Getting to Key West involves driving in a straight line, with water on each side (the GPS display will show a long line surrounded by blue), for three hours. For most of it, there’s only one lane in either direction, which means you’re often forced behind the same car for long stretches. I got stuck be a dusty pickup with a “Stand Up For America, be American!” bumper sticker.

I thought about this sticker for almost 40 miles. Did it mean that in order to stand up for America you had to be from America? This point of view requires the belief that all problems can be fixed internally, and that no one from the outside has anything of value to add. It also implies that ideas from the outside, having originated from somewhere foreign, are inherent worthless.

Or does it mean that in order to stand up for America, you have to act “American”, meaning you have to drop customs and beliefs and enact s sort of elusive American­-ness (that I suspect involves SUVs, red meat, and a fear of socialism). Also, what are you standing up to?

The dusty pickup signals left, then turns right. Why? “Because fuck you, that’s why,” I imagine the driver saying.

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The woman behind the counter at our hotel is blonde, freckled and deeply, unavoidably Russian. I say this because I half expect Yakoff Smirnoff  to be providing her voice from a soundproof Hollywood studio. “You don’t want to ride bicycles. You should rent scooters,” she says. Our room isn’t ready. We walk to Duval Street.

At the Key West Key Lime Pie Company, another girl, also voiced by Smirnoff, extols the virtues of local key limes. Did the USSR actually win cold war? No, but she’s dead on about the key limes.

“This pie is fucking delicious,” I say to no one in particular.

“да,” she says.

Back at the hotel the freckled blonde has been replaced by another Soviet comrade.

“You should consider renting bicycles, scooters are dangerous,” he says, his accent about as thick as a wall running through Berlin.

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I suspect that the majority of guests at the Hemingway House have never read his books. I may be wrong, but my suspicions are aroused by a plum bottle blonde with the thickest southern drawl I’ve ever heard. “What movie did Hemingway direct?” she asks her husband. She has a list of “Key West Attractions” and checks Hemingway House off the moment they buy a ticket.

The tour guide at the house wears a sleeveless vest and looks like he’s on safari. He sits off to the side with three other similarly dressed men, who all have the sleepy, nonchalant air of alcoholics used to hanging out on weekday afternoons. In that regard, they might actually be the only thing about this that remains true to Hemingway’s era: they look like characters from To Have and Have Not. I try to imagine each of them as hard-nosed bootleggers, but one of them has a t­-shirt that says “The Man… The Legend” with arrows pointing to his face and crotch. It’s hard to picture him covered in blood, frantically dumping crates of contraband alcohol into the ocean.

The house is filled with six­-toed cats (which the tour guide bribes with treats) old furniture, books and pictures of Hemingway fishing and hunting. We’re told that Papa often wrote standing up.

“Hemingway was a real man,” my wife says.

I have never hunted, held a gun or finished a novel – standing or otherwise. Hell, the only time I went deep sea fishing, I threw up. I am, at most, a quarter of a man.

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There seems to be a defacto fashion style for middle-­aged American men here. It involves: sandals or sneakers, shorts, a utility belt, a t-­shirt (usually related to a college football team) and sunglasses resting on a baseball cap. They all look like mentally unstable fishermen.

“Maybe they are fishermen,” my wife says, pretending she didn’t hear the first part. I’m dubious. Most of them seem like tourists, which is just frightening; it’s not tied to one geographic location.

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We watch the second half of the Milan-­Barcelona soccer game at an Irish pub on Duval Street.

“Two more pints?” The waitress, from Dublin, asks. What would Papa do?

“Yes,” I say.

We’re sitting next to a couple from Napoli, an Asian Milan fan from San Jose and a group of Croatian teenage boys, who shout with glee every time Messi touches the ball.

I don’t believe Hemingway would have ever experienced anything quite like this.

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There’s a barefoot man in Mallory Square who plays the guitar and sings. His skin is amber and leathery, tough with years of abusive, excessive suns. He sings “All Along the Watchtower” and sounds like someone who has had a botched tracheotomy. At song’s end, he laughs and says, “pretty good for a white boy.” I disagree but give him a quarter.

