For years now I have heard stories about Key West. Key West, after all, is the land of Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway, in fact, called Key West "the St. Tropez of the Poor."
I finally made it to Key West and saw for myself the mythic party land under the palms.
I was struck, first of all, how in Key West one can drink alcohol openly in the streets, and that Key West's sidewalk open counter bars have the easy accessibility of a Rita's Water Ice stand. Buying a drink at one of these open sidewalk bars is easy. The more standardized bars have large parking lot-sized patios dotted with tables and umbrellas. Most of these places are crowded by 10 in the morning. While walking along Duval Street at that time I saw seasoned well coiffed women in large sunglasses downing tropical drinks with their ham and eggs, and unkempt looking biker babes (with whisky voices) laughing it up with their kerchief-headed biker men.
Key West is really a Puritan's nightmare where six foot tall drag queens mix with party-hardy straight couples and their children. At one drag show I attended a family sat in the front row. The MC, a drag queen with a beehive shaped white wig, asked for a male volunteer and guess who went up on stage? A (presumably) straight 18 year old guy visiting with his Mom and Dad and sister and who by the end of the night had become the brunt of the raunchy drag queen's bathroom humor. After the onstage antics were over, his family had to pull him out of the bar.
"It's time to go Kevin," his sister pleaded, yanking his arm. "We can't stay here all night."
I had just come from Latitudes, in my view the best restaurant in Key West, located on the tiny island of Sunset Key. Diners at Latitudes take a ten minute ferry ride from the Westin Hotel docks to Latitudes' reservation desk. The pleasant experience of bobbing over Gulf of Mexico waters was over before it began although there's nothing like a little boating to increase your appetite. My table was on the water's edge beneath two palm trees and a towering torch. The experience (and the food) was so grand I didn't mind that my dinner companion had spilled red wine all over my "Tennessee Williams" suit. By the time I took the return ferry, generous applications of soda water had effectively erased the stains, so I was plenty dry when I took in that raunchy drag show.
At night Key West's street scene intensifies, especially at Sloppy Joe's, Hemingway's old hangout, although the bar was moved from its original location across the street in 1937. Hemingway hung out at Sloppy Joe's with his drinking "mob,"which sometimes included writer John Dos Passos. The design of Sloppy Joe's enables passerby to peek in at the crowd and live bands (and buy drinks) from a horse stall shaped window that meets the sidewalk. The place is filled with Hemingway memorabilia, including portraits of the old master framed like icons in an Orthodox church. While there's definitely something of a honky tonk atmosphere in Key West, it never plunges to the cotton candy level of say, the Wildwood, New Jersey boardwalk.
During my four day stay here last month, just a few short weeks before Key West's most notorious street festival, Fantasy Fest, in which festival goers walk the sidewalks naked or nearly naked, I didn't see police cars patrolling the streets or even parked off to the side waiting for something to happen. Police presence here seems minimal although I did spot two squad cars at the scene of an auto accident. Later I encountered two officers when the street where my hotel was located was closed off due to construction. The officers rerouting traffic resembled movie extras with their gelled hair, buff bodies and glittering dental veneers. In a glamorous town, even the police have to look the part. I was reminded of the standard look that most UPS drivers had in the 1970s: dark haired, slender and good looking.
But even intense party towns have drawbacks. Talking to the dining room manager at the luxurious Amara Cay hotel in neighboring Islamorada, I was interested to learn that the Keys, and especially Key West, attracts the beautiful and the young who can get quick jobs as bartenders or servers. As servers, they can work their good looks to their advantage in Key West's sensual circuit of weekend hookups and serial dating opportunities while also keeping an eye out for a sugar daddy or a sugar momma. While not all of those who flock to Key West live for pleasure, those that do can at least ride the "ecstasy" wave for several years. But when their beauty fades and the party fizzles, many find that they have nothing to fall back on. They are left without a career or even authentic friendships because they allowed the island's party cult to become their cult. For some in this situation, suicide is a common option. "They jump into the sea, sometimes from bridges," the manager told me. And of course the entire time they're jumping, new waves of naive good lookers are being initiated into Key West's party cult, hoping for an eternity of bliss.
The Amara Cay manager had other colorful stories. When I asked if Key West had a homeless population, she told me that most of the homeless gather on Higgs Beach, where in 1860 three ships carrying Africans to be sold into slavery in Cuba were diverted from their path by the U.S. Navy and then sent to Key West. Of the 1,432 Africans aboard these ships, 269 died at sea, but shortly after the landing an additional 294 others died from diseases and malnutrition as a result of the voyage and were buried in a mass grave on the beach. As for the homeless, they congregate near the beach's Mango Groves where they often build tents or hide from the authorities. Compared to what Philadelphia's homeless go through during the ruthless winter months, Key West's Mango Grove hideaway has an idyllic feel right out of that Daniel Defoe classic, Robinson Crusoe.
