What is it about Key West?

When I went to the University of Miami for grad school in 1981, I knew that Miami — South Florida — was all drugs. I knew it was all venereal. As in diseases. Seriously. VD capital of the South. (And this was just a few months before AIDS…) I knew it was a big city. I knew it was in Florida, at the ass end of the state. I knew it was palm trees and sun. Damn, the school accepted me. And I knew it was far enough away from home my parents wouldn’t follow me.

It was growing up time in an alien land, and the things I carried away from Miami are still with me today. Friendships, such as with Bret Preston in Charleston, WV, and Don Gentile in Deerfield Beach, and Paula Augustus, my mysterious friend — the island drums pound the same beat between our hearts — in Trinidad. A world opened up to me in the name of friendship and circumstance…and Miami. Too many things to post in a blog; enough for a roman a clef eventually. Without the names.

Ah. Someday.

I made a mistake. I left after the fall semester and came home to Virginia. Should have stayed. A bunch of good reasons why, but here’s one that made the national news: while I was gone, Key West made a name for itself, and the Conch Republic was born.

There are enough websites out there to explain to you the rebellious nature of the denizens of Key West, and the doings of the government under the Reagan regime, that will help explain, if you don’t already know, that Key West is far more than the spiritual home of Jimmy Buffett and the Southernmost Gay Alliance — it’s an island town built by pirates, smugglers, thieves, scavengers, opportunists, bartenders, ne’er-do-wells and other assorted bastards. (Go here for the Wikipedia entry, which is clinical, but not 90% as funny as the true shit. DAMN, I wish I’d been there!)

In other words, my kind of town.

When I went to Miami in 1981, I truly didn’t know that there was such a thing as Key West. In short order, I learned that it was a wild frontier town, an island closer to Cuba than to Miami, where a roommate once parked his car on a side street and stayed for several weeks. Where he showered, I have no idea. In those days — as made “real” in Miami Vice — it was a HUGE drug town, where the motto “Save the Bales” was not a cliché, but a way of life when Cessnas loaded with pot, the Coast Guard on their tails, would bail the bales into the Straits of Florida.

Key West and wreckers. Pirates. Love it.

I left Miami in 1983, visited a few times afterward. Never even thought or wondered about Key West, 3.5 hours to the south on Route 1.

But I finally heeded the siren call of Key West in the late ’80s, maybe as late as 1990.

It called me, and I really didn’t know much about it. Still don’t know why it did. I just heard it in my heart. And I had to go there. I HAD to.

The siren call of Key West can ONLY be heard in your heart. And it sounds like this:

There are places that sing a song in your soul, that will never allow themselves to be translated into the artifice of vocabulary or notes.

Key West is such a place, whose song is one of blue heavens and margaritas and wildness in the heart.

2 thoughts on “What is it about Key West?

  1. Rusty, Rusty, Rusty, I’ve only been to Key West part of one day, but your photos show 2 of the places we went. Wish we had been there longer. It would be great if “the gang” could all go down there together sometime.
    I love your writing, don’t know why your novel hasn’t been published.


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