Pretty much lovers of big cities with their cosmopolitan flare, corporate headquarters and skyscrapers do the sniffy, rolling eyes thing when they’re forced to contemplate life in a small town.
I admit I was delighted to escape every small town in which I unpacked a box. I didn’t want a big city either, so like Goldilocks and her just right chair, I lived in mostly in a big-town-little-city within striking distance of some serious urban congestion. Then I downsized and moved into a town barely bigger than where I grew up.
In so many ways, Key West isn’t a small town. We probably never were, at least not in the classic, Mayberry kind of way.
Instead, we have the cheek-by-jowl closeness of houses whose neighbors share their breakfast flavors and domestic squabbles – and hear their toilets flush at bedtime. There’s the dissonance of a dozen different languages and a hundred regional accents competing down Duval Street. Even with Covid-19 restrictions, we have theater and art galleries, music, five-star restaurants and corner coffee shops, ethnic neighborhoods, festivals and parades. OK, so no festivals and parades at the moment, but eventually.
We have breathtaking wealth juxtaposed against crushing poverty. Jaw dropping real estate prices where 600-square-feet and no outdoor space top half a million – plus condo fees. It’s the idea, as one long-time Key West resident puts it, that the man with whom you’re discussing the relative value of apples at Fausto’s might well have had dinner with the Queen of England the day before.
But just when I’ve convinced myself that Key West is as cosmopolitan as Manhattan though without the skyscrapers, our small town shows through like the tail of a shirt not quite tucked in. No manner of sanding and smoothing, up-scaling and renovating can quite get rid of our small town roots.
Here’s how I know I live in Key West — and not some other small town, or, heaven forbid, Manhattan:
Visitors don’t know we’re here: Give or take a few, there are 25,000 permanent residents on the island. We are invisible except for residents who work directly with our visitors. I suspect many visitors don’t give a passing thought to the real lives of the 25,000 residents. Visitors glide over the surface of this working community with its city government, churches, health systems, court houses and such and never realize they’ve not seen the real Key West. Visitors love or hate us based on how well we fulfill their imagination of what a tropical island at the end of the highway ought to be.
We’re in each other’s business: Sure, every small town is all up in everyone else’s business. Rumors, gossip and a wealth of useful information make their ways along the Coconut Telegraph, these days with an able assist from social media. Impressive this week has been the well-moderated 5 Star Safety Reviews Facebook Group. The group’s members post the names of Key West businesses, bars, restaurants and venues that maintain Covid-19 protocols: masks, social distancing, cleanliness. Places one feels safe patronizing. The group got a jump start last weekend when Gov. Ron DeSantis’ stopped local governments from collecting fines for failing to wear masks.
Lots of folks thought that would mean no more masks required in Key West. Within 48 hours, local businesses stepped up to say: We’re still no mask; no service. The list of local businesses maintaining safety protocols is impressive — and by their absence on that list, some places are learning their patrons — locals and visitors — have decided to go elsewhere. As of mid-week, the national chain businesses are maintaining the protocols. In short, wear your mask if you want service. No one called for boycotts; just locals sharing with locals and off-island Key West fans where the safest places are.
Customer service still comes with a smile: Being a retail clerk standing behind a cash register or at the customer service counter ranks up there with the top 10 most thankless jobs. The pay sucks; that’s a given. You’re on your feet all day. If you’re lucky, people act like you’re invisible rather than angrily hollering for your manager. Twice this week, once at Publix and once at Home Depot, Key West showed best of quintessential small town: a delightful conversation about how Covid has changed our grocery shopping habits and 10 minutes of competent, laughter-filled assistance over a home repair project.
Small things. Small town. Our town. Warts and all.