Saturday, June 9, 2012

Notes on Key West: Part Five

“It’s the best place I’ve ever been anytime, anywhere, flowers, tamarind trees, guava trees, coconut palms…Got tight last night on absinthe and did knife tricks.”

So wrote Ernest Hemingway about the island he called home in the 1930’s, and with which he is forever linked in the public’s mind.

He first visited Key West in 1928 and was intrigued that it felt like a foreign country while still being part of the United States. Three years later he and his second wife, Pauline, bought a large house at 907 Whitehead Street. Considering the island’s vulnerability to hurricanes, it is amazing that the house was already 80 years old when they bought it and remains standing today:

Hemingway buffs come to Key West hoping to walk in the author’s footsteps. And other visitors, even those who have never read his works, want to do the same because they can’t help but get caught up in the fever. Since The Hemingway Home is now a very reasonably priced museum ($13 for adults, $6 for kids) it is the perfect place to start.

For the price of admission you can walk through the house and one-acre grounds at your leisure, or on one of the guided tours that repeat frequently throughout the day. Most visitors opt to tag along for one of the tours and then meander freely afterward, which is encouraged.

Unlike most museums, you are welcome to take photographs. The next one shows Hemingway’s studio, complete with his typewriter, where he wrote many books and stories during his time here. Among them were two famous works of non-fiction (Death in the Afternoon and Green Hills of Africa) plus his two most acclaimed short stories (“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”).

He got a six-toed cat named Snowball who proved to be a prolific producer of offspring. Today dozens of Snowball’s descendants roam the property and you can pet them as long as you don’t pick them up. Here is Erika posing with one the first time we visited:

The next photo shows the water bowl from which Snowball and his progeny drank -- and continue to drink. It owes its trough-like shape to the fact it was originally a urinal at Hemingway’s favorite watering hole, Sloppy Joe’s Bar. The urinal was going to be thrown out when Sloppy Joe’s redecorated one year, but Hemingway thought it would make a perfect water bowl and saved it from the trash heap. Because Pauline did not like the image of their cats drinking from a former urinal, she had a giant olive jar from Cuba positioned behind it to draw people’s attention away.

Each day Hemingway rose at dawn and wrote until roughly 3:00, then headed out to live. He engaged in physical pursuits like deep sea fishing and horseback riding, storing his saddle at the so-called Southernmost House at 1400 Duval Street. Today that house is an inn, and it proudly displays the saddle in its lobby while also displaying Florida’s largest collection of original Hemingway letters.

Of course, it can be argued that the author’s favorite pastime was drinking, as evidenced by him often bellying up at Sloppy Joe’s come 3:30 in the afternoon. Modern-day Hemingway chasers flock to Sloppy Joe’s, at 201 Duval Street, hoping to catch an authentic Hemingway buzz by downing drinks in the bar he made so famous that it got mentioned in Citizen Kane. From the outside, its Depression-era DNA is obvious:

But in my opinion, the Sloppy Joe’s of today is overrated in general and disingenuous in the way it trades on Hemingway’s name. It moved into its current location during his final days on the key, so it is not the same place where his legendary swilling went down; and although he was in his thirties and beardless when he lived here, the iconic photo adopted as the bar’s logo shows him in his late fifties with a full white beard.

If it’s authenticity you seek, head over to Captain Tony’s Saloon at 428 Greene Street, for this is where Sloppy Joe’s was located during most of Hemingway’s time on the key:

Its salty Bohemian interior practically screams his name:

The real Captain Tony was one Tony Tarracino, a bootlegger’s son, boat captain, gun trafficker, and raconteur who was born in 1916 and died in 2008. Tarracino ran for mayor four times and was elected once, at age 73. He fathered thirteen children with eight different women, and when he died, his oldest son was 72 and his youngest was 22. In short, he was the kind of man it is easy to envision Hemingway hanging out with and writing about.

There are many places in Key West where it feels like you might be sharing space with the author’s ghost. It’s just that it is more true in some places than in others.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Notes on Key West: Part Four

One of the joys of traveling to a place is simply walking around and paying attention to the things that make it what it is: the architecture, the plants, the local music, and so on. When it comes to this aspect of traveling, Key West is one of the best destinations in America, since the entire island is only two miles long by four miles wide and the Old Town section -- where most of the action and history are found -- is concentrated on the western end. Combine this small size with the island’s distinctive building styles and cultural eccentricities, and the result is a pedestrian’s dream come true.

Duval Street is Old Town’s main thoroughfare and offers up many attractive buildings. This one was built in 1919 and has been the home of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church ever since:

The next one houses the San Carlos Institute, founded by Cuban exiles in 1871, and has obvious Spanish influences. Jose Marti referred to it as “La Casa Cuba” and it was there that he launched the final phase of his campaign for Cuba’s independence 120 years ago:

And how can it possibly be that a convenience store from a ubiquitous national chain can be interesting to look at? Turns out it’s easy. Just situate it in an old house where there are no parking spaces and no room for gas pumps:

There is no reason to stay only on Duval, however. Venture down side streets and you will find that pretty much every house is interesting because of the simple designs and old-style tin roofs:

You might enjoy the fact that you can see banana trees and papaya trees bearing fruit without having to leave the United States, and you will find it perfectly quirky that chickens run wild in town:

SavannahGeorgia is widely regarded as America’s best walking city, largely because of the verdant squares that beautify its historic district, but I am here to tell you that Key West is at least its equal. In closing, here is a picture of an abandoned 1920's movie theater that was reborn as a Walgreens in the last decade. There’s something about that you gotta appreciate: