middle American desire, will start to appear in small quantities at high prices on Duval Street alongside legally imported Havana Club Rum, which I have tasted while traveling in the Free World and not found to be particularly delicious. Already the Botanical Gardens are stepping up the number of "cultural exchange" visits they organize to Cuba. I am sure they will see more "gardeners" like me who can barely tell poison wood from lignum vitae rushing to learn about Cuban flora on the forbidden isle.
I know what a gumbo limbo is (see above) but I am no botanist, or gardener even. I think for a while the repressed opening to Cuba will produce some excitement but gradually Cuba will become just one more destination in Latin America and tours will show off Hemingway's haunts and Meyer Lansky's sleeze and all will be normal in the world of tourism. President Obama will fade into history as just one more hidebound ineffectual president, rather than be the object of gross bizarre and downright mendacious conspiracy theories and The Ted Cruz/Marco Rubio traveling circus will no doubt move on to more important matters like intruding government into people's sex lives, as the young bucks in Congress grow and hopefully wiser. Cuba will still be there.
And so will Key West. And this is when it will get interesting, in a few years, when the choice is a cruise to Cuba and or Key West, arrive by plane or boat...a vacation in the safety of the familiar, or an adventure across the water. And I believe there will be room for both destinations without one taking from the other. The politicians and their posturing will fade into the background where they belong, and the vacation choice will be driven by other considerations.
Cuba will never cease to be exotic, offering vibrant culture, mountains, jungles, rivers, beaches and warmer winter weather on the south shore, the true Caribbean Sea beaches, than Key West. But Key West has familiarity, safety, and it's own peculiar charming character that Cuba can't compete with in any way. Plus those drivers of the winter economy aren't going to flock to Cuba to buy winter homes! some might but Key West isn't going to be denuded of snowbirds...and in summer there will always be families more comfortable on a Key West beach than in Varadero.
In the end though it's the people who make the choice of where to visit and one thing about Key West that stands head and shoulders above every other destination is the combination of the exotic and the safe. One thing that I have noticed about this funny little town at the end of the road is that it attracts people who crave that combination of safety amid the exotic. Among people I have spoken to the slight shabbiness of Key West is part of the attraction, were the town crisp and clean and organized it would lose its safe edginess. If you seek true adventure, the kind with an uncertain outcome, Cuba beckons already.
For those of us that live around here, I guess nothing much will change in the short term. In the long term perhaps we will get ourselves interesting vacations close by. Cool. No one loses. Except the posturing politicians of all stripes. And who cares about that.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

A Night At The Theater

It was lucky for our evening out that my wife had bought our tickets ahead of Friday night's performance at the Red Barn Theater. We enjoy live plays but sometimes there is an enormous mental block that makes the effort not worth the candle and a night in, with the dog and Netflix seems infinitely preferable to a thirty minute drive to arrive and then be crushed by a throng of eager theater goers.

That said The Last Night of Ballyhoo was entirely worthwhile. It was written by the author of the better known Driving Miss Daisy and also deals with being Jewish in the South, this time in Atlanta in 1939. I thoroughly enjoyed the performance, funny and poignant by turns, especially as the play opened a window on a time and a place and a culture not well known to us. The cast was splendid and I found myself absorbed by the story. A great night out.

After the play we strolled Duval looking for a drink for my wife ( I was driving) before heading back to the car a few blocks away on Eaton Street. Our friends were hungry and took off on Caroline Street after hasty adieus so we had time to wander. After we nearly tripped over a party of drunken revelers and were momentarily blocked by a man the worse for wear who mistook a tree for his wife and refused to let "her" go, we decided that Friday night on Duval Street really wasn't our scene and we turned and took the short route back to our car.

That took us past the old abandoned theater on Eaton, said to be haunted. Haunted no more, for now it is to become home to Key West's fourth theater company, if you include the peripatetic fringe group of no fixed abode which performs in found spaces. These fine people with powerful bios listed, are working to organize the space and with two weeks to go they will have their work cut out. I look forward to seeing what they can do with "original Key West" plays.

I will enjoy this long dormant space coming back to life, like Rumpelstiltskin after a very long sleep.