As the most southern point in the nation and just 90 miles from Cuba, Key West in many ways doesn't seem like a part of the United States. But getting there can be a challenge. Unless you fly directly in from Miami on a small jet, most visitors wind up flying to Miami and then renting a car or taking a shuttle bus over the immense 150 mile causeway.
The Overseas Highway or "the Highway that Goes to Sea," follows the path of a railroad that was built in 1912 by Henry Flagler. Flagler's idea was to extend his Florida East Coast Railroad from Miami to Key West. The railroad's opening was world news but the year 1935 saw its demise. Hurricane level weather and high winds destroyed much of the track, but since the cost of rebuilding the railroad during the Great Depression was prohibitive, 113 miles of roadway was constructed instead. Forty-two overseas bridges connecting the various Florida Keys were also built. Driving the 113 mile stretch from Miami can take 3 hours, but on a dark and stormy night, expect the unexpected.
Immediately upon arriving at Miami International, I headed to the Dollar Car Rental counter where I waited for over an hour with forty other people. Only two processing clerks were on duty at the time which did not make for a very good line vibe.
Out of town drivers in Miami have to be careful of unmarked or discreetly marked toll roads that have nothing in common with the human staffed toll booths of yesteryear. As a Dollar Car customer I had the option of purchasing a general toll pass sticker or paying up later in case I inadvertently drove onto a toll road. Toll road cameras record the license plates of all drivers who enter a toll zone, but the problem is that you usually don't know you are driving onto a toll road. Many toll road markings are small; in some cases there are no markings or warnings at all. For a newcomer to Miami, the stress of looking out for toll roads while navigating unfamiliar roads and dealing with impatient drivers has all the ingredients of a Halloween nightmare. And should your eye not catch those small lettered toll road warnings, watch for a notice and a fine to arrive two weeks later in the mail. Those hidden Orwellian cameras that record your license plate number do their job!
In my little red Mazda, I screeched to sudden stops and did fast U-turns to avoid suspected toll roads before finally finding Route 1, the "no toll" straight-away that traverses the Keys via all those concrete and steel sea bridges.
Friends warned me about driving Route 1. "Yes, the views are spectacular, there's all that open sea, but the monotonous 'straight ahead' driving can put you in a trance. People have been known to fall asleep on Route 1."
But you won't fall asleep if there's a rainstorm. I know because somewhere before my traveling companion and I hit Key Largo, the first Key on the long chain, the skies opened up, thunder roared and lightning reminded us of our mortality. We discovered that driving over the 42 sea bridges is much like piloting a boat at sea. The streak lightning that hit the water in violent Olympic jolts slowed our speed to twenty five miles an hour. At one point we could not even see the road in front of us. For a moment we wondered if we would ever make it to Key West.
In my mind's eye, I kept seeing the following newspaper headline:
LITTLE RED MAZDA PLUNGES INTO THE OCEAN NEAR KEY LARGO
We pulled into Key West's Chelsea House Hotel on Truman Street well past 9 p.m., two hours behind schedule. We were shown our rooms, a fantastic junior suite with a kitchen with a private outdoor staircase to the pool and the pavilion breakfast area where in the coming days we would chat with travelers from France and Germany, a fisherman from Oklahoma, an IT computer tech guy from Brooklyn, and a retired government official who would not tell us what branch of the government he retired from. "I can't tell you that," he said, smiling a Cheshire cat grin. Naturally I wondered if he had ever killed anyone. In the trees surrounding the breakfast patio we spotted many different sizes of iguanas. An iguana as large as a small alligator caused one Chelsea House guest to scream but generally the ones we saw were not much bigger than a preying mantis. They would circle our breakfast table as we munched on muffins and fresh fruit.
Iguanas are not native to Key West but were brought to the island as pets from Puerto Rico. Key West inhabitants hate them because they eat vegetation and destroy the trees.
On our first night in Key West, we headed over to the local CVS where we bought a bottle of cold chardonnay, a jar of Salsa, chips and a bag of organic popcorn and called it dinner.
The fact that you could buy wine in an ordinary Key West CVS made those Philly CVS' with their Arctic Splash and diet soda coolers seem pretty dull, indeed.