In November of 1998, I went to Meeting of the Minds for the first time. MotM is a convention for fans of Jimmy Buffett, originated in New Orleans six years previously and held in Key West for the first time that year. I'd heard about the event on the Usenet newsgroup alt.fan.jimmy-buffett. Not counting a brief drive through one afternoon when I was 14, this was my first visit to the island, and in spite of the troubles involved in getting there and back again (I flew down from Illinois on the same day that Hurricane Mitch visited Key West, and scant weeks after Hurricane Georges dealt the island a nasty blow), my trip proved a magical one.
I posted this report to a.f.j-b when I returned home. Some explanations:
KWFL -- The Key West Foreign Legion, a fictional hangout for Buffett fans on equally fictional Key Lime Key.
SAMs -- Smart Alecky Mens
SAWs -- Smart Alecky Wimmins
The colorful names are the online handles of the people who post regularly on the Usenet newsgroup alt.fan.jimmy-buffett.
The following is a highly personalized, rambling, and quite possibly stone-cold boring recitation of my adventures on Key West. I shall spare everyone a recap of my ill-fated trips there and back again (thankful sighs douse candles and pilot lights for miles around). %-)
I swear that I believe everything I say here is true ... but I also admit that my memory banks may have become somewhat corrupted in the process of enjoying myself. ;-) Read or delete as you see fit. %-)
want to go back to the island
~ THURSDAY ~
The entire complement of our plane was made up of parrotheads who (like me) had had their flights the day before turned back in midair or cancelled altogether. Still shaky from our flight, we stepped off the plane into the strong wind which had so enhanced the thrill of our approach and landing, in time to see luggage (including full golf bags) blowing off the baggage cart. %-0 Making my way across the tarmac into the building, I collected my bag at the sole luggage carousel of bustling Key West International Airport, a tiny structure of bleached yellow stucco which is half terminal and half restaurant, and tried to figure out what to do next. I was surrounded by people being greeted by other members of their clubs, or by shuttles from the big hotels. Wondering what the drill for hailing a taxi was, I walked outside and was greeted by a row of Pepto Bismo pink cabs lined up in front of the terminal. The tanned fellow at the head of the row offered me a ride, asked me to wait while he found a fare to share with me, and soon I and two other parrotheads were on our way to Old Town.
The ride in was beautiful but sobering ... the road was covered with saltwater, sand and seaweed washed in by Mitch the night before, and the trees and shrubs, houses and condos, canals and yards still bore the signs of having been ravaged by Georges. I had only been to Key West once before, in 1966 when I was fourteen, but I knew what it should have looked like, and I was saddened by what the little island had gone through.
The cab dropped me at my little boarding house (The Grand) with a cheery, "Welcome to Key West," and went on his way. Several cats appeared from nowhere to sniff my luggage, and my landlady Elizabeth waved from her open office (once the front hall of the old house that had been subdivided into rooms to let) and said, "Hi, I know you, you're Dianne! Glad you made it!" Relieved to find that she'd gotten my call from Miami, where I'd been stranded the night before, and held my room for me, within minutes I was checked into a charming room with brightly painted metal sculptures of parrots and geckos on the walls, and a ceiling fan softly stirring the air conditioning around. I unpacked, changed clothes, and phoned Drifty, who answered, "Hello, Hurricane Central." %-) I told him I was finally on the island. He'd gallantly gone to the airport the night before and been met with the news that my flight and the one the Jersey Boyz were due in on had both been cancelled. I said I'd look for him at registration and set out for the Hilton.
My boarding house was two blocks off US1. I walked down the little residential street, ogling the gardens and bungalows enviously, stopping to chat with finches, lizards, and the feral chickens that I later found out live all over the island, then turned left and "strolled down the avenue that's known as A1A." %-) It was a wonderful walk that I would make several times over the next few days and yet never tire of ... five blocks down A1A (aka Truman Ave.), turn right and walk six blocks down Duval St. (past Margaritaville), turn left on Greene (by Sloppy Joe's) and follow the wind off the Gulf to the docks. The Hilton and grounds were swarming with parrotheads, and I had no trouble getting directions to Registration from friendly people.
Up in the elevator to the second floor ... the doors opened on a phlock of brightly plumaged phans. T-shirts from every part of the country (some of which I'd seen on the plane coming in), wildly decorated hats on heads, necks festooned with leis and Mardi Gras beads, and a dull roar of happy voices swirled around me as I moved slowly down the hallway to the registration tables. I told the women at Registration that my name was Wickes, but that the badge might be under "GreenWoman" ... the next thing I knew, a voice over my shoulder echoed the name. I turned around and found Drifty smiling at me. So thrilled to see a friendly face after the trials of the past day and a half, I gave him a hug that might have broken a lesser pirate's ribs. He took it in good stride and returned it with equal enthusiasm. I had made it to MotM! %-)
He introduced me to his wonderful friend Nancy, and I boldly invited myself along with them to go to Sloppy Joe's and see Nancy's friend Sunny Jim play. A quick stop to drop off my art supplies for the day care center that the convention had taken as its charity project, another stop at the courtesy phone so Drifty could leave a raspberry on the Jersey Boyz' hotel room voice mail, and we were off to the corner of Greene and Duval Streets, a corner which would prove to be the heart of convention activity.