It was a pleasant night for a shirt sleeved walk, a cool north breeze prompting my wife to complain she was almost cold which goes a long way to explaining why we live here...

...that and the 19th century architecture rendered mysterious by the night.

We paused by Hilltop Laundry to remember our adventures bringing our clothes ashore from the boat, hauling sail bags filled with salt encrusted rags accompanied by our two dogs when we lived anchored in the harbor. The good old days tinged with the unhappy reality that living like that may be no longer possible nor desirable at our advanced ages.

Bollocks. If I wanted to I would go back to anchoring out. But driving home to be greeted by a happy dog and a glass of wine and a comfortable couch in a home battered by winds, yet planted entirely stationary was an entirely worthwhile place to be. Besides it's much easier to drive to the theater on the highway than get in a dinghy, cross a dark wet windy harbor covered in spray and outboard smoke and be forced to do it all in reverse hours later, just to get into a rocking pitching bed. Good old days indeed!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Value Added Key West

What a strange winter we are having. Out and about it suddenly starts to rain, at random out of a cloudy sky. Days are hot and frequently muggy with all the moisture in the air. Nights are cool and breezy and pleasant. The cold fronts we were used to have faded from memory, just as four dollar a gallon gas has faded, replaced by fuel hovering between $2:30 and $2:80 a gallon, if you know where to look. It all seems to mitigate against the humble bicycle:

But the town is packed with snow refugees, people who now find themselves living in the path of powerful winter storms and they ride bicycles not as gas savers but as temporarily liberated souls, bohemians in a place south of reality. No kidding "south of reality" like this one bed, one bath = $715,000. But it is a pretty little eyebrow home in the part of town least likely to flood in a storm.

Like the French Quarter in New Orleans, this part of town tends to stay driest when hurricanes push water into Key West. And an eyebrow home is a historic though useless architectural feature, I'm told. The idea was to draw the roof down over the upper windows to allow them to remain open in rainy weather. Instead of ventilating the house they ended up trapping hot air under the eaves. Central air is the answer. And not all small cottages are actually tiny. Some got extended out back over the centuries as circumstances allowed:

Some elements of local architecture haven't been updated yet:

There are odd spaces, dirt unused, which is odd in a town where everything costs so much.

And with it come odd little signs, "please use the little path" made me smile. I chose not to but the sheer good manners made me want to.

Key West, possibly made worth while by Cuban cuisine (and soon it seems Cuban rum and cigars) and pink taxis:

And ancient cultural symbols mostly forgotten in the rush to pursue the latest fad.

Key West: since 1828.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Visiting Key West

I can't say for sure if, on my last drive into town to pick up my refurbished motorcycle the people who crossed my path were visitors but I can say this: now is the height of winter visitor season and I had a very strong hankering to be back home, on my canal on my dead end street. This guy was doing a very good imitation of me at home far from the madding crowds of Key West, minding my own beeswax.

It was a gray day yesterday, I think it was what passes for a cold front these days when properly defined winters no longer seem to exist. Cold north winds raked the islands Wednesday night when I rode in to work but by yesterday afternoon it was oddly warm and slightly muggy again. Perhaps a hot con leche from Five Brothers would have seemed appealing had it been properly cool.

"It's a one way," she called out to the rider following her as they got their bearings and planned the next leg of their ride. Undoubtedly visitors and nothing wrong with that.

I confess: I do wear a helmet frequently when riding a powered two wheeler around town. Partly because I've ridden on the highway from Cudjoe and I can't be bothered to stop and take it off. Partly because it's winter and I don't trust the visitors and locals get impatient. I do answer 911 calls so I know better than most what hurts when you fall off, or get knocked off. But I will also confess I don't wear a bicycle helmet. The mark of the visitor, or should I say the sensible visitor?

I recommend these irritating Conch Tour Trains if you have a desire to learn about Key West. They are slow and seem to be powered by corny jokes and puns from the drivers (Not a Conch Train joke but surely this looms large in the drivers' minds: What's the difference between a Canadian and a canoe? A canoe tips ).

I am guilty sometimes of wishing the roads were swept summer clear so I could drive as I do in summer, but I try to tamp down such unworthy sentiments. Raking leaves seems a hard way to pay the rent and then have to fight clogged traffic to get home.

