Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Pumping and Reeling

There's no tour guide like an old friend from college.

After getting up early enough to see the sunrise - I had pledged to do it once - Mr. Wright and I struck out because of heavy cloud cover that obliterated any rise. A thin line of orange was about all we got before a heavy fog rolled in and all but swallowed up the ocean view.

Not to worry because we were going to hit the road anyhow. Destination: Key West.

My friend has been living down here for years now and had offered to show us around and since it had been close to ten years since I'd seen him, combining my first look-see at the southernmost Key with seeing his smiling face was irresistible.

Honestly, I had no idea how much he knew.

Walking toward their gate, he called to us from behind it in a voice I'd know anywhere. That he looks exactly the same (minus a few gray flecks in his hair and mustache) surprised me not at all, although the last time I recall seeing him in shorts, it was the '70s and his shorts were, ahem, far shorter.

Regardless of what he was wearing, it was just wonderful to see him.

After taking us on a tour of the house his wife had designed, we set out on a driving tour. His first question was, "When's the last time you were in a minivan?" knowing full well what an unlikely scenario it was.

From there, the adventure was just beginning. He drove us around Old Town, Casa Marina, New Town, Truman Annex and told us about Bahama Village. His strength was in pointing out houses of people of note as well as houses that had been impressively renovated or restored. He reeled off the sale prices of houses like a realtor, sometimes sharing what the house had gone for to multiple owners.

He always was good with numbers.

With a nod to his own past, he took us to a 5th floor condo in a building he'd lived in during the '70s while stationed in Key West during his stint in the Navy. The coral-colored buildings looked out across the Atlantic Ocean and the roller-bladers, cyclists and pedestrians making their way in the park along the shore.

Eventually, we landed at the new Truman Waterfront Park, where, of all things, we spotted a Florida car with an RVA sticker on it. Now, I ask you, what are the chances?

After parking near a couple of massive cruise chips, we took a stroll before setting out on a rambling journey through Key West. We saw former Navy base buildings, including a picaresque hospital with hurricane shutters, that had been converted to residences. It wasn't hard to see how locals had been priced out of the area with large houses, extensive porches and shaded lots that screamed, "MONEY!"

Once my stomach began grumbling loud enough for tourists to notice, he took us to First Flight Restaurant and Brewery, notable because it's the building where Pan-Am Airways first began selling tickets in 1927. When given the choice, I opted for a table in the red-bricked garden under a canopy of trees but within earshot of a singer/guitarist entertaining the afternoon crowd.

When you've known someone since college, you kind of know what they eat and my friend didn't disappoint, either in his choice or his knowledge of me. When his cheeseburger was dropped off, he immediately rotated his plate so that the steak fries on it were facing me across the table. "Help yourself," he said with a grin, knowing I would.

It's no secret I've been eating fries off this man's plate since I can remember.

My shrimp and bacon flatbread quieted the noises emanating from my belly and fortified me for the non-stop touring that was to come. My friend wanted to know from Mr. Wright how we'd met and offered up a tidbit about me.

Seems he's always thought I was particular when it came to men. Never more so than this time.

Once we'd eaten, the marathon walking tour began with a vengeance. Just don't expect me to remember everything I saw or even half of what he told us, because this was upper level touristing of the highest order.

Passing by the Audubon House and Tropical Gardens, we decided not to go in, although I did admire the lush garden from the sidewalk after he spoke highly of it. Joining the throngs at Key West First Legal Rum Distillery meant that we were in a former Coca Cola bottling plant, but also that we were in a place where you had to be 21 to buy a rum cake.

T-shirts labeled "Bad Bitch" referred to an early female distiller with a penchant for red wine in her rum and shooting men who tried to steal her hootch. Sounds more like a capable  bitch to me.

Climbing the steps to the Custom House Museum, Mr. Wright was smitten with architect William Kerr's Richardsonian Romanesque-style architecture, while my friend pointed out its steeply pitched roof. Seems that the Feds had a standard design for such buildings at the time and while the rooves made sense for northern buildings in places that got snow, they weren't about to change the design for Key West.

That probably accounts for the fireplaces, too, since Key West's lowest recorded temperature is 41, at least according to our knowledgeable guide. Was there anything my friend didn't know?

Inside, we saw exhibits of playwright and local Tennessee Williams' paintings, an historical exhibit called "Overseas to the Keys" about Flagler's railroad (we're becoming experts) and a whimsical exhibit by the late Ferron Bell, who split his time between Key West and Fire Island.

His colorful work used all the usual Key West tropes - tropical birds, palm trees and drinking - as frequent motifs. One of my favorites showed a house where atop the roof line sat a martini glass, a rocks glass and three shot glasses in the night sky under the moon.

An entire island summed up succinctly.

My only regret was that we arrived at the Key West lighthouse and Keepers' Quarters Museum ten minutes too late to climb its winding stairs and admire the view. I do love a good lighthouse climb.

The consolation prize after missing that was going to the Ernest Hemingway House and Museum, a treasure trove of Papa's books, photographs of him throughout his life and a glimpse into his writing studio next door. The rooms in the house, especially the kitchen and bathroom, were light-filled with large windows on three sides - such a  luxury! - but the loo got extra points for the stunningly bold yellow and black floor tiles.

One room was dedicated to his love of fishing, including the method he developed for pulling in heavier fish than had been possible before. Dubbed "pumping and reeling," it replaced constant pressure as the means to land the big one.

At least I think it was a fishing term, given that the man had four wives, a nurse love and who knows how many paramours.

Out back, the enormous pool was said to have cost Hemingway his last dime, but equally of note was that city officials wouldn't allow dynamite to be used to break up the earth, so it had been dug out by hand with picks and shovels.

Rich people have different problems than the rest of us, no?

Afterward, Moondog Café welcomed us on their deck for a final pitstop after absorbing as much local color and knowledge as two people could reasonably be expected to. We toasted the day with Gruet sparkling Rose and Big Dad sangria while nibbling on pesto flatbread and pot stickers and marveling at how much ground we'd covered in eight hours.

The subject of blog mentions came up and my friend admitted how exposed he felt whenever I refer to him in a post. "Tell me about it!" Mr. Wright cracked.

And while you might think we'd call it a day at that point, my friend had one final stop in mind. It was Mallory Square, but our Moondog linger meant arriving too late for the circus that accompanies sunsets in Key West. All was quiet when we got there.

That said, it wasn't too late to see one of two legal panhandling spots on the island and it was still fully populated despite the darkness. The handwritten sign near the men read, "Need weed and a bottle of rum."

There's much to be said for blatant honesty when trying to loosen money from tourist pockets.

Personally, all I loosened was my shoes from my feet as Mr. Wright drove us up the coast in the darkness past road construction, flashing tiki bar lights and an ocean too dark to see.

A long day, sure, but well spent with an old friend, followed by heading back to Islamorada with my new love.

Lucky and happy? Tell me about it.


  1. I'm happy to hear you two got to KW and walked your cute little bum off. It's nostalgic to hear all the familiar places. It's your kind of town.
    Happy trails back to RVA. It's never easy leaving the Keys. I've met many who went for a visit and never left. ;)

  2. Sooo much to see! I didn't even mention touring the oldest house in KW (complete with outdoor kitchen) or the IVs in the Keys shop where you drop in for a "wellness booster" after a raucous night of drinking. Crazy town!

  3. It is a crazy town. That's a big part of why I love it so much.