Return to Key West: Part One, Requiem for Red’s

At Captain Tony’s. September, 1990.

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.
Continue reading

Empty Rooms

The house next door is a rental property, one of the few in my neighborhood. It’s empty now, vacated last month by a family that stopped paying rent in January. The owners—siblings who grew up in the house some twenty years ago—have been carting an astonishing amount of left-behind junk out to the curb for weeks since the eviction. Clothes, dishes, broken furniture, bedding, toys, wastepaper, food. Pretty much anything the occupants couldn’t fit in their sedan on the morning they drove away. At night, people in vans and pickup trucks stop in front of the house and pick through the refuse, looking for something, anything, of value.

The family that lived there experienced one of those calamitous implosions that are no less inevitable for being slow and lengthy. They were a married couple in their forties, with a young daughter who was seven years old when they moved in. There was an older child, too, a girl old enough to move out shortly after the family moved in. I thought that she might have been a child from a previous marriage, though I could easily be wrong about that. My wife might know better, but I hesitate to bring the subject up with her.

The man, whose name I never knew, was on disability. One of his legs had been amputated at the knee, the missing portion of limb replaced by a steel rod and prosthetic foot. I sensed that his disability was the result of some chronic disease, like diabetes, rather than an accident. He had the look of a man with entrenched and ongoing health problems. We didn’t see him very much, but we often saw his wife, puttering around in the yard or getting into her car to run errands.
Continue reading

Sleeping With The Angels

KWG2I don’t think anyone sleeps in the Key West Cemetery anymore. Key West cops are much more like cops anywhere else, now that Duval Street is no longer mostly abandoned storefronts from the Wreckers Museum to the Southernmost Point, and $500K won’t buy you a modest conch house.

But this was 1992 and I was six days into a five-day trip to Key West that was already four days too long and getting longer.

I was sitting at the downstairs bar of the Bull and Whistle, perched on a stool behind a Rolling Rock and three Bayer aspirin set out on a cocktail napkin by the bartender, who kept a jug of them beside the cash register. It was a little before 11am.

I’d just checked out of my hotel, left my bags at the front desk, and handed the rental car key to the guy I’d driven down to Key West with five days before. I told him I’d see him in Miami, walked out into the morning sunshine on Duval Street, and down to the Bull.
Continue reading

Warehouse Days and Nights, Part Two: The Secret Break Room

closed_area_poster-p228868388143288493tdar_210Part Two of Two

My job at Amalgamated Whatever & Co. was to tell a team of three or four hourlies what truck to unload, make sure they worked quickly (which they always did, with no urging from me), and then forklift out the pallets of boxes they heaped up. For some reason, packages arrived at the warehouse in trucks without pallets. Sometimes they arrived strewn all over the floor of the truck, as if they had been pitched in from a distance; sometimes they were packed so tightly floor to ceiling that they had to be pried loose with great effort.

I asked the floor manager once, “Why doesn’t this stuff arrive on pallets?”

“Because it doesn’t,” he replied.

The boxes had to be separated by type and destination, then stacked onto pallets to be transported to the warehouse floor. Later, those palleted boxes could be moved to other trucks for delivery to stores. There was no other way to do it. It was brute, stupid, back-breaking work. In the short time I was employed there, a matter of several weeks, I don’t believe I ever heard anybody complain about it.
Continue reading

Warehouse Days and Nights

helpwantedPart One of Two

I’ve worked in a lot of warehouses. In fact, I spent six years working in warehouses—five days a week, double and sometimes triple shifts, if I could find them—to pay for a largely useless bachelor of arts degree in English literature from a state university.

From April of 1982 to May 2nd, 1988, I worked at a UPS hub in Edison, New Jersey, loading trucks, unloading trucks, and sorting packages on conveyor belts. The pay was good—thirteen bucks an hour, plus double-time for anything over an 8-hour shift—and it bought a lot of college credits derived from courses like Literature of the Medieval Courts and American Realism and Naturalism. This era, the early- to mid-80s, was certainly the last in which it was possible for a student to “work his way through school.” That particular achievement has now joined “hopping a freight out of town” and “living off the land” in the Big Book of Quaint Outdated Customs of Yore.

I wish I could tell you why I was hauling 50-lb boxes in wretched conditions (scorching heat in summer, withering cold in winter, an omnipresent haze of truck exhaust and noxious airborne chemicals) in order to gain a passing familiarity with Ode on a Grecian Urn. But I really can’t.
Continue reading

Vinyl Dreams in the Age of the iPod

ipod-vinylFor Christmas, I bought my daughter an iPod.

My wife seemed mildly surprised that I would buy an iPod for a seven-year-old (eight in April), but I didn’t see where I had much choice. My daughter has already outlasted her first portable CD player, a SpongeBob SquarePants model, and I saw no reason to invest once more in a “hard copy” disc-based technology that will surely have all but disappeared from store shelves by this time next year.

It’s a bright pink iPod nano, and she seems very happy with it. I also purchased an elegant little iPod-compatible boombox radio, for her room. I loaded up the iPod with a “starter set” of about 75 or 80 songs, and we all managed to be content with ourselves until April, when my daughter started asking for a cellphone.

Still, though, I experienced a small pang of regret, even as I was wrapping the iPod and boombox in Christmas paper. See, I own an iPod myself. I’ve already encountered first hand how an iPod changes the way you relate to music. So I knew that my daughter will never experience music the way I did when I was in my teens and 20s and 30s.

*

Some people have dreams about falling. Or having their teeth fall out. Or that dream
where you’re back at your old high school, dreading an exam on a subject you know nothing about, and you realize you’re naked.

I have dreams about record stores.
Continue reading

Buster, St. Croix’s Beer-Drinking Pig

The author and Jay-Jay, descendent of Buster

The author and Jay-Jay, descendent of Buster

They never found out who killed Buster.

Indeed, there are those who might deny that Buster met a violent end at all, but the woman behind the bar at the Montpellier Domino Club knows better. She doesn’t use the word “killed,” though. The word she uses is “assassinated.”

Such was Buster’s celebrity, as St. Croix’s First Beer Drinking Pig, that the word “killed” is too small to suit his legacy.

“Oh sure, Buster had enemies,” Norma says. The big jovial islander sets a shot glass on the bar and produces an unmarked, unlabeled clear glass bottle half-filled with a red-brown liquor. “People come from all over to see Buster. He was very, very good for business. That maybe didn’t sit right with some people I could name.” She pops a stopper from the bottle and fills the glass. “So you’re on your honeymoon?”
Continue reading

I Speak For The Trees

Wilson School, Little Ferry, NJ

Wilson School, Little Ferry, NJ

When I was in the fourth grade, I won first prize in a poster contest. It was a school-sanctioned contest, scheduled as part of the Earth Day festivities in 1971. (This was the second Earth Day, after the previous year’s inaugural event.) Entries in the contest were supposed to address some aspect of our relationship to the environment. My entry depicted a big grinning man sitting on a squarish vehicle bristling with round, spinning saw blades. He was chopping down trees, while people in the middle distance clasped their heads in their hands beneath a big speech balloon with a single word (NOOOOO!!!) in it. Behind the vehicle in the far distance, there was a building with a big sign over it. “Tree Museum.” My entry was drawn up and submitted on a big stiff paper sheet of what we used to call “oaktag.”
Continue reading