It has been four years now that I’ve been living in Key West, a life changing and challenging move to say the least. Not once have I regretted the decision to live here. While the reasons for leaving my Maryland home are many and complex, the choice of Key West came down to one element – I wanted a village – and I cannot think of a more navigable, comfortable and compassionate village than Key West.
I wanted to live without a car – in part because it would eat up dollars designated for housing, but also because I came from a car-centric environment that I found foolish and excessive. I could hear the rebel in me (a powerful and sometimes guiding force) chanting on a semi-regular basis, “Screw you. I don’t need no stinkin’ car.” Choosing to be carless required a grocer, a drug store and coffee shop within walking or biking distance, requirements that other locales provided but Key West is flat and warm and small – I can’t imagine biking in a Georgetown or Fells Point or Rehoboth or Charlotte year-round. And yes, there are lovely villages like Charleston (which was a contender) but Charleston is so southern (racist) and so vanilla (white), and all of Charleston (like Annapolis) hops into their vehicles to shop the strip malls that circle the city – something that I didn’t want and something that Key West does not have.
I wanted to live simple – and the isolation that comes with living in an outpost makes it very doable. When there is no Target, no Walmart, no Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Kohl’s, no Home Goods, no DSW, no Nordstrom Rack, no major retailer other than Home Depot and Ross, buying habits, be they conscious or unconscious, fall by the wayside – when the goods are not available, you do without – and life is simpler. Oh, of course, Key West has a love affair with Amazon, but it’s easy to tire of online shopping and the rush of an impulsive pick up at the check-out line doesn’t exist.
I wanted a community, a safe community, because I would be living alone for the first time in 40 years. There is little to no crime here, I’ve walked and biked the streets alone at some very late hours and have never been concerned for my safety. And despite the hoopla associated with Duval Street, the residential sections of the village are extremely quiet, conservative by comparison. We don’t dress up down here. Make-up and hair styling are for work days or travel. We feed each other with mangos and avocados and star fruit and lobster and shared novels. We help maintain each other’s yard and home, we lend time and tools and an occasional vehicle. We all understand that we’re stuck on a rock in the Gulf Stream and it somehow becomes exclusive and special. We are special.
But yes, there is a compromise attached to my Key West address – the heat and the humidity, the most likely of reasons I would consider a move (along with the cry of a baby on the opposite coast). Friends and family are still scratching their heads over my decision to live in the tropics as I’ve professed a dislike of summer my entire adult life. So it goes. I cope. I spend July, August and September indoors, I’ve become accustomed to a thin veil of moisture on my body at all times, convincing myself I have less wrinkles as a result. The Gulf and Atlantic waters are bath like, and there are hurricanes, bugs, lizards, mold, rust, a lot to deal with in a tropical climate. The solution, and how I would like to spend my retirement, is to leave the island during the summer months – but I’m still working, and working on a plan.
I’m still a Key West virgin. I know nothing of the waterways, have eaten at only half the restaurants, and I’m only beginning to experience the depth of the artistic life that Key West affords. This little rock is facing some enormous challenges in the time of covid-19. Business are closing left and right, the service industry has been knocked on its ass, all those big ticket festivals that feed the city have been canceled and the fight with the cruise industry has reached fever pitch. Day-trippers, bored covid shut ins from Miami, are not the most respectful of tourists. It may be years before this village is healthy once again. I know several residents talking about leaving Key West for good, those who can’t find work, can’t pay a mortgage – but that’s a universal challenge at this time. I’m one of the lucky, my finances are sound, my needs are met, my wants are few, no regrets. It took a village.