Wilfrid Sheed

A weeklong electronic journal.
March 12 2001 9:30 PM

Wilfrid Sheed

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Just as some people seem to breathe a little smugger believing that, out of a world of possibilities, they have chosen the very best doctor and dentist on the planet, so too, one generally likes to think well of one's favorite getaway or vacation spot. Can I pick 'em or what? So never mind the new disco-cum-bowling alley in the center of town or the McDonald's that has just replaced the only good restaurant. I'm still here, aren't I?

In this same indulgent spirit, herewith my own best case for the place I happen to be right now. Visiting Key West is almost like going abroad, without the paperwork. And the language barrier is no worse than in most American cities. For perfect English, you must of course go to Amsterdam as usual. But the broken English here is excellent, more Cuban than Cuba is, I'm told, and reinforces one's sense of being sufficiently abroad without going overboard about it.

Which does not mean that you won't "experience slight delays" getting here and back. Key West is blessed with an airport so small that there is no way you can just drop in on us. You either have to fly down slowly or drive down excruciatingly slowly over the venerable two-lane U.S. 1, which hasn't changed a lick since 1941, except that the ubiquitous Dew Drop Inns of those days are just called motels now, and they have probably updated the shell collections in the shell shops; and watch the sea change color through shades unknown to even Asian shirt makers. And greeting and smiling and other arcane pursuits.

Thus there is a built-in bias among Key West visitors toward the types who like to put up their feet and stay a while as opposed to the beavers who prefer to rush down and lie motionless on the beach for a few days before rushing off again clutching their new suntans. In fact, in my version, we don't really have a beach culture here or even a glass-bottom boat culture, but something more like an early-to-bed honky-tonk way of doing things, with an option to fish the next day. Or write a poem. Or try out some new chords.

At any rate, that's what our friends do. My wife and I originally came here because of a writer and stayed because of another one; and we met some musicians and came back and stayed for them too. To name the minimum of names, our old pal the novelist Joy Williams had written a funny guide book to the Keys, and when we arrived here to check it out our first neighbor, the poet John Malcolm Brinnin, started right in quietly leaving the New York Times at our door each day, as if that was just what neighbors do. Which made this a very fine neighborhood indeed.

Our next unpremeditated move was to start chatting with that most accessible of God's creatures, a cocktail pianist, called in this case Larry Smith, after which we tagged around with him for a few nights and met half the rest of the jazz community and had ourselves Gang No. 2. And once you have even one gang, you largely cease to notice the things the critics go on about—the gentrification or commercialization or, to be specific, the wild proliferation of T-shirt shops all over town. Or seemingly all over town.

As with New York City, most of what annoys you most about Key West actually occupies only a few blood-curdling blocks, and it is but the work of a moment to steer your rented bicycle onto quiet back streets lined with palm trees and tranquil white houses that feature both downstairs and upstairs porches, suitable for rocking on gently, if you're an exercise freak.

And it is to one of those streets that we are heading right now. Our two worlds of words and music seldom converge, but tonight light contact will be made, because the writer Annie Dillard is giving a musical evening, partly to humor me, she says, to which she had invited the same Larry Smith to play for us. Although I am tempted to write everything that's about to happen in advance, and see how close I'd come, I'm afraid that my accounts might leave out the unexpected accidents we're going to have on the way over or the freak bolt of lightening that is due to hit the keyboard at 8:15, splitting it into a thousand jangles. So not only might we have a possible disaster on our hands, but I would definitely have to write my copy over again. Which is unthinkable.

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