Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Calm Before The Storm

Waiting for a hurricane to make landfall is a period in one's life that requires patience and the ability to keep oneself amused by the daily requirements of this most peculiar time. The weather is lovely if a little warm, the southernmost buoy bathed in afternoon sunlight and  no great crowd around it...This is the reward for the work, the uncertainty and the moodiness that hits  a lot of people at times like these.
Key West residents are doing their thing as they wait to see what Hurricane Irma brings. Why did the chicken cross Whitehead Street? Because it could as there was no traffic at all in any direction.
Why was he passed out? Because ...why not? Actually I suspect he was sober and doing fine and simply was reveling in the lack of people and traffic and noise and bustle across Old Town Key West. I felt like doing the same thing and enjoying the lush cool grass but work beckoned.
Every time I paused and turned off the Vespa engine the 150 cc burble died away to a bucolic silence like you will rarely hear on Duval Street in daylight hours:
Hotels are closed, stores are closed and gas stations are out of gas. As far as I know the only fuel in the Lower Keys pending resupply (if any) yesterday was at the Shell station on 1st Street , see below for the line, and the two gas stations on Summerland Key which seemed to be running low. I suspect the Chevron on Ohio Key might have some but I did not ride that far, almost to the Seven Mile Bridge. Looking for gas is one of those peculiar amusements. I saw one fight break out last night at a gas station resupplied, only to be broken up by the woman attendant with a baseball bat. By the time the cops got there everyone had gone. I filled the Vespa.
And now the panic buying is over, the streets are empty and the long lines of cars driving north are filing along, in orderly fashion I might add along Highway One. I understand the crowds are now filling the mainland freeways as urban south Florida is inspired by Irma to flee.
Most of the bars downtown are closed much to my surprise. I think the Category Five nature of Irma with unbelievable 185 mph winds has scared more people than want to admit it. The Green Parrot was open for business and there were people at the bar. I also saw people drinking at Don's Place on Truman...
...but the iconic tourist draws in town were firmly shuttered as employees took to the evacuation route: 
Usually you find a bunch of blowhards telling newcomers to ride it out. This time there are a lot of people desperate to leave. The transit system will pick anyone up at bus stops who want to evacuate and take them to the transfer station on Stock Island and put them on a coach to a Dade County shelter. The service starts at noon and buses will be labeled "Hurricane Evacuation."
People still seem to think Key West is on the path to a direct hit but the National Hurricane Center,while being extremely cautious about its uncertainty is putting the bulls eye right now on Homestead and Miami. If they are right Key West may be as much as 120 miles from the center of a storm with hurricane winds not reaching half that distance from the eye. Irma for Key West could be just another tropical storm of Category One hurricane. Wet and annoying but eminently do-able.  The fear is of sudden change in strength and direction.
I did my share of helping install shutters in the hot sun and I was impressed by these guys determination with their plywood on Whitehead Street:
The city park and ride garage is a prime spot to park ever since Wilma flooded thousands of cars. So now they have to keep cars from parking here to keep space for city vehicles:
I was enjoying the silence  and the solitude downtown and suddenly a motorcycle rumbled by, a car turned the corner and a  cyclist wobbled into view. This is still an inhabited city...
 Those hurricane shutters take sweat and effort to install.
I watched these guys have a mid-road chat on Caroline Street just like the old days when September meant a naturally empty Key West:
My house has a surprising number of windows and they seem to multiply when they have to be covered by broad sheets of aluminum. I got some much needed help and then I got to sit in a corrugated cave in darkness, alone, until I couldn't stand it so I took off for work on the Vespa to get these pictures before I sat at my desk.
My wife meanwhile spent the day driving and arrived in Ft Myers with a tired dog and a tank full of gas so she is well out of the path of Irma, or will be by tonight.
Yesterday was the day designated for visitors  to leave the Keys and today is set aside for residents, not that anyone much cares which way people go but the hotels use the mandatory part to clear their rooms and prepare their buildings for what's to come. 
 I wish the billboards would stay gone:
 And then twelve hours at work where people respond in their own way to the tensions of hurricane threats. Myself? I feel pretty good seeing as how the threat has veered off to the east and we look to get but a sideswipe. Fine by me thanks. You never know how it will end up but for now I'm enjoying the calm before whatever storms strikes this weekend.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Waiting Game

Will it? Won't it? Hurricane Irma is driving past the Virgin Islands, with the eye of the 185 mph storm some 40 miles north of St Thomas. Today it should brush Puerto Rico and Hispaniola then it will threaten the Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas. Because the Bermuda High is strong enough we could see weather coming this way if the major hurricane is forced far enough south, yet now there is a hint in the Hurricane Center forecast to indicate it could well miss Key West..
This is described as the largest most powerful storm to form in the relatively cool Atlantic Ocean waters and now it is scheduled to drive up the Old Bahama Channel, shallow and very warm waters which will feed the storm. Indeed it may drop to 140 miles per hour by the weekend but that will still make it a devastating Category Four storm. Right now, Wednesday morning it is a monstrous Category Five, as high as the scale goes. But the five day track shows the Upper Keys as the landfall, possibly  a hundred miles east of Key West.
It's been so long since a hurricane threatened and Florida has such a high population turn over there are many many people who have no idea what happens. And yet I have seen an encouraging number of people leaving and driving in good order up the Keys to escape. News that Irma is a category five with 185 mph winds has awoken many people to he idea that this storm is truly dangerous. 
My own response is to ignore the danger and just keep working at the daily tasks. Buttoning up the house is a step by step process with help from neighbors who themselves are all talking about leaving before Friday when the winds are expected to blow. Me? I am one of four dispatchers who will be working through the storm along with a few police officers who will keep the lights on at the police station. I appreciate the fact this is a deadly storm but the police station is designed to weather these conditions especially now that we might avoid a direct hit... and I expect we may end up a bit uncomfortable but   I doubt my life will be at risk. I shall post whatever I can here and at my Instagram and Facebook pages both under the name of Michael Conchscooter. If you want to watch this epic story fizzle one picture at a time.
So for now I go outdoors and look at the ocean and the check the Hurricane Center website obsessively and keep calculating the odds of not having to change my routines at all. Its very dreary and as  each day passes it seemed more obvious that Key West was in the cross hairs. I kept  hoping the  trough in the continental United States might suck the storm away from us and maybe it has. As for my family while you read this my wife has left in her Fiat 500 with a tank full of gas and a dog on the back seat. Someone asked my wife on Facebook if she was taking Rusty. Hurricanes produce all sorts of strange questions. I have no idea why anyone might imagine Rusty would not be taken care of. So I shall be alone until I report for work Thursday night and won't leave the police station until the all clear is sounded next week. 
The 911 lines tend to go quiet as people are busy preparing but the administrative lines light up. At Key West PD we answer both lines at the same desks, which can confuse callers when they dial 911 and ask for the police. "I am the police," I say and they don't believe me. I've already starting taking questions about the weather like I'm a forecaster or a prophet. I just read the weather off my phone like they should. Then they have questions about buses, where to get gas, shelters and so on. Hapily the emergency operations center for Monroe County has opened to answer these questions. We just take calls from people who need help, we have no particular information to share. When the storm gets close and they order us in and shut the doors time stands still. Whatever is outside is beyond reach and the world becomes an internet screen and a whirling mass of clouds slowly getting closer. 
It's been years since we've had to do this and I don't want to sleep on a  cot or shower like I was back in boarding school drying my hair as I walk past armed police and piles of sandwiches and the sounds of weather forecasters in the corridors. I'm not ready to wreck my routines to suit the convenience of a spinner called Irma. But it has come to that. Oh well.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Conversations With A Motorcycle

When Jack Ripe told m he had a new edition of his book Conversations with a Motorcycle I was a little taken aback by the fervor and excitement in his voice. "It is," he said, "a beautiful book, the cover glows and the print is easy to read and no longer like newsprint."
He was right.
I received his book last week and I checked it against the old first edition on my bookshelf. You can't deny even in mere photographs, the glow that comes off the new edition. His publishers Zadic and Deverelle have done him proud. And all for twenty bucks a copy.
I knew Jack wanted a newer and better edition of his book, planned to be the first of a trilogy, when we met him in the Summer of 2016 in New Jersey. Rusty was quite curious about him too.
Jack has added a series of appendices at the back of the second edition discussing the truth behind his reminiscences of growing to adulthood and riding a widow maker of a motorcycle in New Jersey. The fact is the Garden State is not like the rest of the country and his approach to people and language needs to be explained and he does at some great length. I now know when it's proper to call someone a douche and when to call them an asshole. It's a fine distinction but an important one.
The New Jersey pine barrens are part of Jack's life and he took us to check them out when we were there. Rusty was decidedly interested and we did a fair bit of walking in the woods later, him and I alone.
One thing people ask Jack is how much is real and he says all of it, except names have been changed. This past weekend at a Labor Day Rally in New York he got that questions again and he told me the story with great delight how he got one of the women in the book on speakerphone at the rally to confirm the truth. I wish I had been there.
I have included a couple of pages of the new edition here and as I read the stories again an feel the lovely new paper quality I have to confess I still laugh out loud. 
And in a few weeks Jack is promising book two of the trilogy, Motorcycles Speaker Louder Than Words when he promises further bombshells about his peculiar state of growing up.
He has a website and order forms and stuff  LINK HERE to go take a look.
I snagged this picture a few years ago at his home in Pennsylvania and in my head I titled in "The Great Man At Work."
He is planning the third book in the series for publication in 2018. I can't wait. He might really be The Great Man after all. 

Monday, September 4, 2017

The Ideal Commuter

In 2005 or thereabouts my wife got her motorcycle endorsement and conceived a notion that she wanted to ride a Vespa around Key West as part of her job visiting recalcitrant students. We found an almost brand new ET4 150cc automatic with 236 miles and a couple of slight bumps on the leg shield where the first owner apparently dropped the scooter not even causing the paint to chip but enough that she lost her nerve. $3500 got us a scooter complete with accessories and little did we know many years of faultless service ahead.
In 2007 I bought a Vespa 250, a lovely machine that was part of a batch with faulty electrics and cheap fuel pumps from China and that I had to sell to save my sanity. In ten months it spent more time in the shop under warranty that it did on the road and I still put ten thousand miles on it I liked it so much.
I replaced it with my Triumph Bonneville motorcycle still running faultlessly after a decade and 98,000 miles. My Vespa itch which I have had all my life since my first 50cc in 1970 had to be satisfied and I bought a 200cc two stroke. The idea was it would commute at 60mph and being almost maintenance free and carry a spare tire with split rims such that I could replace tires at home easily. Simple solid and reliable.
It took me five years to come to terms with the fact that it was slower and less reliable than I could stand and miraculously I got rid of it in a trade with a  bright orange Vespa S150, a 2008 scooter with 326 miles on the clock and like brand new .
I didn't really need it as I have been using my wife's ET4 consistently over the past 13 years but I love the color and the style of the S150 and it has the same motor, a simple air cooled two valve motor with the addition of a fuel pump for some reason. I figured it would be as rock solid as the ET4 and five thousand miles later it has proven to be just that.
I find myself always picking one of the Vespas over the 865cc Bonneville for my commutes these days. Thy are light comfortable and easy to ride. They don't have a clutch which relieves my arthritic left wrist and they will hold a true 60mph on Highway One on the flat in neutral wind conditions, easily enough to keep up with traffic. And not so powerful to tempt me to speed or pass even at speed, or risk getting a  ticket.
I like having two rides so when one is in the shop getting new tires or in the case of the ET4  new exhaust muffler, suspension and carburetor I have a back up to commute. Tires wear out fast on these ten and eleven inch rims so I can spread changes a bit further apart by riding one then the other. I tend to favor the ET4 which with about 30,000 miles on the clock has a looser and slightly more powerful engine. It holds sixty actual miles an hour even into headwinds where the newer S150 loses a few mph...

For some reason it has taken me a while to come to terms with the ET4's  funky aesthetics and the lack of a gearbox but when I think back over the years it has been exactly what I wanted ina  Vespa, reliable, fast enough and easy to ride and I have overlooked it because I am an idiot. On top of all that though the paint shows signs of aging around the edges it looks amazingly fresh and new even exposed all it's life to the corrosive Keys atmosphere. Indeed nowadays with disc brakes front and back, water cooled four valve engines with braking systems the old ET4 has itself become a classic, the first of the four stroke automatics first designed twenty years ago. I have earned to chish my alabaster classic and am happy I still own it.
I'm not sure where all this leaves the Bonneville my workhorse of the past decade. Cheyenne was happy to stay home the last years of her life, car trips wore her out so I was free to take off on two wheels. Young Rusty by contrast is ready to go anywhere with me anytime. To take off on two wheels is to betray him, besides it is much more fun arriving somewhere with an eager brown dog in two than by myself on two wheels. This is a truth I cannot deny so mist of my riding now is between Key West commuting and shopping and Marathon to meet my wife at her job. The Vespas handle that just fine and when Rusty sees me put my helmet on he knows its a trip without him (and therefore no fun AT ALL). I miss my 1979 two stroke P200:
I turn sixty on Halloween so I suppose change needs to be acknowledged. Long trips by Bonneville are suspended for now...
And I do acknowledge that I am changing at least for now. I don't anticipate a future of not riding and in retirement I foresee a lot more touring and traveling and day trips and so forth. Rusty will be older and I will live in a  place where a day trip by motorcycle will be satisfying and get me home in time for a romp with my older buddy.
But for now my sweet spot is a Vespa 150, air cooled and old fashioned but modern at 60 mpg and 70 mpg, thus surprising the commuters in big slow trucks and distracted drivers of sedans suddenly passed by a hairy old hobbit on a moped on the Overseas Highway.
I feel no rush to make myself youthful with 800 pounds of loud heavy awkward motorcycle.
and my Italian adventures remind me I don't need 170 horse power every day.
Weird I know but I am happy at the moment with 12 horse power...

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Waiting For Irma

I have sat out perhaps a dozen hurricanes over the past dozen years. I was hired in 2004 right before one of the most intense years for hurricanes. 2005  followed with the worst storm in living memory, Wilma which flooded Key West a few weeks after New Orleans went underwater. Katrina that year raked the Keys after making an unexpected westward turn over Homestead and scraping the entire island chain with 60 mile per hour winds. And then we had peace and quiet for most years with an occasional distant miss or a minor scare. 
On my lunch break Friday night I walked out on the White Street pier, the place people come to if they want to see waves of any height pushed over the coral reef by the oncoming storm. It was a pleasant night with the breeze that has been a fixture this summer and a more or less half moon gave a bit of light between the clouds.
My stroll was tinged with some slight melancholy which surprised me but then I recalled that sensation as a  bundle of feelings I frequently get when I am contemplating change brought on by hurricanes.
It's not that I expect Irma to flatten Key West or anything even if it does come here, even if it is a Category Four - at this stage two big "IFs" - but simply because hurricanes have a habit of ushering in sudden change. A  friend of mine recently while lamenting the lack of housing suggested a strong hurricane might sweep the landscape clear and reset the housing situation.  
He spoke not meaning what he said but unfortunately I find massive weather disasters impact the poor and around here the loss of income, the damage and so forth send more workers to the mainland. The second home owners are barely affected by a  hurricane as they have insurance and their lives and  jobs aren't directly impacted.
The storm is a long way away and may be approaching Key West in a week if the huge high pressure over the Atlantic stays solid and pushes the hurricane into us. But there is now a lingering feeling of what if..? What if the hurricane does come this way....what if there is damage...what if Key West is a changed place in two weeks?
It's absurd really because  there's no certainty about anything and even if this wretched storm comes here there's unlikely to be total devastation but  the mind plays tricks on you.
So without realising it I was walking the beach pondering how much things could change for no reason at all. Luckily I had my iPhone to take a few pictures and  take my mind off disaster....
The beach behind the Martello Tower at Higgs Beach, home of the garden club, is  a nice little spot and it has a picnic table. I need to bear this in mind.
And Hurricane Irma will have to follow it's course wherever that goes...
Time to get back on the Vespa and get back to the 911 center...

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Saturday In The Keys

Key West decorative touches:
 A coconut stand that has become decorative; the business plan seems to have got lost:
 Checking out Rusty far below:
 The Moose Lodge mural encompassing many Key West life styles:
 A nice large street number, helpful in case of emergencies:
 Newton Street in the Meadows neighborhood:
I had one of these years ago and seeing it on Fleming Street gave me sudden nostalgia for driving up and down the California coast and Mexico and even if it didn't start on wet winter mornings it was  a great camper in my youth, Grateful Dead stickers and all (and I was no Deadhead).