Saturday, February 6, 2021

Familiar Ground For Rusty

In the early days of this blog I used to get roundly berated by people who thought I should be a botanist and thus able to name plants at random. I am not by nature a collector, especially as I feel more like a nomad if I have any nature at all and nomads don't collect stuff. Besides all that I find myself unable to retain names and genera and species and all that stuff, be it of butterflies or of botanicals. So when I do manage to retain something vaguely useful I am impelled to share it. Behold the Traveler palm:
I like traveler palms because they are spread like symmetrical fans and I like symmetry. They also have a bit of a story behind them which may or may not be true but which I find charming nevertheless. They are called traveler palms because they save travelers who encounter them in arid places the social distinction of dying of thirst, a rare fate in the United States but not unknown. I have read further on these palms and found an account written by someone who wanted to test the theory. They said the liquid inside was rather black and foul but someone desperate enough might be able to drink it. You have been warned. I'd like to think they got their name from providing shade to hard pressed travelers but in the end they generally just look good. Better than the rather raggedy example I managed to find. I love them all and you will too when you see them rising above Old Town Key West.
I was busy photographing Telegraph Lane romantically lit at 4:30 in the morning when Rusty made a find of which he was very proud. I never see him eating street food yet here we have photographic evidence that he is eating a found tortilla. I have no idea why and were you to slip him a piece of bread under the table  during dinner he would ignore it. I guess road grime makes it irresistible. He put in me in mind of Cheyenne the vacuum cleaner of rescued Labradors who swept up anything remotely edible like a furry Zamboni. Rusty has a remote relationship with food, enough is plenty and the rest he ignores. I get the feeling he's just happy he doesn't have to chase and kill his own supper these days.  I hunt roast chickens in the supermarket and my wife portions them into his kibbles.
I had an artistic impulse so I hope I can be forgiven. These are the little blue lights leading up to Teaser's strip club at 218 Duval. In focus they are rather boring, and dare I suggest out of focus they aren't much better but  you have no idea what it costs me psychically to take an out of focus picture. Here it is. Pure Art.
I went to Teaser's once to not be a spoil sport when I was trying to be a manly man on a night out but it was not an experience I would recommend. The place was black with flashing lights and reeked of desperation, women to make money and men not to feel lonely. I have come to the conclusion I am wired differently for some reason. Buying human flesh is not my bag and if she doesn't like me because I'm weird I'm not able to notice that she does like me only because I have dead presidents in my hands. Remind me to tell you about the night out I had with naked women, fried chicken and the interrupted lap dance. I need to learn to improve my ability to make small talk if I want to hang out with manly men.
I like my solitude, my camera, my dog, the night drive down Highway One and the cool winter nights in the silent streets of Old Town. Rusty makes Duval Street his own hunting ground at these lonely hours, always wanting t repeat his rounds on the same streets, checking places he knows and likes. My dog is smart but he is a bit of a homeboy. If it weren't for me he would probably not travel at all.  Next week we go to renew his three year rabies shot, a piece of paper we store with our passports. I hope next year we will have it ready if needed on our way north to Alaska, I also hope he will be delighted to be there with us. Meantime home slice gets his Duval walks.

