Key West sets stage for Christmas

Published 10:58 am Saturday, December 23, 2017

by John Railey

As this divided year draws to a close, here’s a sense from one of the coolest towns in the world that what unites our states may still be stronger than what pulls us apart.

I freely admit that feeling might be a mirage, a dream, but it’s one worth pursuing in a country built on mirages and dreams.

Christmas decorations wave in sea breezes on one of America’s best beach streets, Duvall, as folks walk in shirtsleeves and much of the rest of the country freezes.

It’s a majestic juxtaposition. Damn it’s fun to sweat outside at Christmas time, barefoot and sucking in warm salt air. I’ve journeyed to this town since college, saving up money for occasional visits that build memories I keep mining. And this year, there was something more to the escape, dreams of a return to the old America where many of us got along.

On Duvall Street the other week, some people noted my UNC Chapel Hill ball cap and made snide remarks. But political arguments were few and far between. This is one of the few towns in our land where we can come together.

The adult beverages certainly help. The natural beauty does as well in a friendly town surrounded by the waters of the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, waters that range in color from tropical green to heavenly blue beneath palm trees.

And the town’s spirit, built on legends, helps as well.

That spirit, of course, includes Ernest Hemingway, the hard-fishing, hard-loving, hard-drinking writer who for a few years wrote from a big old house on Whitehead Street and fished the local waters. Now he’s almost a cliché, idolized by tourists, many of whom probably like his legend more than his literary art, who pay $14 each to get past the brick wall Hemingway had built to protect his privacy and troop through his old house. I plead guilty to doing that the other day for the second time in my life. But hey, I have read much of his work.

The Key West spirit includes Capt. Tony Tarracino, a New Jersey import who came to Key West after Hemingway split for Cuba. Tarracino, whose adventurous exploits included gun-running in his charter boat, had a lot in common with Capt. Harry Morgan, the anti-hero of Hemingway’s only book set in Key West, “To Have and Have Not.” Capt. Tony’s namesake saloon, one of the best dive bars in the world and one that I’ve loved since college, still stands on Greene Street in Key West.

And most important, the spirit includes the surviving locals.

I paddled the ocean and dreamed of adventures like those guys had and have.

Locals were kind enough to accommodate me. I was lucky in my latest trip to find a kayak stand on Higgs Beach, Tropical Watersports, run by Lisa and Julia, who charged me a modest $10 hourly fee to rent my boat. Maria at Blue Sky Rentals on Duvall was just as reasonable on the rental of beach bikes.

Key West was largely spared by Hurricane Irma in September, but it sustained some damage from which local businesses are still trying to rebound. Some Key West locals I talked to, even while raising money for each other, were more concerned about their buddies in the upper Keys who were really hit hard and are still struggling.

When I finished paddling, I’d eventually ride my bike to Fort Zachary Taylor, a Florida state park where I’d meet my wife to watch the sunset on the water. A small scattering of people from all over the world stood on the beach and cheered the sunsets, even when the sun dipped behind the clouds before it hit the water. I joined them.

Then would come live music at the Hog’s Breath Saloon on Duvall Street. Later, I’d slip into Capt. Tony’s Saloon, a shrine of mine, rereading all the framed newspaper clippings on the walls detailing how that old building was the original site of Sloppy Joe’s bar of Hemingway fame and that Tony helped give Jimmy Buffett his start. Tony served as mayor of Key West before dying at 92.

There are legends in this town indeed.

Behind the mirage are the issues with which our country struggles, those of race, ethnic and class divisions. Fort Zachary Taylor is named for a military leader-turned-president who helped run the Seminole Indians out of Florida and was a slave owner. The divide between the haves and have-nots in Key West that Hemingway wrote about keeps growing. His novel was set in the Great Depression. Today, the economic challenges the locals face, struggling to make ends meet amidst gentrification, are even more real. Key West has its share of homeless folk.

The wonder of the town is that the locals, just as people in spots across our land, keep dreaming of something better and looking out for each other and strangers. They’re playing out the spirit of Christmas every day. With friends like that, we’ll make it.

JOHN RAILEY, who grew up in Courtland, is the editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, which first published this column. He hopes to slip away this weekend for a brief Christmas paddle on the Nottoway. He can be reached at