The Conch Republic

photoThe inmates of the island are an eclectic lot, perhaps no different from those first inhabitants who came to its shores, perhaps even the indigenous were batshit too, who is to say? It is our Australia. Our leper colony. A place where drunks of all stripes go to nurse their fishing problem, their sunset addiction, their boating trouble, or just to grow brown and withered and to desiccate in the salinious air. It is also where rich people go to once a year tell their friends they are going “to the Keys” and then mention this or that star who beached there or died in some half-realized condo or other notable who came to live their last puff out in the ocean. A place of biker Poker Runs and salacious gatherings of sex-addicted sun-poisoned sycophants, a home to vagrants, indentured servants, pirate types and the spectrum of rich from rich all the way over to super-rich.
IMG_0186The first time I was exposed to images of the Conch Republic was in an National Geographic magazine. The same place I discovered New Guinea and that our rain forest and most large African mammal species would not out-live me on planet earth. This magazine may have been from the stack my grandmother kept in the waiting room her patients sat in as they awaited “the treatment,” her being a country doctor of sorts. There in the cluttered den of pamphlets on health, the Daily Word, snug in with Highlights for Children, and Readers Digest or some other already dead media was stack after stack of the yellow tome. Not to digress, but what a now lost experience of happening upon a book or magazine, blowing off the dust and discovering something we may have never picked up on our own. This bygone activity may now just be left to the weird algorithm of some Notgoogle search engine. This must have been the issue that was covering the building of the new Overseas Highway, the Route 1 that stretches from the wilds of Maine through the dead factory towns of New England and then works its way down, down, down through the strip malls and Piggy-Wiggy Dixie and the gentile hills and lands of the old colonies the road snakes and turns. At Florida, the road is but another thin coating of pavement running through meth infested suburbs and closed gates of all those golf clubs and inland invented lakes and plastic supermansions bloated on cheap credit no more real than the inflatable decorations placed on the lawn every holiday that rise up in a celebratory tumescence – Of course after four hours either should wilt away or someone calls the doctor or pull the plug.
IMG_0126Highway 1 then passes like a kidney stone though Homestead, Florida, the last point before the highway starts to take on on some character, to distilling itself from the many other venues of high-speed land travel. For the first several miles after the biker bar the road narrows and has cement barriers lining the road on both sides as if this were passing through the Golan Heights. While the sky above is wide and blue and the swamps expansive, this ribbon of car bits and water bottles feels claustrophobia-inducing and set to end up in some industrial park rather than open into bridges and beaches. After several miles of cement barrier (but oh, we painted them… blue, so they look like the ocean) Key Largo appears with its strange mix of tin boat pavilions and million dollar hotels. The roadside still appears as it does across America, if not smaller versions of the Creeping Crud since dry land is a very costly commodity. At Key Largo, the road changes, and even the bulky gas stations, half-leased stripmalls, fishing and scuba stores that line the dusty trail seem special. They’re not just roadside crapola, they’re Florida Keys roadside crapola.
IMG_0228Beyond the rotting hulk of a boat that served the African Queen in the film of the same name, this is where Route 1 leaves behind the mainland and becomes the storied narrow highway improbably balanced on top of the failed railway traveled by honeymooners, movie stars, writers with a death-wish, and generation after generation of those who just never fit in anywhere else. The road had been undergoing some manner of transformation when I was a kid, a new and modern highway was to connect this chain of islands known as The Keys and at the same time electricity was being brought from the mainland to replace the many shuddering and pumping powerhouses burning old bunker fuel, leftover equipment from the Cold War and our fear economy of the SOVIETS. The new road today marches with ease over the waters, bright cement reflecting the ever resplendent sun while the old Overseas Railway vis Route 1 in sections rots over the salt water or has been propped up into forming a series of fishing piers. I remember the pictures of the magazine, perhaps in 1981 or so, of the old highway still in use as large derricks and cranes clustered in their rush to complete the road to nowhere, to the end of this chain of sands pushed up by an ocean always hungry to reclaim what is rightfully its property.
