Letter From Key West: A Different Air

Mar 10, 2011

Journalist Frank Deford’s stories have appeared in Sports Illustrated, HBO Real Sports and NPR. He and his wife spend every winter in Key West, where Deford says he breathes in the island’s different air.

It’s very possible to dismiss Key West, as the British say, as just too much by half. I mean, you arrive at the airport and it says WELCOME TO THE CONCH REPUBLIC – and everybody is quick to let you know that Key West really isn’t Florida … which is to say: it’s too good for Florida, or, for that matter, too good for any mere state of the union.

The taxis are pink, the houses are cutesy-poo and the residents act like only Key West, in all the world, has a sunset. Yet: whatta nerve. For all this snobbery, the main drag, Duval Street, may be the tackiest thoroughfare in all of touristland. How can any place that is so smug explain away a T-shirt economy and schlocky saloons that look like Disney would have designed them if only Disney designed saloons?

And yet, the day I arrived about fifteen years ago to do a story for National Geographic Magazine, I wasn’t moseying around Key West for more than a couple of hours before I found a pay phone and called my wife and said: “You’re gonna love this place.”

As contradictory as that sounds, I suppose that’s the point. It is the very contradictions of Key West that make it unique. I mean, this is a sub-tropical resort by the sea which had to truck in sand to build a beach. You have to go out of town to find a golf course.

No golf course! In Florida! You might as well have a resort where chickens and deformed cats wander around like they own the place. Oh, yeah, that’s Key West, too.

Not only that, but gay people basically saved the town when it was in economic distress. In a country that has become so homogenized, so franchisable, so one-size-fits-all, Key West – all right: The Conch – by God! – Republic – is not only unique, but proud to be different.

And I like that.

I’m a romantic enough to believe that you can’t order up ambiance, that the current edition of Key West is founded on its bizarre layers of history. It’s been a place of extremes, gone through boom and bust since it opened for business as a cheeky outpost that got rich on the misfortunes of others – or, specifically, the ships that would, conveniently, crash onto the nearby reefs. It wasn’t just fish that the natives hauled in. At other times, cigars, booze and pot have fueled the local economy. So Key West has always been a place where freebooters and scoundrels and oddballs were welcome. The sense of that is in the air. But Key West is naughty more than dangerous and whimsical more than cynical.

So it was, back all those years ago, that a few weeks later, when I returned to Key West, as I’d promised my wife, this time I brought her along with me from our home in Connecticut. Our first night in town together, there was a Christmas parade down Duval Street, and in the middle, right after your all-American high school marching band, here comes a phalanx of motorcycles, all going vroom-vroom-vroom – driven by 40 fat, gay Santa Clauses.

I turned to my wife. “I told you you’d love this place,” I said.

She was enthralled. Vroom, vroom, vroom.

We’ve been back every year since then.