Thursday, May 14, 2020

Key West 1968

I find myself wandering YouTube from time to time and my searches lead me astray, odd that, into places I don't expect. A drive to Key West in 1968 was one that caught my eye amidst all the tourist dreck and platitudes you will find about the Southernmost City. Key West And Environs 1968
Two things struck me about the video. One was that there were no free range chickens in 1968. I saw none in the pictures and I don't doubt had there been they would have been featured for a brief second as part of the lightning tour of Key West included in the video. The second was the number of nostalgic comments the video evoked. That surprised me considering how there was nothing in the video you could not do these days, pandemics excepted.
For a vacationer the drive on Highway One, the required stop at the Southernmost Point, in those days a billboard, and a Conch Tour train ride are all easily within grasp today. You can even buy Conch shells which, as endangered as they are, have to be imported from distant lands where Conch are either more abundant or valued as a weird source of foreign currency. Below I photographed the workshop at Key West Electrical on Margaret Street which is as close to the tourist epicenter as you might imagine and yet is as practical and hands on as anyone might desire who has had a broken boat starter motor (me). 
What has changed is the number of people, the increased restrictions on a life grown exponentially more expensive. I read a rant on Facebook, home of the unhappy loud voiced consumer in modern society, and discovered the military have been detaining people who ventured onto property the military has claimed for itself  at the end of the popular beach next to the military base. I photographed the beach last January and already I was told the new signs had been up for several weeks. US Property. 
Apparently people found wandering the beach were cited by the military who had decided arbitrarily to close what had always been open. I question their ownership of and that once was a public road eaten away by successive storms, especially as they have a boundary fence in a severe state of disrepair paralleling the water but I have no doubt some new draconian state of affairs has required the curtailing of one more open space for use by people wedged into these islands.
That's the world the video hints at without being able to show it clearly. In 1968 the old US Highway ran right through the Boca Chica Navy Base and it still does, it's the truck entrance on Rockland Key, but these days it's inconceivable that civilians should drive casually through like that. Except actually it isn't. KeyWest bases had two instances of Chinese persons, I mean Communist Chinese citizens driving onto Navy bases in key West and eventually being arrested. The judge hearing thecae was scandalized by the lack of security and I suspect that momentary lapse has promoted tightening of Boca Chica where people go to sunbathe not spy. Most people that is. I go there to walk the dog and photograph the sunrise in a place where no one else does.
Nostalgia will nag at me when I leave Key West, it already is. Part of me fears the restrictions of the coronavirus world we live in will be extended indefinitely, part of me wonders how did I get so lucky to be allowed to live out this topsy turvey time in this wonderful place.  I got a blast of nostalgia when I saw the advertising on a Fiat 500, none of which are now imported to the US, this one bearing the spots "upgrade" that was desirable and expensive in my youth. Abarth meant you were a speed freak. I am not quite sure what you do with a manual sorts gearbox in a. stick shift car in the straight roads across the plains of Florida but nostalgia knows no common sense. It was nice to see.
I met a former colleague now retired who runs a small business in Key West. He is limping along on line his wife works from home and he has taken to the Conch style of holding court with friends and ruminating on the state of the world. Neither of us is in fear of imminent financial hardship, the city has a solid retirement plan, but we both pondered the meaning of a pandemic that has shut down all economic activity driving more people out of work than the Great Depression managed in the 1930s.
There are no answers to any of it and I suggested we will know more in twelve months, maybe. Meanwhile I take Rusty's example and try to enjoy the good bits, not dwell on the bad and keep my fingers crossed. A dog in the driveway is better than a stray abandoned in a field. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Duval Street Pandemic

The Valdez flag of the Conch Republic ("a state of mind") hits me in the eye these days more often than usual.
There are signs along Duval Street advising street paving will close the blocks between Front Street and Truman Avenue as the city takes advantage of the quiet to undertake disruptive street projects.
Disruption seems to be the order of the day anyway with businesses closing and not planning to reopen. Frequently the strategy seems to be to not declare a fixed plan. IC Doubles closed months ago, a brief visit by a new bar where the Lazy Gecko used to be a fixture. Now there is a sandal shop advertising. How a sandal discount store can afford Duval Street rents might be a mystery to anyone who thinks business is always operated to make a profit. 
