This isn’t one of those Key West has changed laments. Of course, it’s changed. Three years of Covid-19 escalated the speed of those changes, leaving us more than a tad discombobulated. Time wears away familiarity even when we hold on for dear life trying to slow or stop those changes. Key West 2022 shares little with Key West 1992 or 1822, for that matter.
I think we feel we are losing our island’s sense of place. If we’ve a mind to, I think we can rebuild it.
Cliche ahead: Things change. That bartender you liked so much when you were sporting your newly minted ID card? She’s got grandchildren. That neighborhood restaurant you claimed as your go-to place? The owners retired and moved to someplace not here. The dilapidated, shingled house with the overgrown vegetation and squatters? Somebody tore it down and built a luxury vacation home. Those plans you had for raising a family here, retiring here, traveling from here in the summer? Covid — and change — put them on hold at best. Gone at worst.
Even the most devoted Key West fan girl can recite the 2022 challenges to our sense of place: a diminished work force; no housing for locals, much less affordable housing; crumbling infrastructure; a surfeit of visitors, not all of whom appreciate the island’s One Human Family culture; an aging population prepping to die or get off the island to find elder care; born-and-raised young Conchs leaving for education and jobs; the military so stretched it can’t house its families.
Not very encouraging, huh?
Key West 2022: the half-full girl
I am a half-full glass girl. You can count on me to be the obnoxiously sensible one in every grumble session, the one who happily says “yeah, but we’re going to be OK.” It’s not that I don’t despair; I’m not oblivious to today’s headlines. It does mean, however, that I can’t help looking for solutions, even small ones, that can make something better. I actually do stop smack in the middle of the road and marvel at some sprig of a plant pushing up through concrete. Talk about perseverance in adversity.
A friend shared a “dining out in Key West” story with me last week. With reservations in hand, it was almost an hour before they were seated. Not because the place was busy, but because there weren’t enough staffers in the kitchen, at the bar, at the tables or in the front. They stood around, virtually ignored by what staff there was until, finally, someone said “right this way” and then promptly left them to sit for another 20 minutes. There were, of course, apologies for the delays with the usual explanations of supply chain shortages, short staffed, called in sick, didn’t show up.
That’s the way it is everywhere these days. Not just in Key West and not just in tourist destinations. Covid and the political and cultural shifts of the past decade have upended our sense of place. We can fix that.
And as for that restaurant and its sense of place? How about this for 2022: Create a welcoming space for waiting (seated), even if it means sacrificing a table or two. Greet guests the instant they walk in and explain that service will be slow; we’ll all understand. Offer a glass or two (free; yay!) of something bubbly. Ensure they get gracious updates. Most of us understand the 2022-Covid service thing. We’ll deal with that if you make the welcoming experience a good one.
We have two choices: We can lament the loss of our sense of place in outrage, insisting that “they” have to do such-and-so; or we can follow Jimmy’s advice and change our attitudes. So, here goes with 10 tips; no excuse not to try. They’re free and don’t take much thought or effort:
10 tips for Key West 2022 sense of place
- Do something helpful for those who need us
- Share our gifts according to the gifts we have received. The more you have, the more you give
- Refuse to stand silently when injustice rears beside us. Find your own way of being “unsilent”
- Refuse to look away when another is hurting
- Pick up the trash instead of walking past it
- Offer a smile instead of a frown — or that equally obnoxious “resting,” oblivious face
- Do the little things even when they feel insubstantial
- Stand steadfast against the haters — and learn the difference between a willful hater and an ignorant one. Most of us are teachable, my friends
- Hope for the best, protect ourselves and others from the worst, and work for the good of all
- Remember that if we do these things, we can rebuild the Key West sense of place. Join me. Be a fan girl.