Pico Iyer Journeys

The Idea of Disorder in Key West

Jose Marti, the fiery poet who is a hero of revolutionary independence for both Castro’s Cuba and the fervent anti-Castroites in Miami, fomented his Janus-headed rebellion in Key West. Thomas Edison lived here, too, in a house later turned into a “Little White House” by Harry Truman, who made it a perfect neutral spot for American presidents to hold their meetings or retreats. In a nice flourish of New Floridian history, it was bought by an affluent immigrant from India, who turned the abandoned wooden bungalow over to the state, oversaw its restoration and opened it as an upstanding tourist spot, somewhat more sonorous than the Ripley’s Believe it or Not outlet not many blocks away.

An iguana slinks along a wall outside a beer garden and next to it is a caged snake, a rooster strutting and pecking all about. An elegant black man in a suit and woollen cap is playing a violin for bronzed couples from France savouring les tristes tropiques. At sunset, every day, much of the town’s wild life, and many of its visitors, all congregate at Mallory Square, down by the water, where a florid man gets three cats to jump through hoops of flame and another who looks like an Irish leprechaun has two very aged dogs walk along a tightrope. The “Fairly Amazing Groovy Guy” tightropes over tourists, and the Jamaican man who’s himself diving through hoops of flame was last seen in the darkness, playing “Edelweiss” on an electric piano.

A large cruise ship called The World rocks in the harbour, and a shopkeeper has erected a board on which she’s impishly, delightedly scrawled up the day’s temperatures–“Rome 43, Berlin 34, Detroit 30, Boston 40, Rome 43, Key West 78.” A tall man is offering “Free Hugs” though the first rule of Key West is that the free is never what it seems (“It’s Hip to Tip” says a sign at his side). Somewhere on the main drag, near where a man is selling Dirty Jokes for $1 each, another man is bawling, “Living is easy, nothing is real” and embellishing his rendition of “Strawberry Fields Forever” with something quite distinctive: an utterly tuneless wail.

Not all Key West is just attitude–I went one evening to a fine and funky seafood place, the Rusty Anchor, on nearby Stork Island, where a mayor used to sneak out with his companions for some dog-racing, out amongst the beat-up shacks of the rural South. The golf courses and plush hotels whose absence was once an enticement are now moving closer. Letters to the paper discuss, with straight-faced irony, what it is to be a “Conch” and why the citizenry can be fined more for parking in the wrong place than for walking around in the nude. “At night the taxi drivers are all drunk,” a famous essayist told me in a fit of local pride, “and by day they’re stoned.”

Still, Key West knows what side its bread is buttered on, and so, among the 43 cats who slink around Hemingway’s house, there’s one called Zsa Zsa Gabor and one called Elizabeth Taylor. On the novelist’s birthday, half the people in sight are white-bearded salts, here for the Hemingway Look-Alike Contest. A ghost tour of the town begins at its central, multi-storey hotel and tells, impassively, of the fifteen people who’ve jumped to their deaths from there. “Remember you are unique,” says the bumper-sticker on a car showing off the American flag. “Just Like Everyone Else.”

It might be all a bit too much were it not for the simple, lyrical fact that it really is 80 degrees here in January, and there are few better places for brushing your loved one’s hair while you sit on a verandah and a torn moon pokes through the clouds, portending thunderstorms or sudden rain. It’s no surprise that the smiling kids who work at the “Southernmost Starbucks in the United States” wear badges saying they’re from Hungary, Uzbekhistan, Italy, and the nymphs at one of the town’s racier clubs, a major poet told me, come from Czechoslovakia. The actress Kelly McGillis sometimes seats customers at her restaurant here, and such bon vivants as Tom McGuane and Jim Harrison are still often to be seen.

Key West is becoming, in fact–like Santa Fe or Santa Barbara, Maui or Montana or Provincetown–one of those American hideaways so alluring that everyone is trying to hide away there, and get away from everyone else. A tiny cottage can’t be had in what is now called “Old Town” for less than a million dollars, and after four hurricanes swept through not long ago, the entrepreneurs came in, seeing they could make a killing out of reconstuction. In the age of telecommuting and early retirement, what beachfront property is not owned by the U.S. Navy (which controls most of the coastline here) is being snapped up by fast-talking sharks. Soon, the local writers told me, the place will be nothing but gated millionaires and the buskers or ear-ringed Cuban boys who dance attention on them.

And yet the evening I arrived in town, 22 years after my first visit, I wandered down to the funky Eden House, to be greeted by a board that promised the hotel’s modest breakfast had been awarded 5 stars (by no less an authority than one Mike Eden). The tropical skies, with exquisite terraced houses lit up all around, belonged to a Wallace Stevens quatrain. And on the radio, as 22 years before, the Doors were roaring, urging us all to “Break on through to the other side.” Key West is turning into one of those grande dames with a second face who still knows that there’s nothing wrong with nature that art can’t fix with a crooked tweak.

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