Letter From Key West

For the last couple of years, I’ve stopped saying that I vacation in Key West and admitted that, while my husband and I live in Maine during the summer, we’ve also started living in Key West during the winter. What this means is that people who used to phone during the month we vacationed here to try to make us feel guilty have toned it down. Vacations make Americans uneasy. They feel the need to call their snowbird friends in temperate places and remind them that chill winds are blowing and one person’s good fortune is not another’s. (Did Benjamin Franklin ever cover vacation envy?) Sometimes, they to try to pump themselves up emotionally by talking about the cool snowman they’ve just made. They’re back there popping echinacea, while Key Westers are smoothing on aloe products, though by next year the sources for both will no doubt be endangered, and that will be the end of that.

People who haven’t visited Key West, or those who’ve only had a brief tourist’s experience, usually remember that some writer is associated with Key West, but when the Key Wester says, “Elizabeth Bishop? James Merrill?” they’ll say no, it was that guy that wrote that war book, or some book about a fish, a fish that went to war.... Right: Hemingway. His wife had the first in-ground pool in Key West constructed in their yard (you can tour the house: 907 Whitehead) while he was away. It was expensive, and although it was a “gift” to him, she did it because she was pissed off. Many things in Key West seem to have been the result of someone being pissed off, going back to the time when pirates changed around the navigational beacons so sailors would crash into the rocks, which made it easier for the pirates to rob them. These days, people build high fences around their houses and have home security systems, though the back-up system is often some time-warp hippie replacing burned out light bulbs regulated by timers. Key West is a place where there are plenty of mutts, and there’s even a place called “dog beach” where they frolic. Some restaurants even let dogs in, which makes it very nice, like an English pub, except that I doubt any pub has ever been called “Turtle Kraals.” Other restaurants very sensibly keep the dogs out, since they (the restaurants) have roosters, though sometimes the dogs and the roosters co-exist. At least they fight no worse than many couples on vacation. Try Blue Heaven (729 Thomas), not particularly for the quality of the fights, but for the good breakfasts. There’s also a wine list, since the New York Times discovered it a few years ago. Where roosters walk, can the Times be far behind?

Let’s say you just have a short time in Key West, often the case if you’re not a writer and/or living at the Salvation Army. What to do that won’t be only and utterly touristic? First, do at least a few of the obvious things to see what you’re missing. Go to one of the big hotels and sit on the open deck upstairs or at the beach bar and listen to the nightly serenade, usually by a rhythm ace offering whitebread reggae as background music for the setting of the sun. Have a frozen drink. Wander down to Mallory Dock to catch the performers who now pretty much graciously take turns (the better to each get a fair share of tips) doing things like lying down on a bed of nails. The sight of the very thin blonde man who walks down Duval Street, the main drag, carrying his bed of nails is indeed strange in the early afternoon. Or, catch the show by my favorite, Frank, attired in black lycra messenger pants with suspenders while going through The Stations of the Shopping Cart. This is an honest-to-god grocery cart he’s filled with bowling balls, and tied his bike across the top of. He lifts it, holds it aloft like a surrealist torch too strange even to have been dreamed of by Salvador Dali, then lowers it just enough to clamp the handle with his mouth as he takes small steps: all this while balancing the whole contraption in the air for a very long ten seconds or so, his hands folded over his chest. He’s just some overgrown kid who’s thought up the most bizarre act imaginable, no doubt, someone whose mother didn’t have an idea in hell what to do with him. You have to suspect that Ritalin might not have worked miracles in Frank’s case.

About his lycra pants and suspenders: in Key West, the naked chest look is always very in, and is absolutely de rigeur if you’re renovating a house, which so very many people seem to be doing, while chatting on cell phones.

Another thing you can do before sunset and its sometimes wonderfully silly ceremonies is tour any of a number of historic houses, such as the aforementioned Hemingway House, or the Audubon House. No wonder Hemingway doesn’t describe furniture in his novels: ugh! In the Heritage House, it’s easy to believe Henry James might be stopping by for dinner; the dining room table is nicely set. You can also have your picture taken at the Southernmost Point, where the oddest groups congregate to sing carols there around Christmas: some seem to have been brought not of their own accord. Or, you might be in town when one of the tours of private houses is going on, since many homeowners allow tours as step one toward putting the house on the market. There are guides to take you on “literary walks” past houses of famous writers who’ve lived in Key West. What you want to do -- preferably before you arrive -- is buy the best guidebook, which is now in its eighth edition: Joy Williams’s THE FLORIDA KEYS, in which she describes obvious and not-so-obvious sights to see. There are now many imitators, but her book is the best, a real original: it’s informed and extremely funny, has a social conscience, and because she’s such a formidable fiction writer herself, is as curious as if Dr. Johnson had written a cookbook (“Of a lambchop that was cooked beyond medium rare, Dr. Johnson complained....”). The rooftop of La Concha hotel is a good place to get a panoramic view of Key West, though it’s boring to wait for the two small elevators. If you decide to get married on the rooftop, make sure the justice of the peace knows to get there early enough to ascend before the sky goes black.

