Key West? More Like Key WEIRD

mallory-squareThe other day, my girlfriend Kari and I were talking about Key West and its unique appeal, and that got me thinking about all the neat attributes of my town—idiosyncrasies that people may be unaware of. I’m sure you already know that if you like drinkin’, Key West is the place for you (according to public records, in 2013 the 7.5-square-mile municipality had 360 establishments with liquor licenses. 360!). But I wanna tell you about some things I’ve learned while living here that you might not know.

First, some plain ol’ numbers: the U.S. Census listed the 2013 Key West population as 25,550. But I read in a New York Times article once that during the busy season—November through April, for the most part—when all the hotels are full, there could be as many as 110,000 folks on the island. I have a part-time job riding a trike through the downtown area in the evening—I’m towing a life-size stuffed ostrich and blaring reggae music on a bangin’ sound system, but that’s a story for another time—and the crowds of people are always diverse, and perpetually fascinating.

There are folks of every race and nationality you can imagine (and some you probably can’t). There are old and young people, straights, gays (plenty of those), tweekers, loads of sloppy drunks, bible-thumpers, and all manner of odd characters. Probably my favorite bit ospidey1991-editf daily weirdness is some guy who dresses in a Spiderman costume and sits on the curb playing a sitar. (Bet you don’t see that in your town.)

Key West has at least 130 restaurants, about 40 art galleries, a butterfly museum, and a daily sunset celebration, where hundreds of folks gather on Sunset Pier, the downtown boardwalk, to watch fire-breathers, tightrope walkers, and other assorted street performers. And on practically every street corner there’s a booth offering fishing, snorkeling, parasailing, and tour packages to the tourons (Key West-speak for “tourist morons”).

Of course, all that’s to be expected from a town that relies on the tourist industry for its sustenance. But here are some other characteristics that totally validate the city slogan, “Key West: Where the Weird Go Pro”:

Key West Key West Pix 13 082is practically overrun by chickens. You can’t be on the island for more than two minutes without seeing a feral chicken, and you won’t go for more than 30 seconds without hearing a rooster crow. The most popular belief is that in the 1950s, tons of Cubans fled to Key West to escape the revolution going on there, and they brought chickens with them to be used for meat and eggs. Over time the poultry population exploded, and these days the number of chickens on the island is in the thousands.

The tourists love them. The locals hate them. Either way, the chickens are a lot like Key West itself: colorful, wild, at times noisy, and occasionally annoying.

Fantasy Fest is Key West’s version of Mardi Gras. Though of course nowhere near the size, Fantasy Fest at least equals M2012-1-Mural (2)ardi Gras in debauchery per square inch of naked skin. The week consists of parades, lots of nudity (in the form of body painting instead of costumes or the simple flashing of tig ol’ bitties), and every conceivable form of bacchanalia you can think of. Formed in the late 70s by local businessmen, Fantasy Fest takes place in the week preceding Halloween, and usually brings about 100,000 tourists to the island during October (which used to be the local tourism industry’s slowest month).

Key West has a huge homeless population. Look on any street corner, and there’s probably a dirty, shabbily dressed person holding a cardboard sign. (And seriously, I read one once that said, “NO JOKE: KICK ME IN THE NUTS FOR $10.” The dude wasn’t able to stand up, but his cup was full of ten-dollar bills. But I digress.)

I read a reportB_1_homeless1_176669_0111 on the interwebs that was published by Marbut Consulting, an independent research firm hired by the City of Key West to study the issue, stating Key West has by far the largest number of homeless people per capita (the ratio of homeless people to general population) of any city in the United States. Though the report didn’t include actual figures, a newspaper story I read about the report quoted Marbut as giving a “very conservative estimate” of 1,500 homeless people here—in a city of 25,000, remember.

From what I understand, homeless people consider Key West a “vagrant’s paradise,” because of the constantly warm weather and because the city offers tons of services to the homeless (food, shelter, medical services, etc.). And for a little perspective: I work for an art gallery, and a homeless lady lives in the parking lot behind the store. Lives there. She hangs around there all day doing nothing, then sets up her sleeping pallet in the gravel next to the building each night. (I constantly wonder just where she goes to shit, shower and eat—or if she’s actually able to do those things.)

I will forever think of Key West as “the small town with a big-city feel.” I live in New Town, across the island from the downtown area, and there it’s as quiet and peaceful as any smalltown neighborhood in America. I’m moving to L.A. in a couple of months to be with Kari, and I’m hoping Key West’s wackiness will prepare me for L.A., aka Weirdo Central.

And for the rest of my time on this planet, Key Weird will have a place in my freaky heart.