Postcards from Paradise: Romancing Key Westby June Keith
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Detailing life in tiny, artsy, anything-goes Key Westwhere Broadway composers and bestselling authors live on the same funky blocks as housekeepers, bartenders, and tour guidesthis updated collection of essays and columns about island life features pieces that first appeared in the Miami Herald. Profiles of colorful characters such as an Italian heiress who waits tables, a dishwasher with a PhD, and a taxi-driving opera singer provide a kaleidoscopic portrait of residents living, working, and playing in a caste-free, rowdy paradise.
"The town stays under your skin." St. Petersburg Times
"Her love for the people of Key West makes one wish her type thrived all over small-town America." Southern Voice
"A June Keith column is like a Key West sunsetonce it begins you're hooked until it ends." NBC News
"A pleasure to read." Alan Shearer, editorial director, The Washington Post Writers Group
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Postcards from Paradise
Romancing Key West
By June Keith
Palm Island PressCopyright © 2006 June Keith
All rights reserved.
Paradise Lost & Found
I spent my last summer on the mainland working as a go-go girl. The booking agent's office was on Broadway, right in the heart of New York City, and sometimes I felt like I really was in show biz, visiting his office and sitting around with the other dancers waiting for our directives to the go-go bars of Reading, Pa., or Marlboro, Mass. It was an interesting way to see America. A red-headed girl named Sabrina and I danced our way from state to state, eating in diners and visiting tattoo parlors. (Neither of us actually got a tattoo, but we considered it very seriously and very often.) After a week or two in one place, we'd move on to the next. Sabrina drove while I read Dorothy Parker stories aloud. Sabrina wanted an education. I wanted to write. In our separate ways, we believed ourselves to be on the road to our personal goals. And we were.
When winter loomed I began to grow restless. I didn't want to spend the winter in gloomy Manhattan. I had waited out a previous winter on a sailboat in Key West. I had made my living dancing afternoons at the Esquire Lounge. Evenings I sat on the bow of the boat writing poetry by the light of the moon. But life in Key West that first winter seemed too slow and too lazy. I missed New England angst. When spring came I headed north.
Six months later, I couldn't wait to get back to the island.
"New York is the center of the universe, baby!" the booking agent said when I told him that I was heading back to Key West. "You wanna write? You gotta stay right here. New York is where all the great writers live!"
Sabrina rented a sixth-floor walk up in Soho. Eventually she married a college professor and earned a couple of degrees.
I drove to Key West. Alone. The trip took two days. Upon arriving, I was at the intersection of White Street and Truman Avenue when a guy whose name I never knew recognized me from the previous winter, climbed up onto the hood of my car like a monkey, and pressed his lips against the windshield with a big kiss. "Hi!" he said. Then he jumped off, waved and went on his way.
I was smitten then and I still am today – not with the guy; that was the last time I ever saw him – but with his spontaneity. It was an analogy for the spirit of the island. I knew in that moment that I had made the right decision. I'd found my home.
That was 18 years ago. Since then I've been a wife (twice) and mother, radio sales person, news reporter, administrative assistant to the mayor, political campaign manager, hospital public relations director, art gallery saleswoman, tour guide, bartender, waitress and free-lance writer.
I have finally learned to accept the fact that desk jobs don't suit my metabolism. I need action, and I get it five nights a week at the Lighthouse Cafe, where I work as a waitress.
I meet and chat with at least 100 new people a week. I ask them where they're from and what they do. They ask me, "How long have you been here?"
"I've lived here in paradise for 19 wonderful years," I answer. Then I watch their faces turn soft and dreamy. They want to live here, too. They are lost. I am found.
"So you like it then?" they ask helplessly.
"Wouldn't dream of living anywhere else," I say. And I mean it.
Key West is my greatest love affair. At first, the attachment was powerful and bewildering and I resented its hold on me. But as I've grown and changed my love has mellowed. I am no longer captive; I choose Key West. I have roots and a history here. I have family here and friends I love like family. I know hundreds of people simply through seeing them and exchanging hellos in the grocery store or at the bank. I don't know their names or what they do. All I know is that they live in Key West, too.
After 19 years, there are no strangers in paradise.CHAPTER 2
Glitz, Glitter & Grind
Last night the Esquire Lounge closed its doors for good, ending a glorious quarter century as Key West's premiere palace of glitz, glitter and grind.
In the 25 years since the go-go bar began featuring topless dancers, owner Buddy Brewer estimates that over 7,000 girls have performed on the Esquire's tiny stage. Some of them still live in Key West. Others phone in from time to time. And at Christmas, Buddy receives greetings from all over.
"I'll get a card from somebody named Sarah Smith, and I'll wonder 'Now who the hell is that?'" Buddy laughs.
"Then I'll remember – oh! That's Star! The dancer. Because when girls dance, they give themselves stage names like 'Star' or 'Flame' or 'Jewel.'"
"When I danced I called myself Goldie," I said to him. "Oh, yeah," Buddy grinned. "We've had a couple dozen Goldies."
