Charley and I head south - as far south as we can go until U.S. 1 runs out, just ninety miles from Cuba! We trade chocolate Easter bunnies for females with bunny ears who stroll the sidewalks with cups filled with frothy pink liquid.
Key West is a paradise for writers - and artists, lovers, snorkelers, divers, boaters, fishermen, campers, birders, foreigners, lesbians, gays, transvestites - ANYONE! Just the drive down is worth the trip. It takes five hours from Delray Beach, over forty-some bridges. The sea changes color on both sides of us, from deep azure far out to vibrant turquoise in the channels to beige over the sand bars to thin pea-soup-green in the runoffs. Nonstop photo ops, but not at 45 mph between Key Largo and the end of the road.
We try to go every year for the Conch Republic Independence Festival. It is a week-long celebration (the end of April) of the (unsuccessful) attempt by Key West to secede from the Union. Here, the bizarre becomes commonplace and acceptance is the norm. A young Irishman walks the sidewalk with pink dye in his blond mohawk. The spikes on his head are outdone only by the spikes on two green iguanas grazing on sea grapes at the edge of our beach. A van in orange and white psychedelic swirls advertises a number for pickup to "Live(!) Naked Dancers." As opposed to what - dead naked dancers? The mainland seems a million miles away.
First, there is the drag race down Duval Street. Men in drag - sequined dresses, bright makeup, wigs, and revealing undergarments - RUN in stiletto heels while pushing a cart. Then they have to jump through tires. Some of the shaved legs are pretty shapely, and the butts aren't bad. The contestants clearly work out for this! There are no bulging guts, but WAIT!! Something seems to be bulging from one of the tube tops! Could it be?? A starter stands with legs wide apart in a thong and no top. Somehow, HE just doesn't fit in!
Another event is the bed race. Beds are decked out as floats and pushed by the above "beauties" while real-life natural beauties sit on the mattresses, feathered, flocked, or fried. Monkeys and a lemur squat on spectators' shoulders, peeling peanuts, while parrots and macaws sqawk at the contestants. The pigeons are busy! We see a dog with its limbs spread-eagle in a baby back pack.
The other event that is a blast, literally, is the Coast Guard's attempt to subdue the rebel "Conch Republic" pirates in their ship off Mallory Pier. The Pier is the site of sunset kisses, cruise or Navy ship dockings, and acts of wonder at night (we have seen the same contortionist, now age 57, remove himself from a chained straightjacket for ten years). It is also the spot to be for the water fight. The Coast Guard, with its superior hoses, subdues the rebels, but not before they have thoroughly doused the spectators. None of us care, since we all have a glow from the sun or whatever.
There has been a gradual transformation in our modus operandi since Charley and I started going there. I no longer wear flip-flops with cute crystal beads cutting between my toes. Charley does not walk in his Birkenstock sandals. Instead, we ramble up Duval Street and back (two and one-half miles,total) in sturdy walking sneakers and socks. I have an elastic bandage supporting one knee that is burning. Charley does not wear his golfing straw hat or even a baseball cap. Instead, he dons his wide-brimmed Galapagos hat, looking for native Key West species. He sports a three-day beard, Papa Hemingway-style, and blends right in.
We no longer stop by the Hog's Breath Saloon, Sloppy Joe's, or Margueritaville. The stink of beer venting onto the sidewalk makes me sick. Instead, we stop on a porch near the Southernmost Hotel for a glass of ice water, lemonade, or iced tea.
There is a problem during our walk. I must shop by memory. "I absolutely HATE to shop," Charley reminds me. "You could always go out later, while I'm at the beach." The first day he indulges me by stopping in a few places. Thereafter, I must do a memory snapshot of the exact item in a window, the shop it is in, and where the shop is located. I down my ice water in the wicker chair and run back to look at the beach bag, watercolor, or necklace closest to the porch on which Charley sits. I know I will have only the time it takes him to finish one bowl of tobacco.
We have "done" the tourist attractions: snorkeling the reefs, the Glass Bottom Boat, Conch Train, Truman Summer White House, Hemingway House, Audubon House, botannical gardens, butterfly conservatory, Shipwreck Museum, Sunset Cruise. Now we collapse on our hotel beach after the morning walk. We can order lunch from our chaises, without moving. Reminds me of a story.
We have taken two different couples with us to Key West. While we were eating at an outdoor lunch place with one couple, the husband (Ed) kept jumping up and running toward the car. "What in the heck is going on?" Charley asked, when he returned to our table.
"I'm deathly afraid of cats. One attacked me when I was a kid." Needless to say, there are cats all over Key West to keep the rat population down. He only ate a few bites.
We proceeded with Ed and Kiva to our hotel beach after lunch, having no idea that the section we chose was designated "Topless." Ed settled in, took one look at what was in front of him, and never moved a muscle for the rest of the afternoon. He didn't even bother to open his book. "This is where I want to have lunch the rest of the trip," he declared.
It has been a process of elimination choosing the right place to stay. In the mid-nineties, our first booking was in a cheap motel at the southern end of Duval Street. It was the only thing available in our price range, so we walked five miles a day finding places to eat. Next we tried an inn that had been recommended. That meant we had no beach and had to lug our stuff. The inn compensated by providing free cocktails at Happy Hour each day! We stayed there two years.
Next we did a time-share promotion at a Hyatt facility on the southern end of the island. Charley was NOT happy about spending half of one day roaming around the property which he did NOT intend to invest in! Finally we tried the Pier House Resort, next to Mallory Pier. Great location and food, but we had a wall three feet from the edge of our patio. No view, and we were next to the lobby!
Tried the Pier House again, but this time I specified a room in the new "Spa" building. It was luxurious, compared to what we'd had before! We unpacked, roamed, ate, drank, and climbed in our king bed. Only trouble was, we were the end unit against a side street. The crowds of drunks kept us awake till 1 a.m. At 5 a.m. a very loud rooster began crowing on the property directly behind our room. At 8:30 a.m. the gardeners began SAWING down a trellis attached to the side of the building (and our room). We packed up and headed for the office!
We got an immediate upgrade. Following the guy pushing our luggage, we continued past the restaurant onto a dock. We were hanging over the water at the beach. We went up one level and looked at a king bedroom with adjoining living room. Beyond that lay our own private plexiglass balcony with chaises that continued around the corner of the building. Can we order lunch?