The Idea of Order at Key West


Anyway, my vacation. In my first attempt at relating the trip, I got far too sidetracked establishing the Keys as the seminal (strong definition) region of the United States. Katie and I didn’t make the preparations for our trip—Brandon had put it together for us—and we ended up flying down to Florida wholly unprepared, into a long weekend of vertigo and confusion, just like the procrastinators we are.

Two Keys items caught my eye before the trip: One, a news article about how the Feds were taking on the six-toed cats at Hemingway’s House. The US Department of Agriculture insists the Hemingway House have a license to house the animals, and they’re threatening to take the cats away.

This action smacked of gratuitous political warfare. Cat people and Hemingway people both lean Democrat, don’t they? At the same time, it signaled the encroachment of that ever-creeping force, government regulation. Hemingway’s cats now took on the aura held by sex workers in Times Square, innocent victims of a revitalizing sanitization campaign. Our trip now had a sudden urgency—we were fortunate to be going there now, before the government made it safe for tourists. We had to see the cats before they were all put down.


The other item was a Douglas Brinkley tribute to Hunter S Thompson I had ordered in the mail, which noted—just in passing—that Key West was one of Hunter’s favorite spots. Now, neither Hemingway or Hunter on his own is very significant, but put the two together at the tip of the nation, and their connection gives us a core sample of the stuff Key West is made of. Both suicides, sure, but more in common they were both oversized and famous American characters, writers whose shticks were larger than anything they wrote. More than a body of work, their lives represented an ethic. They were athletic, independent, outdoorsy, ruddy, Teddy Roosevelty.

Turns out Key West attracted all sorts of these masculine literary types. Ones with fanbases, the kind of writers that college students read without being assigned it. Tennessee Williams lived there (Hunter went looking for his grave when he was in the Keys – turns out it’s in St. Louis). Wallace Stevens (how’s he manly, you say? Why, that motherfucker was a high-level insurance executive company his whole life. In Hartford. He wrote in his spare time, in his old age, what poets with cushy writing classes never put out in a lifetime. It was an afterthought for him. That’s mythic. That’s a masters of the universe, Connecticut-style manliness). And the list goes on. The per capita luminary factor was all out of proportion, surefire evidence that Key West must have held some invisible pull, had some magic atmosphere that drew and sustained the imaginations of these chroniclers of the American story. The Keys were a place where the twelve-dimensional strings of the universe vibrate in harmony, emanating a pitch-perfect ohmmmm.

This is not the condition that I found it, exactly.

Keys residents (Keysers?) deny they live in Florida at all, and call themselves the Conch Republic (the conch being nature’s closest visual imitation to the human vaginal form). It originated, according to legend, in a dispute over government drug traffic stops that ballooned into a major PR stunt back in the go-go 80s. The drug inspections caused traffic backups on the Keys’ one highway, screwing with tourist satisfaction, so the mayor of Key West reacted by declaring the Keys a sovereign nation. None of my online sources reveal whether this gimmick succeeded in ending the blockade, but twenty-five years later the related merchandise lives on.

Conch Republic flag

In addition to the more predictable souvenirs, enterprising Conchers (Conchites?) cashed in with Conch Republic Passports. And naturally, even more enterprising scam artists soon began hawking them as legitimate travel documents for entry into the United States. Citizens of India were targeted in particular; the US Consulate in India now has to have a warning against them.

Just in case you don’t think the fabric is seamless: Mohammed Atta carried a
Conch Republic passport. (Silly coincidence? Maybe. But then why the 9/11 Commission Stonewalling!)

Q: Can I travel on my Conch Republic passport?
A: We do not represent our passports as valid travel documents. That said, people have traveled all over the world on them. The Conch Republic passport even saved one man’s life in Guatemala when confronted by armed revolutionaries…”Americano no! Republica de la Concha”. He was filled with shots of Tequila instead of shots from the Kalishnikovs.