There are many wonderful little treasures in each of the Keys, and plenty of roadside America that is shockingly crappy as well as the usual chain stores, fat-making fast food, and stores that rent furniture, sell used appliances, or offer used clothing with one or two pawn shops and bail bondsmen in order to keep it real. While I am sure there is much more to do, explore and say about the other Keys, most everyone who is anyone pushes on and on until the road ends, like lemmings. Except that lemmings don’t pay that much for lodging and food along the way nor would they take selfies along the way. These lemmings come to the Keys perhaps once, perhaps once a year. Their “one time I got so Crazy” is the resident’s every day. Every day is someone’s crazy. It doesn’t matter. The crazy is natural here.
IMG_0180The entire economy of the Keys is built on getting money from someone who comes from somewhere else and who wants to binge on everything they can so they can tell their friends they soaked up, ate up, drank up, and I assume pooped down as much as they could while there. That and real estate. And this estate is out of reach for the majority of people on the Keys, so they work in the service industry. The hordes need beds and showers. They need jet-skis. They need oceans of lotions of some form or another. While this cycle of binge and binge more occurs in many little areas and spots hot or not, the main artery for consumption conspicuous and that which you do with friends in the bathroom stall is Duval Street. This street is the heart, the sweet spot of the yum yum yum erp burp puke economics of Key West and while it can be avoided with ease, it is worth a look if not to sup among the jumble of The Gays, The Bikers, The Blue Hairs, that fucking guy dressed as Darth Vader playing a banjo, and assorted middling classes looking at shitty teeshirts and some of the worst, fakiest art I have ever come across.Seriously this stuff is shit. The picture proof I was unable to obtain since the sign made it clear that if I did not “respect the artist’s talent and vision, I would not be respected an I would be escorted out” which make it seems that Key West may also be home to some gangster artists who keep a finger on their baseball bat as they do their…. cold cast bronze resin which they fashion into nude women, glass piles, and works best brought to mind if you close your eyes and focus. Focus on the painting of dogs playing cards… now concentrate. Put those dogs on velvet…. good… good boy… Do you find them attractive? No? Now give the dogs human breasts… yes, real knockers barely covered with nipples we only seen in Marvel Comics and these boobs are just aching to be touched and caressed…. But they’re still dogs playing cards on velvet so now give them all deep large green or blue eyes…. Not romantic enough? Take them out of that back room and put a sunset in the background… yes, a deep red rich sunset… now… add some crying clowns, an I Love You This Much statue, lovers on a beach, a wine glass reflecting a palm tree, and some lions. Lots of lions looking proud. Then take that work of art and put it into a blender with some of your finest Happy Hour tequila or vodka flavoured like a Popsicle and chug it fast… maybe funnel it so quick you upchuck the entire contents onto the sidewalk…. now… sell that chunk of sidewalk in a gallery on Duval Street.
IMG_0211Key West has several quarters apart from Duval Street. There is the Army bits, gated and run on your nickel do their army thing of protecting this and that. The weather service has an installation too. There is the poverty corner. Every location needs its destitute in order to run the services both social and judicial. While the houses are nice, there is something about buildings for poor people that gives them that distinct… look. That and the hollow eyes of the crowd hanging out in front of the deli cum beer store. Those and there is construction to build a Martin Luther King community center, the name upon any street or fixture a panacea for social and economic inequality if not a warning to others to avoid said area…. Only a few blocks over, the transition is hard and fast to more well-heeled quarters. The landmark historic gated community with the rental office by the fountain that a president or two stayed once or maybe just Truman… Yes… Just him. I love this section not so much for the history or that I will never… ever… ever afford to live there, but because there is no on-street parking and one can soak in what the streets looked like before they were cluttered with cars. The Old City. Quaint and so charming in all respects as to make the rest of the Keys seem barren and dead. Which, I hear socially they are. The Strip Mall City. Which has the usual offerings. Not much to talk about here. Which is too bad. Since a funny Canada-style mall with a water side and a pirate ship or a Arab-style hotel with an indoor ski slope would have allowed this blog to write itself….. Then there is the boring part, that patch of houses that look like any suburb block inland from the beach where people find it “affordable” and can 1) build a split level something b) have a yard the “kids can run around in” III) put light heavy pile wall-to-wall carpet in so they can say, “JoeyforchrisaketakeyourshoesoffthecarpetisgettingruinedandIjustspentalldaycleaning.” I did not spend much time in that section other than to observe that it reminded me somewhat of my early and sad life in Long Island of the 1970s. Small tight houses of no intentional design. The bland of the living. The bland of 2.5 children, except there seem to be few of those little ones about here, but the vibe was the same. Perhaps the kiddies are flown in and out to school. Or happy couples just do that thing where you pay money and a kid you are feeding sends you pictures and letters written by aid workers. Next to this is the airport section – a facility inexplicably wedged onto the Key (my favorite airport in the world) taking up valuable waterfront land and yet offers our international flights a frighteningly short runway.
