So here I am, an old man sitting under an umbrella at a streetside table, a frosty glass of MGD Extra Light before me, a plate of fish tacos on the way, my laptop open on a tiny table. It’s late afternoon, I’ve just arrived in town, and later on I’ll walk up to the marina to pick up my Half Marathon bib number and entry packet. There’s some kind of pasta dinner later, which I may or may not attend, depending on how I feel. The 6am flight to Miami and 180-mile drive from there through the Keys have left me feeling pretty fatigued.
Twenty years ago, when I first started coming down to Key West, I used to arrive at wherever I was staying, throw my suitcase on the bed and go out looking for a bar or four and a good time. Even in later years, when I started coming down for the yearly Key West Literary Seminar, there was always at least one day when I would drift away from the polite book signings and moderated discussions on “Opening Prose to the Light of Being” to start the morning (well, okay, 1pm) on a barstool at the Green Parrot. One of those days might take me to the Schooner Wharf Bar for lunch and an earful of Michael McCloud, a return trip through Captain Tony’s, The Bull, Sloppy Joe’s, and the Red Garter Saloon, a nighttime stumble southward into the waters off Smathers Beach, and another stop or three besides on the way back to the Green Parrot for closing at 4am.
You haven’t really been to Key West unless you’ve closed down the Green Parrot. Whether you’ve arrived there in the early afternoon or at midnight, by the time 4am rolls around, you feel like you’re at one with the place, in tune with its pervasive aura of good times, good people, and—as the sign above the bar points out in no uncertain terms—No Snivelling. The bartenders at the Parrot never seem all that motivated to throw you out at four. They seem as reluctant to see the night turn into the day as you are, and will usually facilitate your transition from barstool to sidewalk by handing you a big plastic cup of beer to take with you. Many times I’ve stood on Whitehead Street with a cup of beer in my hand—waiting for a cab or just waiting to begin the walk back to my room—and watched the bartenders and barbacks pull the Parrot’s big green shutters closed.
I know I won’t be closing the Green Parrot tonight. Tomorrow’s Key West Half Marathon begins at 7am sharp. I should be in bed by 10pm at the latest. I’ll need the rest and the hydration.
I can remember twenty years ago, my first visit to Key West. I arranged the trip for me and a friend through a travel agent that operated out of the offices of my employer at that time, the Columbia House Company. That woman knew even less about Key West than I did. For some reason, we booked the trip in September, and the travel agent booked us into a Day’s Inn on the wrong side of the island. There’s nothing on the eastern end of Key West but gas stations, fast-food franchises, and Jet Ski rental shacks. When we arrived in September of 1990, we had the whole place—the Day’s Inn, the hotel bar (which we immediately dubbed the Sea Hag) and the streets—to ourselves. We hung around the pool for a while until a local took pity on us and directed us to Old Town. We thanked her, got in the rental car, and drove to the other side of the island.
When we got there, we found a riot going on.
We had unwittingly arrived during the third day of the four-day Key West Poker Run, a yearly event that brought thousands of motorcycle riders from Miami to Key West. We could hear the ceaseless roar of motorcycles from a half-mile away, out on Roosevelt Boulevard, as we approached. When we got to Old Town, we discovered that there were two events in progress. Running concurrently with the Poker Run was another event called, I believe, WomenFest, billed as a weekend-long party for lesbians.
My friend and I edged our way through the teeming crowd, past at least half a dozen ongoing brawls and scarcely concealed acts of public sex, toward the corner of Caroline and Duval. Bikers were slowly cruising along the curbs on their machines, emptying bottles of beer and tossing them into the street. Lip-locked lesbians stood on every corner. The bars we passed were filled to overflowing and adorned with banners celebrating the weekend’s twinned events. “Welcome to Bike and Dyke Weekend 1990!”
My friend and I stood on the corner and looked around. “I guess we’re not getting laid tonight,” I said.
My friend nodded, and watched as one biker, then another, came flying out of the open-air Bull bar, got up and started pummeling each other. “I just want to stay out of trouble,” he said.