Friday, February 5, 2021

How I Arrived In Key West

I never really decided to live in Key West, I just sort of backed into it. Life in coastal California was quite pleasant though I never adjusted to the cold foggy summers and wet depressing winters. weather that Californians boast about for suppression of insects and limited amounts of snow and ice, but that left me wishing for tropical heat.  Two years sailing through Central America with my ever patient wife and dogs left us with one conclusion: hot sweaty weather is much better for her rheumatoid arthritis than Santa Cruz's cold foggy summers. That was the main impetus to settle in Key West a town I knew from my murky past when I sailed around Florida and the Bahamas. When we arrived in Key West from San Francisco a friend gave us an engine block to anchor our boat while we settled in and looked for work. Key West was funky back then) and we went looking for work riding the dinghy to town from our improvised, no rent mooring.
Florida Keys
My wife got hired by the state as  a Juvenile Probation Officer riding a round Key West on her scooter checking on her probationers. She was warned parts of key West were dangerous but after defending criminals on California's death row, juvenile probation posed no threat to the former lawyer. Frequently when we rode together on my motorcycle youngsters on the sidewalk would shout out: "Hey Mz Goldman!" with a big smile on their faces and greet her at the supermarket check out to prove they were working gainfully and out of trouble. We had landed in simple small town life with the promise of a state pension, something my wife was never able to sign on to in California. Her pension is smaller than California's would have been, but Florida's pension plan is fully funded, unlike CALPERS (California Public Employees Retirement System) in the Golden state...Twenty years later its the little things that matter, like getting an actual payoff...
I got a job captaining boats which filled my pockets with tips but was a precarious living at best. My wife still wanted a pension for our old age, a notion that hadn't quite penetrated my feeble brain as desirable. She nagged enough that I got serious when we decided to buy a house, not knowing mortgages were free with a smile and a handshake at that peculiar time. I figured working for the police would convince a seller of my bona fides. That and a large down payment got us off the boat which we sold and into a house. There we were settled, pensioned and serious people a continent away from our old life.
I think it's safe to say we suffered from a  few misapprehensions as we settled into a new and different life. I never imagined I would actually remain a municipal employee long enough to actually cash in my pension but my wife was always smarter than me in these matters and here I am. The other misapprehension was that we would meet travelers from around the Caribbean in Key West. We thought Key West was the stopping off point for people from down south, as it had been for us, and instead Key West is actually of course the final stop south for people from Up North. It was an adjustment in our thinking we had to learn to deal with.
What we came to learn in a hurry is that most people who end up in Key West come from lives unsatisfied Up North and it's obvious if you think about it for a second. The adventure started in a  snowdrift and ends at the Southernmost Point, the end of the road, the catchment area for refugees from daily dreary lives Up North. O expected to find a city filled with people cruising around down south who were in Key West to rest, mnake money and prepare to take off again. I was wrong.
I have never felt hugely adventurous for living in Key West, though I have often felt very, very lucky to have stable work here. I am much less attracted to the vacation aspect of Keys living and much more appreciative of the possibility of living a stable life, earning that necessary pension and not being bound to cope with heavy traffic, ice, and the more formal work environment that tends to prevail in other places.  My wife tells the story of when she and a colleague when to a probation conference  years ago when such things were paid for by the state and the two of them showed up in the hotel meeting room filled with Juvenile Probation Officers from across the state. "You two must be from Key West" the moderator said immediately. They were the only two participants in brightly colored clothes in a  sea of black and office gray. 
The other night we went together to walk Rusty close to dusk on a  back street near where we live. We were on our way from running chores in Key West and we pulled off to let Rusty have a run and sniff as a reward for too long spent on the back seat outside the UPS store and Walgreens and the scooter shop. But lo and behold there was a snowbird with a prancing poodle type creature  in our space... no fault of his of course, much applause for bothering to walk his dog at all even if he was wearing a  sportscoat of some sort which looked horribly formal. We left and found another socially distanced spot. That's life in the Keys, from the first snows until Easter all public spaces will be filled, all silent moments will be shattered, all places and events worth seeing will be fully booked. You just have to get used to people being "on island" as they say, as though they were Greta Garbo visiting with a retinue.
