Key West is the kind of place that can turn a vacationer into a resident in a life-changing instant. Talk to a group of locals, and chances are a handful of them will tell you they came down to spend a week or a season, or take a break for a few months … but, somehow, they got hooked on the place and never left.
Take me, for example.
When I first came to Key West, I was a naïve 20-year-old Minnesota girl in a Salvation Army fur jacket (which I discarded as quickly as possible). I flew down to this exotic and then-unknown place to meet my Minnesota boyfriend John, who had friends living on the island, to spend a couple of months thawing out after a miserable Minnesota January.
John had to take a side trip to New York, so we didn’t fly together. I emerged from a tiny plane operated by Air Sunshine (also called Air Sometimes for its erratic on-time record) into a third-world airport and a light-drenched landscape.
The taxis outside the airport were startlingly pink, and there were palm trees EVERYWHERE. I gawked out the cab window during the entire drive to John’s friend Wally’s house, where we were supposed to stay.
When the pink taxi pulled up to an old wood-frame house, I jumped out eagerly, ran up the porch steps and knocked on the screen door. “Hello?” I called.
The door was opened by Willie Nelson. (Okay, it wasn’t really Willie. But it could have been his dark-haired twin.)
“Hey there,” he said, his eyes slightly glazed.
“You must be Wally,” I responded brightly, trying not to stare. “I’m Carol, John’s friend from Minnesota. Is he here yet?”
Willie/Wally looked at me. “John?” he repeated. “Hey, how’s he doing? I haven’t heard from him in six months!”
Apparently John had neglected to tell Wally we were coming — OR staying with him. But since this was Key West in the late 1970s, five minutes later Wally had offered me his spare bedroom to stay in until John showed up or I figured out what I wanted to do next.
Actually, John DIDN’T show up. But that didn’t matter because, 48 hours after my arrival, I knew perfectly well what I wanted to do next: live in Key West for the rest of my life.
The decision wasn’t reasoned, or even particularly rational. It came from my bones.
Admittedly, my new home was a fascinating place. In the late 70s and early 80s, shrimpers in white rubber boots ruled the island’s waterfront, and lobster and fish were free for the catching.
In those days, there wasn’t much money in Key West. But nobody noticed unless they went to the mainland, and people didn’t go to the mainland very often. Living was an impromptu affair and the pace was slow; Duval Street was so empty on hot summer afternoons that dogs drowsed undisturbed on the blacktop.
The Victorian houses in Old Town, the ones that stand lovingly restored today, were ramshackle and rundown, their paint peeling or absent altogether. But their clean, proud lines made them gorgeous anyway, and the hibiscus and bougainvillea blooming around them were all the adornment they needed.
Back then, Key West was a haven for adventurers — from treasure hunters seeking shipwrecked Spanish galleons to the spiritual descendents of Prohibition rumrunners. Everyone seemed to know they were living at the edge of a continent, in a renegade but strangely innocent world.
It was pretty heady stuff for a naïve Minnesota girl.
Fairly quickly, I was “adopted” by a group of longtime Key Westers — writers and shrimpers and pirate bartenders. Their passion for the island was enduring and true, and for some serendipitous reason they decided to share their stories and their lives with me.
Today, Key West and I have both changed a good bit, but my love for the place is stronger than ever. In essence, those old friends who opened their world to me earned an unspoken promise in return — that I would cherish that world like they did.
And you know what? It’s never been a hard promise to keep.