OpEd: Key West for the Fourth

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It was forty years ago this week that I moved from New York to Florida, from New York City to Key West.

I was a young lawyer looking for a new start in a tropical environment. There was nothing more laid back than the home of pirates, rum, and drug runners. There was surf, sand, and sailing. There was a fantasy fest begun in 1981 that turned for a while into a hedonistic festival of unabated lust. It’s still running every year.

The one lane road from Miami to the Keys was daunting and dangerous. But there were choices. For $49, Chalk’s seaplanes ran regularly. You could jump on a small passenger prop plane and be landing there in less than an hour. You could be running into Captain Tony, the Banana Bread Lady, or the Iguana Man on the Mallory Square Dock.

You did not wear long pants and you road bicycles. You went to Dick Dock on Higgs Beach or spent Sundays at the Monster Bar watching movies. You could camp out, smoke dope, or do acid. Nobody cared. We were one human family, and it was open, gay and proud.

Key West has always been an escape, a journey to an adventure, a home for the lost, and a vacation spot for the very wealthy. When I got there, I rented a house in Old Town, at 1911 Seidenberg Avenue, and it’s still standing there today, just like the Half Shell Raw Bar. This place has history, like the Seven Mile Bridge, just something that’s part of the road to Paradise.

Related: Memorial Day Reflections on My Life

The naked gay strip club that was run by my friend named Sibby is gone from Truman, but it is now Bare Assets, a straight strip club. They have those in Key West, too. The gay one on Duval Street has become an entertainment mecca and resort hotel and bar hosted by Joey Schroeder, who owns New Orleans House and the Bourbon Street Pub. It’s one of only about five gay bars left in the city, but in their spacious resort, you can enjoy nude volleyball, foam parties, a great DJ in Gary Nolan, well poured drinks, and hot strippers, along with an outdoor patio bar and friendly environment.

Once, Key West was the home of dozens of guesthouses, but it seems today like they have all reopened on the Fort Lauderdale beach. Once, Key West was the epicenter of gay tourism, and while the island is happily homosexual, you are more likely to run into a tourist off a cruise ship than a stunning young first mate- unless of course you make it to the Island House, still a gay man’s paradise.

The AIDS clinic is on the bottom of Whitehead Street, and the White Street Pier Memorial commemorates too many losses from those who have passed from HIV. On July 4, the dock and pier was the home of their annual fireworks. The Key West community had once been the center of activism in South Florida.  Not so anymore. But the memories are there, because their gay community spoke up early when it counted.

La Te Da hosted a healthy holiday party and tea dance this past weekend, so few of the guests really knowing the rich history of the place, from Larry Formica’s pink Cadillac, to the lost candidacy of McGovern vice presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton, whose tenure at the resort helped doom his place on the ticket. But the place has been restored, has new life, and lots of energy.

It was April of 1983 when Key West seceded from Florida and became the Conch Republic; when residents determined they were iconoclastic and unique enough to be a mouse that roared. 

There was the Key West Cannabis Buyer’s Club, selling medical pot to AIDS patients in a building across the street from the courthouse. The medical necessity defense I used work, and most of the clients, already living with HIV, went home free.

That was around 1992. I don’t remember, the Key West sandbars and reefs, like the sun, melt your brain. The sunsets steal your heart. We still run a legal seminar there every December for the National Organization to Reform the Marijuana Laws.

I do know that it is a place I treasure; that will always be a second home, whether it’s the little tiny place I had on Margaret Street or the tent I pitched on Stock Island.

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It’s the place where I used to bring my dogs, and they could stay in almost any hotel, and run free anywhere. In fact, it’s a place where so many young runaways did wind up, looking for meaning and purpose.

Key West is the place of Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, the Turtle Kraals, and Mel Fisher’s shipwrecks. It’s a place where cops and district attorneys got themselves indicted and in trouble years ago. But the only real politics in Key West has always been insurrection and revolution, like in the 1970’s when a bunch of protestors chained themselves to trees to stop the Navy from building barracks on public parks or native lands.

Maybe that is why I return there, for astonishing sunsets, and the roads leading to nowhere, now lined with tourists, who need to be swatted away immediately. There are too many t shirts shops there today and too many people trying to get stoned and drunk, instead of just living there and being that way.  Too many scooters, too, but the waters are still spectacular, and the drinks stronger.

It is not the Key West it used to be, but it’s still Key West, and a special place to be any time of the year, whether you are hanging out at the Two Friends Patio Bar, Pepe’s Café, or taking a sunset cruises on a catamaran.

I think Key West, more than anything else, brings you back in time. And that is a journey always special, unique, and inviting. Go there and find out for yourself.


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