High visibility walking shorts, ample enough to flap like a skirt. So uncouth as to be cool in some else's world, no doubt. Why on earth would you want to draw attention to your diminutive self when dressed in feeble imitation of burly, powerful African American sports heros? Buggered if I know. The world outside Key West keeps getting more confusing. On the subject of fashion it turns out I am an elderly lumber sexual now that young bucks have learned to love beards. Did you know that make beard balm ointment nowadays?

Good joke says I, Captain Obvious, as Cheyenne trundles past the sign... dangerous Cheyenne. Ha ha!

The joke was on me because at that moment a genuinely fearful person approached us. "Is your dog dangerous?" Could be I said, sensing my pink Crocs ("I AM GAY") were failing to keep this charming woman at bay. Does she bite? Oh yes, I said, as long as you are baked grilled or fried. She doesn't bite the apparently seriously questioning visitor said, handing me her Bud Lite (open container! Not mine, officer!) as she bent down to risk her digits to massage Cheyenne's scalp. She's not dangerous, she insisted. But I am I said, fiercely. I don't think she believed me because she took back her canned token of rebellion and smiled cheerfully. She's not dangerous she said. You never know, I said, not wanting to tell how she sleeps serenely through the noisiest home invasion, me, when I get home after a motorcycle ride.

"How old?" he shouted at me. "Good afternoon," I replied. He repeated his question but louder. Fifty seven I replied. Not you, he said, your dog..? Oh I said. I was just using a traditional polite expression to open a conversation with a stranger I said. He was immune to sarcasm focused as he was on one thoroughly uninteresting subject: Cheyenne's age. How old are you, you daft old fool I wanted to say, but I mumbled nearly fourteen and he nodded, satisfied. That's another thing from Up North: why does anyone care how old my dog is? And shy can't they be polite when they ask, rather than barking at me as though I were on a charge...

Another woman walked into the street to avoid making eye contact. I wasn't going to lunge at her, honest, but I might have used that tired old formulaic greeting one tends to use if one was brought up right. She wanted no part of it (must be a visitor!) and then a scooter with a Five Brothers delivery box on the back buzzed me by on Angela Street near Catholic Lane and the rider shouted "Hi Michael!" over his shoulder as he went by. That confused me. Who the hell was that?

Ice chests on scooters usually denote delivery vehicles, like this one:

He must be a local, but the guy walking towards the camera isn't. He's shirtless because he's enjoying not being in the snow belt just now.


Thursday, January 15, 2015

Another Day, Another Manspread

Whether I worked the night before or not the day starts the same: Cheyenne is there at the top of the steps waiting even before the sun comes up....I saw this sign tacked to a rather wet mangrove swamp on Ramrod Key. They are still selling Florida swamp like it was the 1950s: 
The morning yesterday was gray and low clouds hid the sun and  Cheyenne was busy so we kept our noses down and walked. It wasn't cold and I was surprised how active she was. 
The sun was out by the time my wife and I got downtown and  looking up at the clear blue sky it was as though our early morning walk was in another world. White and blue and green, the primary colors of the Conch Republic.
Walking past the bank I noticed this mural for the first time though I'm sure I've seen it before. This time I actually noticed it, but I didn't have time to study it as we were just about on time for our appointment. I hate being late, and I don't care how cool it is to be late in the Conch Republic, I can't abide it. 
Key Lime Square, home to a couple of restaurants and several businesses is somewhere I like to walk through from time to time simply because I can.  It almost qualifies as  a Third Place in urban planning terms except that people actually don't  hang out here much. It's more of a connecting alley. Shame.
I have read about the way passengers in crowded urban spaces claim turf, men particularly by spreading. And here we were in the doctor's waiting room enjoying a New York subway moment. Nice huh?
Florida has a rather poor reputation as a place to buy addictive narcotic pain medications without too much hassle so the State has felt obliged to crack down on the habit which makes life awkward for doctors who treat people. I am told it is such a hassle to prescribe pain medications many doctors prefer not to and send patients to specialized "pain clinics." Weirder and weirder.
It was just a  check up, all was well and no pain medications needed. Yet there was a Frenchman shouting into his cell phone after the manspreader  had left. I was pretty sure he was French and not from Quebec because I could understand him quite easily and he shouted into his phone in the full and certain knowledge his lingo was impenetrable to bystanders. I am sure the woman on the other end whose maladies were being broadcast at full volume was hoping the same but I got a pretty good idea of her medical history and full range of treatments, her recent car accident and her documentation, all entirely against my will. Then the Frenchman was replaced by someone whose telephone spoke loudly to him as though he was blind. "I am sorry to interrupt but you have a text message" the tinny voice blared across the waiting room. I figured he wasn't blind, just dim, as he was reading something else on his phone at the time. Then various bells and whistles and alarums followed in quick succession and I looked up expecting to see Barnum and Bailey's circus arriving in the waiting room but it was just him, the dude in the red cap losing control of his technology.