Sloppy Joe's turned out to be my third favorite bar in Key West, and the one I spent the most time at (mainly due to its strategic location). A huge, spacious room, with flags of all kinds hanging from the ceilings and Hemingway photos, paintings of grass-skirted dancers, and all sorts of island memorabilia mounted on the walls, it's a wonderful place to relax. There are french doors facing out onto Greene and Duval through which one can watch passersby, and huge arched windows over each door, which let sunlight spill through the smoky air in long shafts. The place was only half-full, and we easily found a table close to the stage. Claiming it for our own, we settled in, ordered drinks and lunch (conch fritters for me ... spicy and very good), rummaged through our goody bags to see what treasures the convention had presented us with, joked and visited, and waited for Sunny Jim to appear.
He's a fine singer ... not only great covers of Jimmy's music, but very good original work as well. I giggled out loud when he introduced the "Invisible Band" ... all his backup music was played through a notebook computer sitting on a stool onstage with him. %-) But he played the pans hisownself, as well as guitar, and very well, too. I plan on ordering his cds. Before taking the stage, he came to our table and chatted a bit, relating a tale of racing "Twister"-like through the tornadoes of the night before to get into Key West just ahead of Mitch. Then he began to sing, and I relaxed, sipping my wine and singing along with the old standards as well as enjoying the original music. For the first time since I'd left home, I began to really unwind.
It was a wonderful way to begin my stay in Key West! %-)
From there we headed off to the Hog's Breath, where we enjoyed more great music while standing on the patio, and then on to Turtle Kraals, for the party that the Jersey Boyz were hosting for the Buffett listserv and newsgroup.
My apologies here ... I was unwise in my partying, and so very little of the last half of my first day in Key West is clear. %-/ I met many of the Legionnaires ... Viperwoman, t.a., Des, OC and Linda, Mark and his wife, and the Condo Commandos (and tried desperately to match faces to both screen names and real names) ... did much hugging and was blinded by many flashbulbs ... %-0 ... enjoyed wonderful music, and (unfortunately) drank too much. I'm an old woman, and can't party just like Buffett does ... but I wouldn't regret it until the next morning! My sole other regret was that it was just too bloody loud to visit with everyone. Next year, we've got to get some place like Kelly's, where we can hear ourselves think and more enjoy each others' company.
After what seemed like too short a time, I was swept up again in the wake of Drifty (who has to be one of the fastest walkers I've ever known) and Nancy and returned to Hog's Breath, where we had dinner, and then back to The Grand in a shared taxi. Then Drifty and Nancy were off into the night, and I returned to my room to face the consequences of my first bout of "island fever."
~ FRIDAY ~
It was noon before I could face the world. I had learned my lesson, and did not repeat it ... but I lost half a day for my foolishness. Sigh ...
I splurged on a cab to the Hilton, and wandered down to the pier to check out the warm-up for the Sunset Celebration. I found Drifty and Nancy, but they were heading out onto the pier and I desperately needed lunch, so I waved them on and returned to the streets of Old Town, where I immediately ran into t.a. and Telfa. Gentlemen both, they took me to lunch at a huge, airy place called Billie's, and waited patiently for me while I ate a salad and recovered my equilibrium (thank you, Telfa ... I owe you a lunch next year!).
Restored to reasonable operative capability, I was ready to enjoy Key West again. We left Billie's and headed for the Hilton Pier, where the afternoon was to be dedicated to music and the sunset. The music was already in full swing, as was the party that filled the dock, which was lined with tables and booths where drinks and food could be found. Several large canvas pavilions lined the landward side of the pier, offering shaded tables and chairs ... but the vast majority of the parrotheads present were milling about in the sunshine.
A colorful lot they were! Most of the clubs had their own t-shirts, clever and humorous (one of my favorites was Parrotheads of Central Illinois emblazoned with the wistful slogan, "Where's the Beach?") and often quite beautiful. I also saw every Caribbean Soul design extant, as well as aloha shirts, grass skirts and coconut bras, sarongs, and even one woman decked out as Carmen Miranda! %-) Truly amazing were the hats. Not just custom baseball caps (against which the beautiful work that Amy Berbert's friends did for the KWFL measured up quite nicely), but also straw hats bedecked with palm trees, parrots, margarita glasses, salt shakers, sharks, boxes of Junior Mints, leis, and other "religious icons." One of the most spectacular was a fellow who had an inflatable seaplane emblazoned with the Corona logo nested in a jungle of palm trees on the top of his straw panama. The stilt walkers that I saw at the Chicago concert were there, making balloon hats (one of which looked quite sporty circling Drifty the Gypsy's head) and making much of the fact that the lady parrotheads' faces were eye-level with their ... well, you know. ;-)
I spent some quality time with the Legionnaires, who came and went with the crowd, and then t.a. and I retreated to the pavilions to sit in the shade, let our eyes drift across the water to the boats tied up to the pier and the club banners hanging from the Hilton's balconies, and enjoy the music.
I'm not familiar with all the bands who played in Key West, but the music was wonderful! Lots of Buffett covers, of course, and lots of original music as well. There was hardly a break between one band leaving the stage and another taking its place, and the dancing never stopped either.
