Sunday, April 19, 2020

Key West Still Closed

I hear the plans are for a return to some sort of economic activity before long. These kinds of pictures I can take if I get up in the middle of the night whether or not the town is shut down. However just at the moment getting in the car at four in the morning just isn't necessary at the moment with the city shut down. This attractive pile is a real estate office not a stone's throw from Mile Zero. Behind it you can see the entrance to the old jail in the Jefferson Browne building. You can see  no people and neither could I.
then I turned to my right and took this picture of the empty main post office. It put me in mind of the post office's  plea for coronavirus funding which was denied even as airlines got theirs.  
Mile Zero with no one around. There are lots of souvenirs available if you need them. Not that you can buy them in person right now. Speculation is how much e-commerce will be inspired to ship stuff all over the place from Key West. Perhaps you won't need to be an actual tourist, just order your Mile Zero key chain on line and get it shipped. I expect you can do that now it's just becoming a more obvious way to do everything now it seems.
In normal times I'd never bother to notice this  sign. It has a nice nostalgic ring to it now, imagining a street full of people and dogs. Not the sort of scene you can find today. 
"Coming Soon -March 15th"  frozen in time. Properly lit up at the Tropic Cinema but as abandoned as if in a zombie apocalypse.
Not every empty store front can possibly be virus related. Can it?
Leaves piling up on Duval Street. Not a permanent feature of life but evocative of the times we are living.
The bar closed tight, the city darkened.
The sidewalks are repaired, up next is repaving while no one is around on Duval Street.
A slow walk through a dead city.

Rusty doesn't care as long as we get time together.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Post Pandemic

Election year writ large is hovering over the coronavirus decisions our national leaders make but in smaller print locally  he election is starting to make itself felt as community leaders look to ending coronavirus restrictions.
The Citizen is jumping into the fray feet first with some interesting interviews on the subject even to myself who neither lives nor votes in the city itself. The big question is what improvements can be made in the Keys when the drive to attract visitors starts up again? That this is also an election year and there are two very different candidates offering visions of the future make it a bit more interesting.
Add to that an interview with the Spottswood empire of tourist attractions and hotels and suddenly the coronavirus could be a vehicle for bringing good things o the Keys. Maybe.
Here's the thing: if you feel you can charge fifty dollars a day to park a car downtown are you attracting visitors who pop into the five dollar stores to buy dustcatchers made in the Far East? Welcome to Key West where we propose to fleece you as fast and as efficiently as we can. if you are off a cruise ship by all means buy plastic knick knacks before returning to the ship's buffet table but if you plan to stay in the city plan on a  four hundred dollar a night hotel, hopefully with free parking.
The Spottswood interview revealed  a desire to attract more upscale visitors interested less in pirates and wenching and more in the real history and culture of Key West. There was mention in the interview of switching the direction of advertising away from Key West as a drinking hole and more toward the city as a repository of history art and culture. On the face of it that doesn't sound bad but I dare say we local yokels will have to be supplied with a  clothing allowance to bring us up to the standards of the nouveau riche art hunters who will be sauntering around town looking for local color. 
On the other hand the man who owns Ricks Bar and who has dabbled in politics before,  running for city commission and voting blithely on ordinances affecting downtown businesses is not recusing himself from this debate as election year looms. Mark Rossi is challenging the mayor for her seat and he told the newspaper he has no qualms about raggedy drinking tourism. He wants more with no changes.
Mayor Teri Johnston hasn't had enough of the coronavirus mess and wants another term in office and she told the Citizen she wants the city to think of a bight new future after the pandemic goes away. Everything should be questioned and evaluated in her narrative, cruise ships, local quality of life and the quality of tourism. If there is another and better way she wants to find it, similar to the Spottswoods' vision.
But then in the same article there is the cold wet blanket laid over the whole discussion by the Chamber of Commerce, the union representing business owners in the city. That narrative can be abbreviated to the thought that if there were another way it would have been found already. Which indeed makes sense but it also reveals the uncomfortable truth that no one seems to much like the city Key West has become but they see no alternative to advertising a drinking town with a  tourist problem. 
People like me who come to Key West to live here tend to go through an arc of appreciation, tedium and irritation, and those of you who think you want to live here should pay attention to the emotions of those who have gone before. Key Wrest is a town that grabs you by the throat if it grabs you at all. For some it is exactly what they see, an overpriced under served irritation under a hot humid blanket of unrelenting sunshine. For others it is the answer to a lifetime search for meaning. For my wife and I it was the closest we could get to the offbeat town we had lived in on the West Coast, only with much more sunshine than cold damp Santa Cruz. California's coastal fog was dreadful for her arthritis (and my moods). Key West offered us jobs pensions and warm water swimming. But for many people who choose to settle here it is an escape from suburban tedium.
Over time quirky Key West becomes your normal and the irritations of life close in. Gentrification takes away the parts that attracted you here. You can't sustain a bohemian lifestyle when cheap rent amounts to $2500 a month. In a town fueled by low paid hospitality jobs you need three to pay the bills which leaves no time to sit on the beach or grow out your hair and seduce bored tourist maidens. Your work schedule is tight and sleep is at a premium. Fall into the belief that life here is like a vacation and you drink yourself out of work, out of your hovel and back to life Up North. A hurricane evacuation or a coronavirus lock down will have the same effect.
If you do hang on and get a reputation for reliability, and build up a network of friends who can turn you onto cheap rentals, useful side jobs and support in times of need you can live a good life, always on the razor's edge of course but that is situation normal around here.  But the hard part to accept when you look back over the course of twenty or more years, is that Key West is no longer what it was. At whatever stage of bohemian unraveling the city found itself  when you arrived, by now the quirk factor has slipped and your neighbors drive nice cars and wear name brand clothes and are proud of it.
Then you become the irritating nattering voice of the past telling anyone who will listen how great Key West "used to be" which annoys the hell out of your listeners who are enjoying their own acceptable levels of quirk as they have arrived only recently. And so, isolated and disgruntled you pack your bags and go to live in the mountains of Western North Carolina or the southern deserts of California among others.
The idea that Key West become a center of Art and History sounds enticing especially when the people interviewed suggest the art could be viewed online and shipped thus reducing the local workforce. In this town showing up on time - sober - rates you a managerial position no matter how unqualified. Coronavirus may have had the unintended effect of teaching us all how dispensable our workplaces are. A brave new world faces the least educated among us. If drinking is no longer the main reason to visit Key West hippy bar tenders with tall stories and local status are going to be much less in demand than smooth mixologists armed with knowledge and suave dress suits.
If you want a  better class of tourist you are going to need a better class of employee. Better paid, better trained, more educated. They will expect to be housed properly and that alone will be interesting. Key West can't retain people in part because there is no future here unless you are content renting a dump.
I have my doubts anything will change as the forces of reaction in this town are powerful and that is a universal rule, fortified here by success. Key West makes a few people a great deal of money and bearing in mind coronavirus shut downs are temporary the business leaders making money from the low grade tourism will demand more of the same. How do you tell a  city that makes three million dollars directly from cruise ships that those same ships are a cultural blight? Smaller ships? Fewer and more discerning travelers? All that in the wake of a coronavirus economic depression? How likely does that sound?
I have been extremely fortunate during my time in Key West, with my wife and I enjoying great jobs, real health insurance, good friends and the perfect climate, but we too reminisce fondly about the characters, the places, the attitudes that permeated this town decades ago. We don't drink (much) and we don't fish (at all) so retirement here doesn't present too many challenges. After my accident I spent a lot of time lying in bed wondering how best to use the time left. Meeting death face to face will do that and I determined that before I die I need to fulfill one more challenge and I can't do that resting on my laurels here even equipped with pensions and Medicare like the generation that went before us.
