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Funk, Frivolity and Florida History in Key West

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By Fyllis Hockman

Key West, Florida, is more than a place. It is a spirit, a funky energy that enters your soul and takes residence in your worldview as well as your inner vision. A state of mind more than a city; a way of life more than a place to live. It's a lifestyle, not a destination. All expressed in the absurdist poetry that is Key West, a language not spoken anywhere else in the country.

But even recognizing all this, I didn't fully have a grasp on the essence of the town until I spotted several older men playing bocce ball. I asked another observer if lawn bowling is popular because many people of Italian descent live in Key West.

"Oh, no," she chuckled. "It's popular because you can play bocce with one hand and hold a drink in the other."

Welcome to Key West.Turn a corner on a nondescript street or pass a random restaurant and guitar riffs assault your receptive ear drums. Either that -- or it's a rooster crowing. Actually a lot of roosters -- they're everywhere.

Many a house bears a plaque dating to the 1800s - and a number of other historic markers a century earlier. Old Town, the largest predominantly wooden-housed historic district in the country -- featuring almost 3,000 structures -- is deserving of a truth-in-advertising award. There's a sign near Duval Street, the town's epicenter, which reads: "On this site in 1897, nothing happened." This is probably one of the only spots in Key West where that's true.

 

Renovated cigar factories share space with Victorian mansions laced with gingerbread trimming; upscale art galleries reside next to tacky T-shirt shops. Fashion, funk and frivolity define the town; art and shlock and whimsy coexist on the same bar stool. Those stools are there in abundance, and many claim that Ernest Hemingway, the most famous Key West resident, occupied that seat, as well.

His home is one of the most visited sites in the city. The tiny second-story studio where he wrote his memorable novels remains exactly as he left it; photos, books and furnishings recall his life there of more than a decade in the 1930s. Stuffed heads of animals he shot on safari adorn the walls. You can almost feel the presence of the quirky and fairly disturbed author everywhere. Almost as famous as Hemingway himself was his beloved six-toed cat, Snowball, dozens of whose descendants still reside there.

An equally notable but very different personality also resided in Key West, but only in the winter. Harry S Truman's Little White House has its own colorful history, with tales of lively poker games and "loud Hawaiian shirt" contests our 33rd president enjoyed with staff and guests.

It's also rumored that he insisted on downing an early morning "shot of bourbon followed by a large glass of fresh-squeezed Florida orange juice," allegedly on the advice of his doctor. Hemingway, an ardent imbiber himself, would most certainly have approved of his neighbor's breakfast ritual, which might have made both welcome visitors at Schooner Wharf. This spot boasts the earliest happy hour in town, beginning at 7:30 a.m. The theory is that you can't actually drink all day if you don't start early.

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