Week FIVE

Notice how the sky and the road are the same shade of grey? That's because it rains every day in Florida.
These are some sandbags used by a Key West business owner to keep the flood water out of his store.
Mallory Square, where everyone gathers for sunset, on the rare occasions when it isn't raining.
The ocean all around the Keys is this color. So, that's pretty cool.

On the way to Key West, we passed by a gator-themed roadside attraction– there's plenty of them along the edges of the Everglades– but this one was special, because it claimed to have a gator-wrestling parrot. I have three guesses about this: either it's a very small gator, or a very large parrot, or they go through a hell of a lot of parrots there. We also passed a place just east of the Everglades called Monkey Jungle. This is the kind of high quality entertainment that beckons you from every nook and cranny of Florida.

We took Highway 1 down to Key West, and be warned, every fourth car coming the other way was a police car. If you are having daydreams of buying your own convertible and driving top-down to Key West at ninety miles per hour, just forget it. You're not going to get away from the cops; it's just you, the cops, Highway 1 and ocean. And that's not the only problem with your top-down, wind-in-your-hair, Boys-Of-Summer fantasy: you also never know when the skies will go from mildly overcast to hurricane-style torrential downpour. For us, it started at Key Largo and lasted as far as Islamorada, where we eventually pulled over at Ziggie's Crab Shack to wait it out. (Islamorada, by the way, is pronounced "Eesla more ahda," not "Islam-O-Rada"). That's only seventeen miles, and we navigated it in just about one hour. It's funny how reckless 17mph can seem when your visibility ends at the windshield.

We finally got to Key West and caught a pedicab (bike taxi) down to Mallory Square, the heart of Key West tourism. Our pedicab was driven by Howard, who was a delightful conversationalist, and although pedicabs are more expensive than regular cabs, they are a lot easier to find, and more importantly, Howard never left us stranded in a flood. (If you're planning to visit Key West, I can give you his cell phone number for when you need a ride.) We enjoyed a show by Dominique and His Flying Housecats. They don't so much fly as walk briskly, but it was a cute, by which I mean psychotic, little act. As for dinner: do not order the fish special at Papa's Restaurant. It was slightly less appetizing than something you might get in prison or a college dorm. It came with the three saddest-looking pieces of stringy, wilted asparagus I've ever seen as its ostensible side dish, the fish was badly overcooked, and the presentation– served indifferently on a plain plastic plate– would make a bachelor ashamed. Papa's Restaurant is a disgrace to the ocean in which it sits.

Duval Street is the Bourbon Street of Key West, or at least it would like to think so. While Bourbon Street is R-rated (and NC-17 in many places), Duval Street is really only PG-13. There were some half-naked women in one bar, but that was a case of "in an isolated incident, this extremely bitter divorce party has gotten out of hand" rather than a case of "there are so many totally wasted chicks here that several of them are bound to take their shirts off any minute." These are the subtle ways in which Duval Street is not Bourbon Street, not matter how hard it tries. The bitter divorce party in question took place at Rick's, where a very likeable, laid back, beer-bellied, fortyish guitarist/singer named Uncle Bob was playing. Uncle Bob had many fans, but his biggest fans were two gratuitously perky blonds wearing, respectively, a wispy pink sun dress and a gauzy blue sun dress (and almost nothing else), who were sent into a near-epileptic frenzy by his cover of "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." The icing on the cake was that they were both named Jennifer. I guess you can't help but like a guy who covers Jimmy Buffet and Four Non Blondes, and was once kicked off an Mtv show for being "too dirty."

Everything in Key West claims to be "the southernmost [fill in the blank] in the US," although what they really mean is "the southernmost [fill in the blank] in the continental US," and many of them are clearly lying anyway, just based on a brief walk around the south end of Key West. We visited the "Southernmost Point in the United States" (again, ignoring Hawaii), where hundreds of baby crabs, each no more than a half-inch across, made their home on a big pockmarked rock. While walking along the southern edge of the island, a yellow labrador came dangerously close to pushing me off a retaining wall and into the ocean in a fit of canine joie de vivre. We were down there looking for a beach. It's a tad disappointing to arrive in a place that is, in many other respects, a tropical ocean paradise, only to find out that they don't have crap for beaches. What they do have is several short, ugly stretches of sand, each of them completely clogged with hundreds of pound of seaweed rotting in the sun. They also have wild chickens, and thousands of stray cats, which I assume exist in some sort of predator/prey balance.

