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Friday, February 22, 2008

My Quick Trip through the Florida Keys; To Key West and Back

I had a full day ahead of me and a night. I had a rental car that I was master of…a burnt orange Kia that I would’ve picked out differently if I wasn’t in a hurry when I arrived at the airport a few days before. I had warm weather, especially for February. And a little rain, though I hoped not for long. And all the way an itching desire to go south, to fall straight into the tropics, to lunge right over the sea onto some lush islands. I didn’t have to be back for my last store in Miami until Monday. It was Sunday…and my feet hit the gas pedal of that little burnt orange Kia as I headed south.

The traffic was bad and the clouds obfuscated the blue, sea-calling skies, but I was resilient and pressed on. Distant wise the trip was to be about 160 miles. But once you get on that brushy one-way road that leads to the very tip of peninsular Florida, traffic creeps by, at least in the afternoon. The sun eventually came out and I stopped several times on the way down. Once on Key Largo for a plate of shrimp. Another time around Islamorada to stake out a possible stopping/resting point for my return (More about this later). And thirdly, I veered off the road when the late afternoon sun shone brightly upon a sign that read “Plane rides over the Keys…Welcome” or some such advertisement. I thought “Why not? If it’s only about 20 bucks or so, I’ll take a little sky tour of this paradise.” Pulling in, there was some sort of carnival going on. I maneuvered around the place found the airplane people. And was directed to a little hut where skydiving was being taught. And then I thought, “Ah, maybe I could go skydiving. If it’s like a 100 bucks or so.” But the prices were ridiculous there or maybe its been that long since I jumped out of an airplane. Up in the north of Florida, almost 10 years ago…I jumped for less than 100 dollars. Now, its around 270. I’ll have to pass on that. I asked the skydiving guide about just taking a plane ride and he pointed way back in this semi road, semi trail that the pilot was back there on the landing strip who could talk to me about that.

When I followed this gravel road around to where all these little crop dusters sat seeming to invite my enthusiasm, I had a hard time finding the old pilot. Finally, a tall gray-haired fellow told me the price. He only takes 3 people up at the price of 120. Dang it! No one else was around that wanted to fly. And the sun was beginning its golden-orange descent all marvelously for the closing of the day. I would miss a spectacular ride. I drove out of there that much more charged to do and see something glorious.

I got to Key West right before sunset. Those quaint little tropical streets were bustling with energy. A rooster or two blocked some of the main intersections. I had a very difficult time finding a parking space. I always try to shoot for making no payments to park at all. It’s really a challenge in large cities and touristy areas. I almost locked my keys in my car at this one hotel parking lot in Key West…and they surely would have towed me. But luckily, I left my back door unlocked and managed to hide my car in a superb location. Then I walked through the streets that were beginning to light up with festivities and attractions.

Near this old section of this city, probably where pirates raided and plundered, was a little port area where large crowds of people were assembled. Acrobats and magicians did their shows all contended for the attention and therefore tips of the audience. I’ve been in a lot of big, even exotic cities and seen some remarkable street performers. But this area was the most concentrated I’ve seen for such a small space. After one performance was done you could hear the performers getting the audience to count down to the start of their show. And the crowd swarmed back and forth, oohing and ahhing, laughing and just staring in amazement among this gravel-famous talent. I missed what was left of the sunset on Keywest because these 2 acrobats who could juggle sticks of fire standing on each others heads.

At night fall, I found myself a hammock and a margarita on a little beach behind a hotel. I guess you could say I trespassed to get to this hammock but I purchased this margarita from the hotel bar legally. I laid there looking at the moonlight out on the water. Is there anything more fabulous than having the moon piercing through palm fronds as you lay on a hammock and the cool, gentle sway of the ocean breeze swings you? I lay there thinking to myself. I had to be back in Miami the next morning. And there was still much of Key West to experience. I felt like I just got there. The plan was to drive all night back and build that rack in that store in the morning and then go to a hotel and get some sleep hopefully later that day.

After this short relaxation, I wandered down the streets where all the people were thronging. I must admit I received many a glance from a middle-aged man in a flowery or a pink shirt. The women here were not as pretty as the women in Miami. But I believe there are few places where the women could possibly be prettier than Miami. The Bars were thriving to a wild beat, a primitive impulse. I couldn’t tell which ones were gay or not? After all it was Key West. I wasn’t looking for a bar to drink in. I had to drive a long, sleepless journey tonight. Besides, I’d promised my mother I wouldn’t drink anymore. She read my previous stories about New Orleans. Ah but the margarita…yes, the one margarita, well it was Key West…you got to have a margarita in Key West. I also had Key Lime pie on a stick which is a must. But for the most part I just wanted to dance again to some wild Cuban music. Eventually I found a dance floor not Cuban or Latin at all. Just a bunch of partying tourists assembled on the roof, I think of where Ernest Hemingway used to hang out. These 3 big-boned girls all danced to the classic rock of the DJ. They were really enjoying themselves. I stood there…wanting to dance but not really feeling the magic like 2 nights ago (read my note of Dancing in Miami for those that are curious.) And my feet were even sorer than before. But I felt less inhibited about it all. After all I had owned the floor two nights before and it was less of a barrier getting to that point where you just don’t care what other people think. But then emerging out of the DJ’s speakers lifted this song into the nighttime revelry. It was Queen’s “Fat-Bottomed Girls” and my eyes sprang open gazing at the 3 large women dancing grooving on the roof of this bar. Something hooked me deep inside. I had to dance to this song. It was the song of the moment. You know, those magical instances when a song comes on that aptly seizes the very circumstances, the very mood and texture of the moment and says “This is what is happening RIGHT NOW, come, experience it”.

