1413 Williams Street...
The newspaper ad simply read:
"Room in artist's home. 1413 Williams. Available now."
In routine Key West fashion, I had procrastinated finding another apartment, and it was getting down to the final week on my lease at 410 Caroline Steet. I suppose it was more a serious case of denial on my part. I wasn't ready to give up Ms. Jesse's room at the Heritage House, but...a room in an artist's home in Key West? Hey, I was there, if it wasn't taken already.
How odd, I thought, the ad listed no phone number. It was late afternoon, but I decided to go check it out. I hastily scavanged for a map to locate Williams Street, almost ran the three blocks to where my bus was parked, then attempted a hurried trip through Old Town. I say attempted, because whether in a hurry or not, Key West streets can be very unforgiving. It's rushed moments like this when one truly realizes how slow and congested traffic is, just how many oblivious tourists on bicycles there are, and can fully appreciate the miriads of unpredictable, wobbly scooters, and, lest I forget: the hundreds of pedestrians wandering aimlessly around like zombies. What was worse is that none of them seemed to have a clue how important it was that I get this apartment!
No one answered the knock on the front door, so I walked around to the gate on the side that appeared to lead to a large, overgrown backyard. Just before the gate, was a single step up wooden deck supporting a large refridgerator/freezer, a dual-basin with countertop and cabinets, and a table with a very much used charcoal grill. It was a fully functional kitchen, only fully exposed outdoors, except for the thick canopy of huge tropical trees that generously shaded the place.
I called out through the gate, but no one answered. A side door to the house was fully open, so I called inside. Still no answer. I took the liberty of walking in and looking around. I loved it! The old conche house was all natural Dade pine with vaulted ceilings, exposed beams, and clues all over the place that an artist did, in fact, reside within.
Walking back out onto to the open air kitchen, I saw a note on the wooden fence by the gate, that I'd swear was not there just moments earlier. It read: "Here about the room? Leave name and number." So, I ran back to the bus, found a pen, and did just that.
Not at all the history, pomp and ceremony of the Heritage House Museum and Robert Frost Cottage, but it had something special about it that I found welcoming: something mysterious and wonderfully intriguing.
Late that night, I received a call. The male, raspy-voiced caller said that if I was serious about taking the room, it was mine. I could stop by in the morning to get the key and begin moving in, but not until 11:00 AM. He was very emphatic about the time. I agreed, then asked if he would like to meet with me first to discuss all the details. He said that he had already seen me, and that was enough for him, and further added that the details were just details, and could wait. I asked how much it rented for, and about getting him payment. He said it would run $720, which included utilities, and was so much because it was the largest room in the front with a private entry, and exclusive use of the porch and front yard. About the money...he said to pay him just the first month's rent whenever we ran into one another at the house the next time. Deal!
When I got there in the morning, I went to the gate on the side and found an envelope with my name tied to it. Inside of it was a key. I called out to announce my arrival, but again no response. With key in hand, I proceeded through the front gate, onto the porch, and opened the door to my new home.
The room was huge, very pine, and furnished with an old, squeaky iron double bed. A teardrop shaped crystal hung by a string in the window by the bedside. I took my time moving in over the week, spending my days in my progressively populated new apartment, and sleeping each night at my progressively more baron place on Caroline. Each day I looked for my new landlord to appear, but we never managed to cross paths. I kept the rent check at the ready on the mantle.
There were two other renters who accessed the place through the always opened side door. The artist lived in the very rear of the house, which he had sealed off. I didn't even know what he looked like. I kept a vigil over the next week, watching for anyone walking up alongside the house. I met a cable installer, some people visiting the other renters, and eventually the other two renters, but no luck in meeting my new landlord.
As I was leaving for work one afternoon, a tall, lanky man with long, unkempt hair, approached on foot from up the street. He waved and said, "Hi, Greg. I see you've gotten yourself all settled in." I was surprised that guy knew my name, and figured that it must be him, finally.
"Yes, I have," I said shaking his hand, adding,"You must be..."
"I am." he said cutting me off.
"Good timing," I said, "I was just off to work. Oh, let me get you the rent check."
"Check?" he said, "No need to keep you. Put it in an envelope tonight and attach it to the gate."
That being said, he just walked off, quickly disappearing through the gate and into the over grown backyard. I got the key and had been living there almost two weeks, and had yet to pay a thing, and with no hint of a lease. Bewildering, I thought, yet so very Key West.
Sharing more about my mysterious artist landlord is in order, but would make a story of its own. Perhaps, I may write it one day. And perhaps when I do, he might even have a name. I saw little of him while living there. He had, on rare occasion, invited me back to his sanctuary. Once he told me that he was tired of living alone. I suggested that he get out more often and socialize. He confesssed to having little in the way of social skills, and said that he was hoping that the woman of his dreams would just come parachuting into his backyard one day. I never did gt to know his name in the month and a half I stayed there. Month and a half? Yes, sadly so. It turned out that the place was for the birds.
Up and down Williams Street, in the nooks and crannies, and high in most of the tall trees, lived droves of Bahamian chickens ~ the national bird of Key West, the Conch Republic. They were a protected item and were not to be harmed. Over the years, they began to overpopulate. The roosters crowed day and night, without let up. Many a sleepless night, I would get out of bed, go outside, and run around like a mad man, wildly swinging a broom at the trees in my boxer shorts, making obscene threats to the entire Bahamian chicken world! For that brief moment there would be total silence. But, once I got back into bed...
I moved in 1 November that year, and packed up lock, stock, and barrel, moving out in mid December. After loading everything into my bus, I went back inside for one last look. It was every bit as empty as the day I had first walked in. I was satisfied that I had not left anything behind. I was about to close the front door for the last time, when an impulsive thought stopped me. I walked back in, crawled across the sagging mattress of the old bed, unhooked the hanging crystal and put it in my pocket. Now I had everything.
Before driving off, I walked around to the gate and hung an envelope containing the key, with this message on it:
"Keep looking up!" ~ greg
Next stop: 1430 Thompson Street!