As it happens with a lot of legendary destinations, I am afraid I finally got to Key West a little late.
There was a time, in the 1930s, when Ernest Hemingway could come to Key West and use it as a writer's sanctuary, finding the privacy and natural beauty that inspired his best efforts. That time is gone, though the house where Hemingway lived is now a museum.
There was a time, in the 1940s, when Harry Truman made the modest Naval Station here his winter White House and got away from the pressures of Washington. Condos now block the view of the Gulf of Mexico from the white frame building where Truman relaxed and played poker with his buddies.
There was a time, in the 1970s, when Jimmy Buffett came to Key West to escape from a failed marriage and a floundering career, finding respite in an alcohol-infused haze that eventually inspired the song, “Margaritaville,” which made him rich and famous. Impecunious musicians would have a hard time finding an affordable place to crash in Key West today; even a modest room goes for about $300 a night in season. But the tourists line up each evening to get into the Margaritaville Cafe on Duval Street.
There was even a time, sometime between Buffett and now, when gay men took advantage of Key West's reputation for laid-back tolerance and turned it into a kind of winter Provincetown. There are still a lot of rainbow flags flying in town, and there are a couple of drag shows playing on Duval Street. They give straight, white-haired tourists a chance to chat with the friendly drag queens who shill for the shows on the sidewalk, snapping pix with their i-Phones that will definitely wow the bridge club back in Illinois. But I don't get the sense that Key West is on the cutting edge of gay culture anymore.
But if those times are gone, there is still one thing that hasn't changed about Key West--its geography. It's warm, of course. It's sandy. But what sets it apart from all the other warm, sandy places in the United States is this: in the country that has always loved the open road, it's the end of the road. Literally. U.S. Route 1, the spine of the East Coast, ends right about at Harry Truman's winter White House. There's a milepost that says “0”. If Jesus took America in His hands, tilted it to the south, and set all of this country's vast number of oddballs to rolling, a lot of them would come to rest in Key West. There are social scientists who will tell you that geography has a lot to do with determining culture, and that may be true.
Whatever the reasons, Key West even in 2016 is still not Fort Lauderdale. It's a little bit Charleston and a little bit Coney Island. There are some elegant, restored homes stuffed into the old section of town, at the southwest end of the island, reminiscent of the restored antebellum houses packed into Charleston's Battery. And there are lots of fast-food joints and cheap souvenir stands on Duval Street. If you ever need a tee-shirt that says, “I don't need a sex life. The government fucks me every day,” there are at least half a dozen places in Key West where you can buy one.
Rush hour in Key West begins about an hour before sunset, when the crowds start making their way to Mallory Square to watch the sun go down over the Gulf of Mexico. I am not sure why watching the sunset became something of a civic religion in Key West. Some of the buskers who work the tourists in the square will tell you that it all started with a bunch of hippies who got stoned and went skinny dipping back in the 1970s. Soon enough, tourists started coming to watch them, and a folkway was born. It's a nice story. It may even be true.
All I can tell you for sure is that thousands gather in the late afternoons nowadays. Some of the locals try to make a living performing for them, doing acts that range from plaintive guitar solos to juggling and acrobatics. And even on a cloudy day, as six o'clock comes and goes, the tourists point their phones at the sky and snap pictures, confident that the sunset here is magically different from the sunsets back home and deserves to be recorded.
Prior to sunset, if you're looking for something to do in Key West, there are, I am sure, a couple or three beaches in the area, though the weather right now is a little nippy for sunbathing. You can also use the pre-sunset time to visit the place where Hemingway lived. I cannot call it Hemingway's house, because, as I learned yesterday, it was bought and paid for by the wealthy family of Pauline Pfeiffer, Hemingway's second wife. When Hemingway took up with Martha Gellhorn, his eventual third wife, he was obliged to find new quarters, and he decamped to Cuba.
The Pfeiffer-Hemingway marital bed, with a lovely carved headboard from Spain, is still on display in the house. The only one who sleeps in it these days is a dozing black cat named Betty Grable, said by the docents to be a direct descendant of one of Papa's cats. It is possible for a Hemingway reader to contemplate all that happened in this bed and wonder at its connection to the literature Hemingway created. However, I'm not sure most of the tourists filing by are big Hemingway afficionadoes. I think the Chinese kid in the photo was mainly bored and wondering when the hell his parents' package tour was going to make it to Disney World. Maybe someday he'll have a teacher who requires him to read A Farewell to Arms, as I did with a class of 9th graders in 2008. If so, I hope his teacher helps him enjoy it more than I was able to help my class do.
Today's visitor can always fall back on the same thing Hemingway, Truman and Buffett fell back on—alcohol. There are an awful lot of bars in Key West and an awful lot of people staggering around in the daytime. Some of these bars have singers who strum guitars and do their best to invoke the spirit of Buffett, or Willie Nelson, or some other whiskey-infused American troubador. And if their efforts don't amuse the patrons, there's a TV over the bar showing ESPN.
But even if Hemingway's bed, Duval Street's bars and the sunset ceremony prove less than enchanting, the best thing about Key West is the same thing that has always been Florida's main attraction, the weather report back home. I see that it's bitter cold in Washington today and for the next few days. I'm glad I'm here.