“Is that all?” he asks.

“You’re not so white,” I say to him. He laughs like it’s the funniest thing he has ever heard, launching brown phlegm onto the pavement by his feet. I am afraid.

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Just behind Mallory Square, there is a garden of busts depicting prominent Key West citizens. From Flagler to Simonton, you can get a good sense the city’s history (and fashion trends) with a quick walk through faces of the past. It reminds me of the statues outside the Uffizi Gallery in Florence (the Portico degli Uffizi), except it’s much less overwhelming and confidence shredding (the one in Florence features Michelangelo, Dante, Galileo and Benvenuto Cellini, the biggest badass of his era).

I wonder, though, what did the artist use to create these busts? Who decided what image to recreate?

I think about this because I am about as photogenic as a hyena. I would hate for someone in my family to choose a picture from a Facebook photo album, and then have some other asshole create a bust out of it.

Would Papa have used Facebook?

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A man on stage at Sloppy Joe’s is singing a song about his daddy’s balls. It’s called “My Daddy’s Balls.” The whole bar sings along to the second chorus, while a family by the stage, with three small children, shrinks in terror. The man next to me actually points at them and laughs.

“Another pint?” The bartender asks us.

“Yes.”

It’s 2 pm and we’re completely wasted.

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“Where can I take you?” The cabbie asks.

“Somewhere good to eat,” I say.

“You want something “good” or somewhere I’d go?” he asks, make the quotation mark signs in the air with his fingers. I have no idea what this means.

“Some place you’d go,” I say. Why not trust a local? “Are you from here?” I ask.

“No. I’m from a small town outside Detroit,” he answers, gunning through traffic and never once turning the meter on.

“Um, why don’t we call that five dollars?” He says when we arrive.

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Conch Fritters are everywhere in Key West. Apart from the ubiquitous Key Lime Pie (We had three slices: Key West Key Lime Co, Kermit’s and Salute! The latter had a thick layer of meringue and was worse off for it), conch­ anything is the most visible food offering. Which brings up a question: “What the hell is a conch?” It sounds like it could be slang for vagina.

“It’s an escargot,” a waitress at Alonzo’s told us.

“I’ll have the lobster sandwich,” I told her.

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Roosters and wild chickens roam the streets of Key West. On the walk back we count four. They strut around like they own the place, the arrogant cocks.

Coincidentally, I now know another answer to the joke, “why did the chicken cross the road?”

“Why?”

“To pick from a discarded slice of pizza in an empty plastic beer cup.”

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A black man rides down Duval on a tricycle equipped with hundreds of lights. Whenever he peddles, Cajun music erupts from speakers, cutting through everything on the street: the overflowing bars, drunk men and embarrassed wives, worried mothers, depressed fathers, idling cars, rumbling motorcycles and overdressed drag queens (who all seem to be handing out flyers).

He seems to have no real motivation, other than getting attention and making people happy: everyone stops what they’re doing when he rides by. They smile, bump his fist and dance.

Apparently, he does this every night.

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When you hear a rooster at six in the morning, it’s easy to think you’re dreaming. When you hear five of them, it’s even easier to ask, “what in the fucking fuck is going on?”

 

 

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Higgs Beach is scenic and lively. It’s the kind of place that makes you as yourself, “Why don’t I live here?”

Looking out onto the water, you start to imagine yourself living a kind of Hemingwayan existence, buying a great property and spending your d writing A Farewell to Arms. Or maybe you can live like one of his charact fishing, bootlegging and generally living like a real man.

Of course now, the properties are expensive, forcing you to cover expenses by turning it into a guesthouse or hotel, another cog in the tourism industry swallowing the island. Still, even this doesn’t seem so bad, until you start imagining yourself ten or twenty years down the road, cleaning up after disgusting, drunken guests. We could always sell, you think, and then yo realize that the only bidders would be wealthy Russians, who would offer your asking price (because they know you’d take it).

You could almost see yourself buying a “Stand Up for America, Be American!” bumper sticker.