I have a several month lay over here in Key West, the first stop along a cross-country roadtrip in my old, hopefully faithful, 1970 VW hippie love bus. So, as a writing warm up, I thought I might share some curious things about the several places in Key West that I have lived in the somewhat recent past. But, before I go into discussing the first place, I felt that sharing events leading up to that first historic efficiency apartment, might be of interest, and perhaps, even entertaining.
828 Elizabeth Street ~ Jim's Place
In an earlier post, I shared the excitement I felt in coming to Key West for the first time while on vacation back in 2001. The island impacted me so strongly that all I could think about from that first encounter on, was abandoning everything and relocating to Key West.
On that trip, I met Jim, an overtly friendly and stately southern gentleman from Tennessee, who had been bartending at the Magnolia Cafe (now sadly a Quizzno's). He became an instant friend, and avid cyber pen pal once I returned to Maryland. For months, Jim's tales from Key West continued to encourage my decision to move, and were a strong beacon. As he liked to tell it, he was my air traffic controller, guiding me in on my return flight to the island. Not only had he been an encyclopedia of information, he also had managed to find and secure my very first apartment, an efficiency at the prestigious and historic Heritage House Museum.
I arrived at Jim's door at 828 Elizabeth Street at noon on the 25th of April. The efficiency would not be available until the 1st of May, so he graciously allowed me to stay with him until then. There was one condition: that I bring him a case of Merlot. He promised that we would share many Merlot moments over the months to come, as he schooled me in the ways of island living.
Jim's place was your typical Key West rental: an old two-story home with the owner occupying the upper level, and the lower level renting out single rooms to four renters, all sharing one kitchen and bathroom. Jim was tasked by the owners as serving as the lower level landlord, and was responsible for keeping all the rooms rented.
His room was the first on the right upon entering the front door. It was modestly furnished with a single bed and a corner desk that housed his computer. Of the four available rooms, Jim's room offered the use of the front porch with a door access through his room, but which had been sealed from entry from the outside. (The room to the left ofthe front door in the pictures above.)
The porch functioned as a walk-in closet/storage room, and was packed to the brim with racks of dress suits, overcoats, and dozens of fedora hats. In Key West? Come on. I mean, what the hell? There were also shelves of dress shoes, and mountains of loose clothing, making walking into, let alone through, the room impossible. The first order of business, after we downed a celebratory glass each of vodka (with just a blush of cranberry) was to excavate the cot that he was sure was buried in there somewhere.
Score! Under the pile of clothes to the left of the entrance was the cot. As there wasn't enough room for two in the room at the same time, he suggested I wait in his room while he fixed the cot up for me. He placed a blanket down for added padding, then two sheets. For a pillow, he located a throw pillow amid the mounds of clothing. There! Now I would be set for the night. Not the Hilton, but, this was Key West, and having a dry, safe place to crash for free, was nothing to pass up.
Each night while Jim worked, I went out on the town. I met up with him each night at Magnolia's at the end of his shift, and we walked back to his place and picked up on where we left off the night before with our long conversations. Of course, we couldn't talk without, you guessed it, vodka.
The long talks and vodka had me sleeping like a baby for my first three nights in that cluttered front room. The cot was narrow and hard, even with the extra padding, but I was pretty anestisized in the wee hours of the morning when it was time to hit the rack. But, I would not be able to sleep at all on my fourth night there.
On that night, Jim became much more melancholy than usual, and opened up a lot more into his personal life prior to Key West. I was astonished to discover that he held a doctorate degree. I suppose I shouldn't hae been, considering that Key West is heavily populated by Ph.D.'s, former corporate execs, and professionals who now filled the ranks of waiters, desk clerks, bartenders, and taxi drivers. Key West provided refuge to many who no longer wanted "in" with the system, or reality. To some, it was the end of the line.
Even more astonishing to discover that fateful evening, was that Doctor Jim had a secret. He said he would share it only if I agreed not to disclose it to the local community. Prior to Key West, Jim had been an undertaker. An undertaker?! That out of the mortician's bag, he poured us yet another milk glass of vodka with a hint of pink. He chugged his down like water, and then finished off mine, as I had already had way past my limit, and was practically embalmed.
We called it a night, or an almost a dawn, and I hit the cot. My mind was reeling. The room was moving in circles. Undertaker, I thought?! Well, that certainly explained so damn many suits, coats, shoes, and freakin' fedoras! Suddenly, a macabre thought enterd my drunken mind, and I rolled off the cot onto the heavily littered floor. I struggled up onto my knees and proceeded to tear the linens off of the cot. I was right. It wasn't a cot at all. For the past three nights, I had slept on an undertaker's gurney!!!
Was this why he so adamently pushed vodka after vodka on me? Was it his thing to lure unsuspecting victims into his confidence, and then...and then...I didn't want to think about it, and yet I couldn't stop myself! That, and snoring from the other room that could wake the dead, kept me wide awake for what was left of the night.
At daybreak, I quietly gathered my things, and headed off to my new apartment. Once I got the keys to my piece of the Heritage House, I spread out on the old double-sized bed in what had been Miss Jesse's room, and fell into a deep, deep, sleep.
This true account had first planted the seed for the novel I am writing while on my road trip to the west coast. I hope to have it completed prior to my return to Florida. Stay tuned!
Coming Up Next: 410 Caroline Street, The Heritage House Museum and Robert Frost Cottege