Thursday, January 18, 2018

Trinkets & Old Haunts

For years I had a mouthwatering appetite for fine watches, starting with Tag Heuer, Bulova and Baume & Mercier then graduating to Rolex, Cartier and Breitling.  But then I bought an iPhone and the idea of carrying around two time pieces seemed superfluous as well as incongruous.  Initially to avoid the accusation of being a tinsel-loving magpie I had infused my rapacity for complicated watches with what I considered pure pragmatism including for example a profesed penchant for technical craftsmanship and that they must be made of gold since I suffered an allergic reaction to base metals. But the persuasiveness of those palliatives commensurately diminished as the need for a wristwatch evaporated.  Trinkets are a hard-sell at best! They're usually on the retail perimeter (much the way fine art is the last of the household possessions to be acquired); on almost any level they compete unfavourably with groceries and booze.

Following the strategic move to the iPhone I hunted for other portable accessories on which to train my sights. Speaking of which, while in the train station in Rome awaiting our departure to Montepulciano I spied an alluring key chain made by Mont Blanc.  In its most abstract view it had for me the same artistic and industrial design appeal that the crystal face of the iPhone has.  Both captured the tactile gratification of a personal treasure.  My key chain has seldom been out of its fleece pouch since the day I purchased it.  Occasionally I remove it just for the private delight of feeling its weight and texture.  But as for its practicality I am embarrassed to say that I would consider it a contamination to suspend a chromium-plated or brass key from it.  The thought of having a key cast in sterling silver was too revolting to contemplate!

In the pursuit of manageable trinkets - for it is is an undying devotion - I even conceded to buy a sterling silver ingot made by a Canadian manufacturer duly embossed with hallmarks and assayer's data.  This too has remained entirely inert.  Its value as a putative paperweight (more of that mock pragmatism) has also been relinquished.

I will extrapolate one further illustration though it will perhaps seem gross by comparison. From time to time I muse upon the decline of the private automobile as a driving experience.  Given the swirling talk of autonomous vehicles this heralds the wane of what for me is currently one of the last outposts of material pleasure.  I expect however that the threat is remote enough that it will never affect me.  But it is a reminder that my field of passion is forever narrowing.  I wouldn't for example contemplate the purchase of another stick of furniture or knotted rug.  Crystal, silverware and porcelain are decidedly out! All my music is downloaded from iTunes and broadcast on portable speakers of varying sizes. Computers have the blunt utility of a vacuum cleaner no matter their capacity.  It is illustrative of the enervation of craving which naturally comes with age.

I am not however prepared to capitulate. The point to keep in mind is that these trinkets are symbols.  One only needs to enquire of their appeal to others; and the answer is invariably that everyone has different tastes.  Their magic lies not in what they are but what they represent. What however unites the absorption of all of us is that we're each tantalized by something.  Further it follows that while one thing or another may fall out of favour or charm, it doesn't mean there's nothing left. It is necessary to re-interpret. As repugnant as it may first appear to those of us who have lapsed into immutable habits, a fresh phase is the unseen congress by which to revitalize ourselves.

An apt metaphor for this accommodation may for example arise when visiting old haunts.  This morning in Key West began very agreeably compared to what might have characterized my matutinal experience here 35 years ago. For starters I was in bed last night by ten o'clock. There hadn't been a drop of alcohol to promote my sleep. This contrasts with bicycling home from Michael's Bar on Duval Street at 3:00 am then stopping at Sunbeam Groceries and (formerly) Deli on White Street for a Cuban sandwich and carton of milk.  My eye-opener today was Clementine orange wedges and a sizeable plate of protein. Though I appreciated the provisions of the guest house years ago I much prefer the view - and the clarity of it -from the balcony this morning.

Inspired by the query of a friend in Canada this morning I resolved to re-acquaint myself with some of the old haunts in Key West. I began my mission by cycling along the north coast of the island then diverting into the thick of the historical centre.  There I stumbled upon Pepe's restaurant.  Oddly though I knew of the place I had never been there.  But its repute was then and still is notorious.

