This is not your Papa's Key West


April 28, 2004|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN STAFF

KEY WEST, Fla. - He was not such an old man and he fished and he fought and he wrote and he never went many days without drinking at Sloppy Joe's.

And the city loved the man for he was a two-fisted tough guy, adventuring and writerly and untamed. And they made Sloppy Joe's bar into a shrine to the man and Sloppy Joe's was Key West and Key West was Sloppy Joe's and the man was Ernest Hemingway.

And if the man went to Sloppy Joe's today he would find many Hemingway T-shirts and men drinking until the sun rises and women drinking until the bells toll. And the man would look at the menu at Sloppy Joe's and he would see there was a kid's menu with a Kid's Sloppy Joe for $6 and Kid's Chicken Fingers and a Kid's Hot Dog and he would find low-carb specials (just 3 grams).

And the man would ask himself: What has happened to America? Where have the rough edges gone? Why is every place like every place else? And what's with the low carbs?

Give me a beer!

Maybe Key West is not yet like every place else, but it appears to be trying. A kid's menu at Sloppy Joe's? Low-carb meals? The home of the weird and the land of the bare-knuckled replaced by waves of well-behaved tourists, many of them pushing strollers?

Key West has been called many things. The Last Resort. The End of the Line. A State of Mind. And, most neutrally, the Southernmost City in the United States. Let's just call it different.

The city had no running water until 1942. It's an island, closer to Cuba (90 miles) than Miami (150 miles).

Once, its main industries were pirating, salvaging shipwrecks and making cigars. A guide to the city, published by the Work Projects Administration in 1941, describes how the U.S. Navy set up a naval depot in Key West in 1822 to beat back the pirates who roamed at will.

"Isolation played a large part in Key West's social existence until the advent of the railway in 1912, and the overseas highway and ferry in 1926," the guide says. "Four generations of isolation has had its effect on the mental and social outlook of the inhabitants. Citizens think first, last, and always of Key West, and a surprisingly large number have never been off the island."

Tolerating outsiders

Having little contact with the rest of the country, perhaps it had no preconceived notions about what people should be. It became tolerant of, or at least indifferent to, outsiders with their own ideas of how to live.

In the early 1970s, Key West had a sizable gay population along with numerous refugees from 9-to-5 America. Tennessee Williams lived here; Jimmy Buffett, too. Hippies gathered every evening at Mallory Square in ritual worship of the sunset.

Cubans and Conchs (as descendants of Bahamian immigrants were called) built the city. Cubans began moving to Key West in 1869, working in cigar factories that had been established in 1831 and fomenting revolution - at the time, that meant seeking freedom from Spain.

The WPA guide was a means of putting to work artists and writers suffering from the Depression, and it was meant to stir up tourist interest in Key West, by then bereft of pirates. The writers and editors who labored on the guide in an era when 40,000 tourists a year was big news would be astonished if they could visit here today.

Key West has nearly 28,000 permanent residents - and in a recent year had 1.3 million tourists, an industry providing 66 percent of the employment, according to city figures.

As everyone knows, if you want to keep your tourists coming, you have to keep them supplied with low-carb options. Thus the following item on the city's Web site:

"Key West City Manager Julio Avael recently sampled lo-carb New York cheesecake delivered to his office by Drew Burch, director of sales, and Linda Geyer, general manager of the Sheraton Suites. The hotel has added lo-carb lifestyle dishes to its restaurant's menu."

With everyone counting carbs, you wonder if there's still room for a "Cheeseburger in Paradise," the high-carb ode Jimmy Buffett wrote in 1978:

I like mine with lettuce and tomato,

Heinz Fifty-seven and French fried potatoes.

Big kosher pickle and a cold draft beer.

Well, good God Almighty, which way do I steer

For my cheeseburger in paradise.

As those who were once down and out and determinedly different began counting their carbs, Key West became more predictable.

The city took out a contract on the sunset. The Key West Cultural Preservation Society pays the city $63,432 a year, in a 10-year contract, for use of Mallory Square for two hours before the sunset and two hours after.

The hippies are gone, replaced by shoulder-to-shoulder tourists, who buy souvenirs and snacks from vendors and watch city-approved street performers - before joining in the ritual applauding of the sunset.

They are not yet your ordinary street performers. One fellow gets himself wrapped up in a straitjacket, hanging upside down from a big hook, before extracting himself in less than 4 1/2 minutes.

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