A Key West Welcome

Sometime in the night, on a squall-plagued passage from Havana to Key West, Lani and I crossed an imaginary line separating the Caribbean from North America. I can't say precisely where it was; in fact I can't even be sure it exists, for it seems as much a cultural or philosophical line as a geographical one. The first evidence we spied were the two bell buoys marking the cut in the reef. We marveled at them as we left the roiled deep blue of the Straits of Florida and entered the milky shallows surrounding the Keys.

In five months of cruising aboard Lucy through Central America and the northwest Caribbean, where marker buoys are few and far between, we have gotten used to making landfall on the strength of our wits and a good pair of polarizing sunglasses. (They make it easier to read the discoloration in the water caused by coral heads.) But in U.S. waters, little is left to chance: The entrance to Key West is lined with pairs of buoys marching northward in silent synchronicity, well-regulated soldiers marking a perfectly straight channel.

Other differences became clear as we rounded the western end of the island. In contrast to the quiet, subdued shorelines we'd gotten used to, Key West's was charged with activity. Even from a distance we could make out the signs of hot-dog vendors, cotton-candy stands, and restaurants. Cruise ships were docked at the piers, disgorging passengers into the town. The thump of bars was audible far out in the harbor.

Finally, we knew we had crossed the line when a gruff dockmaster informed us that we would be charged $70 for a night's stay at his dock, about $60 more than we had paid anywhere else in the Caribbean. After 30 hours in rough seas, and with a cruising kitty well depleted from our odyssey, our disheartened appearance must have been obvious.

"Hey," whispered the gas attendant, an Amazon-size woman in a soiled cap and overalls, as the dockmaster walked away. "Wait a few minutes. He's off shift soon. I'll let you guys stay the night, no problem."

I must have looked at her in a way that showed a good degree of suspicion, because she leaned forward and said, "Chill out, dude. You're in the Conch Republic now."

Key Westers began referring to their island as the "Conch Republic" back in 1982, when the U.S. government set up a checkpoint at the entrance to the Keys south of Miami, in order to stanch the flow of illegal drugs and illegal immigrants. The checkpoint had the unfortunate secondary effect of reducing the flow of tourists - the Keys' economic lifeblood - which in turn riled the inhabitants. In protest, Key West Mayor Dennis Wardlow staged a mock secession from the United States, declaring the Conch Republic (formerly the Florida Keys) a sovereign nation. A flag was designed, passports were issued. And then, one minute after independence was declared, Wardlow "surrendered" to the commander of the U.S. Navy base, presenting him with a claim for a billion dollars in "foreign aid and war relief."

This ingenious and entertaining bit of political theater captures the curious duality that has always defined the Florida Keys, and Key West in particular: laid-back, almost blas¿ on the one hand, fiercely (and absurdly) independent on the other; humorous and light in one instance, irascible the next.

After putting Lucy in order, we set out to explore. Lani wanted to make it to Mallory Square for the famous sunset celebration, a waterside variety show featuring fire-eaters, cat circuses, and magicians. As we walked, the quiet leafy village streets near the marina quickly gave over to the heady energy of the main boulevards that cut through town. We strolled down famous Duval Street, past T-shirt and henna-tattoo shops, ice cream parlors, yuppie bars, redneck bars, and transvestite bars.

Everywhere we looked something was for sale and people were buying. We were wide-eyed: After so long abroad, we had forgotten how robust economic life in America could be. Throngs of people poured out of the doorways of restaurants, caf¿s, and bars, bent over, laughing and clutching each other. We had gotten used to the natural smiles of the developing world - restrained expressions always tinged with seriousness - so Key West's raw exuberance was shocking.

After an hour or so, we drifted off Duval and onto a quiet side street. The narrow brick sidewalks reminded me of New England, and the air smelled of night-blooming jasmine. Behind us we could hear the rumble on Duval Street - a low, dull sound like an avalanche. But there in the dark, under a thick canopy of mahogany trees, the island took on a different character. We assumed the boardwalk show had already begun and that if we wanted to see it we'd have to hurry. But our spot was alluring, so we sat down on a bench and stayed there for an hour, outsiders listening in on the far-off roar. The next day the woman in the overalls shooed us off the dock before her boss arrived, and we moved Lucy to a mooring on the forgotten northeastern side of the island. The wind had picked up in advance of another storm, and by the time we negotiated the one-mile dinghy ride to town, Lani and I were soaked and shivering. We shuttled from dock to dock looking for a place to tie up, but we were turned away every time.