So I began to waltz slowly out there. My footsteps keeping in steady time with the ‘boom boom’ of the drum during the opening bit as I approached this troop of portly women. I envisioned this sort of demure procession where all 3 turned and enveloped me as I moved about like a smooth tiger among well…how do I put this…bigger tigers. Maybe towards the end when Freddie Mercury shouts out “Get on your bikes and ride!”, we all doing dancing moves like we’re on bicycles or something. But this wasn’t how it happened. I approached one of these girls and her eyes locked into mine. The other two pretended not to notice me. What a catastrophe when only one girl notices you. The two of us start dancing…and the lyrics flow “I was just a skinny lad, never knew no good from bad”. I found myself acting theatrical almost wanting to act out what the lyrics were saying, almost referring to myself as the skinny lad and thank God, I stopped short of pointing to my partner when the “left alone with big fat fanny” echoed. Or better yet that I didn’t start swinging my arms all around them when “Fat Bottomed Girls you make the rockin world round” resounded. What the crap was I thinking? I danced normally with her. And with her the next song and the next song. Then she was tired. So we sat and I met all 3. My dance partner was a pretty girl with pretty eyes. She was from Ohio. We talked a good deal until these other guys arrived. Guys that these ladies had met on the cruise ship over here. They were a loud, outgoing bunch. Had been drinking. And didn’t know the first rudiments of conversation or dancing for that matter. Then we all started dancing again. I was with my trusty Ohio girl. Some of these guys began dancing with the girls grinding on them and all. I don’t do that. It makes me uncomfortable to start rubbing myself against the bodyparts of my partner. I even hesitate holding their hands at times. And wouldn’t it be something that I let too much space get between me and my partner, mostly dancing completely apart from her and one of these guys came in and swooped her away. She wanted to be touched by somebody, I knew it. And I wasn’t going to do it. My feelings were not hurt, maybe my vanity, a little. But I didn’t want to be the awkward guy not grinding on anybody, so I slipped out of the bar and down to the street. I didn’t even say goodbye to my Ohio fat-bottomed girl.

I paid the last visit to Key West at the huge barrel that marks the southern most point of the continental US. And the sign that read 90 miles to Cuba. I wish I could’ve gone there.

I got in my rental burnt-orange Kia and at around midnight and started my trek back to Miami. I had plenty of time. So I took it. Here and there pulling off Highway 1 and exploring other roads on these islands. The moon was nearly full, it lit up the entire scenery. It is the best time to drive on these long, long bridges linking each island to each other. At times, on some of these bridges, there was so much moonlight, that I’d turn off my carlights and just drive. And be amazed at the moon soaking the ocean and sky into its glowing magnificence. Getting tired of the same old songs on the radio, I began listening to the Latin stations. And this Cuban style music really grew on me. Eventually, I came to one of the places that I’d stopped before. It was a hotel that had a beach behind it, along with hammocks lashed to palm trees. It was about 2:30 in the morning and I slipped my car through the parking lot, and then went to go take a short nap on one of these hammocks. But the wind was so bad coming in from the sea. I was cold and my cough was getting worse. I must have dallied around for about an hour trying to go to sleep, just relaxing and thinking, feeling weight upon the ropes of this hammock and really believing that a fierce rain was blowing in. I felt a drop or two. And I was up and out of there to continue my drive. I never did eat any supper that entire night in Key West. And I was getting hungry. So every key that I passed through, I kept my eyes open for a late night café or something. Eventually I got out of the Keys and was in this town called Homestead at about 5 in the morning. I find this Cuban café open. And I sat outside ordered some steak and eggs and some café con leche and just sat there observing all the various people that came up to order to start their day.

I got to the Walgreen’s store in Miami (actually Coral Gables) at about half past 6 or 7. the sun was just coming up. It took me the next 4 hours to build that T-shirt rack and place all the T-shirts all neatly in them. Next it was to the hotel in Ft. Lauderdale where I slept maybe 2 or 3 hours, and then I was up and wondering what interesting things I could find in Ft. Lauderdale for my last night in South Florida.


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