Key West, FL: May, 2019
North Duval runs into the Historic Seaport area which is now thronged by docked cruisers and boozy tourists. One interesting thing in this area that was worth a stop though is the original Key Lime Pie Bakery. The outside is a citrus green pastel and the inside contains anything lime flavored that could reasonably be lime flavored and many that shouldn’t. The Key Lime green tea was excellent but I cannot yet form an opinion on the bath salts. The dine-in options were pie-on-a-stick or pie-not-on-a-stick. There are more flavors than key lime, but Lauren and I both opted for the classic, seeing as we had only a couple of days left on the island and had yet to try its signature dessert. We both opted for the pie-not-on-a-stick and grabbed a corner table. We ate quickly, the reasons threefold: The pie was fantastic, it was getting rather busy, and the clerk was clearly grumpy about us taking up a table with only two people. We washed it down with some Cuban Coffee Queen before getting on with our day.
It was a late slice of pie and an even later cup of coffee, so we decided to stay out for the evening. We had deliberately avoided the section of Duval nearest the seaport to this point, not wanting to miss out on the island’s other attractions, but by the end of our trip, we saw most of what we came to see, so we went off to join the revelry.
First we found ourselves at Turtle Kraals, which features a makeshift race track for turtles that looked like a skee-ball set without the holes at the end. Anyone that orders a drink or appetizers during a set time gets a free entry to bet on which turtle they think looks the fastest. Then, out of all the people who picked the winning turtle, one gets a prize that I can’t recall exactly but I remember it being actually pretty generous. Just about everyone who was in the restaurant migrated outside to get in on the action when a woman came around from the side of the building with four turtles with pieces of blue painter’s tape on their shells displaying a number in black sharpie. She said they lived happy lives at the aquarium and the activity seemed harmless enough to the turtles. Lauren picked #3 while I went with #2. The race began when the turtle referee removed a board separating the animals from the track. A loud cheer erupted from the crowd and they were off. Lauren’s turtle immediately ambled into a wall and stayed there moving its legs like someone was remotely controlling it and couldn’t figure out which button was the reverse. She kept shouting encouraging words to the little guy but it was no use, turtle #3 was not interested. Mine however, swift legged and svelte, charged ahead in the second half, passing up turtles #1 and #4, taking the crown by several shell lengths. Unfortunately it appeared my turtle was a popular choice and half the crowd lined up to see if they would win the mystery prize. Odds were not in my favor and I left with nothing but bragging rights over Lauren my skills in turtle speculation.
Irish Kevin’s is another Duval Street fixture, and we got in and ordered a beer just in time to see New York Pauly, a musician and comedian who, if the bar’s schedule of live entertainment is any indication, is a fixture on the stage. He played covers of Irish diddies and occasionally older hip hop and rock, all of which required high levels of audience participation. His songs were interspersed by a few jokes and a timed Guinness chugging contest. The contest was won by a petite young lady who defeated, by a couple tenths of a second, a guy who looked like this wasn’t his first beer drinking contest. Partway through a song, a group of women who were all wearing the same green shirt and were closer to fifty than to thirty decided it was time for a twerk-off, which New York Pauly, quickly put a stop to. “Who loves attention the most… Ready, go!”
We were only planning on staying for a drink but New York Pauly was surprisingly entertaining in a lewd anti-hero sort of way. “I’ve received a request” he shouted. “This guy over here wants me to sing a pirate song, so let’s sing a pirate song!” A wave of applause. The regulars, or those who had become regulars during a weeklong island bender, appeared to know this one. The first line began, to the tune of a sea shanty: “I put my hand upon her toe. Yo ho! Yo ho!” with each verse continuing northward until the lyrics became substantially less family friendly. Parents and two kids who were hovering near the door scurried away in horror. Pauly shouted “Don’t go, it gets even better!” but I’m sure they were halfway to the docks by that point. I’m not much for vulgarity for vulgarity’s sake but those who bring their children to Duval Street on a Friday Night and expect to see the animatronic band from Chuck ‘E’ Cheese probably deserve to have an awkward conversation about what that man with the guitar said that made all the grown-ups laugh.