"Is there a public dock where we can tie up?" I shouted over the screeching wind to an officer patrolling the beach at the naval base. He put his hand on the very large gun in his holster, shook his head, and shouted back, saying there was no public access in the lagoon.

"But this is a public mooring field," I called out, pointing to dozens of new moorings laid out there. He shrugged at the contradiction that you could moor in Key West but not go ashore. (We found out later that we had somehow missed the city dinghy dock, where we could have tied up for just $4 a day.)

Finally, we settled for tying the dinghy to a piling under a highway overpass and vaulting over a chain-link fence onto the shoulder. Traffic rushed past us, inches away - a torrent of shiny new Lexuses, Fords, and Volkswagens. Across the black pavement stretched the brightly colored plastic awnings of Kmart, T.G.I.Friday's, and Pizza Hut.

Beep, beep!

The horn sounded just in time for me to step aside as a mane of blond hair passed, attached to the head of some-one riding a whining motor scooter.

"Excusez," the driver shouted in French as he passed, while plaintive mews escaped from three boxes strapped to the back of his scooter.

"That's the cat man," Lani said.

"The who?"

"The cat man," she repeated. "He's famous on the boardwalk. I read about him somewhere. He's trained regular house cats to do tricks, like jumping through fire."

While negotiating the narrow shoulder to safety, we renewed our pact to make it to the boardwalk that evening. But first, I told Lani, I wanted to visit Nancy Forrester's Secret Garden.

Forrester had introduced me to Key West three years earlier when I was researching a book on Southern gardens. At the time, her wonderful collection of tropical exotics was threatened by local developers. "Oh, it's a mess down here," she told me over several thousand miles of phone line. "They want to turn everything into a subdivision or a mall." Despite the fact that leading horticulturists from around the country had testified to the importance of Forrester's collection, she said the garden was in trouble.

I wanted to see how it was doing.

No one was at the gate when we arrived, so we walked into the earthy jungle, passing from the warm sunshine of the street into a cool other-world where palms arching above our heads created a mottled interplay of light and shadow. We followed the winding path past fire-red bromeliads, fronds of tropical ferns, and banana trees. We had the garden to ourselves; apparently the tourists flooding onto the island had not yet found their way to it. Another bench presented itself in another lovely Key West corner, so we sat and ate our sandwiches while a Siamese cat wove between our legs, looking up hungrily.

I have no idea how long we sat, but it was past sunset when we emerged from the garden. Did we fall asleep or just fade into reverie? I wondered if we were suffering from some type of island narcolepsy. When I closed my eyes and heard the distant roar of Duval Street and the boardwalk, I decided we weren't.

And so, in some measure, it was another failed day. As we wandered back toward our dinghy under the highway, we realized we had missed the sunset party again. There we were in Key West, and we hadn't seen the boardwalk and had barely contacted the island's famously freaky pluralism. Part of me regretted this, but after so much time traveling, Lani and I no longer approached a new place with as many expectations. We had learned that agendas don't always work, and that "must-see" lists are not necessarily worth following. Better to let the destination speak to us, tell us what's important, whether it's a bench under a shade tree on a fragrant side street, the backside of the cat man, or the brief kindness of a dockhand. We had come to know that all we can control is our arrival. After that, the island takes over.

With this story, Paul Bennett and his wife, Lani Bevacqua, completed their Caribbean journey. They are currentlly living in Rome and expecting their first baby.

The Word on Key West When it comes to the literary realm on Key West, Ernest Hemingway gets all the ink, but other heavyweight writers - Tennessee Williams, John Dos Passos, Gore Vidal, Hunter S. Thompson, and Truman Capote among them - have spent time putting words to paper in the Conch Republic.For some writers Key West has provided not only a breezy seaside office but characters and storylines that reflect the eccentric heart of the famously funky island. Laurence Shames wrote eight Key West-based novels during the ten years he lived there, often featuring retired mafioso boss Bert the Shirt and his aging Chi-huahua, Don Giovanni. A rogue's gallery of marijuana millionaires, Vodou lords, tourists, and assas-sins populates Mile Zero, Thomas Sanchez's rollicking account of life in Key West. And Thomas McGuane's classic novel, Ninety-two in the Shade, depicts a drug-addled drifter who retreats to the island for a second chance at life.It's all good reading from the literal end of the American road.David Downs