Let's face it: we could have left. Easy to say but much less harder to do as the pension plan fills out, the unfamiliar becomes familiar, strangers become friends, and cold damp winter weather fades from memory. With our sailboat sold we settled into our routines as you do. Sometimes we are tempted to moan about the daily irritations but a visit to Miami will set you straight when you live in the Keys. I get annoyed by the slow pace of winter traffic, tourists who forget they are clogging the only road to work or to get home from work, lollygagging at the scenery and dawdling under the speed limit. I guess I am not alone as I have seen a marked increase in Highway Patrol activity this winter so I guess we need to commute a little closer to the legal limit. 
There is a weird attitude toward people who choose to live in Florida, part contempt and part envy I think. The envy is obvious as for six months of the year the living is not bad at all and the other six though hellishly tropical are not impossible to survive. The contempt arises from Florida's reputation as home to grifters drifters con artists and crooks on the lam. We all get tarred with the same brush and I think that sense of lawlessness on the periphery of respectability drives some people south, a little bit of adventure choosing to live on the edge. When people look at me with disdain: "Oh, you're from Florida" making the Sunshine State sound like a toilet leak I look back and say how much I like living in a state filled with eccentrics, the place that's home to Florida Man and all the shady characters that inspire Carl Hiaasen. If that puts you off living here you could try Nebraska. I've heard it's not an expensive place to live, but there again you don't hear much about that state do you? Am I being a snot bag? Should I apologize to corn huskers everywhere? Nah, I'm from Florida home of the crass, the ill mannered and the weird.
There is a knee jerk response that comes out of people who live in the Keys when asked where they live. "I live in the Florida Keys," they will say. Oh, you live in Florida then? Well, yes and no. And sometimes one has to face the fact that in a  country inadequately schooled in history and geography there are actual living people, Americans, who have no idea where or what the Keys may be. Can you imagine that? Me  neither. 
In the Keys time served helps to give you credibility. The longer you have lived here the more you can claim...whatever it is longevity in the Keys allows you to claim.  It's the notion of a freshwater Conch brought to life. A Conch (pronounced Konk, for heaven's sake) is someone born in Key West, by the strictest definition. A freshwater Conch is supposedly a long term resident of Key West. Except freshwater conchs exist only in the minds of people who feel the need to categorize everything. I spent some time volunteering around some wannabe Conchs many years ago and they liked to prove their own longevity by quoting five digit phone numbers. In the early days of ten digit calling Key West had  similar prefixes: 292 through 296, thus you could identify a number by eliminating the "29" and giving out only the last  five. This practice continued long past the arrival of cell phones and more varied numbers so if an old timer wanted to put you in your place they'd say "Her phone is 43292" or similar. That would leave the poor newbie to wait for the rest of the number...which would never come unless they begged to be told 294-3292. 
When I lived in Santa Cruz, a desirable tourist town on the beach locals never mixed with tourists. The visitors would drive down the main drag, Ocean Street and spend their weekend at Beach Hill overlooking the boardwalk and the cold Pacific Ocean and then drive back to the grime of the Big City  in long dreary lines over the mountains to San Jose. Local discounts? Nope. Secret local hang outs? Nope. The two worlds were so far apart they hardly ever met. If I wanted to go outside my zone of normal living I would sneak down to the Arcade at the waterfront and push quarters into the Pacman to mingle among the tourists. When I landed in Key West I found the two worlds were so inextricably entwined in such a small piece of land the desire to prove oneself a local outweighed every other social consideration. I was a bit taken aback. So nowadays I violate convention and take pride in wearing my camera and walk around looking lost like I'm a tourist and I get to listen to people explain to me carefully all the myths and fables they think represent reality in their new home town.
If life at home has grown dreary I highly recommend making the move down south to Key West. Even though all I was looking for was a pension, and I found it, life here has remade me and given me a new outlook and rewarded me with a life I never could have had in California. It takes forgoing ambition, making do, being patient (and I'm not very good at that even now) and a willingness to be happy with less. If the travel bug bites, Key West is a good stepping off place to go much further south, much deeper into the unknown and find true adventures off the beaten path. But that for me will be another story.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Van's Night Out

