I think Chuck Thompson had the same feelings about his hometown of Juneau as I do about Key West.
Downtown Juneau vanished. Like Old Singapore and Times Square, the rough-edged city was dismantled by a crowd embarrassed by its history yet eager to profit from it . . . Residents became extras in a tourist show . . . Juneau’s hardscrabble personality was swept out to sea by a relentless tide of packaged tourism. ~ Smile When You’re Lying, Confessions of a Rouge Travel Writer
Thompson might feel strongly about his hometown, however, Key West is still a place my family holds close to our hearts.
So, where does this all start then…My most poignant memory from the last trip I took was a short ride in a cab to their tiny ramshackle airport. I must be someone that people like to talk to, or just have it stamped on my forehead. But, as soon as I sat down in this guy’s taxi he let loose. Ranting about how great Key West used to be, how Duvall used to be crazy, how there used to be funky artists everywhere, blah blah blah. And I was just another one of those annoying tourists that had bought into the “packaged tourism.” He finally asked me a little about my story, oh my parents have been coming here for 20 years, they have a timeshare at the Galleon, we know Beverly the bartender at Sloppy Joe’s, blah blah blah. Oh. Well, now I was ok. I can see how it would get annoying and frustrating to live on a 2 mile by 4 mile island crammed with more tourists than locals “every single fucking day” he said. I mean, I can relate. I live in Newport Beach. And I HATE summer. I can’t even leave my own house to get milk or bread from the market two miles down the peninsula without sitting in 45 minutes of traffic. Though it may seem besides the point, it’s really very similar. Newport has that “packaged tourism” that Thompson continues to return to throughout his own rant about Juneau.
But, you can’t deny that all of these places can be truly breathtaking locations. That’s why people travel there. Duh. One afternoon in Key West I was sitting on our deck (god, I’m so lucky) looking out on to the water and I just took everything in a huge thick humid rum scented breath.
A cruise ship came in today. Pub crawl through Schooner Bar. Dante’s down the way boasts a bikini contest. Free beer for entering. Just awful sounds coming from this place, which I can hear from across the harbor. The music makes me think of older folks. A little pudgy, pale but flushed from the heat and a few rum runners. Women with shorter peach colored hair, permed but also struggling in the heat. “Can I Get a Witness!” plays. Blares more. These ladies have pastel colored shorts that come to their knees and are well equipped with a stretchy waistband. They consume more rum runners and go on dolphin tours. “If you signed up for the contest come pick up your bikini!” apparently you have to wear a Budwiser bikini to enter the contest.
Someone uptight and easily offended would NOT enjoy Key West.
“Valerie from the Jersey Shore! Come up here!”
My hair was meant to live in this climate. No one really cares what my coif is doing. Poofy and frizzed is acceptable.
“Megan from Miami! Here’s our winner!”
And back at the Schooner Bar Michael McCloud perches on his stool lamenting over the tourists. He’s a cross between Willie Nelson and Tom Waits. This guy has got some stories. He tells them just like Tom Waits. Goes through at least a pack of cigs every few songs. Maybe to retain the grovel.
As I have shared before, authenticity is held very high in my book. And, even through all of the fat and burnt tourists, Key West’s authenticity glimmers through from time to time. They still celebrate the fact that they are the Conch Republic. I mean it is really just another excuse to drink, but that’s really just ok with me. The locals are true. They haven’t lost their own rough edges. And I think that’s what the tourists get a kick out of. For some reason getting yelled at for being a fat burnt tourist by the bartender is just great. They keep taking it and they keep getting that heavy pour in their rum runner they love so much.
I really am beginning to understand why Hemmingway could have liked this place years and years ago. I would have loved to have seen it then. I believe the cab driver. Key West was a different place then. People aren’t actually experiencing the place itself. They’re experiencing imported Made-In-China crap, conglomo marketing scams, and believing the profiteers. Maybe someday I’ll actually get to see Hemmingway’s Key West. But, this time I was a tourist, overwhelmed and delighted by the heavy pours, conch fritters, sunset cruises, and street performers. And it was still great.