I very much doubt Key West can alter it's economic trajectory, coronavirus notwithstanding, and if it does switch to present a  more cultured offering to the world,  the working people who will want to live here will have to change too. I have absolutely no idea how to rate or value  any of it. I feel encouraged that the discussion is taking place and a real choice faces city voters this November between more of the same, or a potential struggle to change. Stay the course of grumbling, shoddy service, non conformity bubbling with rebelliousness or take a chance on more gentrification, fewer tourists and a cleaner quieter town. Take a trip to Naples up the west coast and ask yourself if a power grab by the wealthy yields a town you want to live in. My only question is will I want to come back and live on a boat here after my van adventure is over or will we have to find another quirky little town fighting gentrification under the same warm southern sun? The next election will be very revealing.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Baffled, Befuddled And Bewildered

I fear I am falling into a state of  suspended disbelief here in the Florida Keys. They keep telling us the worst is yet to come but so far less than a thousand of 75,000 residents have been tested and the total number of cases as of yesterday was stuck at less than 70. Not 70,000, that was not a misprint. 
Light relief in the form of the Moo Car. At the last supper I had with friends before we all went to Gethsemane to expiate our sins, somehow the subject of the Moo Car came up and lo and behold last week I saw it and I photographed it, unoccupied as it was. Much hilarity I trust and thank you Chuck for the reminder.
In the world in which we are currently living summer heat is covering us like a blanket suddenly. The canal waters behind my house are fast losing their cool winter edge and the daily swim is more pleasure than pain by now. The photo below illustrates our general lack of movement, many bicycles, a few golf carts cross paths but of cars there are not many. Some people still have to drive to work but even the bridge coming into Key West poses no apparent threat of traffic jams as lanes close and repair work continues.
Driving up Margaret Street I caught these two strolling and epitomizing the new state of car free Key West. It's the zombie apocalypse and they are strolling amiably along in the best tradition of insouciance in the face of unspeakable terror. 
I wanted to walk the docks a bit and breathe fresh salt air  unpolluted by human activity but it occurred to me social distancing could be impossible to maintain on a platform less than six feet wide with steep drop offs on either side to the water. I had to limit myself to the telephoto.
Sunset walks are a relief from the rest of day, the places I go where people who live cheek by jowl in the city have no interest. Nature keeps on keeping on, doing very well we are told where human activity has shrunk. In the Keys there are signs of Spring amidst year round summer weather.
I look at the greenery and look for the odd leaf out. Edward Weston did this to astonishing effect and I wonder at his dedication to making things look different than what they are.
The quiet times walking Rusty who prefers a nose down position gives me time to clear my mind while looking for contrasts and shapes. It is freeing also because this isn't my job and I am only answerable to myself. 
There are no expansive views around here and where there are in the Keys they are usually over water. That's where the people gather to look out across salt ponds scattered through the Lower Keys and look for the sun to set. Rusty and I are deep in the bushes, socially distant doing nothing useful.
If Rusty could talk, and there are days I'm surprised he actually can't, I doubt he would be able to say with any confidence how coronavirus scares have affected his life. On my days off we walk further but day to day his food magically appears, his water bowl is clean and he wanders the house and the deck and the yard at will, as always.
As long as I can keep saying that I figure coronavirus is bearable. That the SPCA is asking for food donations for people who are running out of money to feed their dogs is disturbing. They have handy drop off bins and addinga  couple of bulky items to the shopping list is not at all inconvenient.
Rusty is a jealous dog. When a neighbor's dog came by looking for suckers with treats (us) he was not at all happy and he let me know by following me closely and staring hard at me in disapproval. This is a one dog home coronavirus or not and I am not allowed to forget it even for a moment. That won't change for any disease or injury, his or mine.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Hot And Dry

Rumor has it there will never be any rain again in South Florida. That and cell phone towers are responsible for the plague. Actually March 2020 was the hottest on record and the driest in 90 years according to the Key West weather service. The cellphone tower rumor is just some madness dreamed up in England, home of mad cow disease. Their answer to coronavirus is to lock themselves up tight and pull down 5G cellphone towers.
