by Steven K. Roberts
Key West, Florida
March 7, 1988
Ah, tourists. With every street encounter I am distanced further from the picturetaking plague of bustling intruders who descend en masse on every place immortalized in brochures. You can see them in the tour trains, faces turned to follow the amplified prattle of the driver; you can see them on the street, blocking sidewalk traffic to discuss the night’s dinner options over a glossy guidebook. “El maizon duh peppy,” one pipes in gross mispronunciation, “That sounds interesting.”
Later, at the dock of the Pier House, a sunset of impassioned colors fades completely to gray. Maggie and I stand in silence, our beers drained, our eyes reflecting a warm blend of love and the last glimmer of tropical daylight. An old woman with a vinyl megapurse approaches with five of her contemporaries. “Excuse me, young man. Have they had that sunset celebration yet?”
“Uh, well ma’am, it’s about 23 hours from now…”
Another street encounter: two guys from Virginia on Spring break. One asks, “dude, what’s this thing run on? Solar?”
“Indirectly, yes. It runs on sushi, ice cream, pizza… whatever I throw into it. The fuel is converted into adenosine triphosphate and various sugars, which are used to power a reciprocating sliding-filament linear bio-engine coupled to the cranks. Peak power’s about a quarter-horse, but it can only sustain about half that.”
“Really? Oh my God, that’s incredible!” He scurries around the bike, peering at the various components. Pointing at the Nalgene lid of the Waterboy pressurized water supply, he asks: “So you put the fuel in here, and then the machine converts it?”
“No.. I eat.”
Yes, the predominant outside influence this season is spring break — a sort of invasion, a rowdy overlay of predictable college-crowd behavior on a place known for its diversity. (Spectrally, it’s like a laser beam in broad daylight.) The campground is a sea of ragged tents and a cacophony of competing boom boxes; the bathrooms are an insight into the frightening unculture that is America’s future.
I hear conversation in the men’s room: “You goin’ to Duval tonight, man?”
“Hell yes! I drove all night and didn’t get any sleep, but we only got four days here. Gotta get a sunburn and do a blowout while I got the chance.”
Maggie witnessed a disturbing scene in the women’s shower room yesterday… three cute, permed, perky girls surrounded by a litter of blow dryers, hot curlers, lotions, potions, and notions. One of them is bitching…
“I don’t know about you guys, but I can’t take this camping. I hate camping! Last night Lisa got me up to go to the bathroom with her, and I like saw a bug! Ugh! And how are you supposed to shave your legs in a shower with cold water? We should get together with those guys we met last night and see if we can get a room… if we all go in on it, we can afford it. I really hate this. I haven’t been this miserable since we lived in the dorm, remember that?”
“That’s something I try to forget every day of my life.”
And yet they look so heartbreakingly lovely… modeled after the pages of Seventeen and Self, consumers of makeup by the truckload, living in daily fear of breaking a nail. Seeing them out there I have a sudden rush of appreciation for Maggie, my wild sweet animal — this woman who comes alive in the wilderness, dances in the rain, savors natural scents, sweats all day on a bicycle, then cooks over a fire and lets her hair flow as free as the wind while writhing with the raw sensual pleasure of life itself…
Of course, there are exceptions. We met two pretty women in their late 20’s, cycling the southeast for the last 6 months on some kind of Christian ministry program based in Nashville. They are playful and bright-eyed, religious without being too obnoxious about it, seeming almost as teenagers in their exuberance and vitality.
And then there was the neurosurgeon, the speech pathologist, and the coma-recovery researcher. What a party! We spent a giddy evening with them in their rented motorhome, swapping tales of brain research, punning, drinking, and vowing to cross paths again somewhere in Long Island.
Then a beach day. Here they are again: the spring break crowd, banished from Fort Lauderdale, a narrow slice of American culture whose precise flavor depends on which schools happen to be on the loose at the moment. This week, they all seem to be from Virginia — so the contents of the bikinis are pretty and conservative. The guys’ haircuts are within 10% of the current standard, the beer is almost exclusively Bud or Bud Light, and there isn’t a Speedo in sight except on the occasional strolling local. A deejay is set up, playing rap songs with chest-pounding power; through the interstices of the music trickle giggles and the conversational minutiae of the late-80’s college set. At first glance, Smathers beach in this season is a place of wanton erotica… upon closer inspection, the standardization is mind-numbing.