But I digress. There you will be in Key West, staying somewhere nice, like the Marquesa (Fleming and Simonton), swimming in one of their pools (heated and unheated) or lolling about amid the orchids, reservation made for that night in their dining room; and boy, will you be lucky if you’ve picked a night when they have the Key Lime Napoleon with fresh fruit for dessert. Well: that done, you can go down the alleyway on Simonton just behind the Marquesa and drop some money in the jar to tour the behind-the-white-gate and usually unmarked “Secret Garden,” which looks like a fantasy rain forest that’s grown Baby Huey-big in a strange enough place (Key West) to begin with: an amazing mixture of unusual trees, ferns, talking birds, and a garden-level room that can be rented by the night if you want to be more in nature than the Marquesa offers. Mrs. John Steinbeck prefers the Marquesa.

If you get to Key West in the morning, have a Cuban coffee at “Five Brothers” (930 Southard) and sit on a bench outside and watch the world go by; the world will include some dogs that hang around hoping for a hand-out. Wander over to the much-photographed and written-about graveyard a couple of blocks down from the Brothers and check out the odd things left at the graves. In Key West, you shouldn’t necessarily expect flowers. Then, maybe walk out the side closest to White Street, go past some antique stores with high prices, and come to the new location of Lucky Street Gallery. The photographs by Carol Munder are pretty strange and wonderful, and the metal pieces by John Martini are also very inventive and colorful and energetic: the perfect thing to scare the hell out of somebody, spot-lit in your garden, assuming you have a garden; there are so many gardens in Key West it’s easy to forget that not everyone has a place for koi. Next door is an open lot where car detailing is done. Oh, the struggle to keep anything clean. Usually, some interesting vehicle’s getting all shined up: say, an old Ford painted to look like a shark. And if you feel like walking to the Atlantic, go all the way down White until it ends at the water, and overhear long conversations about the best places to sleep outdoors and not get lice.

But if this is a little déclassé, get back to the center of town and check out the authors’ photographs hung high on the wall at Key West Island Books (513 Fleming): a good stock of local authors, who are as mixed a bag as you’re likely to find anywhere -- in fact, you’re not likely to find so many writers in so little square footage anywhere, period -- as well as first editions of Peter Taylor, Annie Dillard (with photos by the inimitable Rollie McKenna), Alison Lurie, Robert Stone. Forget the fifteen minutes of fame; at K. W. Island Books, writers get to play Last Duchess in perpetuity.

A couple of blocks down Fleming, on the same side as the bookstore, is the relatively new antique store Duck and Dolphin, which carries some enormous, amazing chandeliers; surely you don’t want to go home with only a joke T-shirt. Past a gate in Truman Annex there’s a pretty beach called Ft. Zachary Taylor, a pay-to-see beach, alas, where you should be wary of going in the water -- Portuguese man’o’war or jellyfish or whatever they are -- but where you can have a nice picnic at a table in the shade, especially if you picked up lunch, say, fresh raspberries, sandwiches made-to-order, a shot of wheatgrass from the juice bar, earlier at the Waterfront Market. I’d say, make an appointment for a massage at the Pier House Spa: best water pressure on the island in the showers, which you’ll probably want to use if you don’t want to spend the day smelling like a scented candle. Skip the pursuit of real food (restaurants think conch fritters are real food?) and have homemade ice cream for lunch at Flamingo Crossing on Duval. Check out the large assortment of magazines at Valladares (also on Duval: 1200) for the latest issue of Hola! or The Advocate or even Travel and Leisure.

If you’re gay, I highly recommend a seat on Miss Sunshine for the sunset sail and male strip show (phone reservations: 296-4608). Have drinks on the terrace at Louie’s Backyard, overlooking the water: very romantic. Eat a late dinner there, if you aren’t looking for bargain dining, or if you aren’t already going to the Marquesa. Lament the fact that Uncle’s Flix and Foam -- foreign movies and cappuccino -- still hasn’t opened. Walk around Old Town and peek in the windows, or look through the wide-open doors: a party is often going on, even if it’s only someone chatting up his parrot, or doing a foxtrot with her cat. Admire the spot-lit palms, the flowers, the cacti. There’s always some late night jazz, or music at the piano bar of the Pier House (though Bobby Nesbitt left for San Francisco), or, maybe, a band at The Green Parrot (601 Whitehead), or, at the very least, some drunk singing loudly while peeing between cars.

If you have a good time, though, better to save your enthusiasm for the folks back home. People in Key West will tell you How It Used To Be, and it certainly is difficult to say that things have changed for the better. The corruption is ridiculous. The reef is dying, thanks to us; too many people in too many boats have ruined the seagrass, the coral. People wipe out on their rental scooters like figures in a video game exploding into dust. This is not where you want to come to be an ER nurse, particularly during the month of March. It’s expensive to live in Key West, and home maintenance is endless: the termites are chewing, the jet skis are spewing. Then again, when has any place called Paradise -- slyly self-nicknamed or not -- ever failed to live down to the name?

Ann Beattie


See also VIRIDITAS DIGITALIS in the Garden


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