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Lost in Florida: Doing the Duval Crawl

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image Key West and the islands and water surrounding it are an unquestionable paradise, even to a long-time Floridian. Photo Mitch Traphagen

Key West is where the weird turn pro. Part two in a series. Photo gallery below.

By Mitch Traphagen

In the early 1990s, Key West had its own television series, kind of like Dallas or Miami Vice except with a handful of viewers instead of millions.  In the series, Seamus, played by actor Fisher Stevens, was a New Jersey factory worker who won the state lottery.  He immediately took his winnings, quit his factory job and drove to Key West to live the idyllic life as a wealthy writer. 

When Seamus first arrived in Key West, he didn’t actually stop — he drove past Mile Marker 0, straight into the water and then, for good measure, shot his sinking car.  That eventually drew the attention of the affable yet commanding, competent yet ditzy (possibly stoned) town police officer who told him that “killing a car is not a crime” in Key West, but he couldn’t park it in the water.  Instead of writing him a ticket, the officer instead wrote directions to the tai chi sessions he holds each morning on the beach. That police officer became one of a group of Seamus’ new friends, which also included a recovering alcoholic town mayor, a gruff backwater bar owner (who also gently looked out for the mayor), a bar stripper and a waitress, a Rastafarian who dabbled in Voodoo, and a high-class prostitute.

Seamus soon lost his lottery winnings to past life mistakes but he stayed on in Key West, getting a job at the weekly newspaper working for a blind, yet all-seeing publisher with sky high standards and the wisdom of the ages.

When the single season of Key West aired on network television, I was a fledgling company man with a cubicle on the 45th floor of a skyscraper and a nice view of beautiful but far-too-often-frozen Minneapolis.  That show was my first introduction to Florida that didn’t include mosquitoes, retirement communities or freeway-rest-area murderers. I wanted a scooter and a typewriter under a palm tree from which to bang out the news of the quirky town.  I wanted friends like Seamus had.  I wanted Key West.

Twenty years later, Michelle and I watched the sunset from Key West’s Mallory Square, along with hundreds of other people and a guy juggling swords and flaming torches while staying upright on a 15-foot-high unicycle. After the sun set into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the unicyclist disappeared into the crowd and we began the Duval Crawl, along with hundreds, if not thousands of other tourists.

“Dakota” is an attractive young woman who claimed, somewhat ironically, to be from the Carolinas.  She and I were involved in a conversation when Michelle returned from a trip to the ladies room.  Dakota said she came down to Key West for spring break to work in a strip club.  We had a nice chat, Dakota thanked us for it, and then she went off to see if anyone wanted a lap dance.  She was a nice young lady who hoped to someday return to a job working as a flight attendant for an airline.

There is no shortage of bars and restaurants along Duval Street, Key West’s famous main drag.  We first found an open-air place serving Gulf-fresh shrimp tacos and then set out to check out the nightlife.  Shops open into the wee hours and bars abounded along the street, most of which were blaring ear-splitting music or the equally ear-splitting shouted conversations and drunken laughter from the spring breakers that had packed into the island city.  We wanted something a little quieter, something that offered the possibility of conversing without having to put on airs or having to push aside ferns. Which is how we ended up at the Red Garter Saloon.  It wasn’t our first time.

Fifteen years ago we made our first trip to Key West, much younger, far more naive and on a strict budget.  A friend told us about a cheap motel near the Naval Air Station where rooms could be had for $60 a night. We found out then, as remains true now, that there is more happening on Duval Street in the middle of the night then in the middle of the day.  We were walking past various nightclubs when a bouncer told Michelle there would be no cover charge if she wanted to go into his nightclub as they were hoping to attract more female customers. The entrance to the club, a strip club, was down an alley.  Michelle loves nothing more than a bargain so we spent the night talking over a few cocktails while women took (most of) their clothes off on a stage well behind us in the Red Garter Saloon. Later, we walked back to our cheap motel down the darkened, quiet streets of the city at the end of America.

Today there are no cheap motels in Key West and the Red Garter Saloon is far more upscale than on our previous visit, complete with a newly remodeled entrance that fronts Duval Street.  As we walked past, Michelle struck up a conversation with the 2013 version of the bouncer, a friendly man that could no doubt tear me limb from limb.  She mentioned how years ago we didn’t have to pay a cover charge. The bouncer told us the alley entrance still exists and no cover would be charged if we went in there. 

Today, the alley has also gone upscale; what was once a dark space with a doorway to a strip club is now filled with neon light and small, outdoor eateries.  We found the entrance and found ourselves back in the Red Garter Saloon, which is how we met Dakota.  While spending an evening in a strip club may appear unseemly, on the upside the bouncers ensure there are no spring break behavioral problems and it’s a place to have a cocktail and still be able to enjoy a conversation without shouting.  Besides, it’s something Seamus would have done.

Florida is widely considered to be the weirdest state in the U.S. and Florida is widely considered to be the weirdest state in the U.S. and Key West is where the weird turn pro.  Also known as the Conch Republic, it once seceded from the U.S., declared war and immediately surrendered, in the process making a request for federal funds (it wasn’t entirely in jest — the federal funding was hoped for to protect some of the wild places on and around the island).  It is one of America’s most beautiful and unique cities, filled with tourist junk and great museums, Ernest Hemingway’s home, complete with the descendants of his six-toed sloths (cats) and the Southernmost Point in the U.S. (along with the Southernmost House, the Southernmost Offices, the Southernmost Hotel and more).  Yet despite sharing the same state, it’s a world away from South Hillsborough, a notion reinforced by a long drive in slow moving traffic through the Keys on U.S. 1.  In fact, from here it is probably faster and easier to drive to Ft. Myers and take a fast ferry to the island.  Key West is actually closer to Havana than it is to Miami.

But for most of us, particularly anyone coming from a grey-skied, snowy state, the drive on U.S. 1 is like a stroll through Nirvana.  The Keys are an eye-popping Shangri-La of small islands and beautiful, turquoise water, a paradisiacal pearl necklace strung together by a mostly two-lane highway.  In Key West, every sunset is a festival and the entire experience of being in the Keys is something that should be experienced at least once.  The awe-inspiring beauty easily masks the more-than-occasional dumpiness.

Seamus probably couldn’t live in Key West without his lottery winnings today, certainly not while working for a weekly newspaper. In fact, many of the workers in the stores and restaurants are bussed in from Miami, Homestead and Florida City. It is not a cheap city and some of the weird charm has disappeared with the skyrocketing real estate values.

But not every change is bad change — today the general debauchery may be somewhat less (the old guy wearing the tie-dyed diaper from our last visit seems to have moved on) but more families and children appear to be enjoying Key West than in years past. To me, that’s a good thing and adds color and dynamics to an already colorful city.  Although very touristy in spots, there is no real danger of Key West turning into Disney anytime soon. With some exploration, you can escape the well-trod places and find the real vibe of the islands.  It’s still there. Hopefully it always will be.

It is difficult to leave Key West. In the rear view mirror of both the car and life, the island is like a dream, isolated from some of the strife of the normal world.  And dreams are visible here, on the faces of the tourists young and old, in Dakota’s fresh and somehow not-yet-cynical face, even in the antics of a fictional character on a 20-year-old television program.  Perhaps somewhere there is a palm tree waiting for me, to provide some shade while banging out stories on an old typewriter.

Put on your explorer’s cap and join us next week in taking off for a change in longitude and time zone on a remote, historic island miles west of Key West.

041813 Florida Part 2 Key West - Images by Mitch Traphagen

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