What is it that attracts us to a place? Does it remain the same through life?
Last year, after a long hiatus, my husband and I decided to vacation in Key West. We used to come here for a yearly getaway while living in college and then when newly married. In the 1950’s it seemed more remote than it does today, traffic and development have increased with few benefits that I can see. It could be easy to fall into the “you should have seen it 50 years ago syndrome,” but my memory is not keen enough to have a clear image of what it all used to look like. All that I really recalled clearly was the lure of the oceans surrounding the keys. Depending on where you live and your life experiences, Key West probably means different things to you than it does to me.
If from the West Coast, probably nothing.
If from the East or Mid-West:
T shirt shoppes, bad art galleries and thousands of cruise passengers looking for Paradise on Duval Street?
If of a certain age:
Lily Pulitzer? Sloppy Joes?
Ernest Hemingway/Tennessee Williams/literary history (It’s almost an obsession here. Stay away from his house if you’re allergic to cats.)
If still in college:
Gorgeous sunsets? water, water? blue, aquamarine, turquoise. JImmy Buffett
Key lime pie? Stone crabs?
roosters? Roosters and chickens can appear anywhere at any time. It adds to the Bahamian feel of the place. Sometimes they frighten me if they all of a sudden crow loudly when I don’t see them in nearby bushes. I imagine them snickering at me from their hiding spots when they see me jump in fear.
I had a few hazy memories of Key West in the early ’60’s, nothing that matches the current reality. No matter. Many of the things I’m drawn to are intact. This trip, I was blown away by the numbers of historic buildings here. Stuff rarely got torn town so that most everything that survived the fire of the late 1880’s is still remaining. Thanks to the lgbt community, the once dilapidated remains have largely been restored and probably never looked better. Key West now has the largest number of wooden historic houses of any town or city in the USA.
I get sucked right into this kind of environment, think Charleston, Savannah, Santa Barbara (pieces of it), Nantucket, San Francisco. I take enormous pleasure in looking at the beauty of elegant old houses in particular, here often enhanced with tropical foliage and flowers. There are hundreds of modest charming cottages here as well, originally homes for cigar workers.
Key West is layered. At first glance you don’t see it all, which is good. Gradually you learn the city’s intriguing and unusual history. You find favorite spots to eat. I remember how beautiful early mornings can be, but choose to stay in bed because there’s nothing urgent going on and I have a lazy streak. Tropical plant life flourishes, softening the edges of any reality that might look harsh somewhere else.
Miraculously, Key West is not chi- chi or snotty. It’s accepting and has been a haven, since its inception for writers, artists, freaks, hippies, ne’er do wells, etc. I like it’s lack of pretension and its mix of people. Duval Street has gone too far as a mediocre tourist enclave to be of much interest, but fresh seafood abounds and folks are nice and the evenings are balmy, the streets safe.
I’ve spotted an older gentleman around, riding a bike, wearing pink tights held up by pink suspenders and sporting a large pair of pink fairy wings on his back. That’s probably just the tip of the iceberg if you stay here long enough.
Just stay away from Duval Street, going there only if you need a bathing suit.