As the sun slowly lowered itself toward the water, t.a. and I went back into the crowd to enjoy Club Trini as they took the stage. Most of us who were there had nursed a spark of hope that Jimmy would show up at this MotM, and rumors had been rife throughout town that day that he was in Key West ("He has a room at the Hilton" ... "He was seen at the airport this morning" ... "I have a friend who has a friend who heard ..."). Most of us assumed that if he did show, this would be the moment ... joining Club Trini onstage, against the backdrop of the sun sinking into the Gulf, with what had to be 1500 happy parrotheads gathered together.
But it was not to be. Word spread through the crowd that he had called the Founders' Breakfast that morning from New York. The disappointment did not dampen spirits, though, and the party rolled on. I am not a setlist type, but Club Trini played most of the standards, and to my delight threw in a couple of songs from DSTC (upon hearing them launch into "Calaloo" t.a. mourned, "Damn! Kelly should be here ... this is her song!"). He also pointed out to me that the gigantic "hotel on a hull" tied to a pier south of us was firing up her engines, but our attention was not on the ship.
Until a few minutes later when, as "Oh Susanna" filled the air, we turned to enjoy the last few minutes of the sunset, and ... %-0 ... the cruise ship pulled right in front of it!!! We could not believe it. The captain of the barge, obviously thinking that all these people were crowded at the end of a pier to admire his boat, blew the whistle. And, for a memorable few moments, silhouetted against the evening sky, over a thousand middle fingers saluted him....
But the music played on, and the dancing continued. Ah, Whino, you should have been there ... Tina Gulickson came down offstage and started a conga line through the crowd, which grew and grew (mostly from guys cutting in right behind the leader) and wended its way through the phlock. Finally, the band ran down, the lights came up, and we left the pier in the dark to return to Old Town and seek out further partying.
I found myself again in the wonderful, warm company of Drifty and Nancy, off to Kelly's for the meeting of the Virtual Parrothead Club. Kelly's is a marvelous place, owned by Kelly McGillis, the actress. The building was the original Pan Am Clipper Terminal (one of the places I had very much wanted to see), and has been decorated with an aviation theme in honor of that heritage. It's directly across the street from Truman's "Little White House," which I could see through the large front windows, glowing in its spotlights like a collectible. Although I am a member of the VPHC, I knew no one at the table, so I mostly just sat back and enjoyed listening to Drifty and the others (who clearly knew each other well) chatting. One of the gang was celebrating a birthday, and Kelly herself came out to offer best wishes. When we finally left, we all trooped out to the front of the building and had a group picture taken on the steps, with our hostess front and center.
Tired, Drifty, Nancy and I headed back to Duvall and hailed a cab ... there was another big day ahead of us. Little did I know that I would never catch up with the two of them again ... %-(
~ SATURDAY ~
I rose Saturday feeling really good for the first time since Thursday evening, and determined to get in a full day of phlocking! As I left, my landlady wished me good morning and said, "I hear Jimmy Buffett is down at the Hilton." I told her I thought that was just a rumor, that he'd been in New York the night before, smiled and waved and headed off down the street to A1A. I walked a few blocks, admiring again the huge and beautifully restored old homes that are now expensive bed and breakfast inns, then turned off the main drag onto side streets, wanting to see some of the neighborhoods of Old Town. And that was when I really fell in love with the island.
Residential Key West is charming and seductive. Even after having been battered by Georges, the ficus and palm trees made a canopy over many of the smaller streets, making me feel that I was walking through a green tunnel. Sunlight, tinted chartreuse by the filter of leaves, dappled the pavement and the pocketbook yards that lined it. The sidewalks were often blocked by piles of broken branches and shingles, soaked carpeting and other damaged household items that had been dragged to the curb for pickup by the city. But the little houses and yards had clearly been lovingly and diligently straightened up as best the dwellers could manage. Halloween decorations and jack-o-lanterns still lingered on many porches and stoops. And whenever I encountered someone working in their yard, I invariably got a smile, a "Good morning!" and often, when they noticed the badges hanging around my neck, a cheerful inquiry, "Having a good time? I hear Jimmy's in town!"
Except for a few large mansions (many of which are now bed and breakfasts), most houses in Old Town are small (some absolutely tiny) and many aren't even on the street, instead occupying the center of a block and accessible only by tiny lanes and alleys. They are mostly made of wood and very French in style, with porches often festooned with gingerbread that stretches across the entire front. I would learn later the many styles of gingerbread unique to Key West, including "pilot's wheel" (which takes its name from its imitation of ship's wheels), which is quite common among the older houses, most of which had been constructed by shipbuilders. Bermuda shutters (hinged at the top, so they could be propped open to provide shade to open windows) were common, as were French doors, and most of the houses were without foundation, sitting instead on blocks (like the houses I knew so well from growing up in southern Louisiana). A unique architecture which I would discover later is found in Key West and nowhere else is the "eyebrow" house. There are only 120 in the world, almost all in Key West's Old Town. They look like Acadian houses ... often built as "shotguns," with all the doors in alignment from front to back for ventilation, one and a half stories with a steep roof rising to a peak in front, then sweeping lazily back over the rooms in the rear, these little houses get their name from the fact that the porch eaves half cover the windows of the upper story, giving them a heavy-lidded, sleepy look, as if they are taking a siesta among the ficus, palm and banana trees that surround them.
