The self-serving nincompoops we elected to Congress may have shut down the government of the United States, but the Conch Republic is open for business, from Captain Tony’s to the Southernmost everything, and my lovely wife Lisa and I have been fortunate enough to enjoy a small slice of the good life this week on the island where Hemingway and Harry Truman and later Jimmy Buffett would hang their hats.
Yes. We are in Key West Florida. Ninety-two miles from Cuba, give or take. The place is inhabited by tourists and natives who used to be tourists and had the good sense not to go back home once they got here. Key West has a different feel and a different attitude than any place I have ever been in the Continental U.S., and I have been just about everywhere in the Continental U.S.
The inhabitants here call their little piece of paradise the Conch Republic because in 1982, when the U.S. government set up barricades on U.S. 1 and stopped and searched every car coming into Key West, the City Council voted to secede from the Union and become an independent republic. The whole thing was rather tongue in cheek, but it got Key West the attention it was seeking and soon the roadblock was lifted.
The whole secession thing was great for tourism, however, and to this very day the community gets a lot of mileage out of the designation.
Key West is the end of the road for U.S. 1, the highway that runs all the way to Maine. The Zero Mile post marker is a great photo spot and once I get there my cares and troubles always melt away. Everyone here operates on island time, and if you have never been here, you owe it to yourself to visit. And, no — I am not offering to bring you. Some places Lisa and I prefer to visit alone. I am not a spokesperson for the Chamber of Commerce, either, but I could be convinced.
The main drag in Key West is Duval Street, which runs from the Gulf of Mexico on the north end of the island to the Atlantic Ocean on the south end. It’s about a 2-mile walk. Roosters run free here and Duval is people-watching heaven — think Bourbon Street without the stench or the seedy strip joints. OK. Maybe there are a couple of seedy strip joints on Duval Street, but they are pretty hidden and don’t scream at you and nobody swings out of a window at you wearing fishnet hose.
There are bars and restaurants and tacky souvenir shops scattered among amazing art galleries and high-priced jewelry stores — or should that be stores selling high-priced jewelry? The most famous bar on Duval Street is Sloppy Joe’s, because that is where Ernest Hemingway could be found drinking almost every afternoon during the years he lived and wrote on the island.
There is a bit of confusion about Sloppy Joe’s, however, because during most of Hemingway’s tenure here Sloppy Joe’s was on Green Street. The proprietor of the bar, Hemingway’s pal Jose Garcia Rio, was miffed when the owner of the bar wanted to raise his rent a dollar a week, so he tore out all the plumbing for spite (keep reading; it’s pertinent) and threw it in the street, and moved his bar a few doors down, to the corner of Green and Duval.
The original location of Sloppy Joe’s is now a bar called Captain Tony’s, named after the colorful saloon owner Tony Tarracino, a popular charter boat captain who would become mayor of Key West. If you happen into Captain Tony’s and see a celebrity’s name painted on a bar stool it is because that person’s derriere has at one time or another occupied that specific seat. I sat on Dustin Hoffman while sipping an ice-cold Coke and listening a little Buffett-style music. (The traveling troubadour, himself, got his start singing at Captain Tony’s.) Lisa sat on Harry Truman’s stool. I don’t know what she was drinking but it cost $5 more than my Coke.
Now, back to Hemingway and the plumbing. While Hemingway was in Spain, supposedly researching the novel he was writing, his wife, Pauline, found out that he was accompanied by another woman. When Hemingway returned he discovered that his wife had built a $20,000 swimming pool (1938 dollars) where his prized boxing ring had been. Hemingway got back at his wife by dragging home a long urinal trough from Sloppy Joe’s and cementing it into place right beside the pool for his six-toed cats to drink from.
Not to be outdone, Pauline added a fountain made out of a Greek urn and decorated the urinal with expensive Spanish tiles, and the descendants of Hemingway’s very first cat, Snowball, still drink from the fountain today.
One of the highlights on any day in Key West is the sunset celebration on Mallory Square where musicians and jugglers and mime’s and all sorts of street performers compete for the dollar bills of tourists who come each evening to toast the sunset and celebrate another day of life on the green side of the grass.
Carpe diem. Seize the day. There’s not a better place to do that than Key West. Y’all come join me at Mile Marker Zero.