by Pa Rock
Key West is a Caribbean anomaly, closer to Havana than it is to Miami, while being easily accessible from the U.S. mainland by car. The last two times that I had been to Key West, in fact, I had driven there along beautiful U.S. 1 (the Overseas Highway) that crosses numerous small islands with familiar names like Key Largo, Islamadora, Marathon Key, Fiesta Key, and even tiny Missouri Key. One of the bridges that connect these islands is an amazing seven miles long! While there aren’t many decent swimming beaches in the Keys, the never-ending vistas of blue-green Caribbean Sea dotted with sailboats are breathtaking, easily justifying the gas and three hours necessary to drive to Key West from Miami.
We entered the waters surrounding Key West, Florida, on Monday just after lunch. As the big ship glided past a few smaller islands, coast guard cutters with mounted machine guns showed up on either side of our vessel to escort us into the berth at the south end of the popular tourist destination. Arrival by ship, I quickly discovered, was far handier than driving because we were dumped right in the heart of the tourist sector.
Duval Street is the main thoroughfare of Old Key West, and most of the town’s famous tourist Mecca’s can be found either on Duval or very close by. It is a colorful blend of art galleries, bars, cafes, tourist shops, and street musicians. In many ways it is what New Orleans probably was fifty years ago. It is also one of the gayest towns in America, with same-sex handholding and kissing on the streets being part of the local ambience. As if to complement all of the standard color and noise, on that particular day there was a very large blue and gold parrot sitting out on a second story balcony whistling and yelling at the tourists as they strolled along Duval with their drinks and bags of tee shirts.
Our first conference activity (after the previous night’s reception) was a panel discussion on voting patterns held at the far end of Duval Street in a funky art gallery. The lady who owned the gallery was thrilled to have all of the feminist celebrities in her establishment. She and her young daughter both sat in rapt attention as the panel made its presentation. Panel members included Eleanor Smeal, Katherine Spillar (the Executive Editor of Ms. Magazine), and Celinda Lake, a prominent Democratic pollster from Washington DC. (Ms. Lake had been unable to arrange time to take the cruise, so she flew into Key West that day for the panel discussion.) Ms. Lake talked about changing demographics and the opportunities for Democrats in 2008. Ms. Smeal reiterated that importance of letting reporters know that we were for Hillary and Obama. I noticed with some regret that Tyne Daly had not hiked down Duval for this event. I did see her later shopping on Duval Street.
Leaving the gallery with a couple of hours left to explore Key West, I headed back up Duval toward the port. Along the way I stopped at Margaritaville (the original) for a couple of tee shirts and a Cheeseburger in Paradise. Further along I stopped and exchanged a few ripe comments with the parrot. (The things those awful tourists have taught that poor bird!) My final stop before reaching the port was Sloppy Joe’s, a large open-air bar and restaurant that opens onto two streets. Sloppy Joe’s was made famous by its best known aficionado, a macho writer by the name of Papa Hemingway who was once a regular at that particular watering hole.
Several cruise ships were preparing to sail out of Key West that evening, resulting in huge throngs of tourists milling about the port area. There were vendors and several musicians and jugglers working the crowds trying to relieve them of their remaining currency before the ships carried them off to other ports. I spent thirty minutes or so watching a pair of young gymnastic jugglers. A highlight of their act included one doing a headstand upon the head of the other while juggling knives between the two. It was an amazing show and a brilliant end to a beautiful day!
As the sun set over Old Key West, our ship was tugged slowly out of port and pointed across the Caribbean toward Central America. The next day would be taken up with workshops at sea.