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An Evening in Key West

October 13, 2011

The sun pierces a deep blue sky at a low angle, hitting the facade of your Conch cottage fully and with fat intent.  Long shadows, cast by bouganvillea and autograph trees shade the sidewalk for passers-by.  You’ve taken refuge from arctic winds blowing across the mainland by stretching prone on your front porch, allowing the sun to soak deep into your bones while skin turns a deep honey brown.

The sun continues its march to the sea.  You sip a glass of chilled Pinot Grigio while sweat beads on your body.  Nothing is planned for the evening; a town with 227 bars and restaurants, 37 art galleries, three playhouses and a half-dozen fundraisers on any given night presents nearly infinite social permutations.  You are a leaf on the breeze, to be wafted about currents without purpose.

Groups of men walk by on their way downtown.  Thin. Neat.  Well-groomed, wearing designer shirts and plaid bermudas in stark contrast to the potbellied, holey T-shirt ponytail crowd seen on the charter boat docks down at Garrison Bight.  They’re passing your cottage from the discreet men’s-only resort at the end of your block.  The men walk with nervous energy, as they are embarking on an evening of revelry without worrying about sidelong glances from disapproving matrons, or a group of teen thugs jumping them out of hatred and spite.  They are free to live their lives openly as they are, and the anticipation manifests itself as they walk briskly towards Middle Duval.

A large man rides by on a careworn bicycle. He’s belting out rhythm and blues, projecting with the intensity of a performer projecting to the balcony of a thousand seat theatre.  The cottage reverberates with deep tones, you wave and call out his name.  He responds in song, smoothly integrating his response into the stanza.  You realize he sings for the joy of singing, the street richer for his passing.

Friends stop by.  Not one or two, but several, sometimes standing in groups three deep on the side walk. They’re invited up for a drink; more often than not they refuse, as they are on their way to a social event.  They reciprocate hospitality by inviting you to join them.  You reply you may stop by.  In this fashion, the evening is planned – spontaneously and with little forethought, as you’ll see all of them as the evening progresses.

The sun is almost completely obscured by a brace of century-old wood framed houses and tropical vegetation; air feels cooler as the porch has lost its solar afterglow.  It will be dark soon.   The first stop is chosen with care, an inn with a large tropical garden featuring jazz this evening according to sidewalk socialites.  Travel is by foot, as the garden is but seven blocks from home.  You savor the pace of the trip, as there’s no hurry in a place out of time.

Arriving at the front gate of the garden at dusk, you enter an organic cathedral with a musical altar nestled in a crook of the inn’s arm.  Night air is fresh yet warm; ocean’s heat keeps chills at bay.  The jazz combo is a top-shelf outfit, each musician an accomplished artist with their own musical releases, capable of playing the best rooms in New York City on short notice.  They are, like you, escaping a wintry blast.  Bossa Nova is the genre of choice this evening, as evidenced by a tight rendition of Sergio Mendes’ “Mas Que Nada” as you walk past the group.  A smile and wave at the keyboardist, a flash of smile and a nod back, as you’re a regular.

Settling in with a fresh glass of white wine, the music flows with round notes.  The crowd small and appreciative, couples dancing here and there.  An elderly woman clad in a sailor’s suit and enormous white hat grasps the tip jar and sambas through the crowd on crooked toes, energy beyond her years and physical condition.  Smiling, clapping, fives, tens and twenties thrust into the jar, a fraction of what would be paid for the same experience on the mainland.

You move on.  It’s a weekend night, a night when art galleries stage their openings.  Upper Duval, a five block walk from the jazz combo, has a series scheduled for the evening.  Three hold your interest, so you embark upon a patron’s equivalent of trick or treating as each opening holds a different variety of artists, pieces and media along with nosh and nibbles.

You move slowly through each gallery examining every piece with great care, stopping occasionally to top off your glass.  You chat with the artist, compare notes with other aficionados while catching up on the latest news via the coconut telegraph.  The opening, while featuring specific artists, is less about the art and more a reason to commune.  A smile creeps across your face, as this is many times more interesting than occupying a couch while watching a sterile television show.   Politics in one corner, fashion in the other, while hushed voices trade dirt on who’s cheating on whom in a third.  On an island where relationships are fluid and not subject to the same level of constraint 150 miles away, one needs a playbook to keep up with who’s zooming who.  These are your friends and neighbors; you recognize most of the people in the room.

