Key West, FL: May, 2019
I think we found the absolute last free parking spot on the entire island and it happened to be directly in front of the Inn on Fleming, our home for the next week. We had just finished a two-hour drive along the Overseas Highway, some of which was beautiful palms and turquoise water and some of which was Key Largo. After two days of driving including stops in Georgia and St. Petersburg, we walked out into the sweet and steamy island air and were ready to be still for a while. The inn was in the canopied old town, wrapped in a white wooden fence and featured a covered front porch and pink detached shutters. Palms invaded through one side of the porch and a hammock and several sofas beckoned from the other. Inside, Kelly gave us our key, herself brand new to the island after moving there on a whim from Thailand after moving there on a whim from wherever she was from. There was a large back deck with seating for having breakfast or drinks, the first of which began late and the latter early. Breakfast didn’t start until 9 AM, which was well after most B&B’s will serve. “Island time.” Kelly said. On the deck was a pineapple plant which was beginning to bear fruit, looking fake in its infancy like an orange baseball with sharp sprouts growing out of the top. A black and white cat pawed at the door but Kelly wouldn’t let him in.
“That cat just started coming around yesterday” she said. “Another guest named him Fleming. I think that’s pretty unoriginal but I suppose it’s better than ‘the cat’”
She filled a bowl with cat food and set it outside. Lauren and I walked upstairs to unpack, turned up the air conditioning and fell into an afternoon nap. We explored a bit that night and had some conch fritters and a few local beers but it turned out to be another early night. Fleming was waiting for us upon our return and Lauren rewarded his patience with a few scratches behind the ear.
At four miles long and one mile wide, Key West is by no means large but still it contains distinct neighborhoods that can sometimes vary between just a few blocks. For starters, just about anything of interest is on the western third of the island, to the sunset side of White Street. Duval is obviously the most infamous, beginning on the comparatively tame South Island, through the nightlife district, and ending at the Historic Seaport, an area full of cruise ship passengers and restaurants with Conch in the name. Between Duval and White is known as the Heart of Old Town, and this is where you’ll find the brightly colored wood framed houses, expansive balconies, and gingerbread trim that define Key West architecture, as well as most of the bed and breakfasts and pretty much all non-chain accommodation on the island. Truman Annex is a residential area to the northwest of Duval and home to the Little White House. Below this is Bahama Village.
I woke at dawn to take a walk before the sun had a chance to assert itself. I failed in this regard as it was already a sticky morning and not yet time for breakfast as I ostensibly walked westward toward Duval. The island had yet to awaken as I passed by whitewashed fences and houses with angled turquoise shutters. A cat relaxed atop a sky blue set of stairs, already aware of the shrinking shade as lizards darted from sidewalk to garden with each flip-flopped footfall. Nearly every square inch not used by road or structure was filled with thick micro-jungles of swaying coconut palms, short fan-leafed banana trees, and twisted bougainvillea in the deep green of interbloom. Royal Poinciana trees, flayed and orange-tipped like a vase full of incense sticks provided fluorescent colors against the verdant backdrop. Beneath a row of particularly tall palms a sign warned against parking there, displaying a cartoon of a Volkswagen Beetle being pelted with coconuts with ouch written below.
A rooster crowed, tardy of the rising sun by a half hour but I appreciated the effort. I later saw the culprit strutting beside the library and he reared up and shouted once more. The wild fowl of Key West are descendants of those that were brought over in the nineteenth century by Cuban immigrants for fighting purposes and now had free run of the place. They had already wore off their novelty a few hours into the trip after we had watched several sets of hens and chicks wander around the seaport the night prior. I had inadvertently outed myself as a first-timer by virtue of paying any attention to the birds as they pecked at a crumb between bricks. “You’ve see one cock, you’ve seen ‘em all!” said a stumbling woman on the arm of a burly guy with an overly bent Harley Davidson hat.
I made it down to Duval and expected it to smell like New Orleans the morning after but it was inoffensive though deserted. I saw a sign welcoming me to Bahama Village and took a right, entering the neighborhood beneath an archway made of old bicycle parts. To my right was a paint chipped white building with bright pink boarded windows. Settled by Bahamian immigrants nearly two centuries ago, the area is gradually being absorbed by trendy Key West, and it now contains some of the most popular restaurants on the island. Blue Heaven, with its massive courtyard in the shade of a Jungle Book style kapok tree, corrugated iron bar siding, and live junkanoo bands is possibly the most recommended place to eat.
