The Conch Republic

If you’ve never been to Key West, you probably don’t know anything about Raven Cooper, but she’s the love child of Janis Joplin and Julie Andrews.  We heard her before we saw her. My sister Tanya and I stood on the deck of Schooner Wharf Bar last Spring Break, and I would have sworn we were listening to at least 3 different people.  One stanza Raven drawled like Johnny Cash, and the next she chirruped like June Carter. Her shoulders belonged on a scrimmage line, but Vanna White couldn’t have carried them more gracefully. Wavy mud hair fell nearly to her hips and a cigarette burned on the stool next to her where she kept her beer handy. Her voice drew us in. We followed it to whatever bar it sang at, and we loved it more with every whiskey sour. At the end of our two-week trip, we cheered her off the stage like groupies.  She kissed us on the cheeks and said we were just the sweetest.  Then she guffawed her throaty laugh, grabbed her crotch, and took off – “Time for me to go have some sex!”

I can’t talk about Key West without mentioning Raven – but I also can’t forget about the seven-toed cats, the only remaining residents of the Hemingway house. Of course, those cats remind me of the street performance locally known as the “Cat Man and his Flying House Cats.”  We didn’t understand a thing the Frenchman said, but he can make his cats jump through rings of fire.  And I can’t talk about fire without a gesture to the other broke street performers who juggle torches atop 10-foot tall unicycles, for tips.

One of our favorite barfly acts was Frank the Magician.  He sported half a bloody ear.  His eyes watered slowly.  He’d toss quarters in the jukebox for three straight hours while he spun his tricks for tipsy tourists, all recently disembarked from the cruise ships plugging up the harbor.

I could go on.  Such is Key West.  Four miles long, two miles wide.  The southernmost point of these continental United States.  Full of the most eclectic bunch of wackos I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet.

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Tanya and I had ventured to Key West to visit our grandfather, Edward Pitts. He holds an MBA from Harvard and PhD in psychology, but you probably wouldn’t believe it if you met him.  He founded David Edward Furniture Company in Baltimore, MD in the 60’s and did quite well for himself.  The venture was a family endeavor, but only half of his six kids chose to remain in Maryland to continue running the enterprise.  The rest, my mother included, fled the drama that comes from mixing family with money. She moved west, married a rancher, and settled in Montana. Now she uses her children to bridge the gap between the life she chose and the one she left behind. Needless to say, Tanya and I were happy to be the peace offerings – vacationing in Key West is anything but a chore.

Ed and his second wife, Marilyn, are one of those couples in energetic denial of the fact that they’ve broken 70.  They’re obstinately active—she in her art, and he in a tutoring program at the local high school.  Eating dinner before 9pm is sacrilege. The only time they hang out with old people is at the symphony, which they pre-game like college freshmen.

Being a local earns you a badge of respect (and often a sizeable discount) at the bars, restaurants, and tourist attractions around town. The term (pronounced conk) is a throwback to the European-born, Bahamas-bred immigrants that first settled on the island during the 19th century. Only those lucky enough to be born on the island can boast the title of “saltwater conch.”  Ed is a “freshwater conch,” which means he’s been a Key West resident for more than seven years.

Though locals are favored, Key West welcomes everyone.  “One Human Family” is a ubiquitous bumper sticker, and the official city motto. Every species of artist – talented or not – comes for the sunshine and stays for the apparently perpetual party. Other people vacation there to pretend for a few weeks that their lives aren’t bland, and their normalcy goads the real weirdos to be even weirder. The island draws poor street performers and affluent retirees alike.  It’s also full of history. Tennessee Williams penned the first draft of A Streetcar Named Desire in a Key West hotel, and it’s no secret that Jimmy Buffet feels a certain affinity for the place.  President Harry S. Truman frequented the island so often that the town house in which he stayed became known as “The Little White House.”  Now it’s a museum, where I learned that the President began every day with a large glass of orange juice, a shot of brandy, and a brisk 20-minute walk.  My grandfather would approve – minus the OJ and the brisk walk.

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At first I saw the island as a haven of contented freedom, but over time, I got the feeling that all these characters were performing a constant and subtle act of rebellion.  The street performers, against any hope of a retirement plan.  The artists, against mainstream success.  My grandparents, against retirement communities and country clubs.  The Cubans, against Fidel.  Pretty much everyone, against shoes and shirts in public places.  Anywhere else, these misfits might have stuck out on account of their alternative lifestyles.  But in Key West, if you’re not a little strange, people wonder what’s wrong with you.  Conchs, it seems, have a nation of their own.

Funny thing is, one time they actually did. On April 23rd, the conchs celebrated their Republic’s Independence Day.  It commemorates a tongue-in-cheek secession the conchs staged in 1982. The U.S. Border Patrol had set up a blockade on US 1, the only road that connects the island to the mainland.  Vehicles were being stopped left and right to be searched for narcotics and illegal immigrants, resulting in up to 17-mile long traffic jams.  This seriously inhibited the flow of tourists to the island and, thus, the beer revenue.  So, the conchs announced independence, turned their mayor into the Prime Minister, and declared war against the US.  They surrendered a few minutes later, but the mock secession created a good deal of publicity. The roadblock was eventually removed and normal tourism levels resumed. Today, tourism flourishes all the more on account of the annual Conch Republic Independence Day celebration, a weeklong beach bash.  “We seceded where others failed,” boast the t-shirts and tacky tourist memorabilia whose revenues keep the island thriving.

I often wonder whether my grandfather chose to settle in Key West solely for this bit of its history.  He’s spent most of his life being pragmatic.  Starting a business and raising six kids doesn’t allow for a great deal of frivolity. Yet his personality begs to burst with eccentricity.  Key West does what my grandfather has always sought to do – collide smart business with zany methodology.  It teaches that everyone has sovereignty over his or her state of mind – expand it at will, conquer at will, and secede at will.

Every morning my grandfather eats fiber cereal and blueberries, the only form of self-preservation he practices that doesn’t have an alcohol content or require rolling paper.  When he downs his last bit of coffee, he shrugs his left shoulder, a nervous tick he developed in boarding school when he was thirteen.  He raises hairy white eyebrows, laughs a little doodle-ee-doo! and quips, “Another day in which to succeed!”

Sometimes I wonder which homonym he really means to say.

Austin Smith grew up on a horse ranch in southwest Montana.  She learned early how to take for granted the beauty of the Rockies and the Yellowstone River.  She’s been unlearning ever since. Send her an email at austin.smith@yale.edu.

 

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