Conched Out

Conched Out


 “A Question of Balance”

                                        The Moody Blues


I’ve been doing a LOT of reading by Key West authors, about Key West authors, about Key’s history, anything I can find Keys-ian.

It became apparent early on that, in my humble opinion (IMHO), in order to become a writer of note, any note, one must spend more than an ordinate amount of time living and writing in Key West. Something in the air (salt?), something in the water (rum?), something in the people (crazy?), insidiously seeps into one’s DNA and is regurgitated out through the mental notes one puts to paper.

It’s a secret that I’m not sure most people who aren’t Conchs even realize and, having made that statement, I’m not sure even Conchs would be viscerally aware enough of their surroundings, no less those worlds hidden between the covers of books, to put one rum punch with another rum punch and come up with anything other than a night out on Duval.

But when you really look at the extraordinary amount of literature that has been birthed here on this spit of coral and shell it’s rather intimidating literary ground to peruse.

Hemingway wrote “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (I know, mountains and snow here on an island 16ft above sea level….go figure), “To Have and Have Not”, “The Green Hills of Africa” (I sense a trend of Island Fever making one image anyplace other than Bone Island to be), among others.

Tennessee Williams wrote “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, “The Glass Menagerie”, and “A Streetcar Named Desire” while living at 1431 Duncan St. in Key West.

And then penmanship parade continues:

Tom Corcoran

Jimmy Buffet

David and Lynn Kaufelt

Rosalind Brackenbury

And on…and on….lining up in a row like the hummock-humped mangrove keys dotting the cerulean waters, jewels on a strand, linking Key West to the rest of the supposed real world, the Other America.

And so the compulsion began in me, worming its way into my core and eating its way back out again. The blog topics, which come upon me suddenly, when they do arrive, and expurgate themselves neatly into print, began to multiply like chickens in the streets around town. It gradually dawned on me that there IS something here that makes the arts of self-expression bloom in some urgent, tropical, fugue-like state. A fever of the fonts.

Go with it.

Encourage it.

Grow with it.

Everything grows like fungus here as it is, why not my particular penned papers?

And so I came, and came, and came again to this 2 by 4 island (miles that is), waiting for the inspirations to inundate me. The urges were definitely there. The air, the water, the rum, elixirs of erudition, building blocks of bards; sometimes vibrant and clarified like the scarlet-splashed sunrises of winter and other times, muddy and torpid and grey-green like the sunsets after another intolerably humid and humbling summer day.

I’d like to believe that in summer, the greats of past residence, having not the benefit of air conditioning, sat at their desks, still, quiet, meditative in the heat, working only their mental muscles and their drinking arms. From the vantage point of todays’ creature comforts, how could they do anything else? But then not knowing that such chilled lives were possible, I suppose they soldiered on, sweating and fanning and praying for the afternoon cloud ruptures that momentarily soak us in something other than perspiration and desperation.

It’s not the heat…….it’s the stupidity. True dat.

One cedes any semblance of normal, human, cleanliness and standards quite rapidly here in the summer. As an inveterate over-packer, even I have come away cured by a summer in Key West. Having worn nothing but a ragged pair of board shorts, a tank top and some flip flops since the day I arrived I feel like a tacky version of a Jimmy Buffet ballad. Why put on clean when wet and soggy is where it’s at? Wash your hair? Nah, the sweat will act as gel in a matter of moments…who will know? Deodorant? A pathetic waste of money and here, it actually seems very eco-unfriendly to purchase all that aluminum zirconium tricholorohydrex glycine just to leech it out in the first nano-seconds of walking to your bike? Really…save a zirconium, whatever that is.

But back to writing, and wronging, and balance in the Keys.

Balance, an interesting concept in life, in nature, in behavior.

I’m finding the longer I’m here and the more often I return I’m gaining a greater sense and respect for balance and the effort it takes to live a truly balanced life in Key West. Temptation abounds. Friendships quicken and flourish like the Poinciana trees, vibrant, startling in their vivacity and flimsy as quicksilver in their ability to adhere to what, on the mainland, would be a buildable foundation of a life- long relationship. On Key West, they might last only as long as the bills in your wallet that fund the next round. Buyer beware has never been more apt.

As an aging cynic and a true loyalist where friends are concerned, it has been an interesting lesson for me to develop my mañana in regards to relationships and behavioral protocol here in the Keys. A dinner invitation? You give some thought as to who is coming, what they like, what the day might bring; you say 7:30ish. You shop, you chop, you marinate; you lay the table, you open a bottle, those who are already living/staying in the house begin to drink, you wait………………when the collective growl of stomachs reaches a fever pitch or the amount of alcohol consumed exceeds the daily recommended dosage on the Motrin label you eat, regardless of who has appeared or not appeared. The intended guest may never arrive, or call, or be seen again.

No worries, mon.