I have heard that cellphones may be allowed on aeroplanes someday soon. Bloody stupid idea, I'd rather sit next to a manspreader given a choice.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Shannon's Sense of Snow

Shannon seemed to have no difficulty when I trained her to be  a police dispatcher. It was only afterwards that she told me how hard she struggled to learn the nuances of police radio traffic, Computer Aided Dispatch and how to deal all night long with a dozen strong personalities and their police cars. Lots of people despair when they learn this job (me too!) because no matter how competent you have been in the rest of your life, no matter how managerial, dispatching the police reduces you to feeling like the least competent human who ever lived, and if you are proud, incompetence even while learning, sucks the adult out of you. Dispatching is a horrible job to learn and its takes a lot to reset your courage to the sticking place day after day and keep on learning.  
Nowadays if you reach our 911 center Shannon will carefully put down her cup of tea (she's a martyr to air conditioning) and  dispatch your call for help with compassion and speed and efficiency. These days I have my Trainee listen in to her as she takes calls for help and I let him learn from the master, for she is now long past the stage where tears of frustration mean anything in her work life. You want Shannon on the line when you need help. 
Perhaps because she is a Florida native, perhaps because she is just made that way, Shannon is not a fan of cold weather. I am notorious for despising cold fronts, for seeking summer's heat whenever possible, but I am an amateur compared to Shannon. She was created for the express purpose of living in Old Town Key West. She rarely travels east of White Street and  a journey off the Rock entirely should only ever be undertaken by plane when her family Up North absolutely cannot do without her. Thus one can only imagine when her husband got a job in Oklahoma years ago, she went because loyalty is one of her strengths, not because she was keen to experience a place and climate as foreign to her as any that could be compared to her upbringing in Tampa Bay. She might as well have been going to Antarctica, or the dark side of the Moon.

Ah yes, Oklahoma, a place not noted for tropical winters. She thought her husband was joking when he said they needed chains for their car. "Chains? On the car? How does that work?" There was a pause for a moment as the Florida natives in the room pondered the incomprehensible nature of putting something as foreign as a chain (what you use to lock a bicycle) on the wheels of a car...So, my Trainee asked me as I was the only one in the room who had ever dealt with such perversity, how do you put chains on a  car?  He  might as well have been asking how to put  tutu on a  donkey because as I explained about laying the chains in the snow, driving onto them and clipping them... his eyes glazed and it was obvious I had lost him.  Never mind; he hasn't seen snow since he was nine and his eldest daughter is almost that old now. Chains in Key West will only ever be used to lock bicycles.

And then Shannon remarked how cold it got in the morning in winter in Oklahoma. "I got in the car and I couldn't see out! No really, there was something wrong with the car. When I called my husband out he said I had to scrape the windshield. I looked at him. Scrape? What with? Why should I scrape the windshield? I said screw that and went back into the house. It was too much trouble to drive in winter in Oklahoma." An ice covered windshield is an insurmountable barrier to a  Floridian. Chains, a glazed windshield, a steering wheel too cold to touch, and wet mittens. The notion that gloves get wet when covered in snow was  another revelation. 
"And your fingers get cold." Snow in the movies stays white and solid. In real life clumps of ice form on the wool, the wool gets wet and the water is icy cold. This sort of thing is not suitable for everyday living.

Looking back I wonder how I managed all those years in snow and fog and ice. Never again, and if you want to know, ask Shannon, she has very strong, clear feelings on the subject and I second them.