We’d arrived in Key West in the wee hours of a February morning following a twenty hour drive and a harrowing game of “chicken” crossing the old Seven Mile Bridge – seemingly catapulted off the edge of the continent into an upside down land of summery winters, harmless lawlessness, unlocked homes, scoffed-at schedules, and absolute ease. After crashing most of the day, I savored my first cafe con leche and sought out some friends from up north who “were heading to the sunset.”
On my way down Duval Street, I passed a place called the Casablanca – a small white and green guesthouse with a veranda overlooking the street. There, at a white table surrounded by three muscular young men in Speedos, sat an older man I immediately recognized as Tennessee Williams, sipping a cocktail. I smiled up at him and he smiled back. I was up and down those few steps before I knew it, having just thanked America’s greatest modern playwright for the wonder of his words, and was now back on my way west, an inch or so off the ground.
I followed the lowering sun to a dilapidated pier where a stoned-out gypsy jam of revelers had gathered to accompany the last rays of day into the Gulf. Sunset was not a spectator sport. Everyone was encouraged, cajoled, and seduced into bringing any and all of their powers to bear upon the atavistic transformation of light into darkness. A piratical fire juggler, bandana’d and tattooed, set the sky ablaze. Drums were beaten. Bells, bird whistles, and hand claps punctuated the canopy of cannabis smoke.
As the sun got larger, redder, and closer to the horizon, the beat, tumbling firebrands, chanting and writing churned itself into a hypnotic frenzy possessed of the two great powers of the sun and the sea until at last they kissed, whereupon everything stopped and a reverential silence pulsated in witness to their commingling. As the sun slowly broke into the sea and seeped away, its last glimmer was applauded with reckless gratitude for the cosmic majesty of it all. Then the fire torches were re-lit, tumbling end over end, high against the gold and crimson twilight as the first stars appeared and the celebration kick started the deep purple onset of Night with a wide open notion of “things to come.”
I followed the throng to a place called Captain Tony’s Saloon – a dark dank cavern looking for all the world like the smoky subterranean lair of a sex crazed recluse, enticing the willingly shipwrecked to an isle of forgetfulness. Tribute in the form of stapled-up dollars and suspended brassieres bespoke countless nights of sweet surrender to its otherworldly charms.
“Hey kid,” a raspy voice gripped me by the arm, “Do me a favor. Watch the door. Try to get two bucks from everyone who comes in. I’ll be right back. Sumthin’s come up. Drink whatever you want.”
There was no doubt about who he was. I didn’t care who I was. The rum was flowing and the cannabis cloud had followed us there. A smoking Chicago blues band called Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows were cranking out some serious juke joint funk to the sweat drenched dance floor. And there in the middle were two beautiful exuberant “crazy dancing girls” sharing a space with a slyly smiling sunset juggler who was busting some moves and waving me over to join in. Just then Tony showed up, took the money, handed me a ten, and told the bartender to get me a drink. “Love Train” was blasting, and I was sandwiched between the two girls on a conga line snaking out into the empty street. Sometime during the night, over a joint in a nearby alleyway, the juggler introduced himself as Will, said he knew the band from Chicago, and that the girls were actress/models from Montreal. Along near sunrise, one of the girls and I made our way down Duval Street to our motels, hugged good morning, and agreed to meet again. And meet again we did.
After sleeping in a bit, I was ready to hit the water. Fueled by a one sugar con leche, I joined some sunset friends over on “Dog Beach” – a small slip of sand populated by the hippies, windsurfers, and golden retrievers that abounded on the island. It was my first waking morning and it was absolutely gorgeous. I was just about to plunge in when one smiling member of the group offered me a couple of cubensis cups that I happily munched down. In no time, I was one with the oceanic pulse of a small planet orbiting in the solar system of a vast swirling universe.
I was swimming in time to the mesmerizing sound and rhythm of my breathing when from deep within I gradually discerned a sweet French woman’s voice calling my name. There, swimming nearby, naked and perfectly tanned, was the girl from the night before. I swam to her and we kissed. And as we kissed, she said “Hey be-bee, watch for zee jelly feesh!” Wham! A lightning bolt zapped my beshroomed nervous system, lifting me out of the water and zooming me back to shore. It looked like someone had wrapped a pepperoni around my left forearm. I washed off the tendril, noting the succession of tiny puncture wounds, and the fact that it felt like someone was holding a hot poker to my inner elbow. I asked everyone on the beach, all of whom were also tripping, what to do and got a different response from everyone, including a lot of “Wows” and “Man O’War” and “That’s bad, man” until my friend who’d given me the mushrooms suggested that I just “hit it with some aloe, lie down and forget about it.” I mumbled some agreement and joined the others gathered on the wooden deck beside the beach where I stretched out and closed my eyes.
After about twenty minutes (which seemed much longer) I was in a deep meditative state, feeling the burning subside, relieved and relaxed by the restorative powers of the mushrooms. Suddenly, a sharp pain hit my right ribcage and a sound like “YASSUP!” echoed from a great distance. I blinked awake and heard it again: “YASSUP!” Shielding my eyes against the sun, I made out the silhouette of what looked like a ten-foot tall cop. He said it again: “Get your ass up!” I looked around. Everyone else had left the deck and was mingling nearby. Apparently we’d been trespassing, had been ordered to leave, and the officer had taken my blistered bliss as defiance. I struggled to my feet, assured the policeman that I meant no harm, and joined my compadres.
They decided that it was time for a cold draft and some eight ball at the Bottle Cap. It was almost Happy Hour! As the first sip of cold beer soothed my throat I marked my first full waking day in Key West. Soon it would be sunset. Will was sure to be there. So were the girls. Tony and Twist would be back at the bar.
Bud Navero, a native New Yorker, has been a poet, playwright, journalist, teacher and raconteur in Key West for more than forty years. He arrived in Key West in the Class of ‘75 after getting his PHD in Literature from SUNY Buffalo and he also studied film at the Center for Media Studies. Key West Confidential can be found on Amazon, and locally at the OKW Lounge & Galleria.
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