The gardens were the most magical things to me, a gardener myownself ... tropical plants that I have at home (and have to nurse so carefully through the central Illinois winter) grow in the yards on the island to a size that is stunning! Things that aren't winter-hardy even in Los Angeles were growing in hedges ... crotons, hibiscus, plumeria, dwarf bananas, ficus, sanseveria, rhipsalis, and dozens more that I didn't even recognize spilled out over fences and onto the sidewalk. I even saw clumps of bromeliads taller than I was! And they were filled with life ... small lizards (who, when approached, threw their heads back and displayed their chin frills, warning me that they were dinosaurs and I should back off), finches of all colors, dragonflies and butterflies, tree frogs ... and on almost every porch, dogs or cats or parrots or combinations of all three regarded me with benign disinterest.
OK, OK ... I know you guys don't care about architecture or gardens or critters ... ;-) ... but that morning walk is one of my favorite memories of Key West.
Naturally, since I was ready to party, serendipity deserted me. I walked up and down through Old Town, trying to find any of the Legionnaires to hook up with, but had no luck at all. %-( I finally decided that this was a great opportunity to take the Conch Train, a totally touristy thing that I had promised myself I would do, after hearing about it in the intro to one of Jimmy's songs (is it "Grape Fruit Juicy Fruit" on "You Had to Be There"? I can't remember). On my way to buy my ticket I passed an old street fellow who was making roses out of palm fronds. Now, Drifty (knowing I am soft of heart) had warned me that the locals frowned upon giving money to the street people, but this old man was making something beautiful for his change, for which I admired him. I bought a rose (being perhaps a bit too generous with my "donation" but I didn't care), the first thing I'd bought since arriving on the island, threaded it onto my badge lanyard, and continued on my way.
Conch Train ticket in hand, I walked back to the place where the train loads and stood in the shade under a huge ficus tree to wait. And then the island gave me a present ... looking down at my feet, I saw a beautiful little hand-carved and painted cat from Bali ... the kind that was selling in the shop next to me for several dollars. It had clearly slipped from someone's bag to land in the dirt there and was looking up at me, waiting to be rescued. I thanked the island spirits, picked it up and dusted it off and slipped it into my own tote.
The Conch Train ... one of the most fun things I did in Key West! It is the sixth oldest tourist attraction on the island. A four-cylinder propane-powered tractor done up as a small steam locomotive pulls four yellow and red cars, each named after one of the Keys, through the streets of Key West, as the driver gives you the history of the island and points out buildings, plants, and other things of interest including ... yes ... places featured in Jimmy's music (the loudspeaker even serenaded us with "Woman Going Crazy on Caroline Street" as we passed the Red Door bar, which is now an antique shop). It goes from Old Town all the way to the other end of the island and back. I highly recommend it to anyone going to Key West ... it costs $15, lasts about an hour and a half and, besides being very informative, is also loads of fun! And one of the nicest things about it is that everywhere you go, the locals wave and smile. %-)
Getting off the train at the end of our journey, I turned around to find ViperWoman! We'd been on the same train and never realized it. %-) She and her friends were heading back to their hotel, so we agreed to meet at the street festival (how hard could that be to accomplish?) and she headed off. I never saw her again. %-(
But I didn't know that then. I headed for Sloppy Joe's, lunch, and the street festival. Greene Street was blocked off from Duval to the next street up, and it was packed with parrotheads! %-) There were vendors on the sidewalks, outdoor bars just off Duval, chairs and umbrella tables in the middle of the street, and at the far end of the block in front of the Courthouse a stage, occupied and rocking. I made three or four circuits of the block looking for KWFL folks, but again had no luck, so I decided to get lunch and try later.
The line for the Sloppy Joe's tent lunch was as long as the block, and I didn't fancy burgers anyway, so I made my way into Sloppy Joe's itself. The building was packed ... all the tables were full, and the two bars were three to five people deep. After being lost in the crowd for a while, a nice couple offered me one of the two chairs they were vacating at the main bar, and I gratefully accepted. I ordered a glass of wine and a basket of peel and eat boiled shrimp, turned to survey the room from my stool, and found I had seated myself in the middle of a Buffett moment. ;-) There were two crewmen from the cruise ship in town sitting on each side of me. There were two older ladies from the cruise ship trying to pick them up. It was fun to watch ... the four of them finally went off together, lost in the crowd ... and I thought to myself that if Jimmy had had my seat twenty years ago and seen this little show, we'd have a great song from it today. %-)
I finished my shrimp, got another glass of wine and went outside to search again for Legionnaires. Two more circuits of the block revealed no one, so I decided on a more practical approach ... I found a chair in the middle of the street and sat there, visible myownself and in a great position to scan the parade on both sidewalks.
It should have worked. It didn't. At one point, Skip Wiley cruised by and waved, "Hi, GreenWoman!" But he was a man on a mission, and did not stop to join me. I relaxed, enjoyed the music and soaked up the sun for almost three hours, trading the service of having my chair saved for the service of fetching fresh drinks for myself and the wheelchair-bound woman next to me, happy but a lone palm still. When the bands changed shifts a little after 4:00 I remembered that the Conch Train guide had said that sunset that day would be at 4:25, so I headed off to Mallory Square.