There was no question of squeezing our way into any of the more popular bars on the street. We bought a couple of beers from a curbside cart and then wandered off Duval and up Caroline to a place with less flying glass and fists. And that’s how we found Red’s.
There was no sign on Red’s, identifying it as such. Later, we’d ask a bartender what the place was called. It was a wooden, brown-painted shack, with falling rain gutters and broken masonry, open to the street on the front and sides. You could tell, just looking into the place, that Red’s was functioning as a magnet for all of the most disreputable and deranged Poker Run participants. Probably half the bikes parked around it were adorned with some sort of Nazi or skinhead regalia. From our vantage point on the sidewalk, the tableau inside looked like a scene from Charlie Manson’s Spahn Ranch hideout, on orgy night.
I turned to my friend. “Well, we gotta go in there,” I said.
“You’re fucking kidding, right?” He didn’t say this in an indignant or disbelieving way. He said it in weary resignation, as one long accustomed to my poor judgment and untrustworthy decision-making skills.
“Sure. Why not? It’s the only place where we can get within twenty feet of the bar.”
“I wonder why that is.”
“We gotta go in there.”
So we did.
The first thing you noticed about Red’s was that it stank to high heaven of vomit. There was a reason for this. There was vomit all over the floor. I’ve been in a number of bars of ill-repute over the years, the kind of place that has a concrete or ceramic-tiled floor well-suited for hosing down after a long night of heavy traffic. Red’s was the first (and only) bar I ever saw being hosed down during actual business hours. Heavily tattooed, Wehrmacht-outfitted bikers were grumbling and making way as a barback cleaned the floor with a high-pressure hose, nudging indescribable offal toward a side door.
And then there was the clientele. Never mind the bikers, who were like bikers anywhere, though situated more toward the nihilist end of the spectrum and suffering the internal heavy weather that results from having been drunk for three days straight. Those guys had nothing on the locals. Red’s was clearly the last rung on the ladder for island residents who had long outstayed their welcome. When I went to the bar, one elderly woman leaped up and started making weird hand gestures and spastic, contorted facial expressions at me.
“Don’t worry about her,” the bartender said. “She’s giving you the evil eye. She does that to everyone.”
Finally, there was the bathroom. But, you know what, never mind the bathroom. There was only one and the less said about it the better.
“I think we should leave,” my friend said.
“Why? We’re just starting to have fun,” I said.
I probably would have said more in a similar vein, but I was accosted, just then, by one of my fellow Red’s patrons. She was tall, thin as a rail, with sinewy arms and legs, a crazed look in her eyes, and about seven teeth in her head. She gripped the front of my shirt and lifted me up, so I was up on my toes.
“I love that!” she bellowed.
“Okay!” I yelped. “What!”
She lifted me higher and shook me like a toy. “Cows!” she yelled. “I fucking love cows!”
There was an illustration of a big grinning cow on the T-shirt I was wearing. I peered over the woman’s hands, clenched at my throat, and then over at my friend.
“See?” I said. “We’re making friends!”
That woman carted me around and showed me off to her friends like I was something she had won at the fair. I did my best not to make her mad. I never learned her name.
Red’s doesn’t exist anymore. It was gone just a few years later, replaced by some sort of generic sports bar. I was in that sports bar, once, about ten years ago, and no one in there remembered Red’s at all. If you Google Red’s and Key West, nothing comes up. A lot of the old bars I remember seem to be gone now. Red’s. Barefoot Bob’s. Papillon. Even the Sea Hag is gone now, replaced by a Waffle House.
I was in the Sea Hag once more after my initial visit to Key West. In the late ’90s, I drove onto the island and I really, really needed a bathroom. I parked in the Day’s Inn lot, just over the bridge from Stock Island, charged into the Hag, ordered a beer in passing, and headed straight for the bathroom. The bathroom had one stall, and I was using it when the door to the men’s room rocketed open and rattled against the wall. Someone crossed to the stall, hammered at the locked door, groaned, and then threw up, copiously, in the sink.
Welcome back to Key West, I thought.