The Dualities of Key West

Yesterday we drove down to Key West, parked near the cemetery in the middle of the Key that’s called, Old Town, and biked around for the day.  If you know how naive I am, you won’t be surprised that it was quite an eye-opening experience for me.

I don’t know why I thought Key West was classy.  Maybe it’s the Hemingway House: my mom had a watercolor painting of it that I admired. Maybe it’s scenes of the old neighborhoods that had stuck in my memory. 

Something was rooted in my head enough to make me forget to factor in other tidbits of Key West that I’d been told about: the crazy-crowded Mallory Square at night. The clothes-optional bar near there.  I guess I thought “crazy-crowded” and “clothes-optional” could still be done tastefully.  Ha!

Neighborhoods vs. Tourist Strip

The neighborhoods we biked through had a very good vibe, to me right then, at least.  Key West is known for its diverse population, and I saw a few signs of that.  A couple of elderly Black men chatting in the street between their houses, parting without pause when we biked between them. A few gay pride flags flown from front porches. I saw many small cottage-style houses right off the sidewalk (there’s not much land in neighborhoods) and a few bigger houses like Hemingway’s, but most big ones had For Sale signs on them, or they’d been broken up into rental guest suites. 

Still, the neighborhoods were quiet, and I appreciated the bumper stickers of “Not Everyone’s on Vacation.” A few people were riding their bicycles to and from the corner market with bags of groceries casually hanging over their handlebars.

The tourist strip at the west end of the key, though, whoa.  It seems just like any cheesy beach boardwalk, but crammed in.  T-shirt shops, cheap jewelry, flip-flops. Bars that are all dark inside (I think they’re for people who come to Key West but wish they were back home). Huge chain restaurants. Real and temporary tattoo parlors. Strip clubs. Basically the same crappy beach stuff you see anywhere.

Two highlights in the tourist area are spots we’d been told to check out.  We locked our bikes up and walked carefully along the sidewalks wearing our masks to check them out.

This Garden of Eden bar (on the roof of a regular bar) is clothing optional, and we totally laughed up the idea and pictures on the web of this place when a friend told us he’d ended up there one year.  I can safely say this is one place I will not be going to even if I come back after the pandemic.

The Smallest Bar (in the Keys? in the world?) I had to visit not just on another friend’s recommendation but because I was so impressed by the smallest police station in the world in Carabelle. Luckily the bar was closed when we walked by so I didn’t feel sad that I couldn’t go in due to the virus, but I did get this shot through a slat in the door (probably created for this purpose).

So, that’s one duality.  Closely linked is the duality of people.

Tourists vs. Those Who Live Off Them

Of course, you could spot the tourists at a glance, and especially now because, as Tracy pointed out, only dumb-asses would come to Key West when the covid numbers are so high.  So it was a lot of dumb-asses we saw (plus us, and I don’t know what we qualify as). 

Then there are the local folks who make a living from those dumb-asses, like the two nice fellows I chatted with when I went into The Most Empty Store on the island, the loose tea shop.  

Like with any populated place though, a small community of vagabonds (is that too romantic a word?) gather in the tourist areas, saying good morning to each other as they pass and looking like they might want to bum a cigarette off you or maybe pick your pocket. Or maybe just have the experience of being drunk, without a shirt or shoes, mid morning in the streets of Key West?  I won’t guess. But they’re another kind of local (either long-term or temporary) that relies of the tourists.

Where People Go vs. Empty Places 

In the neighborhoods were electricians and plumbers driving from job to job, people going to work on their scooters, and folks working in their front yards. In the tourist end were people walking around stupidly looking at shops and eating and drinking. 

In some places, there was hardly anyone at all.

The Cemetery

Key West’s cemetery is large, old, and full of bodies. 100,000 is the estimated amount, and like most cemeteries they’re segregated: masons, jews, hispanics, blacks, and on and on. This one was started in the mid-1800s when the former one had been flooded out, and it’s on the highest part of the key.

We went through it twice, once walking our bikes and reading tombstones, and once on our way back slowly biking along.  We saw very old graves that reminded me of the ones in Harpers Ferry.  We saw large family plots, with chairs for visiting.

We saw a huge variety of monuments, probably reflecting the history of diversity on the island.  U.S. navy people from the airbase on the key.  Union and confederate solders, Cuban freedom fighters. slaves. 

If the living on Key West are reflected by the dead, I’d like to know them. 

The State Park and Fort

Another almost empty place. We rode our bikes through the state park entrance (thanks for the Florida State Park pass, Darci!) and locked them by Fort Zachary Taylor so we could walk around it.

Construction of this fort began in the mid-19th century as part of a series or forts along the southeast coastline to defend the country from invaders. It was in use for the Civil War, Spanish-American War, both world wars, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Needless to say there are a lot of cannons and artillery on display, thanks I believe almost entirely to the efforts of one enthusiast who unearthed a lot of previously buried munitions. 

I’d walked around a similar fort on my trip to scatter my sister’s ashes with my son, Fort Charlotte on the island of St. Vincent.  And I’ve been fortunate to walk the walls of Saint Malo in Brittany.  The history of men protecting land and people: it’s impressive (and probably complicated all over the world).

Other Empty Places

We didn’t go to the botanical gardens or the butterfly and nature conservancy or a few other nature-related spots. Once we found a place to sit away from people and eat our protein bars, it was 2:00, and Banjo had been alone in the trailer for several hours already.  

We wanted to stop on the way back for lunch at a Jamaican place that our neighbors had recommended, as 1) they promised it was not a tourist trap 2) it’s a shack where you order food at the window then step away to eat, and 3) the food is supposed to be the best around. But by the time we got off Key West, that place was closed.

And, frankly, I was feeling pretty freaked out by how many people I’d passed while biking and walking and was ready to get back to the orderliness of our RV park.  Can you believe I’m saying that?  

As of today, the day of the new President’s inauguration, maybe we won’t have to say, “It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” for much longer.

You guys stay safe.

9 thoughts to “The Dualities of Key West”

  1. If you get a chance you should say trip out to the Tortugas if you haven’t been. We took the large party boat out, snorkeled, explored, lunched then had a very very good time on the boar ride home. It is beautiful and worth the money to go.

    1. It sounds like fun! We’re not getting close to people (even on boats) since we have no support network if we get sick. I’ll remember this though if we come back.

  2. It’s all so fascinating! I didn’t have any idea in my mind about what Key West would be like so now I do. I can say though, with some confidence, that while they may have built the cemetery on the highest point of the Key, with that many bodies in there the height will partly be due to them. 😀 Old churchyards in England are often quite a bit higher than the church itself for that reason.

  3. Wow! What a place! I love the smallest bar and the statue with the megalong necklaces. My brother used to live in key west for the winters for several years and was part of the theater crowd down there. Id say, take in a show but maybe there are small outside productions? From the look of things, just walking down the sidewalks is a show indeed!

    1. Yeah, I think we got enough of the tourist part of Key West for this go-round. Let’s hope we didn’t get Covid from it, too.