Walking through an empty cemetery at 10:41 AM is without a doubt the strangest thing I’ve ever done on vacation, and yet the experience started off one of my favorite days in Key West, Florida.
There isn’t a soul in sight save for two boys riding their bikes through the Historic Key West Cemetery. They’re weaving through the narrow roads with unassuming names like, “First Avenue” and “Violet Street.”
“I know my way around the cemetery,” he shouts at his companion who doesn’t seem as sure. His friend looks back wondering why the odd couple is walking through a graveyard this early in the blistering tropical heat. The answer is months of practicing the art of moderation in matters of work and spirits.
This Sunday morning we could go straight to Duval Street where debauchery is available at any time. Even this early a few bars are roaring with laughter, hoarse voices and the sounds of scattered tourists beginning their bar crawl. But today our fate is in this historic cemetery.
“Did you know the 33rd degree is the highest level you can reach as a Mason?” my sweetheart says as he peruses gravestones donning the sacred symbol. I did not.
Let there be light is inscribed on a sculpture of an open book located in a closed-off garden where dozens of Masons have laid their heads to rest. The men lived to be around 70 to 80, an impressive feat considering a century ago the island went through spurts of years cut off from the United States due to hurricanes destroying the only bridge to get there.
Phillip Gandolpho lies among them having lived a long life, even earning the 33rd degree Masonry title. In the end, the wife who survived him labeled his gravestone as simply, “My Husband.” There are tiny graves with angels for children and even patios with lawn chairs set to face headstones as if to invite relatives to come and hang. This above all is a nod to the lifestyle Key West is famous for, the same live-and-let-live-ness that continues to attract a host of travelers from around the world.
On our way out we pass a crate of alcohol stashed away at the corner of the graveyard with no effort to be hidden. In fact, we felt welcomed to some. Its overtness beckons visitors to take a swig and pull up a chair. The dead in Key West have as much humor as the island’s living.
Everything in Key West feels haunted. Even as a child I felt the island’s energy. My parents once rented a small room in a historic house that was converted into an inn. I remember it felt like a museum, like we had the privilege to stay here but just yesterday an Old Captain and his family from 1926 had taken residence in that very room. The floor would creak every time I went to get water in the middle of the night. My little feet created an orchestra of squeaks so loud I would try and walk on the tip of my toes so as not to wake up the dead.
I still feel that presence now. It’s not an obvious ghostly inhabitance where things fall off shelves. It’s a strange preserved complexion, a subtle force that feels of another time.
Most cities build memorials placing their past into neatly contained areas, but this island shares space with its history. It feels as if the brave sea families who colonized it are still present. Key West’s history is rooted in preserving the idiosyncratic culture it has built. It’s always been understood that this would never become Disney World. Many have tried to build on the island and have been squashed by relatives of the original families who still have a strong influence.
It’s no wonder that walking up the Key West Lighthouse Tower gives the eerie feeling that its original keeper, a woman– which was unheard of at the time– is walking up those 88 steps alongside you.
But walk up each wobbly iron step we did, all the way up to its apex. Other nervous tourists make the trek each giving a sigh of relief at the top of the lighthouse. The island’s famous beach-style houses look small, enveloped by shrubbery and surrounded by a vast green-blue ocean. If words like breathtaking haven’t been so overused, I would call it forth now. Gusts of wind blow through your hair, nostrils and clothes. Time stops for a moment. You forget about going back down the long, thin scary steps, you forget about how hot it is, you forget about money and worries, you forget about yourself and melt into the Key West skyline.
Evening time on the island is whatever you want it to be. Key West’s strongest appeal is its malleability. Every experience is different and driven by the traveler. Tonight ours is reflective and composed. Time taken away from everyone is when the mind and body reveal its truth. The truth is I want to stay present.
A small porch at Vinos, a resident wine bar on Duval Street, is the backdrop for philosophy and people watching. From this little veranda we can see every stage of life take form in the passersby. I’m always taken aback by the details we can confer from the people around us when we really pay attention. We all wear our emotions openly.
The ease of discerning other people’s sentiments makes me feel naked. Am I as revealing with my secrets? I think we all are. As I sit here on this porch I am showing the world my humanity should any of them care to look.
The island gives a natural high. Everything becomes bolder. Our bitter Spanish wine pinches the sides of my cheeks and the banana peppers in our tapa plate’s nectarous flavor feels like a newly discovered food. Surely I haven’t been eating these all along? But I have with little to no notice. What else haven’t I noticed?
“This is exactly where I want to be right now,” I say.
My sweetheart clinks my wine glass, “I couldn’t agree more.”
Midnight creeps up faster than you think in Key West. What should have been an early night after a full day quickly became a moonlit walk to Better Than Sex.
When I heard about the island’s first dessert-only restaurant I went to its Web site. The introduction read, “Were you aroused by our name? Do you feel a desire to satisfy this curiosity?” I did.
The small black building with heavy curtains covering the walls has a pornographic appearance. We don’t have reservations and even just past 12 o’ clock there are other couples waiting to satisfy their curiosities. We tell the man in the suit that we are walk ins and he looks down at his list with only bad news for us–– until his head pops up.
“We have no more tables but would you like to sit at the bar in our secret back room?”
Why yes we would.
We walk through a labyrinth of people speaking closely, sharing elegant desserts and drinking wine and beer from chocolate-rimmed glasses. We are like two tipsy teenagers obediently keeping up with our hurried server while trying to look around. He turns back to us, “We have to go through the kitchen to get there.”
The dim lighting, velvet carpet and antique lamps quickly disappear and we are transported into the real Better Than Sex, a bright kitchen with small pastries and dessert cocktails coming out quickly with whipped cream and cherry toppings. The servers and chefs pay us no notice. Our eyes don’t even have time to adjust to the light before our midnight guide opens another door revealing the clandestine back bar.
It has the same vintage furniture and dark lighting, but there is something different about this subversive cavity. The other guests look up and silently nod as if to welcome us to a secret society.
We sit amongst our cloak-and-dagger fellows while feeding each other small bites of tart cake. Our evocative fourth meal consists of island specialty confections and wine served in a bed of chocolate marking the consummation of a day well spent.
On our walk home we bask in the afterglow of discovering the back door of Better Than Sex.
Key West inspires something in me, as I’m sure it does to all who are drawn to the 4-mile long island. One of its most compelling features is the state of mind it induces. It's a questioning of the notions you live back at home. Every time I’ve come here throughout the past decade I always explore why I care about certain things and return home armed with answers. It unassumingly leads you to the truths that are living deep within you. Don’t let the island’s eccentricities fool you: it packages its inspiration flamboyantly but the wisdom is as humble as Key Lime Pie.
What is that wisdom? Most things don’t matter. Like its historic headstones, my favorite of which states–I told you I was sick – there is nothing pretentious in its message. Key West is asking you to consider what’s important and weigh that against what you’ve been spending your time on.
If you remove yourself from daily life, you will stop taking it seriously enough to begin living.