By Steve Siciliano
Way back in the early 70s when I was pursuing a bachelor’s degree at Michigan State I made annual road trips to Florida with a dozen or so fellow MSU undergrads. Our usual roosting spot was Daytona Beach. We stayed in campgrounds, ate at fast food joints and spent most of our time doing what young males on spring break generally do — lolling on the beach during the day, consuming copious amounts of alcohol at night and trying continuously to hook up with vacationing coeds. One year the weather didn’t cooperate and in an effort to find the sun we motored south down A1A and eventually made our way to Key West. We probably would have gone further but we ran out of road.
Key West lies at the southernmost point in the contiguous 48 states and the island city’s end-of-the-line geography probably has something to do with its infamous laid back mentality and its propensity for attracting eccentrics. Key West is still that way today but I imagine it was even more so in the early 1970s. Back then there were no docks for the cruise ships. There were less waterfront resorts, less tacky souvenir shops and a lot less tourists parading up and down Duval. But Key West is still a good place to get away from it all, to recharge batteries and to rub shoulders with idiosyncratic and invariably loquacious locals.
Most of my memories of that first trip to Key West have been blurred by the passage of time but I do remember being captivated by the wood-framed, pastel-painted houses with their gingerbread trim, louvered shutters and covered porches. The Caribbean architecture was something I had never seen before. I have a distinct memory of walking down a deserted Whitehead Street one evening and pausing in front of the Audubon House to gape at the tropical gardens behind the white picket fence.
I also distinctly remember the afternoon when some of us piled into a VW bus to test the legitimacy of a dime bag of dope. While the hippy dealers drove us around town we passed around a joint and I remember being scared shitless that we were going to be pulled over by the cops. The grass wasn’t all that good but we bought it anyway.
It was probably later that same night that I made my first visit to the Green Parrot bar. Like many Key West watering holes the Green Parrot is an ancient wood structure that someone converted into a saloon. It too was fairly deserted and inside it was dark and a bit grimy. I played pool with a couple of locals while a warm breeze drifted through the open shuttered windows and Al Green played on the juke box.
My next visit to Key West was with my first wife and another couple twenty-five years later. We stayed in a posh hotel next to Mallory Square and when I got bored one afternoon with laying around the pool I told my traveling companions that I was going for a walk. I hit a number of bars and when I returned about three hours later my wife was understandably livid. I apologized my ass off but it put a damper on the remainder of the trip.
My current wife Barb and I have been to Key West three times now. On our first visit we stayed at a rather seedy joint on Truman Street and while walking back to the motel one night we got tired and sat down on a stack of lumber that was piled up next to the sidewalk. We both ended up dozing off for a few minutes but what the hell. When you’re in Key West you tend to do a bit of drinking. It was on that trip that I realized how much Key West had changed from the early 70s. Whenever we went to the Green Parrot it was so packed we could hardly find a seat.
One afternoon on our second visit we stumbled across a clothing optional rooftop bar. The only naked customers were a couple of rotund fellows who had to be north of seventy. We got the hell out of there but the disturbing visual still haunts me to this day. On another afternoon we found a watering hole on the edge of a residential neighborhood a number of blocks off Duval. There were some interesting characters bellied up and a dog was sleeping on the bar. I got in a conversation with an old guy sitting next to me who for some reason thought I was an undercover cop. After I finally convinced him that I wasn’t he invited Barb and me to smoke a joint with him. Come to think of it, maybe Key West hasn’t changed so much after all.