Then came Saturday; it was raining just a little when we headed out for lunch. Four blocks later it was raining more than I've ever seen, counting all the rain I've ever seen, everywhere, all put together. The clouds were not so much dropping water on us as they were projectile-vomiting water at us. We took cover on the porch of a Circle K, which was closed, much to the dismay of the people who ran through the tropical storm to buy cigarettes (in one case, without even stopping to put on a shirt before leaving the house). By a stroke of luck one of Key West's rare car-based taxis came by and picked us up, but no combination of suggestion, pleading, and directions could dissuade him from taking us all the way to the end of Duval Street. The fact that the last two blocks of Duval Street were underneath eighteen inches of water was no deterrent; he simply let us out on a particularly high curb, which meant we were now stranded on an island of sidewalk about four feet square. My shoes can hold about forty pounds of water when saturated, and we eventually had to admit that there was no way around a good shoe-soaking. Half of Duval Street had lost power, meaning that we had to wade even longer through the knee-deep water to find food. Thanks to the Sunshine State weather, our afternoon plans changed from "take boat tour, see living coral reef" to "do laundry, update website." So I hope you're all grateful for our flood, you heartless bastards. By the grace of god it stopped raining about an hour before sunset; we went down to Mallory Square on the west end of the island, and if I described to you what a Key West sunset looks like just after a heavy downpour, you wouldn't believe me. It was a magical display of color set off by an arc of cloud from one edge of the horizon to the other, and behind you, the remaining sunlight created a rainbow in the receding clouds. Then, I vandalized a trash can.

On Sunday we went into one of the dozens (if not hundreds) of nearly identical shirt/souvenir shops on Duval to peruse their selection of Hawaiian shirts. A man I can only assume is the proprietor of the shop– or, if not, the soon-to-be-fired employee of the shop– walked up to me and informed me that he was going to "give [me] a deal, because [I'm] not a f*cking lesbian." My brain struggled to find a gear as this sophisticated gentlemen went on to observe that Key West is "full of fags." "I'm the only straight man in Key West," he eruditely opined. I'd like to say that I was very brave and principled, and that I told that man exactly what I thought of him, and made a note of the store name so we could all boycott it, but really all I did was try to leave the creepy store with the scary, angry man in it as quickly as I could. A clever person would have replied with something like, "Do you have this in an extra large? You do? That's a shame, because your grotesque bigotry is an offense to both ear and mind, making it impossible for us to shop here." I, on the other hand, said something more like, "Ehh." Then we backed slowly away from the odious man and got out of his store. The man was either a masochist whose only pleasure in life derived from his foaming hatred, or a total cretin, or most likely, both. If you don't like sand, don't move to the beach; if you don't like "fags," don't move to Key West, you goddamn idiot. Even more distasteful than his bizarre outburst of bigotry was his implicit assumption that we shared his twisted views. To my regret I was rendered speechless, and I can only hope that this man has subsequently been fired, run out of town with pointed sticks, and drowned in a puddle of dirty flood water.

Our Key West adventure didn't end with Afraid For His Ass Man, but with the glass-bottom boat tour of the reef that we had to put off on the Day of the Flood. I would sum up this tour follows: "Some fish, some coral, much nausea." When we arrived at the reef (the second largest living reef in the world, after the Great Barrier), twenty passengers went downstairs to view the fish and invertebrates through the two-inch plexiglass windows. By the time we left the reef thirty minutes later, there were only eight people remaining downstairs, the rest having fled long ago to avoid losing their lunches all over the boat. After the worlds most stomach-churning boat ride, we sat at the Turtle Kraals Bar and had some nachos, and finally piled back into the sweltering car, and left Key West. Did I mention that it was raining?

Tragically, Monkey Jungle was closed.

I have two words for the Everglades. One is "alligators." The other is "giantspiders." Perhaps I should have started by saying I have three words. Never mind. We saw seven alligators, two of them babies about a foot long; in fact, I nearly stepped on one of them. (Fortunately for me, mother alligators have no contact with their offspring after hatching. If I'd stumbled that close to a baby bear, they'd still be picking chunks of me out of bear scat.) We also saw a bunch of turtles, several huge orange grasshoppers, two lizards (one with an inflating neck sack!), one rabbit, many dragonflies and butterflies, and hundreds of large birds. But there were two animals there that I think were most noteworthy. One was a spotted eagle ray, which leapt out of the ocean just as we arrived at the southernmost edge of the Florida mainland. It didn't leap out onto the beach and flop around or anything, it just jumped through the air for a couple of feet. It was about four feet across and dark grey with white spots all over. It was really cool. The other thing is the spiders, because, god damn, those were some big spiders. These things (things! plural!) were the size of tarantulas, but didn't even have the decency to be furry and live in the desert. They were shiny and black and orange and yellow with skinny little legs and big knobby spider knees and abdomens the size of kiwi fruit.

The only other thing I have to say about the Everglades is that all the guidebooks, as well as the park pamphlet they give you at the gate, tell you that in the summer you have to wear long pants and sleeves because of the mosquitos. This is really a cruel joke played by park rangers, because they think it's funny to make tourists sweat a lot. We stopped at four locations in the park, and only one of them had any mosquitos at all. And you would have to be wearing pants of lead to deter those hellbeasts. They will sting you and bite you and suck your blood right through your clothes, they don't care. You're like a big Capri Sun to them. So, you can wear thick woollen pants, step out of your car, and drop in your tracks from heat stroke, dying in the parking lot before you even get to the bugs; or, you can wear shorts, not stop at Paurotis Pond, and be completely fine because there are no damn mosquitos in the rest of the park, no matter what the guides tell you. Now, look at the pictures.