Time and Tide
written by Sarah Thomas
MY GRANDFATHER WANTED to drive as far south as he could while remaining in the continental United States. There, he and my grandmother would buy a beach house in a place where it never got cold. I imagine him sitting at the kitchen table, map spread out, his finger tracing the thin red line of U.S. 1 from the Georgia state line to the mysterious black dot labeled “Key West.” They drove until the road ended, to a town that I imagine cast in the orangey-red hues of overexposed photos from the 1960s.
Great family lore exists from that trip. The time my grandfather didn’t return from the pool at the Atlantic Shores, and my grandmother, following him, discovered it was clothing optional. The first time they saw two men holding hands. That Key West predates my birth by decades, and the island memories of my childhood overlie it. My grandfather pouring out cups of sangria from a heavy crystal pitcher at El Siboney Restaurant, established one year after me, in 1984, and still issuing an unmistakable aroma of meat roasting in adobo and lime juice if you’re lucky enough to wander by the corner of Catherine and Margaret streets. Playing in the courtyard of The Carriage Trade, a stately restaurant on Eaton Street, now gifted to the Studios of Key West after the death of Bill, its longtime proprietor and dear friend of Granny and Granddad.
To the naked eye, Key West is flat. The island averages 8 feet above sea level. (We’ve lost about 5 inches to the ocean over the last 20 years.) The highest point, Solaris Hill, is a barely discernible incline on a bike ride by the cemetery where Bill and other friends from the early days are buried.
But Key West’s geography belies the real depth of a place in the minds of its people. The strata of “The Rock” are not of stone but of memory, nostalgia settling like sediment into the consciousness of visitors and locals alike. Key West is not just what she reveals herself to be on any given Friday night. The CVS on Duval Street is not a pharmacy for many of us–it’s the old Fast Buck Freddie’s, the iconic department store known for outrageous window displays, housing everything from high-end homegoods to a ribald adults-only gift room.The Casa Marina–the first hotel on the island, built by railroad magnate Henry Flagler–has been a Waldorf Astoria, a Marriott, and a Wyndham, and everyone has their favorite era. (For my family, it was the Wyndham, when they let locals buy an annual membership to the pool.)
Walking the streets of Key West, there aren’t just ghosts of old storefronts but traces of events and people long gone: the street corner by Pepe’s where I waded through waist-deep water after Hurricane Wilma; the frangipani tree that my cousins and I posed in for a family Christmas card, felled by Irma; the narrow doorway of an inn on Upper Duval through which I first glimpsed my future husband–a tempest of its own sort.
When I had the chance to interview Jimmy Buffett a few years back, he said of Old Key West nostalgia, “Everywhere I’ve been to, they say I needed to be here ten years ago.” Even that statement is layered–Buffett attributed it to his friend, the late poet (and Key Wester) Jim Harrison. Buffett certainly spun his own mythology of Key West, dubbing it the fantastic “Margaritaville,” spinning an imaginary version that won him followers and detractors in nearly equal measures. Parrotheads still flock to Key West annually, chasing a place that mainly exists in old songs and faded photographs. And on the other hand, some locals bemoan a commercialized overlay that has jeopardized the authenticity of the island Buffett so loved.
All those dimensions of the Buffett legacy aside, his song “I Have Found Me a Home,” still conjures the Key West spirit for me. “The days drift by / They don’t have names / And none of the streets here look the same / And there aren’t many reasons I would leave / ’Cause I have found me some peace.” It is still a place where we come to escape the clamor of modern life and find something like peace. It still can assume different moods, and be many things to many people.
Your version of Key West is here, somewhere. Maybe it’s a place you first saw when rent was cheap and chain restaurants were nonexistent. It may be in pockets of Bahama Village or Stock Island, or the view of the island from a plane to the Dry Tortugas or a boat heading out to Boca Grande, when the bright lights are out of focus and the clouds obscure the cruise ships. Maybe your Key West animates when you sit across from the Green Parrot on the Courthouse Bench, or when you smoke a cigar on your friend’s front porch at midnight, the rest of the neighborhood asleep.
To paraphrase Chaucer, “Time and tide wait for no man.” The truth that we people of Key West can hardly face is that the island we so love is slowly being swallowed by the sea. At some point, the myth of Key West may be all that will exist. Perhaps my daughter, or her daughter, will see its last days, and then future generations will know the place only in its songs, its poetry, photographs and artifacts: A vagabond Atlantis that used to crown the tip of the Overseas Highway. Maybe you’ll be able to take a scuba trip down from Miami to see the Mile Marker Zero sign poking up from the seabed.
Perhaps that makes our island all the more precious. She is changed and unchanged: the unruly tropical paradise of my childhood, the lush and familiar cocoon of my adulthood. And with every return, she offers a new face.
SARAH THOMAS is a writer and editor who lives in Switzerland and calls Key West “home.” She is the former editor of Keys Weekly and founder of the Key West Literary Society’s Old Town Literary Walking Tour.