Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The 911 Princess Shift

We of the night watch call it the Princess Shift. The two regular police dispatchers for that night work six pm to six am, and the overtime helper comes in from ten pm to two am. That gives the overtime dispatcher a few hours to have dinner at home, kiss the wife goodbye and jump on his Triumph Bonneville for an invigorating half hour ride to work along a darkened, deserted Overseas Highway. Then, when his colleagues have had their lunch breaks and alcohol fueled rage across the nighttime city has been quelled for the night, at least most of it, the overtime can end and a bed beckons 23 miles down the road.
I love the Princess Shift. The ride is usually still crowded on my way into town between nine and ten at night. There are still too many cars coming and going for the full lonely experience I enjoy on the way home. But four hours upstairs at the police station flies by and then I can grab my man purse, shout a quick good night over my shoulder and know that I have thirty minutes on the road in the dark, utterly alone. Fantastic.
This is the void. Beyond Big Coppitt at Mile Marker Ten, the last outpost of street lights, 24 hour gas, and a 45 mph speed limit, the Highway takes off over the sea, a mix of bridges and causeways, the roadway dipping and rising, long straights that double as passing zones...Here be dragons, too far from Key West for the revelers and shift workers to want to drive out this far beyond the dormitory community of Big Coppitt.
Stopping the Bonneville and turning off the key on a moonless windy night I might be anywhere there is wilderness. It's eerie out here, the wind moans and whistles, the mangroves rustle and the highway is invisible once the headlamp on the motorcycle is out. I can see far enough in each direction that the occasional car or delivery truck headlights are visible across the open water so I can stand on the crown of the road and own the darkness in perfect lonely safety.
It is not real desert wilderness out here. The side roads are lined with canals, docks, and houses, many empty most of the year others occupied by commuters seeking the good life away from Duval Street. At 2:30 in the morning it might as well be a desert, for this is decidedly not a twenty-four hour lifestyle. To my way of thinking life in a stilt house with parking underneath and a boat at a dock behind your house is Keys living, the way people crammed into contemporary Key West cannot imagine. This is Tom Sawyer-land, barefoot fishing from the dock, kayaks at dawn, fewer neighbors and among them less chance of urban social wreckage spilling over. The basics of daily life are here, groceries bars and restaurants within a short Vespa ride, but the allure is the water not the bar scene.
Because I have to work I enjoy having a commute. It sounds paradoxical but riding a motorcycle, working at night mine is a commute unlike the ones that city commuters on day shift Up North face. Slow traffic is a chance to practice the fine art of passing, or if that's not possible I can sit back and look at the waters rolling by, sparkling in sunlight, ruffled by the wind, reflecting pewter under hard gray skies. The black ribbon of the highway winds through the water, not over it, skirting mangroves, clinging to rocks and dirt, the soil that forms the foundation of the roadway. Highway One should get boring to ride, but not so far. It never gets icy, there are no animals crossing this stretch, no pedestrians, a separate bike path keeps bicycles away thus the road belongs to infernal combustion, unimpeded.
I can see the pleasure of life in Key West, and one day perhaps there will be time (and money) to reverse the journey and find myself riding away from my home in the city to enjoy the wilderness of the Lower Keys. That may be for later. For now the ride suspends my life, my cell phone out of reach and inaudible, my obligations at home or at work are my destination, they do not impact me during the journey. This half hour belongs to me and at this hour the road is mine. The bridges are mine. The night belongs to me and my single headlight.
People tell us motorcycles are dangerous but last week a young man drove himself to death on the Seven Mile Bridge and he was driving a car. Danger is everywhere. Bad decisions, inattention, not listening to the inner voice of good sense and reason. I have recorded a number of podcast interviews and I hear that advice in many forms from all the smart travelers. It's the advice I give myself on my modest repetitive journeys up and down the Keys. When I get home safe and sound in the dark I am grateful to the machinery that got me there, grateful that I work these odd unsociable hours, that I get to see this place as few do.
Every trip is a journey, and though I have but one road to ride it's still a trip worth riding.
And here it never snows. I nearly forgot that important detail. I hate being cold, cold is an adventure too far for me; being cold is decidedly unsafe for me.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Hair On Fire

It looked like it was going to be a long night, as it is early in Spring Break and we were all bracing for the worst this week as Key West has been packed with people all winter long. Traffic has been terrible and everywhere is sold out, parking is at a premium and the lure of summer looms large when year round tourism dials it back a bit and the crowds die down. But not yet.


So there we were, massively staffed with four dispatchers and my Trainee and we were working. All three ambulances were out on calls, the phones were ringing and JW, my enthusiastic Trainee was typing madly keeping up with the radio traffic on the main police channel. I was keeping an eye on him, intervening when he got backed up, trying to let him find his own way in the morass of laconic police radio traffic that punctuates the night.


Nick out of uniform

Then the night eased up for a while. Keith went on break and the four of us slowly turned inwards from our computers and the conversation drifted to Nick's forthcoming vacation, to be taken with his cousin in New York City. Nick looked unenthusiastic when Shannon and I suggested Broadway would be his oyster for a week. His cousin he said was employed on Broadway as a set dresser and could get him passes but he wasn't sure he was interested. An appalled silence filled the room. Dispatchers can be a judgmental lot so Nick retrieved his honor by allowing he might, possibly, go see something. Then when Shannon started asking about reservations to eat out the appalled silence indicated once again that Nick was taking his trip far too lightly. In his defense he reminded us it was going to be cold and probably snowing. He sounded keen on that saying he'd ordered a winter coat and Shannon started in on him about his footwear; more appalled silence. "You mean you don't have waterproof shoes?" She looked at me and I looked at Nick. JW typed the sparse radio traffic and kept his head down. Things were looking harsh for Nick. Shannon seemed to figure he was probably going to get stuck in a snow storm and she would end up doing a week's worth of overtime to cover for him while he extricated himself from a snow drift, slowly, just to spite her. Nick sounded keen about the prospects of seeing cold weather, far more so than a chance to see a play for free or eat in some of the world's best restaurants. I've worked with him for years and I am sure he thinks I'm as weird as he is to me sometimes.



Shannon out of uniform for winning a decorating contest

After a pause for a few more 911 calls and their requisite dispatch conversation started up again in a lull. This time the subject of sleep came up and how Shannon's husband likes to eat in bed. I started this because I mentioned there was an actress on a Netflix show called Black Sails I wouldn't kick out of bed for eating crackers and Shannon said she was "plain."


Louise Barnes as Mrs Barlow

Fat lot you know, I replied with a spirited lack of maturity, which somehow prompted a discussion about spouses' sleeping habits which led us into a very dark place indeed. It turns out Shannon lives with a tobacco chewer, a vile habit JW has happily dropped but my Trainee took the time to commiserate with Shannon who remarked that her husband has been known to fall asleep with a drink in bed, waking suddenly to launch the cup across the room, a habit that wrecks her sleep. Not to mention the time he fell asleep with her head nestled on his shoulder, the ideal spot to collect the drool that slipped out of the side of his mouth into her hair.

Which sounded horrible enough until she noted that the drool in question was laced with tobacco juice such that she woke up with a terrible burning sensation on her skull. Looking in the mirror she saw her hair was dyed with a bright orange splotch. She sat in the shower for an hour cursing her partner, the cause of the distress which only deepened when repeated lathering did not remove the stain and did not stop the scalp burning like the fires of hell were rooted in her hair. They both had to take the next day off to spend hours at the beauty salon repairing the damage at vast expense to her then-boyfriend.


That's nothing JW broke in as we stared at Shannon, always perfectly coiffed, in horrified pity. I had the worst hair day of anyone's life in Tampa few years ago. And he was right, he did.

JW was an enterprising 19 year old when he decided to go to hair dressing school when he was living in the big city, away from his roots in Key West. It was a good school for JW to go to because he wanted to meet women and he figured there were lots of those in such a place. He played his cards right and got to sit around smoking and talking with his fellow students. Which was how he got to become a guinea pig and get some powerful black dye in his hair. Not so great but his instructor said he needed black eyebrows to match, naturally. While dubious JW was a student and felt compelled to comply with the instructor's request. Which was when things started to go wrong. His brand new hair do took an unexpected turn and he found himself looking at a black rug with heavy orange accents, what I laughingly referred to as a Harley Davidson do. His eyebrows were powerfully black, and stayed that way JW said for a month.


Being a fashionable young man he felt he could not in all decency go to work looking like Bobo the clown though unfortunately he admitted to his manager that he wasn't coming to work in the restaurant because of his failed hair do. Your hair? they squeaked. He was adamant and so were they, a failed hair style was no reason not to work. They parted ways over the phone.

Driving home JW was looking mournfully in his mirror at his devastated scalp, the orange streaks in the unnaturally black mane and his black caterpillars that replaced his normally sandy colored eyebrows...not a happy camper. And much less happy when Armenia Avenue shrank from four lanes to two and became a one way marked by an immovable cement barrier which the distracted youth drove up on - hard.

Such was the force of the blow three tires blew out and JW was disabled. A situation made all the more precarious because his aunt had taken the time to wash his hair with ammonia in an effort to rinse out the orange, and the ammonia had the unfortunate side effect of leaving a black high tide mark across his forehead. In order to cover the devastation JW had wrapped his head in a turban using a towel from his aunt's place to enable him to get home unobserved. That plan was now shot to pieces because as JW tried to get his Saturn off the road he proceeded to wreck a rim.

To add to his anguish he was under strict instructions to wash the ammonia out of his hair else it might make the orange go green and cause his hair to fall out such was the chemical power of the ammonia. Realizing his predicament JW did the only sensible thing he could do and called his grandmother in Key West who marshaled family resources and soon an uncle was speeding to Armenia and Azeele loaded with a gallon of fresh water to save his nephew's hair.



That was a bad day JW said mournfully, noting that in the space of a hour he had got his hair dyed orange, lost his job, wrecked his car and taken a rinse in the middle of the intersection from a gallon jug of water like a homeless dude showering in public. Plus JW noted ruefully his plans to get lucky at the salon fell through where he said he ended up in his words, "a bit of a laughing stock." Best of all he had to get a job at the beauty shop as he was no longer working at the restaurant. Besides the owner wanted to keep an eye on his scalp for signs of longer term damage.


It was a good thing we had a quiet moment there in dispatch because it took us all a few minutes to get our breath back and compose ourselves. Keith came back from break to find us panting and exhausted, our faces streaked with tears and JW serenely running the radio amidst our obvious loss of control. Keith looked around, said nothing and neither did we as he sat down at his desk. The night followed it's course but we all of us understood why these days JW has no hair at all. Much safer.


Sunday, March 1, 2015

Warm Enough For A Vespa

Those poor deluded souls who believe that seasons, four of them, are a good thing have got their work cut out to convince me. The recent cold snap kept my old Vespa under the house for a while but 55 degree temperatures don't last and with hot sunshine and muggy afternoon air a refreshing ride to tour the expensive waterfront homes on neighboring Summerland Key seemed in order.
Given the pleasant summery conditions it might be considered churlish to wish for more but honestly a nice winding hilly road with a tea shop at the top and gorgeous views to a distant horizon might be nice, rather than the dead end at Flagship Drive, pretty enough of course.
As it is one has to make do with palms boats and canals. Tough life.
Flat roads aren't all bad when you are powered by twelve horsepower. A top speed of 62 on the flat drops down quite a lot with hills and headwinds. Putting around the expensive homes in 3rd gear at 25mph is a nice way to remember that the Vespa two stroke engine isn't designed for performance. It's a relaxing ride, noisier with more vibration than a modern digitally equipped scooter, and fun because of that.
When cars see a scooter on the highway this time of year drivers, from Up North act as though they are seeing a low-flying pterodactyl. From up close the blue "antique" tag doesn't help so even though the scooter keeps up with traffic one senses a certain amount of anxiety among the poor dears who suddenly need to close the gap and keep up with the car in front. If only driving could be undertaken in a way that didn't involve measuring your own penis size against that of the Vespa rider that just passed you...When I ride the newer Vespa, well broken in and capable of sustaining 60 or more miles an hour, the frantic efforts to prevent me traveling set my pace have to be seen to be believed. Better then to ride a motorcycle in winter and bimble round the side streets on the old Vespa until summer comes and frees us from outsider prejudice.
Luckily there are places to pull off the connecting main road and check out the serenity of Nature's artwork.
Come to think, perhaps I shouldn't ride the Vespa with the pink Crocs. I don't think they help my "moped" gain acceptance among the size-impaired socially nervous tank drivers.
Home to tea for me and dinner for my well walked, patient hound. Luckily when it's too hot outside conditioned air inside in summer means the teapot gets year round use: no off season for this nectar.

My Travel and Safety podcast should be available on Monday, and your ear and a rating would be much appreciated.
Here’s how you listen and review for us:
1) Go to travelandsafety.com/itunes

2) Click on “View In iTunes”

3) Click “Get” in the “Price” Column (far right) next to the episode you want to check out

4) Whenever you’re ready, click “Ratings and Reviews” (directly under the title in iTunes)

5) Click “Write a Review” and enter yours in the Window that comes up. Give it 5 Stars to make it worth your effort.

Thanks in advance for taking time out of your busy lives to help us out.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Home In The Sun

Yesterday I rejoiced in being home with my Labrador. It was a lovely sunny afternoon so Cheyenne and I went out to rest together in the stubby grass at a park close by home. A far cry from the 400 mile motorcycle earlier in the week, much enjoyed and well remembered.
The sun was out, the sky was cloudless and blue and everything resembled nothing quite so much as the perfect summer day in a temperate climate. Summer vacations when I was a kid looked like this in Italy and I spent every waking hour out and about. I looked like a peculiarly round faced child with a straw hat according to the picture. My buddy Diego, in the background was unimpressed.
Except now I am an old man with a Labrador, no longer a child running loose. I get to sit and contemplate and my dog does the same.. I was contemplating how I didn't hurt after a 400 mile day, including rain and darkness on the road. Perhaps I am not so old after all...
But time passes for us all, even my youthful Cheyenne who some days likes to walk less and sit more.
After all one doesn't have to go on long motorcycle rides every day, but a good dog deserves two decent outings every day. And Cheyenne is very good.


The Podcasts  should appear Monday:

Here’s how you listen and review for us:
1) Go to travelandsafety.com/itunes

2) Click on “View In iTunes”

3) Click “Get” in the “Price” Column (far right) next to the episode you want to check out

4) Whenever you’re ready, click “Ratings and Reviews” (directly under the title in iTunes)

5) Click “Write a Review” and enter yours in the Window that comes up. Give it 5 Stars to make it worth your effort.

Thanks in advance for taking time out of your busy lives to help us out.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Fog And A Dog In Old Town

I took these pictures earlier this week, after work and with Cheyenne who loves the cool of winter. She was on a mission to lead me on a forced march through the deserted streets. It was between two and three in the morning, and despite the fog which we associate with cold clamminess I walked behind her in shirt sleeves, torn between snapping pictures and keeping up. From time to time she stopped to look back at me balefully wondering what the hold up was.

The picture taking was frustrating, partly because the dog, whose walk this was, wouldn't slow down and sniff something to give me time to frame a picture, but also because the fog took the edge off everything. I felt as though I couldn't get anything in focus.

There she is, looking at me demanding to know why I can't get a move on:

From Charlie's Grocery she led me straight down the lane to Bill Butler Park.

And on past the usual collection of lovely Key West homes and their greenery.

Classic Florida louvered shutters:

I just followed...

...my Labrador. I was her shadow for a change. There she is in a feeble pool of light, waiting for slowpoke:




A lone cyclist wrong way on Olivia flashed a light at me as though I were in danger of not spotting her and running her down; literally as I was still on foot.

She was panting like a steam engine after an hour of this, 14 years old and unstoppable. Every day I am grateful for her. How else would I see the world through her amazing eyes?

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Finally: The Podcasts

Over the seven years I have been posting on this page I have been told many many times to take this page to market and I have never wanted to change the nature and character of my stored memories of life at the end of the road, as I live it. Even now when I have taken on a whole new full time project this page has been my refuge, a quiet hour each day on the porch or on the couch playing with pictures and words, not thinking about 911 or all the myriad home chores that lurk in daily life. I thought for a while, I feared, that Key West Diary might have to take a back seat. So far so good I have put up a new essay almost every day, and I hope that on those few rare occasions when I have resorted to "re-runs" I have not offended. I have to figure not everyone has read (and remembers) all 3800 photoessays logged here since June 2007. And some days I have simply run out of energy to put words to screen, or have no photos to use so I have reprinted old favorites.

When I was approached to do podcasts I was leery as I am entrenched in the school of radio where I lived and worked for a decade. I got out of radio news because journalism was a nut I had cracked and when I have mastered a skill I get bored. Also news was becoming less hard core which I did not like, and I did not want to participate in the dumbing down process I saw underway in broadcasting. I still enjoy listening to the radio and I bought a life membership in Sirius when satellite radio appeared. Thus podcasts I approached with some wariness. However it seems this is the way people like to listen nowadays.

As with all stuff online the podcast market is creating niches and followings and this is where I need your help, and I trust you can come through for me. iTunes is supposed to have the first four podcasts ready on Monday morning. Jack Riepe kindly agreed to share some stories with me and if you have read his best seller Conversations With A Motorcycle then you know why his stories are worth hearing.

Scooter riders know Orin O'Neill from his widely read and respected webpage Scootin' Old Skool and he too has agreed to be interviewed for which I am very grateful.

And that's just the start.To get the space on iTunes these interviews deserve I need something back from my loyal readers. My producer sent me these instructions to post here to help get the word out Monday morning and to create a space for the podcast. Over the years this page, thanks to you, has received nearly 1.5 million hits and put my diary in the top million webpages worldwide which frankly astonishes me. I have as you know no marketing skills of any kind and the concept of search engine optimization is about as alien to me as small talk at a party. And as I have previously confessed I have no small talk ability whatsoever. So I am confident if after all these years I ask you will respond and I thank you in advance.

Here is how you do it...Monday morning, if Apple posts it promptly!

1) Go to travelandsafety.com/itunes

2) Click on "View In iTunes"

3) Click "Get" in the "Price" Column (far right) next to the episode you want to check out

4) Whenever you’re ready, click "Ratings and Reviews" (directly under the title in iTunes)

5) Click "Write a Review" and enter yours in the Window that comes up. Give it some 5 Stars too.

I am doing the interviews because I enjoy the informal give and take of these conversations, but also because I have my own history of traveling and apparently managing to stay safe. The picture above is the wife and I with dogs sailing Central America studying the instructions that came with our portable hand laundry machine. We later graduated to a bucket and plunger when the hand wringer, built in the First World, broke. Simplicity became our watchword.

My more recent travels I have logged on this page of course but I have in the past ridden motorcycles all over the place, including Africa, crossed the Panama Canal (bits of it actually with the motor off and sails up).

I also took the Great Siberian Railway across the Soviet Union as as a young man.

I have been stopped in an embarrassing number of countries for speeding. Adventures all, but none looming quite as large as this one right now. Wish me well and I hope to see you on the...podcast!