There was one more bar that was on either the must visit or must skip list of Duval Street haunts, depending on one’s level of bashfulness. I had heard stories about Garden of Eden, Key West’s most popular clothing optional bar from several people who had traveled prior. One friend walked in somehow without realizing the casualness of the place and described it as “jarring” all the while getting into the spirit himself. Another was at a bar across the street and claims he saw a naked conga line marching across the second floor balcony and towards the steps, despite the fact that you’re not technically supposed to disrobe until you are on the rooftop.
To get to the Garden, you walk into a bar called The Bull and take a stairway to the right where a second bouncer makes sure you were just as of-age as you were when you walked into the bar twenty seconds prior. Then you go up a few flights of stairs, bypass the second floor, and head up another flight of stairs, following a sign picturing Adam and Eve standing on either side of a fig tree with a snake wrapped around its trunk. There are several reminders that photography is strictly forbidden, and don’t even think about checking your phone or you’ll be doing a one-person conga line back down the stairs.
The rooftop was a fairly large patio surrounded by a three foot wall covered in shrubbery to keep out the glances of creepers and other undesirable lookie-loos. Four out of every five people were fully clothed, and those that weren’t were almost entirely women of all ages in various stages of undress. There was a body painting booth in one corner where an artist was coloring patrons with glittery designs that looked like psychedelic butterflies. We were on our way to the bar and were greeted by a woman wearing nothing on top but a strategically placed sun and moon. Nobody was performing the full monty, and the vibe was decidedly relaxed, friendly and about as non-sexual a place like this could be, with way less ogling wierdos than one would predict given the setting. People were just drinking and chatting like any old dive bar. Some people had clothes on and some didn’t and nobody cared.
We ordered a drink and sat on a bench opposite the bar, as nobody was really dancing or doing much of anything. A middle aged couple sat on the next bench over and looked as if they were there waiting for someone. The woman kept pulling her phone out of her purse to text and each time the bouncer was in front of her within seconds, sternly but politely reminding her of the no phones rule. A few moments later she would seemingly forget what happened that last time and gave it another go. The bouncer once again would swoop over and tell her the same. Each time she would look surprised, let out a panicked “I’m sorry!” and immediately shove it back into her purse, only to forget again and allow the process to repeat itself.
As the night wore on the place picked up a bit and we danced for a few songs, chatted with some people about Burning Man, and enjoyed being outside in the perfect weather. We left around midnight, early for Duval Street but late for me, and as we walked out, there was a line to get onto the rooftop that wound down the stairs and those in it were far less clad than those already outside. It was about to get far busier and I was glad we were leaving. Duval as a whole becomes popular well after my interest in barhopping wanes, and it seems Garden of Eden was no exception.
On the way home we stopped at the famed Sloppy Joe’s to use the restroom. Business finished, I didn’t want to walk by the bouncer who had just let us in so quickly so we ordered another beer each and stood in the shoulder to shoulder crowd. To avoid the situation becoming an unbreakable cycle, we set down the drinks at about two-thirds complete and wandered back to the inn.
The one thing everyone told us to do in Key West, aside from not go to the beach, was to absolutely watch the sunset from Mallory Square. Then we got to Key West and everyone told us to skip watching the sunset from Mallory Square. The reviews were as follows:
“It’s too crowded” – The English couple at the inn’s breakfast.
“There’s a fake island where the sun sets so you can’t even see it hit the water” – Kelly, the clerk who checked us in.
“Drunk tourists and, even worse, sober tourists” – Marty from the Rum Bar.
