I miss the Conch Train chugging past my gate. I miss the half dozen sentences about the big fire of 1886. I miss setting my holiday calendar by the number of trains; more trains; must be Christmas; one train; get out the Fourth of July barbecue. I miss watching my toddler grandson race to the fence when he heard the train a block away.
Historic Tours of America re-routed the Conch Train a couple years ago, much to the relief of my neighbors and the irritations of those newly on the route. But, I miss waving and saying welcome to a train load of visitors, all smiling and ready to tell the folks back home that the neighborhood residents were nice to them. Oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful to live here, they’d say.
I was one of them in the way back. With the exception of the born-here, the rest of us were not-local. You probably were, too. We forget that sometimes. We came for a job and stayed. We served Uncle Sam and stayed. We visited so often the visits morphed into each other and we figured, what the heck, let’s move. I rode that Conch Train imagining that this house — no, wait, that house — might someday be home.
But as sure as God loves little green apples, the day we got the key to that house (apartment, house boat, condo, storage unit) we started whining about the tourists. I roll my eyes in Publix when six people sharing one shopping cart and clearly stocking a vacation rental stop mid-aisle to argue over whether to buy Cheetos or potato chips. I curse, sometimes not under my breath, when three wobbly bicyclists can’t get stopped at the corner and slide right into the street. I drove around town a couple months ago with my neighbor from across the street yelling at people with no bike lights. (OK, so some of them were locals….)
Key West residents have a love-hate affair with those who don’t live here. We know that without them there’d be no here here and we resent relying on outsiders to fuel the economy. When we’re feeling magnanimous, we call them visitors. When we’re overwhelmed with crowds, crazies and cranky kids in “our” restaurant, we call them tourists with an occasional cursing adjective.
What we really want is to kick out the riffraff, pull up the drawbridge and keep Key West to ourselves. Ourselves? Dear Mary, Joseph and the Wee Donkey. Just who might the “ourselves” be? Is there some magical cutoff point of who gets to stay?
I’m betting there’s a sliding scale among those who long for the good ol’ days. Were the good ol’ days when water was rain in the cistern? No air conditioning? No tree canopy (look it up; the island hasn’t always been green.) No Amazon Prime delivery? No swimming pools, much less heated ones? Were the good ol’ days the years before it was “discovered” and, if so, when might that discovery have been?
Despite what the longing-for-mythical-Key-West books say, living on this island without today’s taken-for-granted amenities was no good ol’ day. Like a lot of things best left to imagination and R-rated movies, the magical Key West is more myth and less real life.
We need — we have always needed — tourists to underpin the local economy. Nothing else, including the mighty U.S. military, was ever big enough to sustain us for long. Key West is flush when tourism is strong and steady. We really, really want that not to be true, especially now that “we” have found a way to move here. Yay us! Let’s remake Key West into our image.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m no apologist for the thrifty, budget-minded tourists who short-tip or demean our workers. I abhor the rude, crude, entitled bores who push lines and polite boundaries. I worry about the inexorable cancer turning family homes and vacant lots into vacation rentals for strangers. I am appalled at the virtually topless woman with the teeny pasties riding a bike down White Street Jan. 2. I find distasteful the t-shirt and “cosmetic” shops and the people who leave their trash scattered behind them.
That’s why I miss the Conch Train chugging past my gate. It’s a reminder that, for the most part, these are the visitors who make it possible for me to live here. And, they’re asking the same question I did decades ago: Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live here?