It doesn’t take a degree in demographics and a passion for data dumps to know when Key West’s snowbirds arrive. Lights in that once dark house come on at dusk. There are peals of laughter across the fence line and the rumble of interesting conversations of which I can hear a few key words if the breeze is just right.
They’re the early dog walkers ready with a “good morning,” a smile and a poop bag, sometimes in designer colors. Some have been wintering in Key West for decades; the island is their second home. They’re frequently the extended backbone of the island’s arts and culture community and the funding sources of local organizations.
I like when our neighborhood snowbirds return. They bring a burst of energy and a delight in all things island life. I’m not particularly thrilled when there are no parking spaces on the street, but as long as their visiting friends don’t block my gate I try mightily not to be the irritable parking czar.
These days there are lots of new folks. Some are new second homeowners. Others are multi-month vacation rental visitors. Back in December 2021, Citizen reporter Elliot Weld included this tidbit in his story on demographic changes in the Keys: “Brian Schmitt, founder of Coldwell Banker Schmitt Real Estate Company, estimated earlier this year that about 70% of the new home buyers in the Keys were intending to use them as second or third homes.”
Seventy percent? I choked on my morning coffee, though I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, anyone who dabbles in social media has read the questions in “locals” groups. Where’s the closest Target (Walmart, etc.)? (Mainland). My neighbor says I can’t do work on my house without a permit. Is that true? (Pretty much.) Recommendations for cheap places for visiting friends to stay? (Laughter.) Why is there weird stuff growing in my shower? (Uh. Mold.) I planted my tomatoes today; can’t wait for harvest! (Good luck with that.) Aren’t those iguanas cute? I feed them every day. (Seriously? Get a pellet gun.)
There are so many things no one tells our newcomers about the challenges of living in Key West or up the Keys. It’s a shame, really, because these new folks are unprepared for rust, mold, mildew, ants, anoles and roaches in the kitchen, bathroom, closets, well, everywhere. There’s also the swift disillusionment that full-time residents don’t consider them “real” locals.
So, in the spirit of things Key West newcomers should know:
Wrap your garbage: I surreptitiously watched the fascinated face of the not-local guy behind me in the checkout line Tuesday when the clerk, the bagger and I one-upped each other on stinky island things. Like the rooster that flew into the open window of a truck and died there. The package of chicken left for two days in a car that leaked into the carpet. The fish leavings that were tossed — unwrapped — in the green trash can and left for a week. It took me two days to clean that can and I had to apologize to the neighbors for the gawdawful smell. Freeze that stuff and put it out ONLY on trash day.
Fresh water Conchs: I’m not quite sure about the fascination with “who is a real local,” but Key West carries it to art form. Conchs are born and raised here. Fresh water Conchs have lived here for seven years. There’s argument if “lived here” means 12 months every year or whether it counts if you own a home for seven years. I have no idea why seven years is important.
My definition of local is pretty simple: You don’t have any other place to live. Preferably with a phone number starting with 305.
And, my personal favorite: cat hair. Up north a ways, cats tend to shed mostly when it’s hot. On a tropical island, cats shed every darn day. Using the Cats International shedding guideline, I estimate my Cat 5s shed 375,000 cat hairs A DAY. That’s 136,875,000 cat hairs annually. And that’s before we add in the those lovely Fresh Water golden retrievers.