The Key West Mystique

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Key West old days

Key West conversations | Remembering the good old days

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

02/04/2023

Look, I admit it: I live inside a bubble on a tropical island where pretty much everyone I hang out with is like me. Nothing wrong with that until we start thinking that what “we” think about the old days is the only way to think.

A bunch of us wish it were 1975, when our memories about the old days tell us Key West was the real deal. I hear that one a lot and its variations ripple through the island’s social media and Key West conversations with a longing that can make us sound, well, like old people. I wasn’t here then; maybe it was all that.

Key West over its decades probably was all that for a few people. Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Jimmy Buffett and their circles of influence, for sure. Definitely for the predominantly white 20-somethings with the wherewithal to drop out at the end of the road after college.

It sure wasn’t all that for residents who struggled to pay bills and raise families in the devastated Key West economy after the Navy pulled out or the Depression clobbered the island. I’m willing to bet a paycheck that Key West’s long-time locals happily took the out-of-town cash at the bar and rolled their eyes when those off-islanders wandered back out on the street.

The island capitalized on those outsider stories to create the mythology that drew mostly white baby boomers to move to or retire in Key West. We share values, interests, memories and the headlines that sprawl from the middle of the 20th century into the first quarter of the 21st century.

Every generation remembers its old days

Most of us were born between 1946 and 1964. We arrived in Key West between the mid-70s and, oh, say, the late 2010s. That’s why Key West conversations can be the very definition of echo chamber. Except for our politics, we’re probably more like The Villages than we’d ever admit.

As a generational cohort, boomers are rigid, righteous and reactionary. Rigid because we really want things to stay just as we think we remember them. Righteous because we believe we are right and can’t understand how others could disagree. And, reactionary because when things don’t go our ways, we tend to burn ’em down.

What leads ultimately to a healthy kind of nostalgia is the one where the positive pro-social aspects of nostalgia can reconnect us now. Not just to people in our past but to the people we’re dealing with today. That is possible, that can happen. All the memoirs that I’ve studied, have demonstrated how that happens. It happens by confronting the past with the current situation in trying to find what were the lessons we learned from our past that we can now tweak, update, customize and use to cope with the turmoil and the conflict in the change that we’ve gone through to sort of be more optimistic towards the future.

Kristine Batcho, PhD

Baby boomers have done that since we were teenagers protesting the Vietnam War, big business, big government and big education. We kept right on burning things down on Jan. 6, 2021. I’m not surprised so many of those who stormed the U.S. Capitol that day were in their mid-50s and older. They’re the trailing end of the generation. Different people; different cause; but same rigid, righteous, reactionary generation burning down things they don’t like.

I’m prone to a bit of intentional flame throwing and chain yanking on occasion. It’s not my finest trait, I’ll admit. So over the weekend I tossed this out at a Key West gathering: “I love tourists,” I said. “I love them because they love being here and they love Key West as much as we do.”

Holy peanut butter on a cracker. There was a moment of silence. Then a ripple of disapproving groans. Folks were too polite to burn me down, but I sure wasn’t the popular girl.

Yet, it’s true. I do love the tourists; at least I love the ones who love us back and that’s most of them. I love living in a place that people dream about and would do most anything to share a piece of.

In September 2017, when I launched the Hurricane Irma Key West Facebook page and website, I was unprepared for the world-wide love — no other word for it — for Key West. Over six weeks, we reached more than a million people. Even the ones for whom a visit was an impossibility loved the island.

My friends, we live in a place we should share. That doesn’t mean we fail to protect our fragile environment or turn ourselves into a playground for the disconnected wealthy. It does mean, at least for me, that we stop longing for the old days. It means we listen to those whose voices aren’t trapped inside our echo chamber. It means we look forward to possibilities.

It means we stop acting like old people.

8 Comments

  1. Audrey Thompson

    One of the things I love about Key West…tourists are always happy. There is a vibe that resonates with them. They are on vacation and having a good time. Well, pick me up with that vibe and take me with you.

    Reply
  2. Valeri DeCastris

    Been loving Key Weird since 1978 no matter the iterations

    Reply
  3. Laura Bateman

    This resonates in so many ways!

    Reply
    • Linda Grist Cunningham

      Thank you, Miss Laura!

      Reply
  4. ed cabaniss

    Right now is someone’s “good old days”.

    Reply
    • Linda Grist Cunningham

      Indeed.

      Reply
  5. Joe Thornton

    I loved this article. Thank you for writing it!

    Reply
    • Linda Grist Cunningham

      Thanks for reading along with me, Joe.

      Reply

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Avatar of Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

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