As I walked down Greene Street past the Sponge Market and out onto the waterfront, I was surrounded by throngs of others with the same purpose as myownself. A crowd lined the water, being entertained by jugglers and wirewalkers and mimes and a lady in a white dress blowing bubbles in the air. I headed for the north end of the square where the crowds were thinner, and found a seat on a concrete bulkhead right at the bow of The Rose, an old wooden three-master tied to the dock there. I watched pelicans diving (which is really not the right word ... pelicans don't dive, they simply fold their wings and fall, hoping I suppose to stun the fish they want with the impact) and the boats out in the harbor. And, of course, the sun setting.
It kissed the water, backlighting (from my pov) the figurehead of the Rose, and continued to slip slowly from view. A gasp rose from the crowd as, out on the horizon line, another three-master under full sail crept in front of the sun and silhouetted itself in a perfect image against the fiery half-circle. It was too good to be true. %-) Then the moment passed and I had a special moment of my own.
It may have been the result of looking too long into the west. It may have been an optical illusion created by the contrast of dark water and darkening sky. It may have been wishful thinking.
But I still believe I saw the "green flash."
Anyway, that's my story, and I'm sticking to it. ;-)
The crowd began to disperse, and I stood between the avenue that led back to Old Town and the back entrance of the Sponge Market to watch for familiar faces, but Mallory Square emptied and I still saw no one from the Key West Foreign Legion. It was time for dinner, and I was still a lone palm. Feeling a little melancholy, I decided to go to the one place I felt sure would cheer me up. I hadn't been to Margaritaville yet, and I knew that the Condo Commandos had been spending a lot of time there, so I made the Cafe my destination.
It was less than half-full that early in the evening. I surveyed the room but saw no Legionnaires and, when the girl who offered to seat me told me that the upper balcony was empty, I sighed a bit. She asked if I was meeting friends and I said I had hopes but no expectations of doing so. Upon hearing this she offered me the small table at the end of the bar, just a few feet inside the door, so I could spot anyone I knew if they came in.
I sat down facing out toward Duval, watching the traffic on the street, and although I was alone I felt my melancholy mood lifting. For some reason, the staff pampered me ... my drink appeared in moments, and my huge and wonderful dinner shortly thereafter. There was no live music, but Buffett was playing on the loudspeakers and I dawdled over my meal, enjoying the music, the decor, the interaction of the people at the bar and the two large parties seated near me, almost feeling as if I was part of the fun instead of just an observer. It's one of my most pleasant memories of my trip.
Finally, though, I finished dinner and decided to leave. I thought of trying to find the Green Parrot, thinking Drifty might be there, but it was well past dark and I had no clear idea of where the Parrot was. So I wandered back down Duvall, enjoying the crowd swirling around me, thinking I might try Sloppy Joe's again (and Captain Tony's, which I'd not yet visited), as well as the street festival, hoping I might finally connect with someone who'd let me hang out with them.
I entered Sloppy Joe's off Duval and went to the bar to order a drink. "Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season" was playing outside, and as the waitress brought me my wine I remarked, "You know, that's the best tribute band I've heard all week." The woman smiled at me and said, "Honey, that's Jimmy."
I took my drink and wormed my way through the crowd on Greene (how nice of him to play on the street named after me, I thought) and ended up about thirty feet from the stage. From time to time, I could see Jimmy's face framed in the heads and shoulders in front of me, but mostly I was lost in a sea of taller people.
It didn't matter. I could hear him, singing and joking and having as good a time as we were. I could see the stars above, and the moonlight glinting off the palm fronds. I was surrounded by smiling faces. I was sharing Jimmy's airspace, and he was filling it with music ... the old music ... songs I hadn't heard him do in concert since the early days in LA, and some I'd never heard him do live at all. He was singing on the island that he had called home for so long, where he had written many of these songs ... it was sparkling magic, and I blessed the serendipity that had brought me back to Greene and Duval in time to be a part of it.
It ended too soon, of course, with lots of singing and dancing and cheering and clapping and eyes and smiles filled with tears as salty as the air. Slowly the crowd began to disperse, and suddenly I saw t.a. and Desdemona, who'd been a mere five feet in front of me the entire time! I joined them, and we lingered for the raffle drawing, congratulated Mark and his wife on their marvelous win, then decided we needed to go somewhere for a drink.
We tried Margaritaville, which was packed and impossible to get into. Our default choice was the Green Parrot, which none of us knew how to find ... in our wanderings, we ended up in front of Kelly's and, in honor of one-time Pan Am employee Des (and because it was right there, after all) we decided that was where we would go. Kelly guided us to a small table off the bar overlooking the garden and, to my delight, directly beneath two ceiling fans with a sculpture around them that made it appear as if a clipper plane was diving right through the roof! %-) We settled in for a long, quiet visit, relaxing and enjoying the twinkle lights in the garden and each other's company. It was past eleven before we headed back to Duval ... I found a cab to take me home and waved goodbye to t.a. and Des.
Every night when I returned to The Grand and walked through the gate in the picket fence, there were kitties waiting for me, and tonight was no different. I petted everyone, then made my way to the back of the boarding house and up the stairs to my room, stopping on the landing to look up at the stars over Key West. I couldn't see the Southern Cross, of course, but I could see the everlasting moon, and again I thanked the island spirits that had begun my day with a tiny miracle and ended it with a spectacular one.
