The Serving Life

KEY WEST, FL —Perhaps because they are crammed too close together to even bother to try and distinquish themselves, the bars on Duval Street and Front Street are all but indistinguishable. There’s the one that has the name of the one Hemingway drank in. The one that he really drank in. The one that is very similar to the one he drank in. Ones that just went up in the last few years but are decorated to look like Hemingway could have drank in them. The nasal strains of Jimmy Buffet soundalikes and the sticky smells of old rum and stale beer spill out, overlap and create a haze that blends them together.

The stories of which of my friends got fired from which bar were the only memories that set them apart from each other, as we walked down Duval Street a few nights ago. It seems odd to have to be fired from a place where: The money is bad, the hours awful, and the future dismal. But something about earning a living in cash money each night, and, at the end of each night getting to replicate the fun you just watched everyone else have by drinking your earnings, tends to nail a person into place. The real question lies in how a person comes all the way down the Keys, or, in the case of my friends from the British Isles, across the ocean, to live a life of service, relieved only by debauchery. The other question is whether anyone who does that will get out before it is too late. More than two years, it seemed, you were a lifer.

My friend who I will call Brenda, but who, back then, called herself “Penis,” had a story to explain  how she got there, which was rare, got out in good time, and yet proved, in the process, that a life of service in Key West could trump the alternative back home.

When she was a little girl in England, her parents had joined a cult, thinly disguised as a complicated and expensive religion, invented by a writer of pulp science fiction. The Cult required its members to work for the enrichment of the Cult, study so as to be more completely brainwashed by the Cult, and spend a lot of money to achieve higher status in the Cult, which meant that Brenda’s parents were busy, preoccupied and broke. Because young children couldn’t be counted on to work or spend money on self improvement, Brenda and her brothers were not recruited to join the Cult. Somehow, at some point her father figured out that the Cult was in fact a cult, quit, devoted himself to exposing it. Among the shows of loyalty the Cult demanded of its members was that people who badmouthed it be “destroyed,” so the father’s defection led to an unusually bitter divorce. Brenda grew up cynical, irreverent, and unbonded. Both neglected and negligent by nature, she drifted into adulthood in a town that was pretty much a company town for the Cult, until a friend of a friend offered her a chance to be an au pair in Miami.

She was fired right after her first night off, when she came home drunk and passed out on the floor. Determined not to go straight home, she headed for the Miami Beach Youth Hostel where she found a party going on. “I knew then,” she said later, “that everything would be all right.”

Soon the party moved to the Key West Youth Hostel and she went with it. She got a job as a hostess at a waterfront bar, moved into a chaotic hotel room with four other girls. Pretty and big-chested, with a wide inviting grin, she attracted admirers when she went to bars, and she became known for dispatching them by introducing herself as “Penis.”

Actually, she used any excuse to say the word. When a man told the bartender to get Brenda and her friend whatever they wanted, she replied, “Two throbbing penises please.”

“Burgeoning penis, pulsing and throbbing, in an old goat’s bottom,” she sighed, waiting on line to get into a restaurant.

“Through those doors, round the front bar and turn Penis,” she said, giving directions to the men’s room one night at work. She was fired.

She was tired of the word anyway, and started introducing herself as “Ina.”

“What a pretty name.”

“Yes, it’s short for Vag—-INA,” she said, fluffing her hair.

“Oh, all right, flop it out,” she said, when men hooted at her on the street. When they did, and it being Key West, they often did, she would draw closer, squinting, and say pityingly, “It’s not very big, is it?”

For all her entertaining originality, she was strange in another way that was less amusing; she was the only person I knew who engaged in unabashedly transactional sex. She had a boyfriend she frankly disliked when I met her. She accepted a bicycle from him. Later she went home with a bar colleague because he had cocaine — which she generally managed to do without.

She went to South America with her German boyfriend, who, she let us know, was lousy in bed, had confided perverse fantasies to her, and who she thought was a pretty dreadful person on the whole. The relationship didn’t last, and she returned to Key West, where bored, broke, and disgusted with everything, she decided to return to England, stay in her busy cult-member mother’s house, and regroup. It could have gone the way it ended up going anyway, right then, but she made another attempted escape with a boy she knew who also was a child of Cult members. They saved up and went to South America together, but found the travelling life tiring. They returned to Miami where she waited tables, feuded with coworkers, squabbled one-sidedly with her perhaps passive-agressively affable boyfriend. They came up the Gulf Coast, where the American arm of the Cult had taken over an entire small city, so they could stay with family friends at little cost besides being proselytized at every social interaction.

I visited them that summer. Cult members strolled through the streets, wearing uniforms, briefcases tied to their wrists. The briefcases contained the results of interrogations taken of people who believed they were on a lie detecting machine. They were blackmail material. The whole place was creepy, claustrophobic. It also was excessively well ordered. Not the kind of place where guys would hoot and whistle at girls on the street. Not the kind of place where anyone would want to say, “all right, flop it out then.”

In any case, Brenda’s humor, if that is what it had ever been, had deserted her. In its absence, her prejudices surfaced: she wanted to know why I was always so “pro black.” I left early and stayed out of touch.

Ten years passed, and during a visit to Key West I saw an acquaintance who asked about Brenda. I sent a Christmas card and got an answer back. She was still in her mother’s house, and had joined the Cult. “But I’m not a very bad one,” she added. She had married another Cult member, “Thank God we get along,” she said, making me wonder if it was an arranged marriage. Dispirited, I didn’t bother to write back.

I tell people about her whenever I talk about my time in Key West though. Last week, I looked as I passed each indistinguishable bar that friends of mine, or I, had been fired from, looking to see if anyone I knew was still trapped within. At some point I remembered that for all its deprivations and depravities, a life of service here could be a haven.

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