When I first came to Key West Pepe's was slightly beyond the thriving tourist area which tightly revolved around upper Duval Street.  The area which now surrounds Pepe's is considerably more developed than I recall.  The arrondissement includes hotels, marinas and a turtle museum.  It makes for a pleasant wander.  Nearby at 713 Caroline Street we discovered the Coffee Plantation (coffee house and bakery) whose owners (the "Glorie Family") I met this morning. They have done a remarkable job of renovating and adapting an historic old town home and furnishing it in the most agreeable way.  The coffee and baked goods are yummy too!

The Pier House hotel is considered fashionable. To this day its restaurant is nonpareil (not the least of which is its unique rendition of Key Lime pie with a bountiful topping of meringue). Initially the primary appeal of the Pier House was that it afforded an outdoor second-storey lounge from which to escape the milling throngs on Mallory Dock to watch the sunset.  The sunset was a daily ritual always succeeded by much clapping and shouting as the last fiery edge melted into the horizon.  The Pier House still exists but the lounge is gone.

The more important alteration is the complete overhaul of Mallory Dock which was then just a relic fishing wharf, creaking wooden planks, barnacle-encrusted piers, etc.  It is now a trendy retail venue serving primarily the needs of the voluminous traffic of the visiting cruise lines. The development is sophisticated without the blaring sounds of low-end shops which punctuate the upper reaches of Duval Street. However the sunset synod has been sterilized.  The buskers are gone!

As I progressed southward into the heart of Key West I purposively sought out Sloppy Joe's bar.  Though there are a myriad of stories which abound about Sloppy Joe's Bar the one with which I am most familiar is that Earnest Hemmingway reputedly drank there.  In this connection I can also report that Tennessee Williams was spied in the flesh at another watering hole in the company of a bevy of doting admirers.  This doesn't of course surprise me.  Williams' ghost haunted Cape Cod as well and as a result I subsequently heard about, bought and read "Tennessee Williams' Letters to Donald Windham (1940 - 1965)" which is beyond praise.  His succinct notes (some of which were letters, others merely stratches on postcards) forever captured the richest flavours of Key West for me.  I wouldn't be alarmed to learn that Williams also frequented other drinking holes like "801" and "Backstreet Bar" further along Duval Street.  They still retain their unpleasant tobacco smell quite apart from the corresponding patrons.

Not far from Sloppy Joe's Bar is the reincarnation of what I formerely knew as the Pigeon House restaurant, now called First Flight.  My information is that Pigeon House was the headquarters of Pan American airlines when it started.  The story goes that the people at headquarters sent homing pigeons to Miami to inform staff there of the current weather conditions on Key West.  A more upscale dining experience was at Louie's Backyard (close to the Casa Marina).

Larry Formica was the former owner of La Te Da ("La Terraza de Marti").  He regularly greeted our tribe of visitors eager to drink and dine there. It was without a doubt the pinnacle of entertainment for our rambunctuous crowd. To this day the exceptionally high quality of meals persists.  The upstairs nightclub entertainment is in my opinion sadly diluted but the frozen truth is that we can in any event bear the deprivation of loud noise and late-night indulgence.

When I was young I had heard about Casa Marina "at the other end of Duval". As we were then staying in a comparatively modest guest house we fashioned that Casa Marina was not only expensive but remote and stuffy. We've since migrated.  During our last stay there we crossed paths with Milo Yiannopoulos the self-described "cultural libertarian". Critically for me the parking is convenient.

What's embarrassing is that my historical knowledge of Key West was so skewed that I didn't realize that the pier I daily visited for sunbathing and swimming was located adjacent the Casa Marina.  The pier was so congested with people that it was imperative to tiptoe between them to move about. People sprawled upon beach towels, sat on the edge of the pier with their feet hanging down or pirouetted from the tops of pilings before plunging into the sea. The popular distraction was watching pelicans dive for fish.  For swimming we contented ourselves to climb down the wooden ladders into the sea or dive from the pier.  Never did we venture abroad to the so-called beach located nearby.

The dénouement of my recapitulation was to sit by the sea on S Roosevelt Blvd, positioned directly into the afternoon sun, glowing. I pleasingly contemplated Key West today.  Though I fondly recall my youthful introduction to the island our current experience is the nec plus ultra. I say that advisedly because the past is a hard act to follow.  But as I earlier suggested the allure of the old trinkets is inevitably replaced by the glitter of the new. The gems of the past change into the jewels of the present.

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