~ SUNDAY ~
I called Drifty, who I'd never managed to meet up with the day before, and learned to my chagrin that he and his gang were heading straight for the airport. Too many people who I never had a chance to say goodbye to left that day ... Drifty and Nancy, t.a. and Telfa and Kelly, Mark and wife and OC and Linda, Viperwoman ... they shall get goodbye hugs from this year wrapped up in their "it's so good to see you again" hugs next October! %-)
I called the Condo Commandos next, and they offered to swing by to pick me up on their way to Old Town. In short order a van full of SAWs appeared, and we headed for Old Town. We parked the car and steered first for Captain Tony's, which I'd not had the chance to visit yet.
I loved it! There are business cards and bras stapled all over the walls and the ceiling. A huge ficus tree springs up through the brick floor and barges through the roof, with (I am not making this up) a gravestone without a name at its base. Captain Tony's had been the original Sloppy Joe's ... in the 30s, when the owner decided he didn't want to pay the increased rent, Sloppy Joe recruited his regulars in a plot. One afternoon, on a prearranged signal, everyone (including Ernest Hemingway) picked up their drinks and their tables and chairs and carried everything a half-block east on Greene Street to the new (and present) location. Following that, the original building housed several businesses, including a fishing supply store and a morgue ... I wondered if that was where the grave came from. And I remembered once hearing Jimmy tell the story that the ashes of the fellow who he wrote "A Pirate Looks At Forty" about reside in an urn behind the cash register there. I can think of worse places for my corporeal remains to be.... %-)
Trev, Emilie, Steph, FMA and I had drinks, took pictures, and then headed off to do shopping. We ended up at the Margaritaville store, a fun place with walls lined with memorabilia and scores of Buffett-themed license plates from all over the country, and where a hand-lettered sign behind the checkout counter warns that shoplifters will be tied to a chair and forced to listen to Barry Manilow. We found lots of great things, some of which we actually bought, and I was amazed at how reasonable the prices were. Then we headed back down Duval to collect the van and return to their condo, where the SAMS were cooking dinner for us.
We stopped at a place called The Tunnel, a type of store that I remembered from Southern California ... an old converted car wash where you drive through, place your order, pay, and collect your groceries without ever leaving your car. They had everything we needed except for pineapple juice, which meant a short stop at the local grocery store, where Trev and I hopped out and went inside while FMA cruised the parking lot. In short order, we were on our way again.
The condo was in a gated community (there was much speculation about whether or not the "cute" guard would be on duty as we approached). A narrow road snaked along the edge of a canal, with signs urging drivers to slow down and share the right of way with ducks, possums, beavers, and other critters. Pulling up in front of the condo, we unloaded our groceries and piled through the front door to find Skip, CowCrusher, Joel, and Desdemona inside. The place looked quite "lived in," and smelled wonderful ... soon there was "booze in the blender," I had a glass of wine, and we repaired to the back porch overlooking the golf course and the barbeque, where the mens were taking turns overseeing the jerk chicken and ribs. Shoes came off, chairs were filled, Skip Wiley appeared with chips and dip, and we all kicked back, relaxed, and visited.
I heard the chattering of ducks and noticed that the tiny yard next door, surrounded by a white picket fence, held almost a dozen ... half the familiar white domestics and the other half beautiful black and white Muscovies. I leaned over the porch railing to admire them, and an old man appeared on the balcony and started tossing pieces of bread to them. Noticing me, he asked, "You like ducks?"
"Sure," I answered. "I had one once ... he was great."
"You want one of these?" he offered. "They showed up after the hurricane and won't leave ... I've got Animal Control coming to take them back out to the canals."
I laughed and said my mother wouldn't let me back in the house if I showed up with a duck.
"Too bad ... they're driving me nuts," he said. CowCrusher leaned over the fence, holding his barbeque fork in his hand. "We'll take a couple," he volunteered. Just then FMA appeared at my shoulder.
"Hey, Captain Tony, you want to come over? We've got jerk chicken and ribs! Bring your wife!"
I was amazed. The Condo Commandos' next door neighbor was the infamous Captain Tony! He declined our invitation ... he'd been on the cover of the Key West Citizen that morning, in an article entitled "The Captain and the Kid" (I could kick myself for not grabbing the paper that day!) and he said he had to stick by the phone. But it was a pretty special thing for me, to have Captain Tony offer me a duck of my very own. %-)
We had another treat that day. We were close to the Naval Air Station, and all afternoon warbirds of all types flew over, solo and in formation. FMA nearly broke the vertebrae in her neck craning to spot the planes as they streaked overhead.
It was a long and lazy afternoon and evening. We ate and drank, signed the Corona banners that t.a. and Telfa had scored for our absent friends, and ate and drank some more. We called Whiz, and Gator Dave, and talked to them and to each other. It was a wonderful evening, and I hated to leave, but it was finally time for Skip Wiley to cart me and Desdemona home. I made arrangements to hook up with the gang again the next morning, and climbed into Skip's little red car to return to The Grand.
~ MONDAY ~
Monday morning was lazy ... the Condo gang was delayed in arriving, so I spent my time consolidating things in preparation for packing to leave the next day. I watched "To Have and Have Not" (a favorite of mine) as I finally made a more thorough search of the goody bag I'd received upon registration, and only hastily rummaged through that first day at Sloppy Joe's. %-0 I should have done that way sooner! I found all sorts of neat things that I'd missed. Next year I am definitely trying the "Lost Shaker of Salt Scavenger Hunt" and, if I have more $$$ to spend, checking out the treasures in the Mini-Mart more closely.
