Piece of Cake

Key West, Fl — The appointment that brought me to Key West started at 5 p.m. and took two hours, so I missed Sunset. I was leaving old town for Sears Town as the people who make their living at Mallory Square arrived, and we were heading out for dinner as they wound their way home.

A man riding a bicycle with two cat carriers stacked one on top of the other on the back rack, a pair of aluminum crutches strapped to the sides to hold them in place, pulled into the parking lot. He looked hard, mirthless, tired. The cats — several in each cage — looked astonishingly calm and mildly curious.

A young man with what looked like a shellacked, hollowed out, maybe 4-inch diameter, roughly seven-foot long tree branch, strapped to the side of his bike arrived too.

Then there were a bunch of determinedly peculiar looking people — blond-matted dreadlocks, scant rags that seemed designed only to cover the small amount of flesh not tattooed, blannnnnnnnnk stares, also pedalled their bikes in — to sell jewelry? t-shirts? pot? That’s how it was back when I lived there, before these people were born, and minus the dreadlocks and tattoos. Being free-spirited and eccentric back then did seem easier then than it does now.

They were leaving when the main squeeze and I sauntered out for dinner three hours later, looking much the same; you couldn’t tell if they had had a good night or a bad night, although the way I remember it, that was what it was all about. A good night validated that you had it figured out, a bad night meant you probably couldn’t stay much longer than the tourists — that you were, in fact more one of them, than of the people who had it figured out.

The iconic masters of paradise who had figured it out included the tightrope walker, the guy with the orange-juice stand, the guy with the trained cats. Briefly it also had included a guy named Clem, who did well selling “Clemonade” until someone beat him to death. It included a Polish artist and his wife who did so well selling hand-painted t-shirts that they opened an art gallery where they struggle to this day. It included a woman who had mastered the art of painting delicate flowers on shirts in a way that reliably sold, but she went slowly crazy, a process drawn out by how hard it was to distinguish crazy from regular in her set. And I guess it included the Cookie Lady (pedaling the pier on her conch bike: “Now that the Sun has Set, Have you tried my baked goods yet?”), who might still be around. She didn’t have the tight-rope walkers star power, or the orange juice man’s savvy — he sent other people to peddle from his cart, while for years she pedaled her own wares. These at varying times, and some for the long haul, were the people who proved it could be done: you could live in “paradise” (a place increasingly dominated by vulgar t-shirts in the chain store windows and cruise ship passengers) and be your own boss without being the man.

Then there were others, exemplified in some ways by my friend who I will call Josephine here. Josephine had been through several other phases, none of which had worked out as planned, by the time I met her on Mallory Square, which was a signal in itself that her run at being a master — or mistress — of paradise also would be a phase.

The first phase she recounted started when she was in high school, in South Florida, when she became “a biker chick.” This phase, from her description, consisted of wearing black tank tops, skinny jeans, and having a boyfriend who drove a motorcycle. This phase ended when she got pregnant, which, come to think of it, is how almost all of her phases ended. The biker became an employee at IBM in Boca Raton, and she became a stay at home mom, and entered what she described as her earth mother phase. This, from her description, again, consisted of wearing long loose cotton dresses and growing organic vegetables in the patch of land behind their suburban tract house. It did not consist of having sex with her now extremely boring former biker, now office going spouse, which caused that phase to end.

She took up with a would be musician and on the premise that she now was a writer and he would sing the songs she wrote, took off with him and her toddler son for Tennessee, where it turned out he was a psycho, held a gun to her head in front of her kid. She came home to find her husband had divorced her in her absence, with terrible terms — no alimony, and about half the child support she figures she would have gotten if she had stuck around to contest it.

She spent a weekend in Key West with her sisters, and met a guy who did the same thing with every new woman he met — offered to be her boyfriend. He moved her down lock stock barrel, and kid, and she began a phase that she later talked about the least, but that seemed the least contrived, and for some time the least dramatic. This would be her phase of having a job at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville warehouse, partying, living in a shared house with another single parent, and generally having a good if less than wholesome and salubrious time. It ended when she go pregnant by a guitarist in a blues band that played at Sloppy Joes one night. “You can’t see me,” he told her over the phone, when she told him she was pregnant two months later, “but I’m on my knees right now, begging you to have an abortion.”

