Monday, August 06, 2007


Day one in Key West: Stranded

When we awoke Monday morning, the first thing I did was call the airlines to check on our bags. The automated system told me they had made no progress on our bags. We walked out of our bungalow into thick heat—high 80s at 9 a.m.—to breakfast with the rest of the hotel guests. We sat on the large deck of the main house and dined on small Danishes and bagels with a number of middle-aged guests talking about a tiny Air Force settlement in Arizona. When we mentioned our luggage predicament, and the hostess said that late bags usually arrived the same evening as their owners, implying something more permanent had befallen ours.

Unwilling to surrender all the near-tropical activities we had planned for, we made reservations for various boat trips and set out for Duval Street to replace our clothes and swim gear. Unkempt and wearing the same (full-length) clothes as yesterday, we ventured out into the stifling daylight.

There's little I can say that properly conveys the feeling of being under the Key West sun. It's like being in the most desolate place on earth and being the only thing God is paying attention to--simultaneously. You step into the light and begin to sweat before you can spell the word in your head.

Duval Street is the primary attraction on Key West itself—a 2-mile stretch lined with bars and touristy shops that teem with boneheaded T-shirts and thong panties with slogans like “LICK ME.” It’s optimistic to think that any woman who would wear that underwear would look like anything else but a trussed ham in them. But a few of the shops had clothes we were willing to be seen in, and soon we had spent more than $100 each on swimsuits, shorts, sandals and sunscreen.

Then, as I lurched around American Apparel in my sweat-soaked corduroys and Stones T-shirt, thinking this was something I could be doing in Brooklyn, my phone rang. The airline had just delivered our bags to the hotel. I thought back to the stores we had visited. Each one had a “no refunds” policy.

Val has a theory that the merchants of Key West have a pact with American Eagle to “misplace” travelers’ luggage in order to stimulate business on the island. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether a contractor like American Eagle would jeopardize its contractual relationship with a global carrier like American Airlines with such dirty pool. But it’s an agreeably romantic notion that harkens back to the scrappy entrepreneurship that made Key West the wealthiest city (per capita) in the nation during the 19th century.

Key West was founded by wreckers—that is, men who salvaged the cargo from ships run aground on the reefs surrounding the dangerous Florida Straits. The wreckers’ first priority was to rescue the poor souls aboard the ships, but after that, the cargo was fair game. At least one of the three wrecker museums in town proudly proclaim that 125 years ago, nearly every household on the island had its own handmade set of silver—never mind the fact that the monogram on the forks and knives didn’t match the families’ initials. The town was built by people who made their fortunes on the misfortune of others. Now that steam power and more reliable navigation has made wrecking obsolete, it’s refreshing to think the natives have come up with a metaphorical wrecking trade to keep the spirit of their ancestors alive.

Musing on this fact, we wandered back to the hotel, where we promptly collapsed in a heap in the air conditioning. Final first-day tally: eight clothing stores, zero museums.

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