The Good Life, Key West Part 1

KEY WEST, FL — We could have turned off Roosevelt at Whitehead Street to bypass the slow parade of traffic through Old Town, but I wanted to pass the bookstore on Truman. I was eager to see what had happened to the place, but I didn’t want to go out of my way, or, for that matter, get out of the car to find out.

The place was closing, or had closed, I had heard. I wondered if it was empty yet, or in the midst of being demolished. If it was gone altogether, my question would be answered as we passed. If it still stood, I was pretty sure  it still would send a powerful, sinus-lingering, lung-infesting, poignant and repulsive stench of moldy books, mildewed carpets, rotting wood, unwashed bodies, and any number of unidentifiable but nausea-inducing odors out the doors, into an almost visible cloud on the street, and that it would then linger in my hair all day. That’s the kind of place it was. So as we passed I didn’t roll down the window, or ask the main squeeze to slow the car. I just looked.

The signs were all gone. Once, there were more than I could read in one sitting, announcing what the place offered: dollar books, trade-ins, an “adult book room,” a vast and fetishistically specific array of “adult” magazines, knives, figurines, photocopies, t-shirts printed to order, I forget what else. Stuff came and went for years, according to the enterprising owner’s inclinations and opportunities. No more. The doors were open, and so were windows that I’m not sure I previously knew even existed, and as we passed I saw the place looked hollowed out, a shell. Two men wearing work clothes, stood outside, looking confounded. I imagined they were wondering what to do about the smell. I was wondering what could replace the way station it had been for a certain type of person who came this far down US1, looking for the good life, and thought for a while it could be found here.

The first time I went in there, it was the spring of 1987. I was looking for a book, and also possible work. A helpful, shirtless youthful-looking man wearing bicycle shorts stood behind the counter. I’ll call him Clark, here. He was in his 30s, I found out later. He blinked from behind large, thick, slightly tinted glasses in frames that looked like they had been provided by an institution. He looked up the book I was seeking, told me it would arrive in a week. I don’t remember how he did that, as there were few, or no computers at the time, and it’s hard to believe this place would have had one. I remember his shirtless, courteous efficiency though, with surprise added by what I learned later — he was generally, had been, would always be, incapable of sustaining gainful employment. In retrospect it was as if he had briefly found his niche.

He asked me if I would like to “go get into trouble,” which I didn’t, and which in turn, he didn’t take as a setback in what he was determined would at least be a friendship. In fact, the next week, when I came to pick up my book, he offered me half his job. The owner was out, but he would put a word in, he said. He explained his generosity: he was only working full-time to make up for having driven out the other employee, a sensitive, high strung intellectual with whom he had clashed, and threatened with his fists. While Clark didn’t see anything wrong with his proposed means of winning what had been a solely verbal conflict (he was from Pittsburgh, Clark explained and the “inner-city in me came out”), he did seem earnestly sorry his colleague had taken his threat seriously enough to inconvenience the owner. To make up for that he had been working full-time ever since — a month or so. His real vocation lay in the t-shirt business behind a door in the back of the store. He and the owner were partners in that, he told me proudly. Their arrangement was simple: the owner supplied the space and the equipment to silkscreen t-shirts, Clark supplied the know-how and the labor, and if they ever cleared a profit, which they hadn’t yet, Clark would get paid.

I met the owner a few days later, when I came in to accept half of Clark’s job.

To be continued in Part 2, tomorrow . . .


One Response

  1. I am so excited right now I can’t even stand it.

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