A whole string of these little shop windows, $30,000 a month each maybe, are closed and empty. One business on a  side street, Kojin noodle shop on Southard Street complained loudly on Facebook that their lease expired in October and they can't work out a deal with their landlord. Greed is always the cry though it seems to me capitalists live by the sword when times are good and therefore die by the sword when they suck. Bailouts seem to be preferred though when the going gets rough. 
I remember in the boom years before 2008 when Key West was bulging with money as people mortgaged their homes for one more vacation or showy luxury purchases and my friends in Key West moaned all the time how money was wrecking the town. Which may have been true but I remember a lot more trickle down in those days when working as a bar back earned more money than a 911 dispatcher. I was in it for the long haul and looking for a pension, so aside from the fact I dislike bars I knew where I wanted to plod along and earn a living. After the 2008 crash I had no doubts about the merits of full time year round union work in Key West. Much like today.
I have no doubt tourists will be back when the roads are re-opened as key West's vacation appeal has not dimmed, nor can it considering it is the easiest safest tropical destination in the country. However i hate seeing people's dreams of a small business in Key West shattered. These are the businesses that can't shout loud enough to be heard when corporations are holding their hands out for some capitalist support.
Walking past the oldest house in South Florida I found myself pondering how many yellow fever epidemics it had seen, as witnessed by all the tombs in the cemetery of young people struck down by an invisible misunderstood deadly illness. Yellow fever was not established as a mosquito borne disease until the Panama Canal was built in the early 1900s. The death toll at the eighth wonder of the world was such the US military had to figure out what was yellow fever and how did it kill. Key West had been living with sudden deadly infections since the city was founded in 1828, 90 years of random deadly epidemics. You could do a lot worse than study the work of William Gorgas at a time like this, a man of science who saved lives and is largely forgotten.
The old time businesses on Duval will undoubtedly pull through. They have a customer base and decades of making healthy profits means they are stable enough to either own their buildings or have reserves to re-ignite the reputations after the latest infection washes away. The cleaning and refurbishing of The Bull was a welcome sight, anticipating a better future.
Lots of activity, like a school before term begins.Watched over by a very interested pigeon.
And as if the work on Duval Street weren't enough there was also major pipe laying construction on neighboring Simonton Street.
That's the measure of how empty the city is, two major parallel streets closed simultaneously and no traffic back up to be seen on a Monday morning.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Rainy Days

We have received word that Up North there is snow and a sudden unwarranted return to winter. The upshot down here is a sudden return...to winter.  Yesterday the doors were thrown open and Rusty sat disconsolately on the deck watching the water drip off the eaves. For a confirmed air conditioning freak the idea of open doors at home mid May is bizarre but the east wind was cool and the skies were overcast.
I took these pictures a few days ago and I am posting them here because I am too old to go out under an umbrella and look for wild scenes. Rusty got his evening walk between downpours and the evening ended up with milk and cookies in front of the TV. 
The Citizen newspaper ran an article reporting stormy weather on the economic front with a partial list of businesses that have decided not to come back after the shut down of the Keys. Coffee Plantation, Kojin, Fresh Produce were some of the names. More will follow no doubt in a town where prices are so high and anyone can collapse in the face of absolutely no business happening.
I have given up trying to follow or understand the virus because I feel like it has a laser focus on population centers up north. A rash of infection has appeared in a local retirement home which is part of the pattern and one can legitimately wonder what happens next. On the other hand no one seems to know anything about coronavirus or what to expect. 
I am having. hard time wrapping my head around the prospect of another Great Depression. Anyone who lived through the last one was marked for life by the experience. If we face general economic collapse God help people already living in the edge, be they here or in the Third World. I have heard the statistic that most Americans have no defense in the face of an unexpected bill and it breaks my heart seeing so many food giveaways. The millionaire class is nowhere to be seen and they are the ones who want their name on every pubic work they want to fund. Restaurants and employed workers feed the hungry in this town, led by the amazing Catholic Charities operation.
The rain falls on the just and unjust alike, just the same way the sun shines and we will all feel the pain of this badly managed catastrophe.  We in the keys are exempt from a lot of the indecisive leadership thanks to the decisiveness of the Sheriff who shut down the roads and kept out a long line of cars filled with people who don't get social distancing. I'd like to think self discipline and survival would drive people to take care of their community but it doesn't seem to work like that.