A clear split is developing between the old classic sexiness and that of the new generation. The former is hot, sweaty, hairy, even kinky in places; the latter is clean, conservative, as substantial as television and about as untouchable. Fortunately, I’m not nearly as frustrated by this as I would be if I were traveling alone, for Maggie epitomizes the attitudes that might have evolved into the eighties had not a panoply of diseases, televangelists, Meeses, and right-wingers arrived on the scene to (un)dampen the human sexual spirit.
Ah, but the food. We had a chance to sample some world-class sushi at the Quay (which is not, contrary to rumor, a child’s supercomputer), courtesy of Chuck-the-engineer-turned-sushi-chef. Flavors at once delicate and potent mingled poetically as a tray of piscatorial artwork transformed itself moment by moment into murmurs and exclamations of pure pleasure. Tuna, salmon, eel, octopus, shrimp, scallops… all layered with rice, touched with flavors exotic, counterpointed with slivers of pink ginger root and washed down with hot sake.
OK. It took a week, but we penetrated the chitinous buffer zone that separates tourists from locals. I’m not talking about the street bums, who panhandle, greet me drunkenly as an old buddy, and strive with their unwelcome company to separate me from the respectable ranks of visiting celebrities so they can pick me apart dollar by dollar…
No, not the street people. Key West has for years been a favorite getaway for recluses, writers, dreamers, and the refugees of the bland normalcy that spawned this generation of mini-yups on holiday. What happens when renegades form a community is pure poetry: a mad, explosive tangle of powerful personalities ranging from hardbitten retired hobos to hard-working freelancers, from drunken vets on the brink of violence to dazzling intellects who grew exasperated with mainstream media-fed America and fled to the island for some REAL diversity.
Tonight, with George and Isabeall, we set out for what was to be something more or less routine: beer and billiards. Over the last couple of days we’ve struck up an easy friendship with them, something deeper than the endless fatiguing beginnings and endings that occur on the street every 3-4 minutes. (“Just one question,” it usually begins, “what are all these switches for?” “That’s not one question,” I reply with a sigh, sizing the stranger up quickly to assess the likelihood of a book sale.)
But this is different — George Murphy is a writer, a poet, a publisher… and they live on houseboat row, plying a variety of freelance trades via Macs and phone lines while bartending, shooting video, and generally keeping a busy finger on the complex pulse of island life. We hung out there today, thoroughly burned out on Duval street, tourists, sunset, Smathers, and the other standard attractions of this too-popular vacationland. We lazed about, caught up with email through a real modular jack, and idly toyed with dinner plans.
But off we went to the Cow Key Marina, a little-known place buried in a channel somewhere up the road from Key West. Bouncing on the bikes down a ragged street, yelled at by a drunk on a porch (“hey, don’t come ridin’ that shit down here, man…”), flashing the helmet light into amber pairs of dog-eyes slinking through littered yards — this is not the Keys of the travel brochures. We bounced across a rutted dirt lot past rough hulks of pickups and old cars, then parked the bikes under a neon beer sign and set the security system. From the old battered building rose whoops and raucous drunken laughter, smells were of fish, beer, and stagnant water. In short: not the kind of place I usually go.
But we went in. Characters: our friends, a comforting island of familiarity. Roy the bartender, old, loony, drunk, hair slicked back, joking in a high voice over every little event (you saw him in 92 in the Shade). Scott, longhaired and wild, a New York novelist in town for a visit. Duke, a local writer, big, ponytailed, rough-looking in a benign sort of way. J.P., drunk but friendly, a sailor about my age. Ed, drunk and obnoxious, stubbled, stumbling, staring glaze-eyed at Maggie and making lewd remarks. Billy from Arkansas, fat, drunk, funny, dancing/clomping alone across the wood floor to country and western tunes and breaking now and again into a drawn-out soo-wee razorback hog call. Various anonymous Viet vets, drunk and semi-coherent. Strangers at the bar. A fish flopping outside in a styrofoam cooler. Passing Coast Guard toughs, looking for a smuggler. Us.