When I arrived in Key West in 1974, dancing at the Esquire Lounge was one of the few jobs available to adventurous young ladies like my traveling companion Cammie Lee and me.
Cammie had arranged for us to spend a week in the Eaton Street apartment of the friend of a friend. Within hours of our arrival in Key West, however, we decided we wanted to settle permanently on this magnificent sunny isle – or at least for the winter. But how? The money we'd earned waiting tables during the previous summer in New York was dwindling fast.
Every morning we dined at Shorty's on Duval Street and pondered our futures. Over coffee and cigarettes we perused the help-wanted ads in the newspapers that other diners left behind. The list of jobs was pitifully brief.
One ad appeared daily. It promised $10.50 an hour to attractive girls willing to dance topless at the Esquire Lounge. Cammie and I giggled over the ad for a few days, but as time went on, $10.50 an hour began to sound very appealing.
"Let's just go see what it's like," I suggested.
"But we're not qualified," Cammie reminded me, waving her hand across her washboard-flat chest while glaring at my own bony top.
Eventually I convinced Cammie to check out topless dancing, a job I figured couldn't be any more humiliating than waiting on tables in a French maid costume at a Holiday Inn which is what I'd done up north. So we drove to Searstown, found the Esquire, and asked for Buddy, who quickly appeared to conduct our interviews and auditions.
Since I was the more daring one, I jumped up on stage first. I danced my very best, kicking, twirling and smiling brightly at Buddy who seemed to barely look at me. Meanwhile, a couple of guys playing pool put down their cue sticks and began to stare at me. I loved their stares and Goldie the Go-Go Girl was born.
Buddy explained that dancers received $3.50 for a 20-minute set, and they danced one set per hour. It took 3 hours to accumulate that $10.50, but only one hour of actual dancing. There were tips, too, he said.
"I've got to think about this for a while," Cammie stammered. "Ah, I'll come back later for my audition. "
"Hey, don't worry about it. You're both hired," Buddy said. "You start tomorrow."
"Gee, that's weird," I said, grabbing my clothes and trying to catch up with Cammie who had bolted for the door and the sunshine beyond the dark, dank interior of the Esquire Lounge. "He doesn't even know if you can dance!"
Cammie found a job the next day at a health food store, while I began my short career at the Esquire Lounge. Within a few months I had a boyfriend who ordered me to quit my go-go gig.
But that first evening at the Esquire Lounge I earned $32 in tips. The next morning, and for many mornings thereafter, I picked up the breakfast tab at Shorty's.CHAPTER 3
My First Ex
The first time I saw him, I knew he would be the father of my children. The first time he saw me, he says, he thought he was seeing an angel. One of our first dates was Thanksgiving dinner at his mother's house.
"My father will be there, and my stepfather, too," he explained as we drove to the celebration. "They're all friends, and they all celebrate together on holidays. Hey, they have kids together – how could we do it any other way?"
How indeed, I marveled, as I sat in the car next to the man with whom I was to share the next five years of my life. His descriptions of his family – and his life growing up in Key West, where natives are called "Conchs" – were better than any fiction I had ever read, better than any story I could have imagined.
A few days before Christmas, he gave me a tiny gold conch shell on a chain.
"I hope you'll always remember Key West," he said. "I hope you'll always remember your Conch."
On Christmas Day, we went to the dog track on Stock Island, and then had dinner with his family. The family seemed happy to see me, surprised and pleased to see him again with the same woman.
On New Year's Day, we sat in the living room of his ramshackle Conch house, sipping steaming cafe con leche from the M & M Laundromat and Coffee Shop, surveying the wreckage from the previous night's party.
"What a mess," I said.
"When are you going to clean it up?" he asked.
"Me?" I asked.
"You're my woman, aren't you?" he said softly, warming me through to the core with just his eyes. "Don't women take care of their men?"
Like a happy puppy, I sprung from the couch and set about my cleaning duties. A few days later, I moved in with my master.
We had a lot of fun in those early days. We visited his various friends and relatives, and on Saturday nights we danced Latin to the Buddy Chavez Combo.
Life was sweet, sexy and ... confusing.
I quickly learned that according to his romantic code, women were to look lovely, keep house, cook and care for their men. Meanwhile, the men were free to roam, from sunup till sundown and sometimes all the way 'round to sunup again. Women were to report their activities to men, but men had no such obligations to women. It was considered bad form for a woman to question her man about his comings or goings. She was also forbidden to be jealous or possessive. Yet a man was jealous and possessive beyond all reason.
I learned a new form of misery, which was relieved, temporarily, by the dramas of my wedding, pregnancy, childbirth and new motherhood. Still, we couldn't make marriage work. I wanted him, but I wanted so much more, too. Giving me freedom to explore went against everything he had ever learned about men and women. He couldn't do it. I couldn't bear the unfairness of him being free when I was not.
The day our divorce became final we had dinner with friends. We laughed our heads off. We always laughed a lot. He's a very funny man. Then I went home, alone, and cried until I couldn't cry anymore.
I'm married to the man I'm supposed to be married to now. My ex has finally met the right person, too.
