Saturday, November 23, 2013

Key West: Chickens, Cats & Conch

Sauce with your conch fritters? Key West.
The southernmost of the Florida Keys - in fact, the southernmost point of the USA - is twice the size that it once was. It's a US naval base, and over the years the navy has reclaimed so much land that the key is now divided into Old Town (funky, quirky, interesting) and New Town (boring, full of service companies and cheap hotels). Still, the original Old Town has something about it -- President Harry Truman loved staying here (there's even a 'Little White House'), as did Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and other arty characters with a few secrets and a fondness for the sun.

Truman remembered. Key West
The chickens? In the Old Town they wander about unmolested (there's a law protecting them), the roosters occasionally crowing between the coconut vendors. They're remnants of Cuban cock-fighting birds, set free when the grim 'sport' was outlawed.

Why is that chicken crossing the road?
The cats? Well, over at the Hemingway place there are about 45 of them, all descended from 'Snowball', the household cat when Ernest Hemingway lived there with his second wife Pauline and their two sons. Snowball had six 'toes', and so do about half of his current descendants.

A six-toed cat resting on Hemingway's bed. Key West.
Hemingway had it good in Key West. A boy from Oak Park, Illinois, he'd served and been wounded n WWI ("A Farewell To Arms"); lived his 'Paris years' with his first wife Hadley, making forays into Spain ("The Sun Also Rises", "For Whom The Bell Tolls"); dumped Hadley and married Pauline. From Key West he took big game hunting safaris in Africa ("The Snows of Kilimanjaro") and he kept a custom-built deep-sea fishing boat. He liked to go fishing in Cuba ("The Old Man and the Sea"). Yep, the Key West years were prosperous and the lovely old island-architecture house (with huge swimming pool) attests to that. You can visit 'Papa's' writing studio in the old stable.

The Hemingway place, Key West.
Hemingway's writing studio., Key West Here, 'The Snows of Kilimanjaro' was created.
You can also gawk at Sloppy Joe's Bar (the original site and the later site) where Hemingway drank (a lot), and where he met Martha Gelhorn, his third wife. He dumped Pauline and moved with Martha to Cuba. Pauline got the Key West house. (Martha was later dumped for fourth wife Mary; Cuba had its revolution and the Hemingways moved to Idaho, where Ernest eventually shot himself).

Sloppy Joe's on Duval Street, Key West.
But back to Key West, a quirky haven for writers and artists and 'alternative-lifestylers'. says:
Long before the overseas highway connected it to the mainland and cruise ships made it a regular port of call, Key West was a tropical frontier town. Populated in the early twentieth century by an eclectic mix of fishermen, spongers, rum runners, and cigar makers, the tiny island was more Caribbean than American. Over 100 miles from mainland Florida and the southernmost point in the United States, Key West has attracted numerous artists and writers, including Ernest Hemingway, Wallace Stevens, Ralph Ellison, Elizabeth Bishop, Tennessee Williams, Robert Frost, and James Merrill, with its remote location, tropical setting, and wild spirit. 
Tennessee Williams first came to Key West at age thirty, in 1941. After living in a boarding house, he bought a clapboard Bahamian cottage on the outside of town, at 1431 Duncan Street, where he created a compound with a guest cottage, swimming pool, and one-room writing studio he called the "Mad House."
Pretty Key West architecture.
Bisque on the Beach. Key West.

More recently, Calvin Klein had a house in Key West, a lovely wooden confection in an octagonal shape, painted white and pale turquoise. Nearby is a house left by its owner to her cats, a bequest upheld by the courts. Key West lost many of its gay residents to the Aids epidemic, and has its own sombre Aids memorial. Its near the beaches on the Atlantic side of the island. I enjoyed a bowl of excellent seafood bisque on Higgs' Beach (memo to self: look up Clarence S. Higgs; he's probably a relative). The sea doesn't roll up in big surf here - there's a reef about five miles out. The sand is trucked in.
Calvin Klein's (ex) house, Key West.
This reef proved a source of prosperity for Key West in the past - claiming salvage from the shipwrecks was a major industry. Many of the fine old wooden mansions in the town are wreckers' houses. There was also a thriving pineapple industry until a blight wiped out the pineapples. Today tourism rules. Duval Street is full of chi-chi galleries and gay bars at one end, and noisy drinking holes and t-shirt shops at the other. Mallory Square shops will sell you a conch shell or a sea-sponge while you wait for the big cruise ships to get out of the way, so you can see the glorious sunset.

Pauline Hemingway's bedside lamp. Homage to the pineapple.
Conch fritters? Mojito?

On the Gulf side of the Key is the old seaport where the fishing boats, sailing boats, dinghies and runabouts moor, in front of crab shacks and mojito bars. At sunset, tradition has it that a conch shell is sounded - blown through a hole in one end to produce a low hoot which marks the going down of the sun on another day in paradise.

And Key Lime pie for afters?
The conch? It's everywhere, not just the shell, but also the fritters, Bahamian-style (Key West is just 90 miles north of Cuba, closer than it is to Miami). In the 1980s, after the US Government set up a customs post between Key West and the mainland of the USA (there was a bit of trouble with smuggling), the Key briefly declared itself a republic and 'seceded from the Union.' It became "The Conch Republic", with a flag and all. There was a psuedo-battle involving throwing stale bread at the Navy, a backdown by the rebels, a gracious removal of the customs post by the US government, and an excuse for another annual festival was born.

A local member of The Conch Republic.
Speaking of festivals, I was lucky to just miss Key West's 'Fantasy Festival' held around Hallowe'en. They had 75,000 visitors this year, principally because public nudity laws are relaxed for the duration and the main 'costumes' are merely body paint.

That's Key West.

Jimmy Buffett got his start singing in bars in Key West.
Only 90 mies to Cuba! The southernmost point of the USA.
"The Conch Republic."

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