Quarters lined up on the pool table. A micro-community developing among writers and mates, watched with frequent negative commentary by the drunk vets from their table of empty Bud cans — dozens of Bud cans. “Hey, you got a nice ass,” slurred Ed as Maggie bent for a pool shot. He sidled over to us and tried to get friendly: “I got me a pocket full of smoke, man, you wanna burn one? Your woman here, man, she got some nice leg on ‘er.” Drunk breath washed over us as he reeled and drooled, and we moved away with relief when our quarter slid to the head of the line on the table.
Midway through our game, it happened. Ed, by now drinking Maggie’s purloined beer and thoroughly plastered, bounced from table to table, off the wall, and over to the cue rack. “It’s my shot,” he slurred, “I paid for this stick. I paid a dollar twenty five for this skinny sumbitch, man.” He grabbed a cue and fell into the table as George returned from the bathroom.
“This is our game, Ed, I think you should go sit down.”
“Look me in the eye and say that!”
“OK, fine: This is our game, Ed, I think you should go sit down.”
“It’s MY shot.” He started shoving.
Somebody called across the room, “It’s time, Roy, we gotta get him outta here.” A struggle started, with the curses getting more serious, the scene turning ugly. George discretely turned his cue 180 degrees to ready the heavy end, winked at me, and waited. Billy from Arkansas came over and applied steady skillful pressure, trying to reassure Ed that we were all his good buddies but that it really was time to go. They eased him to the door… toward our bikes… as he continued to struggle.
In time, they slid him over the rail and onto the dock, where J.P. stood waiting with his boat engine idling. When at last they motored off into the inky night with drunken Ed sprawled across the foredeck, the mood of the Marina lightened noticeably.
But the real poetry of the night was the pool game. Not OUR pool game, which was somewhat embarrassing, but the one that began an hour later…
George and Duke had been playing, slowly, with plenty of time between shots for histrionics and conversation. Suddenly a voice snapped from the bar: “I’ve had enough of this bullshit! I want to play some pool!”
The stranger stood, took a hard drag on his cigarette, flicked it manfully over the rail, and stepped to the table. “You gonna piss around all night, or are you going to play serious pool?” Sudden silence… but for Patsy Cline distorted on the jukebox and the suppressed giggles of our group.
The light mood left in the wake of Ed’s departure drained away… but with an entertaining twist. The polarized US-vs-THEM that had existed with the drunk vets became a wonderfully unbalanced tableau of contrasting personalities: an intense ego-driven stranger, playing pool as if it were a man-to-man struggle from which would emerge a superior victor and a shamed loser… and a playful, intelligent friend among friends, darting about the narrow-minded macho stranger with a wit every bit as dazzling as their hot succession of combination bank shots.
It was also some damn good pool. They thrusted and parried, both of them brilliant, both homing in on the 8-ball. But the game was not of billiards, but of style: George danced around the table, eyes sparkling, singing along with Sinatra, modifying the words to old Hollywood standards (“What kind of fool is he?”), pirouetting with his pool cue and feeding on our laughter like a performer on a roll. But the stranger! Furious with frivolity, intense drags on cigarettes, muttered curses, nervous chalking, an undercurrent of barely repressed violence touching every move, every shot, every comment. To him, this was a life-and-death struggle… and George’s refusal to settle down and lock horns was driving him into a frenzy.
Endgame maneuvers. The stranger misses, curses; George sights in the 8-ball, calls side pocket with a bank, sinks it with a DOUBLE bank instead… thus losing the game. The stranger whoops, victorious… but his sly superior smile turns to fury as we cheer our friend’s defeat, howling at the irony, delighting in the realization that this loss was the greatest win possible… completing as it did the separation between the game and the game with exquisite subtlety — nay, drama.
“He lost, goddamn it! Don’t feed his ego!” The winner hissed this rebuke through a jetstream of Marlboro smoke as we flowed into the night, high on the energy of intellect, of friendship, of poetic insanity in a place bizarre. This is not Duval Street.
All that, and dollar beer too…
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