Archive for February, 2014

The best and the worst, plus two cats

Saturday, February 15th, 2014

I always forget, until I’m back in Key West again, how this little town expresses some of the very best, as well as the worst, of America. So in case you haven’t already figured this out for yourselves I herewith insert a generalisation warning: here come a whole bunch of them, drawn from admittedly random specifics. Look away now if you can’t deal with ‘em.

The best, and it is a wondrously top of the range best, is the absolute sweetness of many local people. I don’t know what energy is behind that: maybe it’s being southern (although Key West is more about island life than a southern one: the weather’s hot and life is slow, certainly, and I grant you that we eat grits, but not at every single meal). I suspect it’s mostly down to being an island; an enclosed and self-referential culture. Residents on Waiheke (my other most favourite island) also tend to be easier and sweeter than most other New Zealanders. Or it could be that Key Westers are basically country folk with “time to stand and stare” as the poet W. H. Davies said: there’s time to be sweet, so damnit – they are. (The country folk thing is also true on Waiheke.)

Whatever the reason, I have to tell you it’s a joy. People smile and greet you in the street when they don’t know you, and they wave their thanks to perfect strangers who have done no more than follow the road code and let them cross the road in front of their cars. They admire your clothes as they pass; they ask you what your chosen meal in a restaurant is like; they pull over in the (gloriously wide) supermarket aisles to let you pass with your trolley. At a birthday gathering in a restaurant they not only join in enthusiastically from other tables when “Happy Birthday” is sung: they do it without irony. They eagerly discuss the merits of the newest movie showing at the art cinema, or the latest best-seller, in the fish shop. If they can help you, they will, even if doing that is a bit of a faff for them. Their manners are startlingly and consistently excellent, which in turn encourages me to act out a matching set of good manners. Lots of please and thank-yous; lots of “no, after you”, lots of “go for it”, all abound. It’s not only soothing, it’s heartening.

But when I said I’d talk about the worst as well, I was lying: the worst of America isn’t here at all. What is here isn’t always fun: many tourists come here specifically to behave badly (specifically to drink, drug and party too much, and as a local friend says ruefully, “they do it in my backyard”). The bars don’t close until 4.30 am, so drugged and drunken behaviour has lots of time to flourish in this end-of-the-road town. (Mile Marker Zero is emblazoned on a buoy at the end of the highway, and the next stop would be – and once was, maybe will be again – Cuba, which is much closer to Key West than Miami.) But to my mind the worst of America is the present expression of rightwing politics and its arrogant disregard for human dignity, and Key West is, happily, a small blue spot in an otherwise red state. So the worst doesn’t really manifest itself here, and the rest of Florida seems a long way from the mahogany trees, the languid pelicans and the cluck-happy street chickens.

And that story I mentioned about two cats? Next time, I promise. If you have tears, get ‘em ready: it’s a sad story, but it ends with hope for the future. And meantime here’s a taster – a photo of darling Minnie asleep on the path outside our house.