“How’d you end up in Key West?”
Unless one is a born-and-bred Conch, there’s really only one answer. Visited; decided I’d move.
Whether one arrived 50 years ago or yesterday, two kinds of people live in Key West. Those who love it, warts and all. And those who hate it and plot everyday to get off the island.
Unlike a lot of places one might live, learning to love this island isn’t an option. If you’re not in love from touchdown, you’re not likely to shrug off the challenges the longer you’re here. In short, (cliche coming) love it or leave it.
Most folks love Key West on a vacation. I mean, what’s not to like? Great food, music, nightlife. Laid back happy hours. Sparkling water with sunset sails, snorkeling and fishing. Wandering the streets of Old Town; even surviving the ubiquitous Duval Crawl and the T-shirt shops and skanky cosmetic scammers. Petting a six-toed cat. Staring down an iguana. Clucking at the chickens.
Vacationing isn’t living here. Nor is spending a couple months over the winter. Snowbirding is an extended vacation; your “real life” is somewhere else. Living here — with a 305 area code on your cell and a Florida drivers license with a 33040 ZIP code — is a whole other experience.
Ed and I moved permanently to Key West in 2012 with the Cat 4s (now Cat 5s) in tow. We bought our house in 2008, weeks before the real estate market crashed, rented it to long-time locals for four years while we disentangled from our corporate worlds, downsized by 66 percent, found local employment and moved in. In July 2019 we could claim to be “fresh water Conchs,” the appellation for those who weren’t born here, but who’ve made it seven years full-time.
We’ll lodge our ashes in the Key West Cemetery and put gravestones in our various family plots “up there” that read: Ed and Linda are in Key West.
We are among those who love Key West, warts and all. So, what is it that’s got our feet buried deeply in the coral bedrock?
Key West takes you at face value — as long as you’re not a jerk. We love sharing our how-did-you-get-here stories and our here’s-what-I-did-in-the-old-world bona fides, but once past the few minutes that takes, we don’t care who you were or where you came from. What’s important is who you are today. Oh, and don’t be a jerk. That arrogant, entitled, alpha (fe)male, my-way-not-yours stuff that may have made you a star somewhere else has no place on the island. Shed the attitude as quickly as you shed the mainland clothes. No one cares how much money you have or how gilded your titles. As a neighbor told me shortly after I moved in: Be mindful when you’re shopping in Faustos one morning and sniffing censoriously at the homeless-looking guy in the vegetable aisle. He might have had dinner with the Queen last night. Yes, that Queen. Don’t be a jerk.
Key West is libertarian (little l) not Liberal (big L). No doubt that Key West is an island of blue voters in a sea of red ones. As soon as one crosses the Cow Key Bridge at the triangle out of town, Monroe County goes dark red. There’s not even a smidgen of purple in between. So, yeah, Key West votes blue. But. Huge but. In everyday life, our culture is all about you-live-your-life-I’ll-live-mine — as long as you’re not a jerk. Key West’s is an inclusive, tolerant, non-judging culture that’s happy you love this place as much as we do. Which is why I am baffled by visitors who are shocked, shocked, mind you, by Key West’s vibrant LGBTQ culture and find it necessary to comment unpleasantly aloud at best, or to shout slurs and start fights, at worst. I mean, how could they not have known? Don’t be a jerk.
Key West is a haven for outcasts, misfits, loners and those who had empty dance cards “up there.” We’ve gentrified over the past couple of decades, which gives us a bit too much gloss these days, but, fact is, one doesn’t end up permanently in Key West if one is a perfect match for, say, Chicago, New York or, well, anywhere else. No joke. We’re a complicated stew of folks who never really fit in in our previous lives. A friend who was horrified when I told her I was moving to Key West simply couldn’t restrain herself: “Where in the world will you shop,” she asked. “There’s no Saks. No country club. No golf course.” Exactly, I said. (Well, there is a yacht club and one golf course, but those are stories for another day.) Two weeks after I ditched the corporate world, I cleared out my closets of everything, everything, that smacked of an executive costume. I never really fit in up there. Was exhausted with the trying. Done.
The weather. Even in the summer. Even in a hurricane. ‘Nuff said.
That’s it. Four reasons I live here. There are dozens of reasons why living here is challenging, but as my mom says: “Yeah, but you live in Key West.” Indeed.
(Originally published Feb. 15, 2019 and updated Dec. 28, 2019.)