If you have ever visited Key West then you will be familiar with the conch. The word is pretty much everywhere, found in a variety of contexts.
Queen conchs (pronounced “konk”) are soft-bodied animals (mollusks) recognizable by their spiral shapes and glossy pink or orange interiors. This most majestic variety has been a protected species since 1992. Meanwhile, the meat of lesser varieties is consumed throughout the Caribbean, most notably in the form of deep fried fritters.
A conch is also how many inhabitants of Key West are defined. “Saltwater Conchs” describe locals who were born in Key West while a “Freshwater Conch” refers to a resident not born in Key West but who has lived in Key West for seven or more years.
The designation is a big deal for a destination city where people come and go and there is a real pride in local roots and ancestry. Traced back to its origin, however, a conch was originally a slang term for native Bahamians of European descent.
Despite the loosening of the 19th century definition, the descriptor has stuck, becoming even more symbolic thanks to a brouhaha that resulted in the secession of the city of Key West from the U.S. on April 23, 1982. The gesture was tongue-in-cheek at the time and a tourist attraction now, but the creation of the Conch Republic was initiated by a very real problem.
Key West is essentially connected to mainland Florida by a few slim roads. In an attempt to stem the flow of narcotics and illegal immigrants the U.S. Border patrol routinely ran road-blocks on these roads which also inconvenienced tourists making their way to and from the beaches and bars. This in turn hurt the Keys’ vital tourism industry.
When the city’s complaints went unanswered and an injunction failed, local authorities declared independence. This was untenable and the city quickly surrendered (they also immediately applied for one billion dollars in foreign aid, which it did not get) but a crucial message was received loud and clear and the roadblocks stopped.
Now, the creation of the Conch Republic is heralded as a significant moment in Keys lore when a small mouse roared and government listened. If you fl y into Key West a banner will welcome you to the Conch Republic. A local office will issue you a souvenir passport. Each year the Fringe Theatre closes its season with Conch Republic (the Musical). And each year Duval Street closes for two Saturdays in a row, the first for drag races (men in heels not men in cars), the second for bed races.
This year marks the 34th anniversary of the Conch Republic celebrations and a schedule of events runs from April 22-30.
Last weekend 12 men, some notable local drag performers, others hardy volunteers lured from the crowd (including a seventy-five year old man and a an excessively enthusiastic visitor from Canada) ran a gauntlet of obstacles in the noonday sun.
The anticipation was milked for a good hour, then the wigs began to fl y and the contenders winnowed down until a sweaty winner was anointed. This year young Omar Gallagos claimed victory.
Where the drag race is an homage to Bourbon Street Pub Complex’ attempt to stimulate business during Key West’s 1982 stand-off the popular bar’s Red Ribbon Bed Race happening on Saturday, April 30 will benefit AIDS Help. The event is Bourbon Street Pub’s oldest and most famous event and, according to Joey Schroeder the Pub’s owner “the most fun you can have in bed.... with your clothes on.”