The best and the worst, plus two cats

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.

10 Responses to “The best and the worst, plus two cats”

  1. Frances Thomas Says:

    I don’t think we Brits can cope with a sad cat story in the middle of all this rain and general sogginess. Perhaps when it gets warmer… Meanwhile, Key West sounds like heaven

  2. admin Says:

    Oh Frances, I promise to emphasise the good bits of the cats’ story – it’s not all sad. It’s truly quite hopeful. Just a tad plangent, really.

  3. Ian Hunter Says:

    Your lovely post on Key West has only sharpened our anticipation to visit. My eye problem seems to be improving only at glacial speed, but I hope to get clearance to travel next week. I am sure you are right that islands somehow make people friendlier and more sociable; PEI would be another example.



  4. admin Says:

    I’m so very glad to hear that your eye is improving: I remember how tedious those snaky tendrils were. We have our fingers crossed for your arrival, so that you too can experience the local leisured sweetnesses.

  5. Michelle Elvy Says:

    This is a fun post. I like that you can see the best of people in this smalltown life. And yes the island life does lend itself to a genuine kind of interest in each other’s lives. I agree with Ian’s PEI comment. Gorgeous place. Do you know Smith Island and Tangier Island in the Chesapeake? And Great Barrier, too. A place unto itself.

  6. admin Says:

    Thanks for sharing those thoughts, Michelle. I think I’ll start a collection of islands – I don’t know Smith and Tangier, but yes, indeed yes, to Great Barrier!

  7. Helen McKinlay Says:

    Hi Belinda,
    Loved this post…interesting to earn about Key West and hear your comments on Waiheke. Lovely place but getting quite civilised now for an island. I’ve always had a love of islands…the Orkneys and Great Barrier would be two of my favourites and Waiheke because it’s so close to busy Auckland and yet so much more peaceful.

  8. admin Says:

    Thanks so much for this, Helen. I don’t know the Orkneys but you make me feel that I should!

  9. pat buoncristiani I Says:

    A very interesting set of observations. I lived for about ten years in the south and was struck by the ‘southern hospitality’ and civil society. Sadly I also discover much about its lack of depth – a mile wide, an inch deep. I always missed the easy informality of small town life in my home country – Australia. The cafe culture didn’t exist. Spontaneous invitations for a cuppa simply never came. The smiles, the politeness, they all seemed to be ornaments rather than substance. In the end my American husband and I decided to return to Oz and make it home. In our sanctuary in the Dandenongs we seem to have found what you have found in Key West. We never could find it in Virginia. The important thing, of course, is that we have both found it, one on a Island and one in the hills.

  10. admin Says:

    Yes, I can imagine that being true, Pat – it’s probably different in such a small town as Key West, and maybe more importantly, it being a tourist town. Here cafe culture thrives, even at the beach! – and spontaneous invitations of the kind you mention are common, and very much meant. But that whole issue of what’s actually intended by welcoming manners is a great cultural divide, isn’t it? The English seldom really mean, for e.g., that anyone should actually, really and truly, visit them in their homes – if you turned up out of the blue they’d be horrified. Ornaments rather than substance: yes indeed, I know what you mean about that too, but not here. Still, aren’t manners a necessary part of the whole social interaction, meant or not? Interesting, very interesting …

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