She didn’t. I met her on Duval Street, shortly before the child was born. She had a drink in one hand, a cigarette in the other. This was in 1986, not 1950, but she did it defiantly rather than ignorantly, as if she had the real scoop, and that pregnant women must be liberated. Or something like that. She later referred to this as her “Mother Cunt” phase. It had something to do with being a strong independent woman.

She lost her job at Margaritaville during what she had thought was her maternity leave — apparently Parrot Heads don’t need maternity leave — and began her artist phase, painting t-shirts that anyone else could paint (a palm tree drawn with a sharpie pen, colored in with brown and green fabric paint, etc.) and not doing very well. Hope flaired briefly when she stumbled on the idea of buying men’s tighty whiteys and painting the palm tree on the fly panel, with a coconut lying on either side and they sold well.

The kid was a blessing too — beautiful with a buddha-like calm. Sunset people passed him around, giving her a break, and even making it seem they envied her having him. She said he was turning out already so much better than the first, who was wan, high-strung, did number two in his pants. The blues playing baby daddy came to town and raised her hopes that he found her and the kid irresistable. He invited her up to visit, and then suddenly sent word that he had gotten married instead.

She was crushed. She also was no master of paradise, and when her family, now helping support her and her second child, suggested they would help her settle up north, she faced facts and began what, perhaps, was intended to be her secure phase. After her mother and a sister each took a turn at hosting her and her kids, though, they discovered they would rather help support her in squalor in Key West, than take care of her in person. She began a phase that if she had wished to truthfully label it could have been called her poorly-paid-remittance-man phase, which was lonely, hard and deprived. She took up with a dyslexic, but possibly also mentally retarded, magician and decided to have a baby with him. “I’m going for the picket fence,” she explained to me.

Her picket fence phase took place in Astoria, Queens, where he was from, and where he found an apartment that she moved into in her seventh month of pregnancy. She had the baby there, unattended by anyone but him, and cooked dinner that night, because, she said, she couldn’t trust him not to fuck it up. She had to nag him unrelentingly to “go to the subways” — do magic tricks for whatever coins people would throw at his feet, to pay for a series of claustrophobically microscopic unaffordable apartments on the upper east side of Manhattan. She began to despise the magician, and began to notice she was attracted to women. She seemed pleased about that.

At the same time, her mother-of-a-kid-with-a-disability phase was beginning. The moves, from one family member to another, during which she had left all of her kids’ toys behind, and then to the magician, where the neighbors surrounding their closet-sized apartments complained about the noise so they couldn’t even entertain himself, had driven her second kid crazy too.With his diagnosis of ADHD, she got disability payments for him that allowed her to throw the magician out. Their child, in the meantime had finally started talking at age three — but backwards: “creamice” instead of “icecream.” Her sisters, now financing an upper East Side apartment, invited her back down to the South Florida suburbs, and one of them gave her a job. She found a foreign-born girlfriend on the internet who moved in and watched the kid, and things seemed to be settling down. But the girlfriend had greencard issues, and Josephine had never quite come to terms with being a lesbian . . .

So she began her man phase — asked people to call her a shortened version of her name, which I’ll call  “Joe,” getting testosterone shots, and complaining unrelentingly in scathingly sexist terms about the “old ball and chain.” Which is when we finally lost touch. One of the last things she confided in me was that after the girlfriend financed her sex change operation they could get married, which would take care of the girlfriend’s greencard issues. “Piece of Cake,” “Joe” concluded, happily.

I guess, after all she had been through, that was a piece of cake. She reinvented herself one last time. Fifteen years passed. Then I ran into one of the sisters. She told me that Joe had had her breasts removed, reported her driver license lost, got a new one with her new name, married the girlfriend, became a web master, working for a bank, and making $100,000 a year. Lived happily ever after.

As the main squeeze and I looked for a restaurant, turning off Duval to get away from the noise, the young guy with the shellacked hollowed out tree branch strapped to his bicycle passed us.

“What do you suppose that thing is?” the main squeeze asked.

I figured it probably was some kind of instrument that he could produce a noise from, and get people to throw coins in the green canvas sack also tied to his bike. I imagined he felt clever, finding a way to make a living here, in paradise, without working for the man.

“Piece of cake,” I imagined him saying.

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