Of my four-day trip to the Keys, I only spent about three hours in Key West. That is the same amount of time I spent in my layover in the Atlanta airport (Boycott Delta), but you can probably sense the disproportionate effect the city’s concentrated tourist bent had on my unprepared sensibilities. Take the Hemingway House: not only do six-toed cats, as it turns out, look exactly like normal cats, with not the teeniest mutant-freak foot deformations discernable to the untrained eye, and not only was the tour guide drunk, but they charged $11 just to get inside the gate. Smoothjazzy recommendation: tepid. You gotta really love either cats or Hemingway. Or tourist traps. Oh sure, the house was pretty. Life seems like it was pretty sweet back then, if you were rich, famous, and white. But these thoughts are just the weapons of nostalgia, and they must be resisted at all costs.

Downtown, historic Key West has the romantic appeal of Myrtle Beach–or really any other of the major stops on the spring break circuit. The literary presence the city must have once nurtured is now ossified, landmarks in a sea of semi-outdoor bars and head shops. Carousers and cruise ship passengers rule the streets, already drunk in the afternoon. The character is not much different from that of the fraternity party, really late on a Saturday night: somewhere in the background, there are stately old buildings that have had important and intelligent stuff happen in them, but the singular intent of those present is to turn alcoholic beverages into bodily fluid in the most economic way possible. But that’s being unfair. This contemporary coping strategy is not unique to Key West and college towns, and I was determined not to let our short time in this city descend into a lament for those impossible utopian days before the tourist victory. We ate burgers at what turned out to be a Hawaiian franchise and drank $10 pints of lime water (the locals call them “mojitos” – be careful not to pronounce the j).

It was New Years Eve, and our plan had been to mark the coming of 2007 comfortably bunkered down in our beachfront campsite in Bahia Honda Key, about an hour from Key West. But we could still mark the passage of time in the most visible way nature has thought up for us, by watching the sunset. And Key West, according to the tourist literature, is famed for having the southernmost continental US sunsets, viewable each night from the city’s Mallory Square. Romantic farewell to the year, no? After squeezing in the Hemingway House, we found ourselves racing against the sun to get to the square on time. We ran past some bar that was, according to the signage, recommended highly by Playboy, and got to the square only to find there, sitting squat in the harbor, was a skyscraper-sized Disney cruise ship. The Disney cruise ship was blocking the sun.

Cruise ship

After moving down a ways to check out the sunset from the piers, I grabbed the convertible from the lot while everyone else set out to stock up on booze and other supplies, like Key Lime Pies. A just married couple in full getup walked past the convertible, and two guys across the street, drinks in hand, toasted them their luck.
“Thank you, Happy New Year,” the groom responded.
As they continued up the block, the other gentleman chimed in too, calling after them, “You fucking moron! She’s gonna leave you once she gets her hands on your money!”
“It won’t last three years!”
“She’s a fucking bitch.”
This time the groom ignored them, wisely I would say, and they continued up the block toward the hotel or the cruise ship or wherever they were headed to, off to start their brand new life together.

One lesson learned. Apparently Harry S Truman had a house in Key West, a Little White House. And I missed it. Why? Because I didn’t prepare.

Journalist Tim Russert and journalist Hunter S Thompson:

Wallace Stevens, “Prose statement on the poetry of war”:

“…It has been easy to say in recent times that everything tends to become real, or, rather, that everything moves in the direction of reality, that is to say, in the direction of fact. We leave fact and come back to it, back to what we wanted fact to be, not to what it was, not to what it has too often remained….”


  1. blogreader
    Posted February 13, 2007 at 11:00 am | Permalink | Reply

    nice conch republic passport info.

  2. Posted February 19, 2008 at 11:19 am | Permalink | Reply

    Sad but true.Yesteryears Key West was a much different Key West. Now tha the corporate monster has dug his greedy fingers into the island… well.. it has become a homogenized, bleached vision of what Key West was.

    It’s a damn shame too – Back when I started coming to Key West in the early 80’s it was a different place – a very cool, non discriminating place. You would get you ass kicked by the town drunk gay, straight, male of female.

    Well, everything comes full circle. It won’t be long till the corporate bastards realize that they have screwed the town up and they’re hemorrhaging cash, and they’ll leave. They’ll leave their crap behind for the rest of us to clean up. and the artists will come back, the musicians will come back, hopefully the tourists will come back too.


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