29 June 2012

Municipal Chickens: 5 Things That Make it Key West

San Francisco's got it.  So does New Orleans.  Boulder has its own version of it. Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo have glimmers of it. New York doesn't need it; ditto L.A., they've got other things going for them.  Chicago tries to get it, but can't quite. Milwaukee just tries to be Chicago. There are others, but you get the idea. I call it "ititude." It's that je ne sais quoi, that singular, yet still not quite definable character of a place that makes it a destination. There's an ethos about places with ititude that makes you want to go back, rather than go somewhere new, vacation after vacation. You start to think of yourself as a part-time resident. Gradually, you begin to patronizing the bars and restaurants the locals frequent. You half-seriously consider retiring there. You get homesick when you get back home.
It's nearly impossible to put your finger on what gives a place ititude. It's ineffable. It's like pornography or art: you can't define it; you just know it when you see it and, dare I carry the analogy further, you want to partake of it, be a part of it because it is instantaneously a part of you.  All that can be definitively said about places with ititude, is that they are unique--even from other places that have it.

If you've been to Key West--even once--you either loved, loved, LOVED it, or you didn't get it at all.  Cause that's the other thing about places that have ititude: they don't really care whether you get it or not.  That's part of their appeal.

Our first visit to Key West was in the summer of 2008.  We were here for the last two days of a two-week vacation, the other twelve days of which was spent in the Bahamas.  I didn't know anything about Key West when we came here, beyond the cumulative effect of a thousand late-night commercials. Our connecting flight brought us to Miami and we had a couple of days to kill.  Spend them in Miami, or go as far as south--yes, even in July--as possible.   Beyond its ability to satisfy a biological drive of ours--to be warm, the only other thing we knew about Key West then was that it was a gay mecca--always a promising sign.

But Key West is so much other than that.  It is the sum total of its diametrically opposed cultural influences colliding into, sliding past, making room for, and sometimes unexpectedly collaborating with one another, that makes it the unique creature it is.  Cruise ships dock here, so do Coast Guard ships, so do Navy vessels.  The Old South comes through in its architecture while remnants of Cuban culture cross its roads every day.  Here "wreckers" salvaged the cargoes (and usually the passengers and crew) of ships that regularly dashed themselves against its reefs.  Ernest Hemingway called it home for awhile; Harry Truman came here to escape his House. And of course one cannot forget that Key West is The Conch Republic, "the island nation" that unabashedly states, "We seceded where others failed."  Which brings me to

Thing #1 - How to Secede without Really Trying
On April 23rd, 1982, in an effort to stem the flow of illegal aliens (and narcotics) into the country, the U.S. Border Patrol set up a blockade on U.S Hwy.1 at Florida City just north of the Florida Keys. The resulting miles long backup while border patrol guards required motorists to show proof of citizenship, and conducted random vehicular drug inspections effectively cut Keys citizens off from the U.S. mainland (and did real damage to the local economies which rely almost exclusively on tourism).

Key West Mayor, Dennis Wardlow, filed an injunction in U.S. Federal court in Miami to remove the blockade, but it was turned down. In a semi-serious attempt to draw attention to the situation, Wardlow declared that Key West was now an independent island nation.  After a full minute of rebellion, then Prime Minister Wardlow, surrendered to U.S. forces and demanded $1 billion in U.S. foreign aid to rebuild the nation after the long siege.

Though originally conducted as prank to boost tourism, the effects have been long-lasting.  Now, thirty years later, the Conch Republic still proudly defends its identity as a "Sovereign State of Mind" and cherishes its claim as "A Farce to Be Reckoned With."

For more info on the history of The Conch Republic, click here or here.

photo courtesy: Key West Shipwreck Historium
Thing #2 - Wrecking a Little Havoc
Today it is known by the remarkably unimaginative moniker "marine salvage industry." But during The Golden Age of Sail, more than 100 ships would pass by Key West daily and the cry of "wreck ashore!" was an almost weekly occurrence.  By the middle of the 19th century, wrecking had become a highly organized enterprise and a mainstay of Keys economy.

The Keys and the Bahamas have a shared wrecking history (even down to individual ships), but understand their legacies in very different ways. Where Bahamians look back at their "wrackers" with equal parts chagrin and defensiveness, Conchs, with their characteristic aversion to seriousness, find it just adds to the island's scofflaw mystique.

For more info on the history of wrecking, click here or here.

Thing #3 - You Are the Sunset of My Life
"Hey, everybody! The sun is gonna go down in the west tonight. That hasn't happened since last night. Let's do something special. Let's put on a show!" And so they do, every evening at Mallory Square. You can see the sun go down against the backdrop of Sunset Key (formerly Tank Island), but only if you can get past the crowds of people watching performers riding  unicycles, juggling, juggling fire, juggling fire while on unicycles...you get the idea. Or get your fortune read, buy some local artwork or handicrafts, or popcorn. Or just sit back, relax, and watch all the people watching everything.

For more info on the Sunset Celebration, click here or here.

Yep, that is a burnin' ring of fire.
Thing #3A - That is One Crazy Cat(man)
If you think herding cats is next to impossible, you haven't seen Dominique LeFort (a.k.a. The Catman) and His Flying Housecats.  Words just can't do his act justice.  I won't even try. All I can say is that Key West and The Catman were MADE for each other. Clap, clap, clap.

For more info on The Catman and his Flying Housecats click here.

"Damn paparazzi"
Thing #4 (which is really #5) - Why Didn't the Chicken Cross the Road?
On any streeet, in any alley, roaming around restaurants, even in trees, feral chickens are the sacred cows of Key West. Thought to have been a part of the city's history for some 175 years, their numbers increased when Cuban refugees came here in the 1950s bringing chickens with them, for meat, eggs, and cockfighting. Eventually, the birds escaped or were released and today Key West's protected bird number in the thousands.

For more info on the "municipal chickens" of Key West, cluck here, here, here, and here

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