I went back to the inn and Lauren and I had breakfast on the back deck, next to an English couple who were circling Florida on holiday. Fleming the cat kept jumping up onto tables whenever people would get up for more orange juice or coffee, and passed the time by sticking his nose into empty yogurt containers. The inn’s manager shooed him away or set him back on the ground but this solution was always short lived. After breakfast we rented bikes to enjoy the most optimal way to get around Key West, faster and breezier than walking but without the inconvenience of moving our car from the one that rare open space. There were bike lanes on nearly all roads in the old town and those that didn’t have them pretty much didn’t need them for lack of traffic.
We took them for a spin and found ourselves at Cuban Coffee Queen, a kiosk with a covered outdoor seating area and a spinning fan. Lauren got an iced coffee and I went for a cortadito, essntially a sweeter cortado brewed through sugar. I had been excited for Café Cubano since we planned our trip and the Queen did not disappoint. We got to share the experience with a large rooster who wandered around our bikes, occasionally making noise as patrons paid no matter.
Miami was still a mud pit when Key West welcomed waves of Cuban immigrants in the 1870s and 1880s, reaching a peak of one third of the island’s population and electing the United States’ first Cuban mayor. It became a hub for cigar factories and was the largest city in Florida and the wealthiest in the United States near the end of the nineteenth century. Eventually most of the factories moved to Tampa and Key West became more or less its current self in the early decades of the twentieth. Even the island’s name is misunderstood Spanish. They called it Cayo Hueso, meaning Bone Key, after discovering mounds of bones of the Calusa people on the shore. Hueso was mistaken for Oeste (west) and the name stuck. The fact that it is the westernmost major island in the Florida Keys is the geographical equivalent of a backronym.
The Cuban influence is still felt in food, music, art, and coffee. Dozens of delis and restaurants will sell you a sandwich of ham, pork, pickles, Swiss, and mustard on pan Cubano, fried plantains and an Hatuey beer to wash it down. The best we had was a hole in the wall Frida Kahlo themed fusion Cuban-Burger place where I had a patty with Cuban fixings and a side of Yucca fries. We went on the way back from the beach one day and sat in our swimsuits at a table with Frida’s face on a Bougainvillea Tree as a spiral fan blew warm air and island flavors in our direction.
The south end of Duval and its paralleling streets are much quieter than their northern counterparts. There are some resorts and a tiny beach, and of course that Southernmost Point buoy that everyone takes a picture of. This day was no exception to its popularity, as there was a line curving around the next block of sweaty folks waiting for their turn. Twice we saw people pull up in cars, open their door to snap a photo and then get back in and drive away. Lots of excitement for a buoy that isn’t particularly accurate. For one, it’s a few more than 90 miles to Cuba but that could be overlooked as pedantic if it actually were at the southernmost point, which it is not. In fact, if you angle your picture in a certain way you can get land in the background of your Southernmost Point picture that is further south than the buoy. Fort Zachary Taylor beach in the far southwest corner of the island holds the honor of the true southernmost point on Key West, while tiny Ballast Key, a privately own island inside Key West National Wildlife Refuge is further south still. But alas, the buoy is a symbol of the city and we decided to give it respect, if not just to satisfy social mores.
Guy at work: “Oh, you went to Key West? Let’s see your buoy picture!”
Me: *Whips out phone* “Check out this bad boy.”
Guy at work: “Niiiiice.”
Still, we were not waiting in a line around the block as people posed in about fifteen different ways next to the buoy. We woke at dawn one day and pedaled over and did our duty, back to breakfast before Fleming could finish off the frittata.
We did try to get camera clever at the Southernmost Beach, where we bought a coconut from a street cart. Lauren would hold the coconut with the sand and sea in the background, palm tree in the front left. But it was not to be as before the likes could fly in, a storm did. A light drizzle began and turned to a steady rain. We shuffled across the tiny beach and stood beneath an awning over a coffee window attached to some private resort. A barista glared at us so I bought a small iced coffee I didn’t need and thought of it as an umbrella tax. The radar showed a brief passing shower and there was bright sun to both the east and west, but I drank the coffee down to the cubes and the rain had instead increased so we made a break for it and searched for the nearest bar.
Rum Bar. That sounded promising and quite islandy. It was several blocks though and the weather had turned into a legitimate deluge. We found another awning and played catch with the now empty coconut to pass the time with hopes that it would let up even briefly. This wasn’t quick moving tropical rain but instead was an island sized waterfall stalled directly overhead. The Rum Bar was two blocks out of reach but we decided to run for it, quickly becoming weary of playing coco toss.
