Conched Out

Rummaging through old blog ideas I found this almost finished piece about time spent in Key West. Some years back we were extremely lucky to have friends there who wanted to house trade with in Portland, OR. Imagine! For the next few years we bounced back and forth in a travel dance that served all of our homes, pets, and lives perfectly. I added on several other tips, some with friends, some solo. It was the perfect antidote to Northwest winters and, as you’ll read below, an instructional tale on “How to Become the Writer You Always Imagined Yourself To Be”


I told You I Needed Time in key West

Conched Out


I Told You I Needed Time in Key West

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

It became apparent to me early on that, in my humble opinion, in order to become a writer of note, any note, one note or a symphony, 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 (Native Key Westians) 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 together with another rum punch and come up with anything other than a night out on Duval Street.

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 imagine being anyplace other than this Bone Island), among his most well-known works.

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 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 lining the cerulean waters, jewels on a strand, linking Key West to the rest of the supposed real world, the Other America. When Keysians need to travel up to Miami they actually say, “Ugh, I have to go to America tomorrow.”

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, expurgate themselves neatly into print. They began to multiply like the sacred 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 two by four island (miles those are), 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 believe in summer. The literary greats of past residents, not having 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 today’s creature comforts, how could they do anything else?  But then not knowing that such 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, or will be in a hot second?  Wash your hair?  Nah, the sweat will act as a gel in a matter of moments, who will know, or care?  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, 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 herculean 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 can fund the next round.  

Buyer beware has never been more pointedly 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 with 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.

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 bar-specific decimal shift that no one tells you about when you arrive.  You only discover it mornings 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/should 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?

No One Notices, Nor cares

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 believe that is the ultimate tattoo to have here, actual, the cab company number 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; “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, for now.  Although, there was that one day, a daylight lesson in too much fun and too great a price.

What could be more island-like than brunch with your step-aunt-in-law (who is ironically twenty years younger than I) 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” even if slurring.  Especially if slurring actually, it lends true authenticity.

Then it was on to a drag strip club at two pm for electronic trivia and cocktails, suggested by Luna (the perfect bartender’s 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 from of poker chips that announce, “The Next Round Is On Me”.  Friends arrive, more rounds arrive with them, texts come in, more friends arrive. I say, “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, had left the building.  I trim, I dip, and we both go back to the club!  More drinks arrive.  About five I say, “I need to go now what do I owe?” 

“For what?”  My questioning look is met with obstinate silence all around…

“Well, “they” bought the first round, and “they” (another they) bought the next and………”.  I tip very well (Luna is an adorable gem of a guy) and stagger back to my bike, which I walk home.

The rest of the night is a wash.  

Balance averted….to be regained after some sleep.

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