Making Sense of Key West

February 16th, 2018

Marci relaxes in a funky panoramic shot at the Southernmost Beach Resort on Key West.

Encountering The Five Senses And More In The Conch Republic

“That’s the smell of Night Jasmine,” the tarot card reader told us. “Or maybe it’s Frangipani; they both bloom in the evening.”

The Gulf breeze carried the scent away, playfully departing as quickly as it arrived. Replacing the smell was the sound of a dozen weekend gin joints pounding out the pulsing beat of live bands, DJs and the crowded roar of revelers celebrating another successful sunset.

Successful sunsets happen here on Key West about 75 percent of the time. And the masses on this tiny island make the pilgrimage to Mallory Square to make sure they happen according to schedule. Not a fan of sunsets? There’s always the “Cat show for cat people,” wherein an old Frenchman coaxes his trick cats through jumps and a flaming kerosene hoop. The smell of kerosene quickly dissipates as the Gulf breeze sends it along its way too.

Scents are only one of the senses stimulated on the southernmost tip of the continental United States and the westernmost tip of Florida.

Sunset cruises coast past Mallory Square.

After my daughter had her tarot cards read by a tattooed man at a card table on Duval Street — the central business and party zone of the island — we go on a ghost tour and hear the normal/paranormal history of the island. Fun Fact: the name Key West comes from the Spanish Cayo Hueso, meaning “bone island.” Ted, our ghost guide, tells us that Native American tribal warfare occurred when one tribe kept getting pushed southward and westward until they arrived here and couldn’t go any further, so they had to stay and fight. Resulting battles left bones scattered everywhere for Europeans to find when they arrived later. It’s a sad and spooky start for the island.

There’s a color, too, to Key West. Although many hues compete for dominance, blue is the warmest color. Supposedly descendants from the West Indies believed that by painting their porches water-blue, they’d confuse rogue spirits, keeping them from visiting.

Now, home owners here still paint their porch ceilings blue. The idea being that blue is a natural bug repellent because it mimics the sky too, not just water. It keeps bugs and birds from building nests there, because no self-respecting winged creature would build their nests in the sky.

Smells, colors, then there’s the taste. Obviously it’s lime, as in Key Lime Pie (or Key Lime margaritas, chicken, encrusted fish, etc.) They make their fabled pie with the juice from special limes, grown only in the Florida Keys. Add some egg yolks, along with sweetened condensed milk, then mix it up, pour it into a pie shell and bake it for a short time with whipped egg whites on top and you’ll have the meringue finish.

Iconic American author Ernest Hemingway suggested the name for owner Joe Russell’s bar.

The sound of Key West may just be your own breath exhaling; it’s something you might not fully remember hearing. Or maybe it’s the loud laughter of the crowd anywhere along the inebriation scale from tipsy to tipped. That blotto cigar-chomping old dude dancing with a gold-plated living statue — for a reasonable fee of five dollars — will stay pierced in my brain long after I leave this corral island.

And touch, it may be hardest to describe the palpability of Key West, but it’s the easiest to feel. The languid warmth doesn’t stop at skin level; it reaches deeper, brightening your soul, tickling a February smile out of a Northern Midwesterner.

Key West is a synthesthesia pleasure, a blending of the senses, feeling the happy glow of colors. Tasting the wind.

Average high here, 83 degrees; average low, a bone-chilling 73 degrees.

The island is not only the ancient battle ground for our warrior ancestors, but the literal end of the road, mile marker zero for Route 1 which runs 2,369 miles from Maine to Key West, making it the longest north-south road in the United States. It’s 90 miles to Cuba, as the Nyad swims. It’s famously liberal and LGBTQ+ friendly. Ernest Hemingway, JFK, Harry Truman and Bill Clinton all drank here.

Route 1 ends on Key West (or does it begin?).

Key West roosters have the run of the place.

But perhaps the place’s most famous residents are Key West roosters and chickens, the colorful birds, crowing, strutting, scratching the ground, and yelling out their “err, er, err, er, errrrrrs” at ridiculously random times all day and yes, all night.

“Retire and go north” says one of the Conch Republic’s slogans. But my clear favorite motto of Key Weird, as it’s sometimes called, is “One Human Family.” There were even some Key West Strong signs that popped up after Hurricane Irma swept through, though hitting the other Keys worse.

Our ghost tour ends after our guide shows us how to use a sophisticated digital apparition detector and a decidedly low-tech pair of dousing rods. My daughter gets a little spooked when a spirit answers “YES” to the question, “Are you a little girl who’s passed on?”

We debrief as we walk home, past the Hard Rock Cafe that we learned earlier was the site of a famous fantastic phantasm. A drag queen crossing guard helps us across a narrow side street, more for show than for safety, but we thank her profusely.

It’s time to pick up and pack up, stuffing our carry-on karma with an undefinable understanding that this is the way our lives could be, maybe even should be. There’s snow back up there and the February 2nd woodchuck told us there’d be six more weeks of it.

I want to stay and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I kinda/sorta envied the workers on Key West. The harpist who serenaded us with a Jimmy Buffet song as we sat soaking in the sun, explained that she bought her house a few decades ago for 49 thousand clams and now it’s worth a million bucks. Our waitress keeps leaving the island and coming back, she says, because it’s all about the lifestyle, the pace.

Workers and residents here refuse to fall into ordinary categories. And a part of me — a real snow-sick, winter-weary part of me — wonders what kind of situation a writer/photographer could find himself in from, say, January til March.

It’s an idle thought, mostly, but I do make contact with the media rep. for our resort.

Hey, no one ever claimed Common Sense was one of the top five senses, now did they?

My daughter snapped me in this peaceful pose inches from the ocean, miles away from cares or responsibilities.

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