Like a hybrid of Canadian and Caribbean. Nice, but no real commitment.

After the meal, it’s “cooled” from 95 down to 91 and you’ve helped equalize your internal temperature by the addition of copious amounts of human coolant in the form of cocktails so heading into town seems only right and righteous since it’s the one time of the day or night when the sun is not scorching the pavement and melting your zories into the soles of your feet. Besides, what’s one more drink?

I’ll tell you what one more drink is.

It’s 10 more drinks in Key’s Time. There is an odd decimal shift that no one tells you about when you arrive. You only discover it morning’s later (or, occasionally days) when you crawl out of bed and wonder “What happened to……… day………my head………my clothes?” Flashes of the earlier part of the evening flicker across the brainpan, that fantastic Creole lesbian singer at the Green Parrot (was that one set or two?) (do they have video I could check?) (fuck it, who cares?), was the Lazy Gecko next…..or last……would I remember what was last? Was there a strip club in there somewhere? How did we get home? Was I making out in public……….again? Was it someone I know? Does anyone care?

And therein lies the truth of the Islands. No one cares. About anything. Behavior, protocol, propriety, propinquity……..nada. You are only as good or as bad as your last known memory, or that of those whom you were with….and theirs is almost always faultier than yours so there is, indeed, safety in numbers. Numbers of bars, numbers of drinks, numbers of “friends”, numbers of cab companies. I think that is the ultimate tattoo to have here, actually…the cab company on your ass so when you find yourself dropping trou in public as you undoubtedly will sometime before 4am, your disclaimer can say it for you when you no longer can mouth the words; “If you can read this, call Key West Taxi”. Where you tattoo your address is up to you.

And so, as Maureen McGovern warbled once upon the 70’s, “There’s Got To Be A Mourning After”. Or more succinctly, an afternoon after. Few true Duval Crawlers know what a morning is.

It’s interesting, as a writer, my best time is the morning. As a human, my best time is the morning, always has been. Maybe that’s why I’m not a partier. Maybe that’s why my tattoos tend to the philosophic and not the practical (see above). As a writer I’m an observationist.

And so, back to balance.

While I’d love to hold up my end of the rum punch raunch-spectrum, as an opponent of not missing my mornings, my dignity or my clothing, I have balance, albeit discovered through a bit of trial…..and error, balance is firmly in place…now. There was that one day, a light lesson in too much fun and too great a price.

What could be more island-like than brunch with your step-aunt-in-law and her husband, recent Key West transplants, albeit from Orlando so consider the source? Creole sandwiches and Tangerine-Wheat beer, safe enough. Employee discount applied, no one pays retail here if you can remotely still pronounce the word “local”

Then it was on to a drag strip club at 2pm for electronic trivia and cocktails, suggested by Luna (the perfect bartender name), Grapefruit Vodka and Soda with a squeeze of Key Lime. Perfect! Except. That little “local” thing that keeps crawling around the bar in the form of poker chips saying “The Next Round Is On Me”. Friends arrive, more rounds arrive with them, texts come in, more friends arrive; “I’m going to get a beard trim at a friend’s and dip in their pool, be right back”.

Common sense, which I had when I arrived on this island, has left the building. I trim, I dip, and we both go back to the club! More drinks arrive. About 5pm I say “I need to go now, what do I owe?” “For what?” My questioning look is met with obstination all around….”Well they bought the first round and they bought the next and………”. I tip well and stagger back to the bike, which I walk home.

The rest of the night is a wash. Balance averted…….to be regained after some sleep.

Missing the next morning really pisses me off, not to mention there’s nothing worse than a hangover in the tropics. The glistening, clean, shvitzing of a healthy body expelling moisture in the warmth of the sun turns into a toxic waste-dump of flop-sweat after a night under the town; a heady mixture of leftover garlic fries, Captain Morgan, and whatever was in that last round of shooters, all mingled with the less than effervescent soupçon of cigarette smoke that oozes from every fibrous pore of your clothing.

The key to balance to is to remember. Remember the head-pounding, stomach-turning morning after, remember that long walk home pushing the bike because you can’t trust yourself to even ride that without serious bodily harm, remember the sheets in the morning after being too drunk to shower before bed, remember that barback-as-cologne residue that lingered in your nose hairs all day, tainting everything you tried to keep down.

And forget how much fun you really had, ceding your soul to the Demon Rum, the price you pay is not worth the cost of admission.

And here is where writing comes into play, at least for me. It is the key to my personal form of balancing act. If I can faithfully recount at least one horrifying encounter with all things sybarite, then I stand a very good chance of not repeating them again, anytime too soon. Age has engaged the balance beam in my life. It frequently does. The restrictions on body and soul that age implements are nature’s unique form of life preserver, a balance for us in the choppy waters of life’s water-slides into temptation.

So just because they invent a wine decanter that appears to magically balance your booze….don’t believe everything you read, even from me.


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