I get to Key West just before sunset. Being here on three previous occasions gives the island a familiar feel as I make my way down Duval towards Mallory Square in time for the sunset. The weirdos and the overstaying hippies start to occupy street corners, making music, thumping on steel pans, juggling tennis balls, making cats jump through hoops and selling TJ Max-grade incense. I find a comfy spot right on the brick-layered pier where everybody converges in a chorus of wondrous sigh and applause, as though the sun is setting for the first time in four and a half billion years. Some teenagers seek attention by cannonballing into the water and inviting everybody to join them. I want to jump in but they might call the cops on me. You know, adults, teenagers, in the same body of water, lawyers.
Even though I’m just ninety miles away from Cuba and a whole lot of causeways away from the mainland, this is still southernmost America. Its isolation does not deter the good folks who live on the fringes of society to, well, literally live on the fringes of society. There’s this pervading sense of abandon in the air, and tolerance is for tourists, rather than the colorful locals that may or may not come in the shape of a rainbow flag-wielding, half-dressed leather daddy or the inked, pierced, retired grandma across the table at a vegan cafe. Everybody looks slightly different, wears slightly different clothes and seems armed with a story you haven’t heard of before. I’m not sure if he had ever found solace at all, but that’s probably the reason why Ernest Hemingway saw a semblance of temporary peace in the center of town. He wrote most of his books in his house with wrap-around balconies. I remember “The Old Man and the Sea” back in high school and what an imbecile I was for thinking the book needed adjectives. At the Hemingway Home, several cats with six toes are intentionally grown to specifically scratch the naïveté out of my face.
I walk to a conch fritter cart, slather my conch with mustard, and watch a guy eat fire. I think Key West is called the Conch Republic for so many reasons other than the conch fritters they serve and the irreverent rebellion protesting a very inconvenient border patrol set up to impede asylum seekers from neighboring countries decades ago. I theorize it is so called because of the other food they afford the visitor–the Cuban pulled pork at El Siboney, the Sloppy Joes at Sloppy Joe’s, anything at The Cabaret at La Te Da, and the Key Lime Pie from every other cafe claiming to have the best. It is so called because of its island architecture and inviting but not just yet porches, its whitewashed churches of faith and its throbbing churches of debauchery. And always at a premium (my hostel bed is $65 a night). It is so called because of the strangely endearing things a visitor encounters in the most mundane way–fire fighters playing bocce at a park, outdoor waiters dodging free-roaming chickens, elderly couples walking down Higgs Beach with their sagging tattoos.
I proceed to the light house whose female keeper, unheard of in the 1840’s, is memorialized by a creepy statue on a bench. I sit next to her and try to remember the fond memories I’ve had on previous visits–my mom delighted in Duval Village upon finding a “Made in the Philippines” sticker on the bottom of a turtle souvenir made entirely of seashells, and angry ten minutes later after finding out most of the seashell souvenirs were made in the Philippines. She murmured, “No wonder we’re out of seashells back home,” and stormed out; my Auntie Tining asking me if my Key Lime pie were also spoiled because hers tasted sour; losing the key to our rental and finding it on the hood of the Hyundai with a note saying we dropped something; the spring break I never had because my hostel roommate decided to get drunk and organize a regurgitation festival at four in the morning; Tropical Pretense Revival, which was the unabashed reply my mom shot back at me when I asked her what kind of architecture Key West has.
I wonder if I can live in Key West at all. And then I rephrase my thought into wondering if I can afford to live in Key West at all. I look at the lighthouse keeper again and conclude she still looks creepy. Key West is where all the jaded go to be Ernest Hemingway and end up becoming Jimmy Buffett. Not a pretty bad deal, but not the deal you came out here for.
(All photos ©M. Sanchez)