People in Europe have been locked down like they are in prison unlike here in Florida where outdoor activities done alone or with family members have been tolerated. Like the man said we live in a time when being anti social isn't just tolerated, it's required. Lovely.
Except being confined to quarters is not lovely at all. When you live in the tropics you expect rain in the seasons. nice time to watch the temperature drop under dramatic cloudy skies. But after a short while one expects to see blue skies and bright colors again. I spent yesterday darting in and out doing some over due gardening chores watched by a dog who remembers all too well living in the wild and getting wet. Rusty appreciates living out of the weather.
The Citizen news paper's wordy editor who is relatively new around here took a long column to explain that we will be served better by a smaller paper which will now publish three days a week, down from six. Its a time of intense news coverage and political oneupmanship tat we really don't need yet the coverage will shrink. It's like when you go to the supermarket and they preface their innovations with "...to serve you better..." which is never true.
This is a time of uncertainty and thus we get aphorisms bromides and platitudes aplenty. Our indebted  neighbors call for freedom in the face of the virus, our leaders look confused and we are advised to stay safe and stay strong. Well, ok, I'll try. I'll stand on the sidelines scratch my head and continue making my deliveries of dog food which I surreptitiously add to my grocery runs and drop off at the SPCA which says there are people who can't feed their pets. Now that gives me the creeps as I look at Rusty fun walked and loved snoring in his bed.
The rain will go away and I hope the virus follows suit and quickly. Please.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Southernmost Southernmost


I thought to myself if we are acting as though we are waiting for a hurricane I bet this would be a good time to visit the Southernmost Point. The buoy at the corner of Whitehead and South Streets is known to locals by a number of epithets which I'd rather not repeat here but if you see any remote resemblance to a sex toy you can imagine the direction that conversation takes. Visitors on the other hand love to line up and view this point, purportedly the southernmost spot in the continental United States. And who am I to tell them otherwise?
Actually the true physical southernmost point is nearby, behind the black fence in the picture above. That puts it out of reach to most people as it is part of the military base. I am fond of saying I listen for free to Cuba on Radio Reloj at 950am on my car radio but the US Government uses this expensive array. Our results may vary.
You can see the Navy base behind the statute of the late Conch shell greeter Bishop Kee of the Church of Prophecy. Tom Joris made the statue of Albert Kee who died in 2003  but was known for standing at the point blowing a conch shell. I remember him but he died before I arrived at the digital age of photography.
The original on the Chamber website:
Kee welcomed visitors to the Southernmost Point, and helped popularize conch shell blowing. Photos: Rob O'Neal
Sometimes Rusty surprises me and this was one of those occasions. He sat down in front of the buoy as though ready to pose for pictures. One of the problems of living with an excessively intelligent dog is that he makes his own mind up about quite a lot of things and Rusty does not like to have his photograph taken. He is not strongly food motivated so you can't bribe him to pose. The only reason I have as many pictures as I do is by virtue of constant association and being ready instantly to grab what I can. I toss out hundreds of pictures of the little brute to get the odd decent one.
Just when I thought I had  Key West  to myself two tourists wandered up to take a picture with their brand new iPhone 11.  Using my extraordinary powers of deduction I figured they were actually construction workers in town for a job owing to the logos on their shirts and they had taken a moment to check out the monument. I told you it attracts visitors like flies.I tried to remove Rusty who suddenly decided he liked being ion pictures and refused to budge, perverse creature, and they said don't worry so I didn't. I glowered at him though and he grinned at me like he knew he was pissing me off. They asked me to take their picture together which was the least I could do and I managed it without the including the hulking brown elk in the front. Note to self: the iPhone 11 is really quite slick.
On the subject of history and Cuba this little yellow hut, freshly painted apparently is a piece of both those things more or less. In the mists of time there was a period when Cuba and the United States talked to each other. People went there on vacation mostly to do scandalous things they couldn't do here, and Cuba exported stuff to the US. And you could call or send a telegram and this is where the electric lines from Cuba came out of the ocean. The schooner Western Union was actually responsible for a while for maintaining the sea bed connection.