A knock on the door revealed Emilie, ready to roll. I followed her down to the van and piled in and, since my place was only four blocks from the cemetery, we decided that would be our first destination. We found a parking spot near an open gate and wandered the graveyard for over an hour.
It was a nice place to be. The oldest grave we found had a death date of 1825 (FMA discovered it) but who knew how old the tombstone almost completely engulfed by an ancient ficus tree was? The name and date were somewhere in the heart of the tree. We searched unsuccessfully for two well-known graves: one of a philanderer whose wife put on his tombstone, "At least I know where you're sleeping tonight," and another of a well-known hypochondriac whose epithet reads, "I told you I was sick!" We did find one with an inscription that said something like, "Lord, she loved you and loved life, fill her cup to the brim," and another that said simply, "Oh, sure." %-)
Most of the burials were in crypts, as the coral roots of the island made gravedigging difficult. Those that were in the ground were often sunken, with concrete and stone covers cracked and broken from hurricanes and floods of previous years. There were many Cuban and other Latin names as well as Americans and French. We found a pillar with a glass case displaying a wreath of red poppies, which I told the others probably meant a WW1 vet, and there was a small yard with an iron fence around it and an obelisk in the center, marking the resting places of over a hundred sailors who had died when the Maine blew up in Havana's harbor, beginning the Spanish-American war.
The plantings were lush and exotic, and small lizards and finches were everywhere. I even found a small brown ibis perched one-legged on one gravestone ... he allowed me to come within a few feet before he put his other foot down and hopped to a more distant marker. CowCrusher got a wonderful photo of the yardsman's pickup truck, which sported a bumper sticker that said, "Arrive Alive." %-) I passed on a drink from the Coke machine outside his storage shed, feeling that it wouldn't be quite right to suck on a soda in a graveyard ... then moments later was almost knocked down by two young fellows on a moped, holding a huge bottle of beer, cruising through the cemetery. I don't suppose many of the people buried there would have minded much, after all.
Piling back into the van, we headed on to Old Town to spend the rest of the day strolling. Key West allowed "walking cups" for the entirety of Meeting of the Minds, which was kind of nice. %-) We had a couple of drinks at Fat Tuesday's, a deck with a canvas tarp over it, before heading off down Duval Street, drinks still in hand, for Margaritaville. We cruised it but decided not to stay, instead moving on to Hemingway House, which Steph, Emilie, Skip and I were set on touring. On our way there we passed Mile Marker Zero ... the end of A1A ... and stopped for pictures.
Then I saw it ... finally ... the Green Parrot! The bar that Cap'n Ron had told me to visit, and that had eluded me for my entire stay in Key West ... a huge old green barn with no glass, only wrought iron swirls in the windows. Its doors were wide open and it looked old and funky and charming and inviting.
Skip checked the time. "On the way back, Green," he said ... "Hemingway House closes soon." So on we trekked, coming at last upon a tall wall of hand-made bricks which surrounded the landmark. We bought our tickets and walked in, and my heart sank. I knew Georges had done serious damage to the gardens, but I was not prepared for the gaping sprawl of yellowed grass and upturned dirt where once a huge ficus tree had sheltered the yard to the right of the house. The others didn't seem bothered ... they were busy befriending six-toed cats, and I was glad to join them while we waited for our guide.
I'm not a fan of Hemingway, but his house is beautiful. Built in the 1800s by ship carpenters for a wrecking captain years before Papa's time, its 18 inches thick walls, as well as the walkway of the first floor gallery, are made of coral blocks (the same thing I envisioned the KWFL Boathouse floor being made of). The house itself is filled with wonderful and beautiful things that Hemingway and his then-wife Pauline brought with them and added to during their 14 years there. And fortunately, the huge and ancient Chinese banyan in the back yard still stood, as did many of the palms and other plantings. The famous cats, with six and seven and up to eight toes, wander the house and property freely, and were the main attraction for me, along with the gardens ... there is even a concrete walkway laid by the Hemingways that still has cat and chicken tracks preserved in it! %-)
As we left the house, I saw a huge pile of uprooted plants near the spot where the ficus tree was lost and, to my excitement, it held several ragged (but not dead) sanseveria plants! I have collected sanseveria for almost fifteen years and have over 24 varieties, but this species (which I had seen all over the island) was not in my collection. I asked a couple of the people in charge if I might have some of them and was told "yes." %-) To the embarrassment of Skip and the others, I rummaged through the pile and came up with five plants, with ragged leaves more than two feet long but healthy (if bare) roots, and stuck them in my purse. If I couldn't kidnap a six-toed cat, I'd at least scored sanseveria from Hemingway House!
We left the place behind and headed for the Green Parrot. I fell in love as soon as I walked in ... it felt as if the place embraced me. It was cool and dark. Handbills and signs and all kinds of things covered the walls and ceiling. A large kiosk bar owned the center of the room, with a huge carved green parrot hanging over it, and a big sign that proclaimed, "no whining!" suspended next to that. Two pool tables and a dart board sat against one wall, with a popcorn machine (no payment required) between them. Big dogs sprawled on the floor near their masters, the locals who crowded the bar stools (the Green Parrot is the oldest bar in Key West, dating back to 1890, and mainly a hangout for locals, not tourists). Music loud enough to wash over and through you, but not so loud that you couldn't talk, filled the air.
