A Key West Primer for Mainers by Barbara Ross

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Hi from the other end of the east coast. Here I am at the southernmost point in the continental United States waving to Sarah Graves who is all the way at the other end of Route One at the easternmost point. Hi, Sarah! Since Sarah just took you on a tour of Eastport Island in early spring, I thought I would show you around Key West.

My parents started coming here in 1994 after my dad retired. My father was the only banker in the world who didn’t play golf (read who hated golf), so they needed to get far enough south that fishing and swimming were a possibility all year round. After the first month-long visit, their “creeping commitment” followed the path Julia Spencer-Fleming described in her post, Florida, ME. It took a little while to get used to the idea that instead of going to dinner at the club, my parents were attending poetry slams, but motivated as we were to get out of the frozen north for a week every winter, it didn’t take long for us to adjust.

Things to know about Key West.

Cruise ships: Love them because of the business they bring, or hate them because they flood the streets with day-trippers who only buy t-shirts and don’t stay to eat in the restaurants. Locals always check the cruise ship schedule printed in the paper before they head downtown.

For bonus points, hotly debate what will happen to the town when Cuba finally opens up and the cruise ships go there. (This debate has been hotly going as long as I remember. Who knew Fidel would live to be eighty-six?)

Spring Breakers: Easy. Unless you own a bar or have a transient license for your condo and one of the few associations willing to look the other way when twenty kids pile into your place; hate them.

Respectful dissent: My daughter who spent spring break here with four of her closest friends during her freshman year at UNH. And my parents who loved having all that youthful energy in the house, and found that house guests are particularly easy when they rise at noon, disappear at dinnertime and are not seen again until they rise at noon the next day.

Conch train: There’s a line about the Conch trains in Lucy Burdette’s first novel in her new Key West Food Critic Mystery series (more on this in my next blog post) that goes something like, “Making up stuff since 1958.” My husband’s cousin drove a tourist trolley here (they’re owned by the same company as the Conch trains) and believe me, it was all about the tips, and the more outrageous and hilarious the stories they told, the better the tips. Of course, the same cousin also drove a tourist trolley in Boston, so I guess it’s caveat emptor wherever you go.

Actually the Conch trains are a good way to get the lay of the land, particularly if you’re only on the island for a day or a weekend. And remember, if you get into a traffic tango with one, they cannot reverse.

Bagatelle Restaurant: Where my son proposed to my daughter-in-law. If you ever meet them and ask about it, they may claim it happened a few days earlier on a moonlit kayak tour of the mangroves, but this is just because my son thinks that’s when he should have proposed and they think it makes a better story. Apparently the Conch train drivers aren’t the only ones willing to throw the facts overboard to improve a tale.

Today, I left my credit card there at lunchtime. When my husband was driving me down an insane Duval Street at eight o’clock at night to retrieve it, I was able to tell him it was a “mere bagatelle.” He didn’t find it amusing. Of course, he wasn’t finding anything I did amusing at that point.

Similarities to Maine: Front page story in the Key West Citizen today is about two men prosecuted for illegal lobster harvesting. Dissimilarities: The lobsters are spiny and don’t have big front claws.

Speaking of the Key West Citizen: Lea Wait has written about what good sources the police logs in local papers are for mystery writers and the Key West Citizen has long been my favorite for just plain insanity. However, today my favorite story is in the corrections:

“Christian J. Lambertson died on February 11, 2011. A story in Saturday’s edition cited the wrong year.
Also, a front page banner in Saturday’s edition incorrectly advised readers to set their clocks back an hour for Daylight Savings Time. Clocks move forward in the spring.” (emphasis mine)

Added bonus in the Citizens’ Voice forum column: “So I was two hours late for church this morning as I had turned my clocks back an hour like the paper said.”

Giving new and deeper meaning to the expression, “island time.”

About Barbara Ross

Barbara Ross is the author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries and the Jane Darrowfield Mysteries. Her books have been nominated for multiple Agatha Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and have won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She lives in Portland, Maine. Readers can visit her website at www.maineclambakemysteries.com
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12 Responses to A Key West Primer for Mainers by Barbara Ross

  1. Lea Wait says:

    Oh, I so want to go to Key West! But you never mentioned the chickens, and Hemingway! And all the gay bars! I lived in Greenwich Village for about 8 years, and I’ve always thought of Key West as Greenwich Village South, with chickens and Hemingway and sun. (Of course, as my husband – who has been there – reminds me – it’s not exactly like that.) But maybe my view is influenced by CNN’s covereage ofNew Year’s Eve which includes’s coverage of the midnight descent of an elegantly attired transvestite (in lieu of a ball.) Loved the local reporting, by the way!

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  2. It was nice to start the day with your excellent blog about Key West and Roberta Isleib’s (Lucy Burdette) Facebook post about Key Lime pie. We just got back from our morning walk, where our dog Quincy almost had a run-in with one of the roosters that roam the streets. It certainly is a relaxed lifestyle down here. While waiting for my wife who was shopping, a store owner handed me a beer. It wasn’t even 9:00 a.m. I guess he thought I was here for spring break.

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  3. Sarah Graves says:

    Oh, I think I want to be at the opposite end of Route 1 from the one I’m at. (But then, I always do seem to want to be at the opposite end of whatever I’m at the end of!) Great tour, Barb — thanks!

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  4. Bob Thomas says:

    Yup that does sound like Key West. Lea’s got this thing about the chickens. I must have missed them. Of course it was about 1968. Nice job Barb.

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    • Barb Ross says:

      The chickens are still here, alive and kicking. Of course, the roosters don’t know the clock sprung forward. (I guess they doing read the paper.) I actually typed the “cluck sprung forward.”

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  5. Great post Barb! Lea, you are right–there are layers and layers of interesting folks and customs on this island. Material for books and books–of course, duh, tons of writers live here or have already written about the place!

    Ang, did you drink the beer???

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  6. Oh, my. Guess where I’m going next March? Beer at 9 AM on vacation? Bring it on!

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  7. Fun post! Have some key lime pie for me!

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