Last week the moon was waxing full and I was home alone Friday. Obviously I should take the van and go see what I could see. Obviously I wasn't really alone as Rusty wanted to come too. Layne was in Miami Friday night so I was in charge of the outing. Obviously we weren't going to eat well but the views should compensate.
Since Hurricane Irma swept this area in 2017 the state has brought in a bunch of money and rebuilt the support for Highway One with some rip rap also thrown behind the seawall. Accidentally they built a dirt roadway which has allowed vehicles to crawl around the edge of seafront, at least for now. 

The camera smoothes out the gravel surface which is very bouncy in a five ton van on a road surface with rocks, potholes and as rough a surface as you like. But at walking speed the lumbering van will get there, a private spot right under the roadway and right above the water. 

It makes me laugh to see myself posting a photo of waterfront location worthy of Instagram posing. The fact is there aren't many waterfront spots in these islands thanks in large part to the marshy nature of land which reaches the very edge of the water most places. Mangroves aren't really fit to be walked along or certainly driven over so the Keys are really suitable for edge of the water parking. Funny that isn't it?
Fishing is why people hang out on bridges and in parking lots and unfortunately it feels as though there aren't enough trash cans in the keys (and there are a great many!) to contain the garbage. Parking my van means parking my home which comes equipped with tanks and bags to store liquid and solid waste and I like to leave no sign we were there, wherever it is. I failed this time as I kicked over Rusty's left over kibbles in the dark and scattered them in the gravel. Ant heaven it turned out and a nest of them got busy removing the unexpected bounty.  It was heavenly for Rusty too, as the moon was up and the landscape was illuminated all night. After a week at work I fell asleep at 7:30 and work up completely refreshed at 3:30 (!). I sat in the doorway and Rusty sat outside watching and listening. It was perfect, even though the phone image is a little bit crusty!
When I woke for the last time in the morning Rusty was ready so off we went, familiar walks in an unusual format. I live here! I'm van camping here! Confusing. Rusty knew what needed to be done:
My idea is to make van travel fun and so far he seems to be getting used to the idea of sleeping in a box, even though he gets really excited every time we get home. I like having my life right there, a box filled with water and electricity and all the bits and pieces for comfortable living. Webb the spartan sailor thinks the van is a bit crowded inside with stuff. He has a point but three of us reside in the box and we all have needs (one is a woman, nuff sed).
It was a good morning with nothing much to do except pull out the electric toothbrush, boil a kettle and put Weetabix in a bowl. Just like I was at home. Well, we were at home so I pulled out the morning papers and swiveled the driver's seat while Rusty sat outside digesting his breakfast.
I wasn't going to get away without another walk, that I knew, but first I had some reading to catch up on. Leaving the bed made up was easy and comfortable as a day couch. With the doors open a pleasant cool breeze blew through and pretty soon Rusty was curled up in his bed on my bed next to me. I have been reading the biography of James Beard, the original food guy. I was curious where the current food fads came from and Julia Child wasn't alone in her efforts to create cooking awareness. James Beard it turns out was a complicated character, driven by being gay in a very straight world and fearful of being uncovered. He was run over by his own gay scandal as a young man at university and that trauma played a central role in his unhappiness and inner turmoil. The US was not gay friendly in the 1950s. However what I do find interesting is how he inserted himself into the food culture and found his way by being determined to have a voice after failing at opera performance and stage acting. It was a slow start to the book plodding through his formative childhood but the story is picking up the pace as we pass World War Two and beard starts to get recognition. I enjoyed my Kindle to the sonorous rasp of a dog snoring.
When the hound from hell woke up he made it clear he was more important than James Beard so off we went. I confess I left the phone in the van and set off with bag, leash, camera and nothing else.
There were a few cell phones about taking pictures, and some fishing poles with humans attached but we managed to weave our private way to the top of the hill and looked down on the water and Bahia Honda State Park in the background, where the campers are packed tight and reservations far in advance are required:
I mentioned I left my phone in the van so I had nothing to write with when I met these bandits. I was beetling to the trash cans to discreetly dump Rusty's latest dog egg when my Carolina Dog was hailed by name. Oops. I had nowhere to write down names but indeed I did recall meeting on Duval well before the pandemic when faces were uncovered. I wasn't wearing a mask but we stayed well apart and I congratulated them on moving to the Keys from upstate New York. 
Rusty needed to keep moving, of course, and I was aware that my wife was heading home about now and probably expected me to answer the machine that must never be left behind. So we walked back to the box  in good order and got on the road to home twenty whole minutes away.
I could have stayed all day. I really like hanging out in and around the van even though I have a perfectly good house to enjoy. Odd that.
70 square feet of bliss. Is that possible?

