Localized Phenomenon

Recorded for the “Keyscast” podcast.


I have come to understand that, to be a ‘local’ in Key West, you need two things above all else. Before you burn your neckties, before you stop thinking of twelve hundred dollars a month as reasonable rent for one room, before you stop worrying about drinking beer with breakfast, before anyone says ‘The usual?’ to you at a Happy Hour.

Two things you must do, things far more significant to locals than grumbling about tourism, more ingrained than a fear of Miami, more important than a pair of special-occasion flip-flops.

Two facets of the island mindset more ubiquitous than a picture with Captain Tony, more familiar than the chorus of “Margaritaville,” more critical to true assimilation than learning to ride a scooter:

You absolutely, first and foremost, must lose any reasonable perspective on two things.

The first one is temperature.

Back in December, the temperature dipped down into the sixties. I know, picnic weather, right? So I’m coming out of the gym one evening, about eight, and I have wet hair, and I’m wearing workout clothes, shorts and a t-shirt. And it’s a beautiful night. No clouds. Maybe sixty-seven, sixty-six degrees. And a guy walks by me, as I’m coming out, and he is wearing a fleece! And a knitted hat! And an honest-to-god scarf! And Nanook, this loon, has the nerve to give me that ‘Hey, it’s your funeral’ raised-eyebrow look that I’d give someone dressed like me if it was maybe eleven degrees. And this is from a guy dressed for dogsledding. It was seventy degrees two hours ago, he’s ready for the Iditarod.

And brace yourself for this: In February, it went down to fifty-five. Fifty-five puts all of South Florida on orange alert. Here’s what the weather guy on TV said when that happened: ‘There’s a front stalled over South Florida. That means the cold snap should continue for the next two nights, before breaking on Thursday. On Wednesday night, we have a frost warning for south-central Florida, where the temperature could dip below thirty-two-degrees Fahrenheit, inevitably resulting in the deaths of millions. I urge you to take your families and flee the state, and I call upon the government of the United States to construct a giant sunlamp to prevent the tragedy of cold-weather ever again wreaking havoc and mayhem upon the great state of Florida. I will remain on my station, calling out temperatures, as long as I can. It is fifty-four degrees in Miami. God bless you all. Tell my wife I love her. Goodbye.’

The second thing on which you must completely lose perspective, to be a Key Wester, is distance. We have been renting a house, on Summerland Key, at Mile Marker 24. The office is on Key West. We drive to the office on a fairly regular basis. And when we tell residents of Key West that we are staying on Summerland, they react as though we must be coming in by helicopter. And when I explain that it takes half an hour, whereas my previous commute, which was much shorter in terms of absolute distance, was made in the same amount of time and involved me spending the whole time standing on a crowded train that smelled like a porta-potty, they look blank, and say ‘But it’s so far.’

And this problem is fractal. I often ride my bike from the office to Duval Street or the seaport, a distance of roughly two and a half miles. That’s not a lot. I have been in airports larger than this island. But let me ride my bike over to Monty’s for stone crabs and shrimp, and when I get there, you’d think I stepped off my bike and said ‘Yup. Just rode down from Miami. Nice day.’ When I lived in Chicago, I would not have thought twice about riding my bike two and a half miles. In light snow. To get a taco.

So obviously, I’m not used to it here, yet.