KEY WEST, 1996

Looking out the window toward the western end of the island, where Duval Street traverses its length from water's edge to water's edge, I see palm trees and boats anchored on the bay. The city looks placid and domestic. Perhaps it is, but the mood on Duval is a mixture of humans frantically trying to relax, drinking more than they intend, swaying to music coming through open bar doors, shopping the many stores, listening to pitchmen hawking saloons, icecream, and restaurants, and watching beggars quietly obtrude into the consciousness and guilt bins of fun-seekers.

Key West is a tolerant city, with a large permanent population of artists, social mavericks, liberal intellectuals and homosexuals, and a large transient population of tourists. At its best, it is homey and entertaining: at its worst it meanly chews up people and panders to universal human vices. What comes to mind is a miniaturized New Orleans, with Duval Street representing to Key West what Bourbon Street means to New Orleans.

Surrounded by blue water, the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other, with inland rias that afford secure harbor, its proximity to coral reefs and ocean depths provides a playground for SCUBA/snorkeling enthusiasts and deep sea fishing devotees. Blessed with an ultra-mild, tropical climate, Key West is a winter haven for frozen northerners who need time away from cold weather, icy streets, and snowy landscapes.

The city evolved from early Spanish origins dating back to the 1500s, much like St. Augustine, Florida. Its buildings reflect their heritage. Large, open houses dominate small city blocks and narrow streets overgrown with coconut palm, banyan, and sundry other tropical trees, as well as bougainvillaea, hibiscus, and oleander bushes. It is conspicuously old and cluttered, with a charm and courtesy one does not find in our cold American cities.

James Audubon lived here and painted many of the local sea birds with his incomparable technique and style. Earnest Hemingway bought a home near Duval on one of the highest spots on the island, a whole 10 feet above sea level, and even built a swimming pool there. He wrote several of his best books in an isolated, spacious garage loft behind the house, and drank and fought in the local bars. When he was President, Harry Truman loved to take refuge from the Washington winters, and established a White House South on land used and operated by the Navy. More recently, Mel Fisher, a Floridian who devoted his life to locating the Atocha, a Spanish treasure galleon that sank in a hurricane in 1622, opened a museum here. Mel spent decades salvaging silver, gold, and artifacts from her broken hull, and later had to defend his hard-won treasure from claims on it by both Florida and the federal government. The museum tells of his saga and displays centuries old artifacts raised during his meticulously run salvage and archeology operation.

Interesting as they are, these are but the superficialities of Key West. The city is actually a citadel of tolerance for people who tired of the hustle and choking stratification of American culture and its narrow-minded bigotry. People who love boating and the water, who want to get away from the rat-race, have come here and to the neighboring keys for beauty and peace of mind. The place is a remembrance of ancient days, when life was closer to nature, human cities were not industrialized, and people were permitted to live unfettered as individuals without complying with the fads and crazes of the year. Their only idol might be Jimmy Buffet, discussing his hazy life and forlorn soul in Margaritaville, looking for his lost shaker of salt.

No-one has yet improved on an ancient proverb that states the salt of life is wherever you find it. Too many of us never locate it, either, but people look harder in Key West. Sometimes they end up celebrating life during the search.


Sam Orr

World Traveler

and Philanthrope

(Location Unknown)