photo (1)This airport, should you visit it, will bring back all those fantasies of visiting a Banana Republic. This airport disembarks the smaller planes Fear and Loathing style down the travel stairs, and while no one I was with struck any Nixon poses, they were to a person as drunk as the famed Attorney. Exiting the airport the highway is right up to the waters and the ocean just glimmers with potential and happy hot welcome. And then there is… there is… not much else of the island. I mean, Key.
Key West is a city of about 12,000 full-time inhabitants invaded by millions of others, a flux and ebb of humanity no less volatile and uncertain as those ships that blew in or came by in the times of the trade winds. The locals I met were all bartenders, unsurprisingly, since I spent a good deal of time in bars. But in my many chats it does seem like one will find a sense of instant community, the locals sticking together in common bond. Because everyone stitches together several part time or seasonal jobs in order to pay the exorbitant rent they have to know each other, it seems, in different configurations just to survive. I overheard a few conversations where the discussion focused on a single person who worked in three different environments and seemed more adept at one than the two jobs, where, everyone agreed, he “is a dick.”
IMG_0130One may imagine paradise comes with a shocking sticker price for those that work there. The workers seem to be comprised of those refugees from the real world, those long-term decedents of fisher families who share a great similarity with Southern culture and perhaps membership in the KKK, and those brought here on some visa, mostly bored Eastern European women, girls really, who managed to actually get a job managing a tee shirt store and were not sold into the sex trade. Store after store seemed to be staffed by the same girl as if she ran down the road to follow me just to ignore me. I had met two of these similar girls in St. Augustine – perhaps blogged about them – were married to Disney, working long hours and shipped back and forth from their dirty and dismal housing, tested for drugs, alcohol, and tobacco living as hunted women dressed in mouse ears and flounce. I could only wonder that these women were in a similar situation. Not too different from the army of women named, or calling themselves, Maria. Except that the Marias were in it for the long haul, perhaps for their entire life and not a Euroland visa or bored summer. Often I would get up early, before the sun and get coffee and watch the Maria’s going to work. Each name tag affixed and from different hotels but all the same these women were relegated to a simple uniform and their toil relegated to maintaining the background mechanics of the services, the made beds, the clean towels washed, the toilets mopped, the whatever fluid leaking from whomever cleaned up and materials replaced.
IMG_0247Working in a place people come to in order to burn money as well as the lack of land increases the rents for full-time residents not living in the projects. The costs would make a New Yorker feel that their fifth floor walk up studio with the bathroom in the kitchen is a bargain at $2300. Perhaps the only place outside of Manhattan where people over 40 have room mates and there is nothing socially unacceptable about this. Not that anyone I came across seemed to be searching for social acceptability and sleeping on couches was a way of life, if not a badge of some honor amongst the neon-pirates. Those homeowners were removed from the stray dogs that worked the services and they had their own worries, as one homeowner related. Flood insurance. Taxes. Wind insurance. Taxes. High water bills, since the water was shipped in, sewer, since the water was filtered on the way out, higher than normal electrical costs since the power came down a series of ugly humming and buzzing poles. While on the surface it was calm paradise, it was still a desert island battered by the elements. Nothing out there lived for free. The mangroves fought salt, grew but inches in decades, fish fought for space and were eaten without any notice, the birds each pushed and shoved for space on the dead trees in order to dry out and again fish. There were quite a few monuments to the building or lighthouse or railway that was washed away. The daily paper always had a dead tourist story. Maybe those sell papers down there. Maybe that is the other side to hard sun and drinking.
Key West is a unique machine. Perhaps there are lessons from Key West that are relevant to our nation, but I think not. Not really. One thing is certain. The sunset festival went on today, as it has for decades. And while the sun sets elsewhere, we rarely stop to observe. Let alone put on a carnival to close out each day.
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