When I’m off-island and someone asks me where I’m from, I tell them Key West. When I’m home on the porch and someone asks, I say, “Where would you like me to be from because I probably lived there.”
I’m not a Key West local. I was born in West Virginia, traipsed through North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia on my way to New Jersey and Illinois. I don’t have a hometown; there’s no family homestead; we are scattered across the country. As my mom used to say every time we relocated: “Bloom where you’re planted.”
No one’s going to confuse me with a Conch no matter how long I’ve lived in Key West. One’s got to be born here to claim that. But there’s such pride of place in saying one’s a Key West local that we long ago sliced and diced the definition of “local” so that most everyone could claim a piece.
A dozen kinds of Key West local
I’ve counted at least a dozen subtle categories of Key West local.
Let’s start with the gold standard: The born, raised and still here Conchs. Those are closely followed by the born, raised, left and came backs. Then the born, raised, left and still have family. Onward to the born, raised, left, family’s gone and the island holds my heart. Next are the born, raised, left, no connections, never coming back, don’t even want to come back, but can’t resist checking in on social media. As best I can tell, there are few, if any, born, raised, left, never coming back and long ago stopped even thinking about Key West. All can lay claim to being Conchs because, yeah, born here.
Next up are the OO&Rs. OO&R stands for owner-occupied and renters. The OO&Rs are the 26,000 permanent residents who either own and live in a place or rent a place full-time. The OO&Rs are not second-home owners or vacation rentals. About 46 percent of Key West’s population owns the place it lives in. About 54 percent rent. (Nationally, about 66 percent of people own the place in which they live.)
OO&Rs obviously include the Conchs, but what about the moved here locals? That gets tricky. Moved here as a kid, went through the grades, played sports, went to work, raising a family and still here? Darn near full Conch status, I’d say. I’m inclined to believe that if you did your school years in a place, you can claim at least local status any time you want. Like almost-Conch.
But there’s such Key West pride of place that we’ve got something called Freshwater Conch. Freshwaters have lived here full time for at least seven years. There’s even a certificate you can buy. Or, if you know someone who knows someone you might be able to score one of those Honorary Conch certificates. And, if there’s anyone reading this who knows WHEN that seven-year-freshwater-conch thing started and why, holler. I wasted upwards of an hour down research rabbit holes.
Key West local status gets weird (no surprise) once we get to arguing about driver’s licenses, cell phone numbers or whether you have another home elsewhere; whether you live in your Key West house for six-months-and-a-day (to qualify for homestead tax rates); whether snowbirds count if they’re here for three or four months, volunteer and rent the same place every year.
You can see how it gets complicated. Just ask the beleaguered service staff and business owners as they navigate irritable folks wanting to claim a locals discount. Or, like the couple who came whizzing on bicycles out of a vacation rental house, hanging a wrong way left on a one-way street, and when I looked askance as they almost ran me down, gleefully shouted, “Hey, it’s OK; we’re local.” I think not.
But, you know what? None of that really matters, does it? You’re local if you show up, do good and keep it between the rails.
BTW, I made a mistake in my column last week on cruise ships. I corrected it online. But if you read the column in print, the mistake was there. Here’s the corrected paragraph: Thanks to Covid-19, Safer Cleaner Ships, the U.S. Navy and the City of Key West, these days there’s rarely more than one cruise ship per day. The big ones use the privately owned Pier B. The small ones dock at the city-owned Mallory Square. These days only the Navy uses the Outer Mole pier, which is owned by the Navy and which is unlikely to offer it up again.