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

A Small Nowhere Space

In 2009 I rode my Triumph past this barely noticeable gap on the shoulder of US 1 and I stopped to take pictures. Sunday was a rainy day and I was hunting around for a dry foot walk for Rusty...why not Park Key, an update?
There is a sign to Keep Out which seems unnecessary but I dare say the idea is when you slip and fall and hurt yourself the county is covered against the inevitable lawsuit seeking damages. If you can put one foot safely in front of the other and don't jump off seawalls you will be fine.
There's not much here except some nice views and surround sound traffic noises from the highway.
Someone has parked what looks like a small cat boat in the protected shallows off Sugarloaf Key.
The picture above is Park Key and below there is the remains of a boat ramp and a small pier which was built on indestructible PVC pipes:
Rusty approved for a five minute exploration.
Parking is available on the shoulder at Mile Marker 19...

Rusty ahd to wait while I played with black and white for a few minutes...

In the end we had to go. He was pretty clear.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Sleeping On Through

If you are Up North you have had snow and really cold weather. Good luck with that, and spare a thought for me as I face a 55 degree night tonight after work. Or for him hoping his hung over has worn off and he has found his way to shelter. During the course of my ramble with Rusty yesterday morning he moved but as you will see not far. He's not dead, so don't call 911 breathlessly telling me you've seen a corpse: he drank too much because life got the better of him. It used to happen to a lot of people around here but they're much reduced in number.
Curry Mansion is there on Caroline Street to remind us that Valentine's Day is coming. My wife looked up from her Amazon page and said Happy Valentine's Day we're getting watches. I haven't worn a watch in decades, but the past is the future and by Wednesday I should have an article strapped to my wrist once again. Apparently it will note my physical activity so I hope someone will care, perhaps some Moldovan hacker will count my steps or squats or whatever it does. I know my wife will be making sure I get up every hour I'm sitting at work. I am become patient in old age, this too will pass and I trust the next fad will be less weird and intrusive and annoying on my wrist. 
Key West
I like to walk and I don't need an Apple device on my wrist to make me walk. I walk early in the morning, well before six o'clock when no one is around, ostensibly to be social distanced but actually because I like walking with Rusty and no one else. Silence around us and a running commentary in my head. It's winter time here and there are more people around than in the sticky months of summer and some of them are exercising, some are stumbling and this homeless guy with a pack and a firm controlled stride compelled me to record him, a Sasquatch figure loping along with me hopping around urging my camera to wake up in time for this sudden vision of woodsy folklore. I caught a fuzzy image of the mysterious legend.
Key West
Key West has been a fabulous source of things to look at during the pandemic. I have found myself obliged to look deeper and think harder about what I see, and knowing this will all end before long has prompted me to remember what I felt as I saw. This page really is a diary and that aspect is becoming more and more apparent to me. Retirement beckons in one year and three months and with it I hope the end to the pandemic to allow easy roaming once again.
I was watching Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations on television this past weekend, avoiding rain and tired for the moment of the printed word, so I was seeking escape and journeyed to South Florida with the man whose television programs gave me hope for the medium. He killed himself yet I still think about him and I still miss his acerbic view of the world. His walk around Key West with Norman Van Aiken was a nostalgia trip for me seeing the Key West I used to know 15 years ago, long gone, and even then not a revolutionary phase of this turbulent island's life. But it was messier, it had more of the Bohemian and less of the conformist, the balance was still teetering even though the end was in sight. It was clearly not the Keys West of 1980 and yet there was a sliver of hope that fashion and style and symbols of wealth could be kept at bay a little longer.
I got some encouragement when Van Aiken declared Key West wasn't ready for his nouvelle cuisine and left the Town and Tavern restaurant for the wealthier pastures of Miami Beach. Nevertheless he took Bourdain to Conch Town Cafe and over his shoulder you can see the Lemonade Stand art studio now a bric-a-brac shop. I read Solares Hill, the weekly irritant to people in power, before time shut down the café and the Internet ended the newspaper assaults on the Keys bourgeoisie, replaced by online social madness unedited and allowing anonymous voices the freedom to throw up into the four winds of public opinion. I wonder what David Etheridge would have written on the events of January 6th. I should have liked to have held the newspaper with his words on it at the café.