He was my first husband, and I was his first wife, but we have both changed enormously in the 15 years since our wedding day. Today we're friends. Friends with a long, gutsy history. Friends for life. It feels right.
I still wear my gold conch from time to time. And whenever I see the man who gave it to me, my heart jars a bit, and I think – there he is, the father of my child.CHAPTER 4
Grampa's Wild Blue Yonder
One of my extended family's favorite tales of old Key West is the one about Grampa, my former father-in-law, joining the Navy.
Mike Perez was born on Packer Street, and had never been further from home than Stock Island when he enlisted in 1943. He was 16 years old, and absurdly naive, but smart enough to alter the date on his identification and trick his way into the service.
"I was looking for adventure," he shrugs, "I wanted to see the world."
At boot camp in Jacksonville, Mike was served his first taste of fresh vegetables, an experience he immediately described in a letter home.
Mama, he wrote, today I had something yellow and wonderful to eat. It's called squash, and if you ever see it in the store, you should try it. It's delicious!
Until then, his Cuban-born mother had served her family mostly beans and rice. The only vegetable he'd had was canned string beans, after which he'd been nicknamed.
"I was called 'Stringbean' or 'Jimmy Durante' because my nose was so big and the rest of me was skinny as a string bean."
The Navy changed all that. Mike loved the cuisine, and ate plenty whenever it was offered. Within a few months he'd gained 40 pounds.
"Everybody complained about the food!" Mike says. "But not me. I'd never had it so good."
Right after that first wonderful meal in boot camp, the new recruits were ordered to shower. Mike hesitated, certain that he'd somehow misunderstood the directive.
"What are you waiting for, Perez?" the chief officer asked him.
"I can't shower now," Mike balked. "I just finished eating!"
"Are you trying to make a fool of me?" the officer demanded, incredulously.
All of his young life Mike had been cautioned that certain death would follow were one to encounter water within 2 hours of eating. This applied to swimming and bathing, and even having a haircut. As a child he'd witnessed a man die of a heart attack in a barbershop chair, the result, his elders told him, of having a haircut too soon after a meal.
"So I took a shower, but I was certain it would be the last thing I ever did," Mike says. "I turned on the water, and I screamed as it hit my head. But I didn't die."
This he also reported in the letter to his mother.
The Navy enlightened him in other ways, too. He'd grow up poor, but this he did not know until he ventured into to world and began comparing growing-up stories with other sailors.
On several cross-country train transports Mike, who'd only known salt water, palm trees and summer weather, was astounded to see America's variety of topographies and climates.
He loved Oregon, and hated Maryland. When his ship anchored for a month in Baltimore, it snowed a lot and the temperature was so frigid he could not bear to go outdoors.
His ship eventually participated in the invasion of Okinawa, and Mike vividly recalls the relief and shipboard revelry when Japan surrendered in 1945, ending the war and sending his ship home.
Ultimately, he says, his great adventure taught him how much he did not know, and how much he would never know about the whole wide world.
"Now," he says, "I'm 71 years old and I don't know anything. If somebody asks my advice, I say 'You should have asked me when I was 16. Then, I knew everything.'"CHAPTER 5
For the past few months I've been meaning to go by and see my friend George Lee. He's been very ill. Last winter he was diagnosed with lung cancer.
"We could send you to Miami for chemotherapy," his doctor told him.
"Will it cure me?" George asked.
"Well, no," the doctor answered.
So George went back to the house he shared with his longtime companion, Nestor, their little dog and a yellow canary, and prepared to die.
George and I became friends 11 years ago. I was newly on my own then, having just left my marriage. I was scared, but determined to make my divorce work. On my first night in my new home, George, who lived next door, invited me over for a drink. As we chatted and laughed over drinks and cigarettes it soon became obvious that we two were in for some good times. We clicked real fast, and real hard. Finally, I stood up to say good night.
"We're going to have a lot of fun, June," George said, hugging me sweetly. "This is perfect. I'm gay, and you're gay, and ..."
"I'm not gay, George," I interrupted.
"But I heard you were!" he said, suddenly releasing me from the hug. "Isn't that why you left your husband?"
George eventually accepted my heterosexuality and cocktail hour became a regular part of our evenings. Every night we sat on George's deck and discussed the day's events. Sometimes we chatted in the morning before work, as I stood in my bathroom combing my hair and George watered his plants or fed his bird. George kept several little birds in a large cage adjacent to my house. I would often hear him talking patiently to the happily chirping birds, trying to get them to talk back to him. They never did learn to speak. One morning George found them gone. A snake, with two egg-sized lumps in his middle, was trapped in the cage. He had gone in through a square in the wire mesh cage and swallowed George's birds. After his meal, he'd been too lumpy to escape through the same hole.
Excerpted from Postcards from Paradise by June Keith. Copyright © 2006 June Keith. Excerpted by permission of Palm Island Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
June Keith is a former columnist for the Miami Herald and the author of June Keith's Key West and the Florida Keys and More Postcards from Paradise. She lives in Key West.
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