Still we went. Mallory Square is at the far north end of Duval and Whitehead Streets and hosts a sunset celebration nightly. I assume it still happens in bad weather but I never asked, nor did that situation arise at all during our stay. The square is actually quite pleasant in the evening – bars and restaurants surround it, people mill about talking to those in their groups, and it lends a feeling of being alone in a crowd. We picked out a spot and waited for nature to do its thing.
A street performer juggled fiery batons while performing a comedy routine. The few children that were there got their faces painted. A vendor with dreads and a pink tank top wheeled around a cart looking for patrons repeating “Yah mon, I’ve got the coconut for you!”
Nothing about it was out of the ordinary for tourist towns anywhere yet none of it was particularly off-putting. The sun sank quickly and was making a beeline for Sunset Key, the manmade island Kelly told us would obstruct the view. The island was created as a Navy project during the Cold War but is now covered in condos and serves as a reminder that beautiful public vistas are increasingly becoming pillaged by the private few. Mallory Square wasn’t the total bust that locals suggested but I had quite honestly witnessed equally brilliant sunsets over Lake Erie. If we wanted to really see a Key West sunset we would have to become part of the private few.
We felt like we chartered the boat just for ourselves. A large catamaran that could hold at least fifty passengers would set sail with a dozen, including the crew and ourselves. The cruise began in the seaport with a wildlife sighting even before boarding as a tiny shark was swimming around the area where the docks met the shore and we watched it circle the area as the crew set up the sails. We filed up onto the deck and found a spot near the bow, high enough up that we wouldn’t be seated on the cabin windows yet low enough to not get hit in the head by the swinging boom. Once out of the port, we cruised westward toward Mallory Square while being served IPA and bruschetta from college-aged guys in collared shirts.
“You know the story behind that island?” one of them said, pointing toward a vine-tangled key to the north of the one blocking everyone’s views. We said we didn’t.
“That’s Wisteria Island – it’s a squatter’s community, a bunch of tent cities under the trees. People are afraid to go there, because apparently they don’t take too kindly to visitors. I was there on a dare once.”
“What do they do?”
“Oh they’ll attack.” He left to get me another Cigar City.
We waved to the masses at Mallory Square, leaving them sitting on the edge of the dock or talking to the coconut salesman. Between us in the sun were several other sailboats and a paddleboat bar that looked like the top of a floating barrel. Five people were drinking around its periphery, moving their legs rapidly to keep the barrel bar moving and it looked like it would capsize if I dropped my beer in the water nearby. A wide-decked speedboat with a shoulder to shoulder party on board created some noise pollution in the form of some song I normally enjoyed but not in that moment. A man with a megaphone and a braided beard led a chant of “go, go, go!” as a girl filled up a beer bong for her kneeling friend. They looked to be our age but not our mindset. That night I preferred the sound of the waves and a slow sip of IPA.
Fort Zachary Taylor Beach went by portside and we surpassed our southernmost point record for the trip. Once again there was nothing between us and Cuba except the orange glow on cresting waves. And dolphins. Lauren suddenly pointed southward and all the passengers took notice.
“Where?” I asked.
“There aren’t any landmarks to reference, but right there!” I moved close and followed her arm like a sextant.
A pod of three leapt into view and toyed with the boat, keeping pace as they rolled into and out of the water. We were the only group this far out and once again I imagined we could keep going – to Cuba and Barbados and beyond. The world continued. We were closer to Cuba than to Key Largo, nearer to Colombia than to home. We didn’t have to stop at mile zero just because the US Highway System did.
According to the satellite map inside the boat’s bar area, we were about five island lengths south of Key West when we slowed to watch the show. The tangerine sun cleared the final cloudy obstacle and began moving downward just quickly enough to notice, like a massive neon minute hand. The surrounding sky made its way around the color wheel before settling on a deep orange that bounced off the ocean ripples in the shade of healthy coral. The sun seemed to accelerate as it neared the horizon, reflecting up on itself just prior so that it formed a perfect omega before taking a breath and sinking below the waves.