A few thoughts about one of my favorite places.
Duval, Mallory Square, Front Street, are just names to those not familiar with possibly the most unique little city in this hemisphere. Just a few blocks away from the commercialism of Duval are small
streets with ginger bread adorned houses of every size, nestled so close that they would seem to touch in the ever present tropical breeze.
Narrow streets and alleys, many of them originally brick, wander aimlessly through what is affectionately known as Old Town, in which a brisk twenty minute walk will take you from the Gulf of Mexico to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. However, a brisk walk is not the way to really appreciate the ambiance and overall atmosphere of this tiny island. A casual stroll weaving through tree-lined streets will reveal many hidden walkways, barely two feet wide, leading back into a maze of quaint out buildings, some to a small courtyard and some simply to a rear entrance. Almost invariably these quiet little cottages have a lovely front porch which seemingly dares a passerby if not to stop, at least slow his pace and gaze at the inviting cushioned wicker chairs.
The real treasures of this island in paradise are not the architecture, the quiet streets, or even the traditions of Mallory Square. The real treasures of Key West are the people. From the multimillionaires that live in the Truman Annex, to the shop keeper on Duval Street, to the derelict asleep in the alley behind Sloppy Joe's Bar. That most unnatural combination of humankind is what sets this place apart from most anywhere in the world. If you had to choose just one word to describe this phenomenon, that word would be "attitude". This attitude is an intangible feeling of calm, not to the point of uncaring, but more to the point of not worrying about things that they can do nothing about. This is never more apparent then during storm warnings. The natives of Key West do listen to the warnings, and then decide in his or her own way, what precautions need to be taken. Leaving the island is never one of the options, that choice is for the tourists and visitors.
The general atmosphere is somewhere between "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead" and "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die". To witness this conch attitude first hand, one has only to stroll down Duval St. around midnight on a Fri.or Sat. night. But all the partying and festivals aside, the overall ambiance of the island does not change from season to season, or from year to year. For it is still the attitude of the people of Key West that sets them apart. From that millionaire to the drunk in the alley, and everyone in between, the common thread is the attitude of the people. Every tourist and visitor to this little swatch of land is affected by this phenomenon, and not only while they are down here, but for sometime after they return to their offices and factories in the real world.
I treasure each memory, each mental picture I have stashed away, and yes a few fantasies too. Each year it becomes more difficult to return to the normal way of life that we try to enjoy when we leave the island. Somehow the memories and the fantasies are not enough to replace the attitude in this tiny little piece of paradise.