At five in the morning I watch the cleaners hosing down Rick's, their loud voices reverberating around the tree bar and in my head I translate their Spanish jokes into the banter I used to listen to from the field workers on my mother's farm in Italy. The themes remain the same, sex money, time off, home and round and round. I never was any good at small talk, failing hopelessly to grasp the significance of sport in men's lives, unwilling to discuss women and uncompromising in my politics. You don't want me at the dinner table, nor do you want me on a work team discussing the above mentioned ways to pass the time. 
The men (no women) who clean the recreational areas downtown disappear long before anyone of importance wakes up and only a handful of joggers will run through the shiny wet sidewalks, the only trace of the morning labor to prepare for another day of crowds and drinks and unmasked faces. I miss a few things about pre-pandemic life but substitutes have largely worked. My wife and I exercise at home, a half hour a day and I find I save huge mileage and money not driving back and forth to the gym. We buy new releases to stream though I do find myself missing movie theaters...I don't miss people talking during the show,  that I need to remember before I get too misty eyed. Friends have fallen into a void and the exchange of ideas has dried up and that irritates me. But this period is a pause, a strange looking glass time when past is past and the future will be recognizable no matter how much the experts warn us it won't.
I get to walk and take pictures to please myself, I see the signs of pre-pandemic life lying around and I'm glad I leave it to others to gather in groups and act as though 430,000 Americans haven't died breathlessly in pursuit of herd immunity. My wife has been cleared to be vaccinated and all she has to do now is hope the supply of vaccine will keep speeding up. My relatives in Europe have not seen even a whiff of vaccine in their lives and despite the oddities of recent life in the US I remain firm in my belief we are better off here than there.
Key West manages to be insouciant and rigid all at the same time. Masks at all times, drinks at all times, take care but keep the economy churning. It's no wonder we all suffer from pandemic fatigue and confusion. I suppose Anthony Bourdain would have worn or refused to wear a mask as our own inclinations lead us but he isn't here to be pithily dismissive of one opinion or the other. The Southernmost City he walked in 2005 was in his mind full of artists and fugitives and other romantic characters but Key West has changed as has every city in the world over the past fifteen years. It would be nuts to expect otherwise. Defining the change for the better or the worse is all dependent on your perspective.
I think my problem lies in not knowing what has happened Up North over the past few decades. The glimpses I have caught on recent road trips leave me wondering what there is to discover.  We drove Michigan last summer in our first effort to bed down the van, to sort out life in a small space on the road, not a boat, different, smaller, harder to handle in some ways. Two things we see looking back was how much easier van life would be today with a year's worth of experience under our belts and how gorgeous Michigan was in the green bloom of sunny summer. Wisconsin too, except they didn't wear masks so we sped past them. It wasn't the Michigan of protest and kidnapping politicians and all that flag waving stuff. We even got some pretty good cheese. And we didn't get the virus.
I look back at 1918 and the Spanish 'Flu that originated in Kansas and was spread around the world by war. We have to remind ourselves that outbreak lasted three years. We read those words and gloss over the implications: three years. We are starting out year two here and thanks to science we have vaccines, but human nature being what it is I am sure we will find a way to spread this aggravation out for two more years. Fear of vaccines boggles my mind and every day I join Thomas Jefferson in thanking Dr Edward Jenner for his life saving work. But Facebook makes everyone an epidemiologist and illiterate certainty will lay us all low for another year I am sure at this point. I used to hope vaccines and good sense would end this pandemic this Spring but I am reluctantly settling in for another year of mask wearing and isolation, grateful for my job and my bosses who take the risks seriously.
As I work my way round to the end of today's musing I find myself back on Duval Street a few doors down from the Smallest Bar and the drunk in the white soled sneakers had found his way to the stairs at the strip club. You'd think I asked him to pose but I promise I didn't. Sure as eggs is eggs there he was backside in the air balancing on his forehead in a manner that could only be produced by the mother of all hangovers.
I thought that in his way it was a piece of performance art, the feeling left behind by months of Covid, the loss of friends and family, the cutting off of contact, the isolation of the virus, the hopelessness of even trying to drink your way out of your aggravation. Wake up to another day and the headache will still blind you. Better to keep your head down and pretend the world is not there.