Wandering through Key West's crazy potpourri

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Almost the first words I heard on alighting at Key West the other day were, "Let's take your bags to the hotel and then go to the sunset." If all else had changed since my last visit to the little town at the end of the road -- 100 miles from the Florida mainland, 90 miles from Havana -- people were still paying daily homage to the setting sun, and Mallory Dock was still the place to do it.

We went to the sunset -- that's how they say it in Key West -- a half-hour early, and lucky we did or we would have missed the pre-game show, which was changed considerably since my last visit. I last saw such a line-up of free-lance jugglers, musicians, contortionists, and fire-eaters outside the Pompidou Center in Paris. Here the biggest crowds were watching Magical Mystical Michael, who, dressed like a hippie Sinbad, was doing impossible things with a set of interlocking silver rings.

Those in a more contemplative mood stood around a young woman playing a hammer dulcimer accompanied by a man on guitar. How I know it was hammer dulcimer is that an attentive spectator named Gary Zimmerman, who also plays that ancient instrument, told me so. "It's one of the oldest instruments in the world," said Mr. Zimmerman, who has a permit to perform on Mallory Dock four days a week. "There is a painting of one on the Chepos Pyramid. It's the forerunner of the piano."

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Gary Zimmerman was the first of the new- wave Key Westers I met, and his story tells volumes about the changing, growing, struggling outpost at the end of the Keys. He is young, dark-bearded, from the Northeast, makes $12 to $14 at the most for his Mallory appearances but also (and this is an important distinction to him) earns a living painting and decorating mirrors for a shop on Duval Street. And wind surfs every chance he gets. He acknowledged that some of the Mallory Dock talent is subpar, that many of the Duval shops are trashy, that the unbathed element is giving Key West a bad name, but he said the city overreacted when it tried, usuccessfully, to run out Mallory's young entertainers in a "Get rid of the dirtbags" campaign a few weeks ago. Peace, he said, has since been restored.

Very suddenly I pulled away. And Gary Zimmerman understood why. The reddening sun was nearing the horizon, and on the concrete dock people were gazing dumbstruck, gasping, or snapping photographs. Several had taken Polaroid shots and were waving damp prints of the dropping sun even as it still hovered hugely above the water. Then it was gone, and a cheer went up.

Key West itslf deserves a cheer -- for having survived a chain of crises over the years that might have caved in a lesser place and for supporting such an unlikely mixture of 1980s creatures while not losing its friendly, freewheeling touch. There ar artists, writers, and dulcimer players living alongside the crusty natives called Conchs; there are lots of military people, bands of tourists seeking the winter sun and Hemingway's spirit, interlopers on charged-up motorcycles. And there are those easy-living, all-forgiving townsfolk who moved down from some place colder years ago, who now live in restored or still-sagging Conch houses, and how call Key West's most illustrious citizen by his first name, whether they know him well or not, as in: "Tennessee was coming to lunch today, but he had to cancel."

Tennessee Williams lives in a modest little Conch house on Duncan (though I am told there is nothing modest about the interior), and he is as much a Key West symbol as the Audubon House, the motorized Conch train which winds through the old section on sight- seeing tours, and Key Lime Pie. In early January the theater community was rushing toward a Jan. 25 world premiere of the Williams play "Will Mr. Merriwether Return from Memphis?" performed in the new Tennessee Williams Fine Arts Center at the nearby Floriday Keys Community College. Backers of the new theater are thrilled that the town is finally getting a substantial theater.

Another gap has been filled by the opening of the 250-room Casa Marina, Key West's only all-purpose resort hotel. Marriott has taken a fine, rambling, tile-roofed building -- the old Casa Marina, opened in 1921 but left to moulder for many years -- and, if anything, improved on the original. The 138-room new wing doesn't measure up to the main building -- all potted palms, rattan furniture, and ceiling fans -- but it's tucked away so you don't see it as you step through the front door and into another era. Very Jazz Age.

People don't journey all the way to this southernmost point in the continental US for beaches, casinos, golf, greyhound racing and the other things that lure tourists elsewhere; they come to Key West for a quieter and perhaps more intellectual respite, so that even the posh Casa Marina attracts a (you'll pardon the pun) low-key clientele. I was glad, as I sat on the veranda at night and during the splendid breakfast buffet, to hear voices from as far away as England, France, Italy. If there is a bonus resulting from the dollar's difficulty abroad, it is the small tide of foreign travelers that has swept across the US.

As I moved about the rare old town, on bike and foot (a car is almost a nuisance), from the chartreuse-shuttered- Hemingway House, where the writer lived and wrote in the 1930s; to the Audobon House (he spent six months in the then mosquito-ridden Keys in 1832); to a fine little restaurant named Claire which would look at home in SoHo if SoHo houses had palms around them, I realized how odd and wonderful Key West must be to Europeans -- and to Americans as well. What compares to it? New Orleans, Charleston, Newport? For sure, nothing compares to the sunset services at Mallory Dock.

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