While most gallery nights leave you light-headed and empty handed, this one is different.  Your eyes alight upon a photograph of a weatherworn shuttered window, its paint gone save for hints of whitewash and evergreen.  In an increasingly gentrified town, the photograph speaks of a time when life was leaner.  You connect, the price right.  The gallery owner, a friend of yours, agrees to hold the piece so you may continue the evening’s quest.

Desiring to get away from the tourist crowd on Lower Duval, you head to a small restaurant near the Gallery District.  It’s a renovated house with alfresco dining downstairs, reservations recommended.  Off to the side of this upscale restaurant is an unmarked staircase – a refuge from throngs of patrons on the patio.  A balcony overlooks the patio and the street, a place serving tapas,  or small plates.  A table is waiting for you in the corner, the manager on duty a neighbor and friend.

Settling in, you nurse a drink while sharing plates of food with a gaggle of friends picked up during the gallery tour.  From your street side eyrie, you people watch – a fascinating occupation, as it’s not part of human nature to look up.  You are a transient voyeur, spying on people who’ve chosen to leave inhibitions behind on their escape from reality.  There are girls in skimpy dresses and stilettos, intent on an evening of no-strings-attached sex.  A carload of local kids buzzes by, hooting and howling at the girls.  A pair of women, looking very much like husky construction workers, walk by, holding hands.  A brace of Asian tourists scuttle by, oblivious to everything save the map guiding them to their next destination.

The door flies open on the restaurant across the street, discharging a pair of men, the first dragging the other.  It’s not quite nine, but the second man is incapable of holding himself upright without assistance.  He’s placed into a brand-new jeep where he promptly passes out.  You alternately fear for the man and the interior of the jeep, as one or the other will suffer great indignity before the evening ends. The first man re-enters the restaurant and stays.

Adjacent to the restaurant, an Eastern European girl sits on the steps of a gift shop, smoking and texting.  Supposedly she works there; you’ve seen her behind the counter, perfecting a look of pouty arrogance.  Unbeknownst to her, teenagers have slipped into the store and are in process of updating their sunglass collection, free of charge.  Long, leggy and aloof, if she was to be discharged from the shop’s employ, she’d resurface the following day next door.  She’s here to find a husband; most do within a year, trading up as opportunity presents itself.

A thumping beat is at first felt, then heard as it approaches.  Impossibly loud, the source comes into view as it rounds the traveler’s palm framing your view.  An electroluminescent  hallucination, a tricycle adorned with hundreds of lights and a high-powered audio system hammering out Rick James funk.  The rider, a spare man in his late 60’s, sports a Fu Manchu mustache and an ear-to-ear grin.  He’s not selling anything, nor is he looking for a handout.  He’s reported to have bought many properties in town 40 years ago for pennies on the dollar and has no need for work as a result.  He is a one man funkadelic show, and he brings a smile to your face every time he rolls by.

You finish at the balcony, tipping well. You move on to a tiny bar tucked into the center of a 1950’s cinderblock hotel.  Yet another oasis of calm, this tiny venue serves up high end cocktails – a galaxy away from two buck Bud Lights at the sloppy end of Duval.  You order a flute of champagne topped with a dollop of St. Germain, a liqueur made from flower petals.  The intensity of flavor fills your head, lingering long after the flute is finished.

It’s getting late for you, approaching midnight. You’ve been to six different places; you’ve picked up and dropped off friends throughout the evening.  You’re tired, Upper Duval is quieting down save for a raucous dance crowd pressed into the space below the balcony where Jose Marti spoke eloquently on the need for Cuba’s freedom.  Not feeling like dancing, you turn on the road bordering the cemetery and head for home.  The air is warm and soft, sweet with night blooming jasmine.  Feral cats follow, a block at a time, looking for a late evening snack.  You’ve nothing save discourse. Disappointed, they move on.

You bid goodbye to the last couple friends a block from home as they ascend the steps to their treehouse home.  It’s been a full evening and you’ve work to do in the morning.  Full yes – yet just another quiet Key West evening.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 13, 2011 5:40 am


  2. dangerboyandpixie permalink*
    October 13, 2011 5:52 pm

    how we spend a night on the town. A personal favorite.

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