The unusual feature of a rain free landscape in the Keys is that it doesn't have much direct effect on food and water supplies. There is no agriculture except for gardeners doing their joyous hobbies and drinking water comes an aquifer under Miami so if it doesn't rain in the Keys it doesn't affect water supplies like drought used to. 
However one ought to look a bit further afield than just the Keys because no rain is really bad for the aquifer which will absorb salt water in times of drought besides lack of rain does nothing good for the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee or South Florida agriculture. And I have noticed that around here trees are shedding leaves like crazy. Things are drying up and dust is prevalent.
Then add the sugar cane harvest in Cuba into the mix and now we have air pollution to deal with. It happens every year when they burn the cane fields to clear them and the wind blows the smoke into the Keys. The sky gets  a weird hazy effect which is very unusual for around here where sunshine and blue skies are the order of the day. 
Oh and life goes on. You don't have to die from coronavirus if you choose to breathe termite poison instead. 
Coronavirus is still around and the roads into the keys are closed and the newspaper is reporting some discussion about ending the lock down. They say the curve has flattened in the modern pandemic speak we are all supposed to adopt. However yesterday I saw only 63 official cases in the Keys (population about 75,000) and the number of deaths remains at 3 with seven hospitalized. I'm not sure how much flatter they expect the curve to become. However they have tested a mere 635 people so there is that.
I think about my relatives in Italy. strictly locked down for five weeks with no end in sight while here in Key West stay well distanced and all should be well they say. And some people mutter darkly about a government take over of civil rights. I like how Americans always kick back but I'm not worried about losing rights thanks to the virus. The virus will pass and we have no chance of losing our collective ability to remain feisty!
I have a hospital mask in the glove box of my car, a left over from my time at Jackson South when my wife was issued masks to visit me when my wound got infected. There were so many masks and gowns and gloves they hung them on the door of my room for all to help themselves:
I put my mask on before going into a store as required by city and county rules which say face coverings must be worn in stores if ten people are gathered. Frankly I am hardly ever in a store in the first place, as there's nowhere to go these days except grocery shop every other week.I did take a bike ride to Ace Hardware as the drip pan in the stove top decided to die a crumbly rusty death in the middle of the plague. Mask on, stay apart and they don't take cash to avoid touching your germs. Thank god for the electric motor as the head winds were fierce.
And if  you happened to be on Simonton Street with a bottle there is still an al fresco opening post. There again what are the chances there will be someone around with a bottle, open or closed.
I have given up paying attention to numbers as testing is vague and uncertain, and the mixture of politics butting heads with science and science not being certain about anything makes me feel as though the only way to try to cope is to do what seems right in the moment for oneself. The trouble is we don't seem very capable of common sense as a species and that leaves me wondering how long we will blunder forward making mistakes and prolonging the madness of collective lock down. 
Personally I am not a great fan of collectives and consensus decision making nor am I much of  a fan of being led and being dictated to but if we have to suppress our revulsion in the name of the public good I wish the messages we were sent made sense and remained coherent. Coronavirus is exposing a lot of rents in the fabric of public consciousness and for those that don't usually pay attention it may come as a surprise to see how well the planet copes with less human activity. Entropy is quite healthy for the planet it turns out, in case there was any doubt.
I have no doubt the lessons of coronavirus will be forgotten pretty damned quick, especially the uncomfortable lessons that point to our essential uselessness in a  planet wide crisis. Pick up a  pay check, go to the store, walk the dog. Who knew how absurdly unimportant the rest of the daily drama really was?