One of the things you have to learn to do if you live in Key West is not spend too much time thinking about what you are missing thanks to the ongoing state of uncertain relations between the two countries. There was a window of opportunity to visit Cuba recently, even for ordinary people but it was no something I wanted to do much owing to the difficult state of their economy and exploitative nature of Cuban tourism in a time of desperation. However if things got on an even keel I would love to see the old buildings in Havana and enjoy tropical mountains similar to those I have seen in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, though more majestic I am told. I will probably be in my grave before day trips to Cuba and overnight sails are regularly on the cards between these two countries.         
So the question arises, how southernmost is southernmost? Hawaii has the southernmost point in the states of the United States and they don't make too much of that from what you can see on Google Streetview they have a dirt parking lot and  a hand painted sign. Around here there is the southernmost everything. Including the Southernmost Southernmost house. That  signage on a private dwelling is part of a dispute with a nearby business that calls itself the Southernmost House. Why you would want to draw attention to your home as a potential tourist attraction I don't know but here it is:
And this is the place where you can rent a room to sleep in a place that calls itself the Southernmost House. By the time you enter Key West you are within four miles of this spot so everything is pretty much southernmost from the Cow Key Bridge south but geographic arguments persist for reasons I can't really follow.  The sun shines on the just and unjust alike around here.
Blessed are the anglers because they will have a good time whether or not they are the southernmost bait net casters.
Sunbathing is one response to all the craziness going on and I approve even though I'm not much for sitting out roasting while doing nothing. I burn my beak while swimming mostly.
Rolling in seaweed is another entirely sensible response to stress or simply as an expression of joie de vivre. And the little bastard had no idea I got the picture of him. Dog 0 Human 1.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Boot Strap Tugging

It is a conundrum and only getting worse as the weeks drag on and normal economic activity remains a mirage in the rear view mirror of life. The city of Key West has agreed to delay rent payments for three months from businesses on city property on the waterfront at Key West Bight. The plan at the moment calls fro businesses to defer three months rent until next year when they have to pay it back. Of course the businesses were hoping to get the rent waived but the city is looking at its own set of gruesome figures and they will need to figure out their own budget in the next few weeks. Key West has a pretty checkered history of economic ups and downs too.
You have probably heard the widely told story, absolutely true, that the Federal government had a plan to evacuate the Keys during the Great Depression as almost everyone was out of work and hungry. The Depression era staple of Grunts (fish) and Grits is actually the food people had to eat as it was all they could afford. A weird character by the name of Julius Stone intervened and made himself King of the Keys (I exaggerate but only slightly). He decided the Keys had enormous potential for tourism and he got Depression era artists to create advertising and the trains which ran until 1935 brought down the tourists. The city survived, no evacuations took place and World War Two saw a massive influx of military and military money. Stone disappeared with a  proverbial suitcase of cash into the history books. His story is worth the read as told by the Sun Sentinel.
Key West prospered well enough into the 1960s when the plug got pulled again and the Navy left town in large part and took the economy with them. Duval Street was shuttered and commerce shriveled. A  group of local businessmen still in town today decided they wanted to keep the town going and they bought up  the empty street and waited for the good times to return. Eventually of course they did and some people made a fortune of the reversal, a reasonable reward you might think for those many lean years. The gay boom in Key West helped cement the revival of Old Town at a time when being gay was practically a crime in the US, giving Key West a unique cachet. 
The rise and fall of this single source economy has been documented through hurricane recovery and economic busts like 2008 and it's always a matter of hanging on waiting for things to improve. The sub tropical weather and outrageous water views will keep people coming until sea level rise does its irreversible part I suppose. Meanwhile it seems we have to gird our loins and wait this one out hoping for the best. 
I never lose sight of the fact that my wife and I have government jobs with much seniority and imminent retirement. I now most people come to the Keys to party or to retire but we bucked the trend looking for jobs that would pay for a decent retirement and we found them near the turn of the century when the boom was making plodding office jobs like ours look like low paid grunt work. I am grateful to the Keys for the support and the secure jobs we've had in a  great place to work and I only wish the good times would come back a little faster than it seems they are moving now.
It is decidedly one of the slums in key West's long history that we are living through now. I hope I will be able to look back in a dozen years from much closer to my death bed and tell boring stories to anyone who will listen that yes, I stayed through dozens of hurricanes and the Great Pandemic of 2020...I shall embellish the misery, I shall make myself out to be much tougher than I was and I doubt anyone will believe what a thundering bore this all has been.