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The Depths of Weirdness
Rick Reilly
February 22, 1993
A connoisseur of kitsch plunges into the bizarre, tacky world of the American Caribbean
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February 22, 1993

The Depths Of Weirdness

A connoisseur of kitsch plunges into the bizarre, tacky world of the American Caribbean

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Perfect, thought Perky, who had the tower brought in, constructed and baited with hundreds of pounds of the required bat guano. Then he sat back, held his nose and admired his work. Surely this was the grandest bat tower ever built, a colossal four-legged Bat Hilton with everything a bat loved. Most folks anticipated the greatest inflow of bats since the Louisville Slugger company picnic.

They are still waiting. Either Perky's bat marketing was poor or San Antonio was too good a place for bats to leave, because not a single bat showed up. Sixty-three years later, as we drove up, Perky's Bat Tower was still, sadly, batless. Unfortunately there were no people around, either, not to mention any tacky PERKY WAS BATS T-shirt stands. It seems Perky went bust, the fishing camp burned, and Perky eventually died, leaving the Bat Tower to sit quietly at the water's edge, alone in its humiliation.

Back to the rental car and the never-disappointing tidal wave of concrete poured down the middle of the pristine seascape. We saw a 30-foot mermaid ringed in lights outside Lorelei's restaurant in Islamorada that was splendid in its garishness. Farther on, we had beer served in mason jars. We fed wild tarpon for a dollar, if you call wild the sort of tarpon that never leaves the end of Robbie's Dock and will leap four feet into the air to snatch a dead fish you have hidden up your sleeve. Still, we were greatly disappointed to miss the Sugarloaf Lodge, where a dolphin named Sugar has been kept in a small pond in front of the restaurant for 17 years, doing tacky tricks with cups, saucers and small change. Nuts.

Ah, but ahead lay Key West, the southernmost point in the U.S., closer geographically to Havana than to Miami, closer spiritually to Mars than to Earth. In fact, Key West has a painted sign (at last, MM 0) that reads WELCOME TO THE END OF THE RAINBOW. It should read AMERICA BEGINS HERE, for Key West is the Louvre of tackiness. Key West has, among other things, pink taxicabs; the very popular lunch spot B.O.'s Fish Wagon, whose name seems to scare nobody off (B.O.'s slogan? SEA FOOD AND EAT IT!); a former mayor who water-skied to Cuba; a very ordinary grocery store that calls itself Fausto's Food Palace; Doris Day Night at the Copa gay bar; the fringed Conch Train, which is not a train at all but a disguised and overworked jeep pulling four cartloads of tourists; and the Green Parrot Bar, whose raison d'être is on the wall: SEE THE LOWER KEYS ON YOUR HANDS AND KNEES.

Former resident Ernest Hemingway seems to be the poster boy for Key West tackiness, with his stern visage plastered everywhere, even on the front of pink motor scooters, as if to annoy his spirit. Can you see Hemingway on a pink motor scooter? It was a good scooter. Christ, it was good and strong. The brakes were fine. For that matter, how do you think Hemingway would have reacted to seeing his head floating out of dry ice during the annual Hemingway Haunted House tour, conducted at Halloween in the home in which he wrote nine novels, including For Whom the Bell Tolls?

There is even an annual Ernest Hemingway look-alike contest. It may be the only contest in the world that you lose for being too young and too thin. Take Al Hoffman. He has made the finals for seven straight years and is a favorite to win someday. He needs merely to get older, drink more scotch and lose more hair. It is a job nobody wants, but Al must do it. "What else am I gonna do?" he says. "Model swimsuits?"

Hemingway said he would rather "cat monkey manure than die in Key West," but Papa did not know best. To our way of thinking, the Key West graveyard is the happiest, tackiest place on earth to live out your dead years. It is smack in the middle of town, so one is never alone. Kids constantly take shortcuts through it. Parades often begin beside it. Tourists happen by every day, fascinated. Calypso music wafts up from the Bahamian neighborhood nearby. Best of all, nobody in the place gets bent out of shape about having croaked. The gravestone of B.P. Roberts reads I TOLD YOU I WAS SICK, while another stone says AT LEAST I KNOW WHERE HE'S SLEEPING TONIGHT.

And then there's the crypt of Jose J. Abreu, a Key West native and Navy veteran. All his nicknames are on the stone: Mr. Clean, Baldy, Joseito, Jojab, Jacinto, Joselillo, Diablo, Uncle Tio, Cousin, Loco, Kojak, Gamba, Calvito, Pepito, Skinhead, Primo and Nuts. Not only that, but Mr. Abreu, a big Harry Truman fan, has an epitaph: THE BUCK STOPS HERE. What's more, the crypt is empty. Mr. Abreu, 87, is alive.

Naturally Mr. Abreu became our new tackiness leader, but then, and God help us, the Fantasy Fest parade began. The Key West Fantasy Fest parade makes Mardi Gras look like Librarians' Night Out. One parader wore the right T-shirt: KEY WEST: WHERE THE POSSESSED GO TO MINGLE. Key Westers have an unparalleled willingness to throw off every shred of pretension—not to mention clothing—for the sake of a party. If a taboo was left standing after the parade, we can't imagine what it was.

The most respected business in town, Fast Buck Freddie's department store, won the contest for the best float, with its Devil's Octopussy, a spinning purple fire-breathing octopus with eight moving tentacles manned by eight barely dressed men and women. The rest of the parade was much more strange. There was a cyborg with moving electric parts, who kept repeating, "Resistance is futile. We will be assimilated"; every conceivable costume Pat Robertson wouldn't approve of; a human motorboat with an actual water-expulsion tube; the Pope and George Bush together; Amelia Earhart in a missing-child announcement on the side of a milk carton; a lady giving out $5 street massages; Miss Gay Washington, D.C., in a red convertible; a gaggle of pregnant nuns; and a constant pulsing of Latin dance music, which shook the windows on Duval Street all night. The music was so intoxicating that it overcame the driver of a parade truck, causing him to abandon the wheel, climb on top of the cab and dance uncontrollably, despite attempts by parade organizers to get him down. For three minutes the parade went nowhere; then they dragged him down. Killjoys.

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