The bar was tiny, with about ten seats around its edges and a few chairs on a now soaked balcony. One seat was occupied by a cat. Two other patrons chatted with the bartender, a tall goateed middle aged man who went by Marty. He poured us local rum on the rocks and mentioned how much better business gets when it rains. He wasn’t wrong; several others streamed in, soaking but thirsty, in the few minutes since we had parked ourselves in the coziest corner near the door.
“Do you have a switch back there to turn the rain on and off when business gets slow?” said one guy who sat next to us with his wife and looked a lot like a heavier Marty but with a duckbill cap. “This is unusual, even for summer. And it will be here a while.” Marty said and pointed out the open door toward the monsoon. “No wind.”
The palms on the other side of Duval were absolutely still and the drops barreled down perpendicular to the ground. We were in for a long afternoon at the rum bar but here were certainly worse places to be caught up, as we were dry by this point and amongst good company. The patrons plus Marty developed a kind of kinship after a few hours of not being able to leave for fear of floating out into the Atlantic, a convivial atmosphere that multiple glasses of rum certainly didn’t hurt. Lauren had ordered a dark and stormy – a rum, lime, and ginger beer concoction that became all too appropriate as the thunder bellowed. I stuck with sampling different rums on the rocks until my phone reminded me it was just barely afternoon.
“Another go?” Marty asked, square blown glass bottle in his left hand ready to give me two more fingers of rum and three more ice cubes. “Better switch to beer” I confessed and asked him for a local one. He brought an Islamorada Ale. “Closest thing we have, it’s from the northernmost island in the keys.”
“I suppose that means you don’t count Key Largo?” I asked. Marty looked at us like I just brought up his ex. “Nobody counts Key Largo.”
“Bad day to land” said one woman who was sitting nearest to the cat. We watched out the door to see one of the tourist trains struggling down a quickly flooding Duval with an unamused driver and two brave sightseers in increasingly useless ponchos huddled in the back wishing they had just stayed on the ship. Not far behind them a teenager on a rental bike hit a particularly deep part of the flooded pavement and came to an almost immediate stop, giving him a knee deep watery surprise. All the while, the palm trees failed to sway. I could not say the same for myself, however as drinks were beginning to take their toll, but leaving just wasn’t going to happen. Rum Bar was home. Home was Rum Bar.
After another hour, Marty had given up trying to serve and was just sitting and watching the rain and talking with the rest of us. By this point we were on a first name basis with everyone in the bar including the cat, Jim. Dave, the duckbill hat guy announced he was hungry. When the rest of the group got excited by the prospect and he asked Marty where we could get food nearby. “Across the street makes a good fish taco but I don’t think they’ll deliver in this.” The rain increased again, once thought impossible, not in sheets like a hurricane would provide but instead it felt as if Cayo Hueso itself was slowly sinking into the sea. Duval Street by now was covered in over a foot of water, all of it rushing towards the south. Nobody was outside anymore and even the constant flow of tourist trains had ceased.
“Only a couple of us have to go” Dave said, clearly joking but sounding serious given the situation. “I’ll sacrifice myself.” He looked around. I raised my hand. Dave took everyone’s order using a menu that Marty provided and I went out to the porch and called the number on the top of the page. “Do you do pickup orders?…” I watched through the window of the restaurant across the street and saw the woman behind the bar holding the phone. She looked down at it, out at the rain and then gave her coworker a look as if I was pranking them. “We do… are you sure?”
“Yep, I’m not far.” I waved from the Rum Bar balcony. She gave me a thumbs up and told me it would be twenty minutes or so. After that time had passed, Dave and I walked down the stairs and into the flood. The water flowed to just below my knees, threatening to take my flip flops along for the ride. Sloshing through the deserted street, I picked up the pace to allow myself minimal contact with the river full of random detritus and whatever substances managed to stick themselves to Duval the previous night. Once inside the restaurant our food wasn’t quite ready so Dave ordered me a beer and began telling me his life story. He lived in North Carolina and either drove a truck or used to drive a truck and this was his first time in Florida. He wrote down a bunch of suggestions on a napkin for me to do when I would be in Charlotte later in the month. The bar was crowded and the food was taking well longer than the twenty minutes promised, probably because the restaurant had the same situation as the Rum Bar – nobody would leave and everyone was suddenly hungry.
At last it arrived and I sprinted back across Duval carrying everybody’s fish tacos. As we ate, the rain slowed and people began to trickle out. Eventually we did too after saying goodbye to Marty, Dave, and the rest. The day was still young and suddenly sunny but we needed a nap.