Rusty knew. Wise dog.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

High Wire Act

After Hurricane Irma raked the Keys with 140 mph winds we the survivors wandered around slightly dazed picking up the pieces, and there were a great many pieces.  By the time our absent neighbors got back with supplies and a fresh helping of determination they brought with them the trappings of an advertising campaign: "Keys Strong!" they posted everywhere. It has I find, become a commonplace by now. Pink underwear notwithstanding.
I have met Doug the past couple of times I have been wandering Key West in the early hours and we exchange thoughts, he holding Teeki and I watching Rusty who is smaller than that burly Husky and therefore keeps my  formerly stray dog in a state of fear filled uncertainty. While the dogs eye each other Doug and I commiserate. I think I can safely say we are both glad to be here but both of us wouldn't mind a return to normal. Doug is much more outgoing than am I and misses his  sessions in public spaces, but we both find ourselves slightly unnerved walking around a town completely devoid of humans. 
The exercisers come out with the sun, the dog walkers the joggers the cyclists but there is no difficulty at all in sidestepping each other. Taking a turn past the Old Town Fire Station on Simonton the firefighters continue to do their chores and keep their equipment at the ready. The fire department also runs the ambulances so they have double duty. 
I am technically a First Responder but happily I don't touch people in the dispatch office, though because we take the calls we have to deal at some minor level with every single incident. The call volume is much lower than normal but the calls are much more clearly divided these days between pleas for information and serious calls for help. Parking has pretty much shut down and the sole parking control officer on patrol each day is checking for hazards and blocked driveways as the meters are off and residential parking spaces are not being enforced. Oddly enough one of the administrative calls that we are dispatching several times a day are Vehicle Identification Number checks. An officer is sent to confirm the vehicle is as described in the ownership transfer papers and with the officer's signature the owner of the vehicle can get fresh registration papers. Typically this is done for purchase or a state transfer.
We had a discussion about why so many right now and on the one hand the thought was that people need money and are selling cars to raise cash. The other idea was that procrastinators haven't bothered to change their license plates on their cars when they arrived from out of Florida and that laziness is catching up to them. Another of the less desirable attributes of the coronavirus  is its ability to bring out the worst in people and rumors abound of  cars with out of state tags getting yelled at to go home.
I haven't seen any of that or heard of any such incidents first hand but in Key West it seems more than usually stupid to fuss about tags on cars. There are thousands of military personnel stationed here who drive private vehicles with home state license plates obviously, plus there are people here quite legally who own second homes and drive out of state registered cars. They too are allowed past the checkpoints set up at the county line. I know the city is taking a very hard line with anyone who cares to offer a vacation rental right now and the hotels are all closed tight, so getting worked up about out of state tags is a wild goose chase best left, as usual, to rumor mongering Facebook drama warriors.
The word filtering through the news is that the people in charge are trying to figure out how to reopen the country for business. Oddly enough it doesn't seem to be clear who exactly gets to make that decision, with the President mulling over how fast he can do it and the state governors wondering what their best moves will be individually. The whole proposition seems ridiculous to me but there again it seems to me we the people have done a better job of making the decision to self isolate than our leaders have done in telling us what to do. 
As usual there is no testing and no knowledge which means we are left with wild speculation as to what is really going on with the virus here. Open everything up and the virus comes back they say. Keep everything closed down and no one has any work. What a bizarre dilemma. Glad I get to sit on the sidelines and watch the decision making process from those who thought being in charge was a good idea and so they ran for office.  That was before the coronavirus was on the horizon. Now they have to decide how to cope and we get to watch which seems more creepy than usual. 
And so it goes, nothing changes,  some few work, others don't, some don't need to... My wife is teaching from home which it turns out is incredibly hard work. I work my usual day shift schedule with spray in hand and my temperature taken at the start of each shift. So far so good.  What else is there to say or to hope for? So far so good. Call it Keys Strong if you feel like tempting fate but things feel a good deal too tentative to describe anything as strong at the moment.
Like the phantom "workers overhead" we trip the light fantastic on a very thin high wire for the time being.