Cap'n Ron had told me to find a barkeep named Vicki, tell her who I was, and collect my first drink on his tab, but I never got the chance. FMA appeared with my first (and only) margarita in Key West. It was wonderful!!! The others chatted among themselves, but I fear I drifted away, losing myself in the atmosphere and the feeling that this was what the Key West that Jimmy sings about must have been like when he was living there.
As Cap'n Ron said, GreenWoman in the Green Parrot. It was natural that I fell in love with it! %-)
I hated to leave, but soon it was time. We left as the sun was setting, setting off in search of dinner. After some debate, we decided to take up Skip's suggestion of the Half Shell Raw Bar. Back we trekked to the other side of the island (another beauty of Key West ... you can walk almost everywhere), passing Turtle Kraals and finally stopping at a wharf-front bar that seemed little more than a tin roof on poles, and took seats around a wire-spool table for one more drink before dinner. I unintentionally whacked a fellow at the table next to us in the head with my plants ...he just grinned and said, "You'll have to leave your friends outside ... we don't serve their kind here!" %-) The sun faded from the sky and the pier lights began to glow as we sat, enjoying the salt air and the sound of music coming from boats and bars around us.
But we were hungry, and the Raw Bar beckoned. %-)
The Half Shell Raw Bar was another wonderful place ... a funky old building right on the water, with license plates and old signs and other neat things on the walls. Near where we sat, a fellow in an apron shucked oysters with that deft motion that looks so easy, but definitely requires strength and talent. We scanned the chalk boards and I settled on a plate of fried oysters, my favorite seafood on the planet (although Jumpermon was kind enough to share some fine slices of smoked conch and an oyster done Rockefeller style with me too). We chatted with some folks at the next table, who were sailing in the morning for the Bahamas, and we told them enviously that we were leaving in the morning too, but for points west and north. %-(
Full of food and drink, we drifted outside and into the shell shop next door, where Skip demonstrated how to pick out a good conch horn ... a conch shell with the tip shaved off ... and then returned to the wharf bar and found a table right on the water. None of us wanted to leave ... we sipped our drinks, blew our conch horns, petted dock cats, and looked out at the "stars on the water" ... boat lights glittering in the dark.
Eventually it was time to go, though, and we headed back to Old Town and Captain Tony's, where we drank some more and CowCrusher visited the men's head to see the famous words from "Last Mango In Paris" written on the wall there. Then out into the street again, where Trev and Emilie declared that they were not ready to go back to the condo yet! Our gallant mens Skip and CowCrusher offered to escort the night owls on one more swing through Old Town, while the rest of us reluctantly returned to the van.
I was dropped off at the Grand and, for the last time, petted the kitties who were waiting for me before returning to my room.
~ TUESDAY ~
Skip Wiley had offered to take me to the airport and, true to his word, appeared at my door at 9:00 a.m. He assured me that if I was leaving at noon, 11:30 was plenty early to check in, and so we went off in search of the post cards I'd not yet bought, and breakfast. Our first stop was Louie's Afterdeck, the bar that Jimmy stumbles next door to in "Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season." The deck that stretches out over the water had been swept away by Georges and was newly rebuilt, and we walked out onto it and hung over the fence to gape at the back yard of the house next door that JB had once lived in. It was too early for breakfast to be served, though, so Skip recommended we try Blue Heaven, but we found them closed as well. %-0 Driving around trying to decide on another place, we found ourselves close to the Southernmost Point, where we stopped for one last picture. I bought my postcards from the shell stand next to the big barrel that proclaims lands end for the southern US and, on our way back to the car, received my parting gift from the island ... a tube sponge, fresh and soft and smelling of salt water, that had been washed over the sea wall (probably by Mitch) and retrieved by Skip for presentation to me. %-)
Back to Old Town, still trying to decide on where to eat breakfast. I told Skip that I wanted to go somewhere that the locals did, and we ended up at DockMasters, a place that the charter crews go. We ate eggs (that Skip insisted on treating me to, bless his heart) at a table right on the water and then lingered on the pier, watching the needlefish basking in the sun and even spotting a tarpon flip in the channel between the piers. We walked back down to the Conch Train Depot so I could fill my last promise ... a postcard of the Conch Train for BobRob ... and it was time to go.
We retrieved the car and took the long way to the airport. Skip unloaded me at the curb, pulled my luggage from the trunk, gave me a huge hug, and got back into his car. I watched until he was out of sight before entering the tiny terminal, checking my bag, sliding my briefcase through the scanner (thank goodness, the woman operator said nothing about the plant roots and the tube sponge stuffed inside) and sat down to wait for my plane.
Another windy walk across the tarmac, a short taxi past a row of private planes, a rollicking race to the end of the runway, and liftoff. I looked down at the green ocean and the palm trees disappearing beneath me, and promised myself I'd be back next year.
And somehow, someway, someday, back to stay.
to be there
I saw on the MotM webpage that the 2,100 parrotheads that phlocked to Meeting of the Minds raised over $40,000 for charity. And in spite of arriving in Key West with the intent to "party just like Buffett does," there was only one security call during the whole convention. As the song says, I think "we did the old man proud." %-)