The last time I hung-out in Key West my friend Steve and I stopped at a liquor store and bought a bottle of dark rum, some orange juice, and a lime from a small market, drove over to the more Caribbean-influenced part of town, parked on a dim side street where some of the local denizens were hanging out, took the various ingredients from the shopping bag and mixed a kind of poor man’s Planter’s Punch that we each took turns swigging from the clear plastic orange juice container.
An old black woman wearing a purple nightgown and a fake pearl necklace rode over to us on a child’s size pink Huffy bicycle and asked us, “If I go to my house and get a container will you pour me some of that concoction you got into it?” I said “Sure,” and she pedaled away. About ten minutes later she was back with what looked like a jelly jar that she had just rinsed out but still had some jam clinging to the sides: from the dark ruby color and light seeds I surmised it must have been raspberry. I poured some of our impromptu mixture into her jar and she thanked me graciously.
Then she asked, “What’s your name?”
“Jake,” I answered. “And this is my friend Steve.”
“Nice to meet you fellas. I’m Esther,” the woman replied shaking both of our hands at the same time, while she skillfully held onto the jelly jar with the few teeth that she had left. Once she relinquished our hands she took the jar in her right hand and tilted it to her lips, taking a deep relaxed pull from its smooth wide mouth.
As she talked to us I understood that she was drunk. Not bad drunk, but local chatty drunk. We spent a good amount of time with Esther as she told us some of the history of her neighborhood and how she was going to a party later tonight at her favorite club. “Well, it’s not really a club, more like a house that’s been turned into a speakeasy, a place for the local drunks who can’t afford to drink in the tourist bars on Duval St. or any of the other trendy waterin’ holes poking up in good ole’ Key West.” She told us how the Jamaicans and Haitians were being run out of the city to make room for more “Yuppy-type housin’.”
Then she went on, “We ain’t used to seeing a couple of white boys standing on the corner drinking in our neighborhood. If the cops pass they’re going to hassle you, think you’re trying to buy drugs from one of us.”
Looking around the street it was obvious that there were drug deals going on every ten minutes or so down the block, as cars would pull up, and then the person in the car would hand the person in the street who had just handed them the plastic bag some paper money, and alas drive away to get high somewhere else besides this dingy yet very orderly and quiet neighborhood.
While Steve and I watched the night’s events unfold around us, everyone that walked by our unusual trio smiled and said hello to Esther. All of the neighborhood locals were of a darker skin tone than us, and many of them spoke with sharp, broken rhythmic island accents, yet we felt absolutely no hostility or anger directed towards us.
However, a couple of minutes later a group of clean-cut white college age guys wearing their fraternity letters on baseball caps and sporting khaki shorts and polo shirts, went carousing loudly through the neighborhood, bottles of imported beer in their hands, yelling and cursing at each other and anybody else within earshot, and then breaking their empties on the ground. Esther looked at them and then back at us saying, “There, those people are gonna be the ones buyin’ up our neighborhoods in the future and moving us out because we’re the ones who they say drive the real estate down. Well, I may be an old drunk but at least I gots enough common sense to keep my misgivings to myself. I ain’t messin’ with nobody’s sleep.”
We drank with Esther for a while longer and then she gave us each a soulful hug goodbye and told us to stop by her neighborhood anytime we wanted. “You boys are always welcome on these here streets,” she said. “I’ll spread the word and let everyone know. That’s how it is here. Everyone’s seen ya’ll here with me tonight, so if they see ya’ll again they’ll give you the nod. That nod means its all gooood.”
Later that night while Steve and I were walking down Duval Street, among a seething sea of drunk and stoned white bodies with patches of scintillating red sunburn decorating their swerving frames like rust on an old junker, we didn’t get one hello from anybody: there were thousands of people out partying but not one random hello or even a return of a friendly nod. Eventually we ran into an older couple who were for some strange reason inquiring of a group of rather loud drunk men, if there was any place to go in Key West that had more of a local’s vibe to it. To this question, the trusty leader of this group of intoxicated middle-aged men responded, “Duval Street is where it’s at. There’s beer and liquor and tits everywhere. Why would you want to go anywhere else?”
After another fifteen minutes of wandering Steve and I bumped into two cops. Steve asked them where the Cuban section of town was or if there was on older more relaxed part of Key West that we could explore. The younger of the two white cops was eager to give us his response, “There isn’t a Cuban section, just a couple of restaurants. As for an older part of town, you boys should do your best to stay away from the poorer neighborhoods. Those parts got a bad element hanging around. It’s not safe for a couple of guys like yourselves, if you know what I mean.”
Once the young cop was done talking Steve walked away in disgust. I followed him. Neither one of us thanked the cop for his opinion. I knew where Steve was going and glided happily behind his racehorse pace. He walked straight back to where we had met Esther earlier. She wasn’t there, so we took the ingredients out of my backpack and mixed up some more of our poor man’s Planter’s Punch and stood contently on the corner sipping our drinks and letting the cool midnight Florida Key breeze filter through our psyches. We must have stood there drinking for well over an hour, saying hello to the various locals after they gave us the aforementioned nod, before Esther eventually found us. She was drunker than when we had met her before. And so were we. She asked me to pour some more “Of that smooth concoction” into her jar, which I deftly obliged.
As the three of us stood there together under the crystal clear light of the three quarter full moon, Esther introduced us to everyone from her neighborhood that walked by: drug dealers, crack heads, players, slick young ballers, prostitutes, shopkeepers, her niece Mary, it didn’t matter who, she knew them all. Esther was proud of her place in the community. Sure she might have been a drinker, but she was honest. Those frat boys, and cops out on Duval Street, they were the real drunks, drunk on power, a sense of entitlement, and self-absorbed whiteness.
Esther was like the mayor, the communicator of a part of town that the tourists didn’t know existed and the city council and real estate planners wanted to tear down to make room for expensive condos and fashionable bars and eateries. She was a link to the past, to a time when people lived in Key West for the characters, and the overall intoxication of the place itself: a simpler time when Disney World was still just in Orlando.
But it’s like that in America. We want to get rid of any sense of place that doesn’t lure the tourists, or make the upper middle class want to move there. It’s easy to knock down a section of town that the so-called well-heeled people and ruling bodies declare an eyesore. Then, after it’s gone, educated fanciful white writers, who had never actually spent time with the people and their place back in the day, can make up great literary stories about what that location used to be like.
But I’ve been to Key West, many times. I’ve breathed it in with my own lungs and seen it with my own two eyes. I have sipped dark rum and shook even darker hands along the shady back streets. I found those hands worn and welcoming, and a little shaky at times. I liked those hands and the hearts and souls attached to them. Maybe at this point of their existence one could say they were a little down on their luck, but luck is a thing that is very hard to define or understand merely by appearances. Luck runs deeper than that, like the distilled sugarcane intoxicates our bloodstream unbeknownst to the sophisticated world passing by us.