It was better when … wait, it’s still pretty damn cool

My review of Mile Marker Zero: The Moveable Feast of Key West ran in the Miami Herald today . The book chronicles a very interesting moment in the cultural history of the island and, to some extent, the nation. For another, longer and in some ways more positive review, check out this one from The Wall Street Journal.

The book made me think a lot about some of my longtime obsessions — in ways that weren’t really down to the merits of the book so I didn’t address them in the review. That’s why I have a blog, right? First, there’s the nostalgia thing, specifically the baby boomer nostalgia thing. If you’re a Gen X-er, as I am, you grew up with — and are still dealing with — the overwhelming, overbearing weight of the giant generation before you that set the cultural norms and insists, to this day, that their music/writers/political opinions/lifestyle choices are superior to yours and should continue their culturally dominant positions for … well, apparently forever. My college newspaper had a reunion in the early 1990s, drawing people who had been staffers from throughout the paper’s recent history — someone brilliant made up coffee mugs with the slogan “It was better when we were there.” Exactly. I am not arguing that the 1970s in Key West were not a remarkable moment for many reasons, not least the cultural convergence that saw Thomas McGuane, Jim Harrison and I guess Jimmy Buffett drawn to the same small island at the same time. But it’s the notion that this was some paradise that has been lost, that there was a golden age when everything was better — and the conclusion that everything happening now just sucks that irritates me.

Related to which is the question of Key West’s authenticity, something with which anyone who chooses to live here longterm must wrestle. In Mile Marker Zero, McKeen describes present-day Key West  as having been “embalmed as an alcoholic theme park” and his main character, Tom Corcoran, finds that “the quaintness and weirdness that Corcoran found when he stepped off the plane in 1968 had largely been institutionalized.” I can see why you’d think that. Key West can appear as a theme park with a strong alcoholic bent, as a hippie version of an Amish community, as a tacky cruise ship stop. But that’s only if you see the place at its most superficial, namely Lower Duval Street. Key West has tons of authenticity and it’s not that hard to find — it’s at Sandy’s Cafe and Five Brothers. It’s at the bocce courts and the high school baseball field and and Lucky Street Gallery and the Green Parrot. It’s at the library and the Holiday Parade and the Porch and the MARC Christmas tree sale and Bad Boy Burrito and the Burlesque. True, it has a high tolerance for alcohol and other behaviors that get people into trouble — but that stems from a culture that is remarkably nonjudgmental and open to new things and unconventional lifestyles. People are constantly coming and going. Lots of them are short-timers, some of them are scammers, some have ridiculously unrealistic ideas of what they can do here. But a few stay on and add interesting new layers to the place. If you’re from here, you can draw on a tightknit community of surviving natives who have learned to adapt to the constant changes and know things about the island that we newcomers will never figure out, no matter how long we’re here. If you’re from elsewhere, you get to reinvent yourself as you choose, as an adult. Despite what McKeen says, it is not “millionaires and the homeless and hardly anyone in between” — most of the interesting stuff is in between and there’s plenty of it. And despite what Mrs. Buffett and Mrs. McGuane and Tom Corcoran may think/have thought, it is a fine place to raise children. Some of the coolest people I know grew up here — and kids regularly go off the rails in affluent suburbs, wholesome rural communities and elite private schools. People sometimes ask me if I plan to stay in Key West forever (I don’t plan that long-term but have no plans to leave at the moment) or why I’ve stayed. My answer is always the same: It’s a small town that’s never boring. I’m sure this exists elsewhere and I imagine it might be nice to live somewhere with a lower level of drunken idiocy. I might find another community with as many smart, funny, interesting people where I can ride my bike to my job, the movies, my friends’ homes and any number of interesting restaurants. But I kind of doubt it.


1 Comment

Filed under Key West, nonfiction, reviews

One response to “It was better when … wait, it’s still pretty damn cool

  1. Well put all around! I, too, am bothered by folks grumbling about the good old days – and you said it well: not that the old days weren’t good, but quit grumbling. Today will be someone else’s good old days and they’ll have something to reminisce positively about. I also sympathize with your love for your place! We can’t all be Boulder, Portland or Austin (and some of us get sick of hearing about those places…!) but there’s usually some redeeming characteristic. (Yes, even in Boulder etc.) I’ve written a similar post defending my hometown of Houston – we come in for some criticism, deservingly, but… well, go read the post if you like. 🙂 I love it here.

    My Key West experience was pretty brief and definitely centered on Duval, which we found to be another Bourbon Street but on the beach… in a good way. We had the tourist experience, and that was okay; we were tourists. I’m glad to have a few tips for next time, though! Husband wants to go back and fish some more (he didn’t have the right kind of luck the first time around) and a person doesn’t want to LIVE on Duval full-time, right? – I think that was sort of your point. 😉

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