The Good Life, Key West Part 2

KEY WEST, FL —I have trouble believing my own memory, but I do recall filling out an application to get work at the bookstore on Truman Avenue. And bringing in a résumé. This was for a place where, at one point only a little later on, every other member of the staff ended up living  — three employees and a guest at a time of full occupancy — one in a cave-like loft created by adding a few boards to the rafters, one on the floor of the adult book room, one on the carpet between the bookcases in the New Age section, and the guest, a little old lady who drank at the bar across the street, on the counter of the t-shirt shop in the back. Some of them even brought friends — one, in a bout of vigorous sex, breaking the big wooden front table we used to have our lunch and sort books on.  Toward the end of my time there, an infestation of lice was spread via the big upholstered reading chair that was supposed to add a library-like touch. 

The owner, who I will call Bob Banner here, was a creature of contradictions. He was bluntly stingy, in the way of someone who knew the value of a dollar, but he ended up getting robbed by virtually everyone he hired.

He was in his early 60s, when I met him back in 1987, and had a way about him that was not so much old-fashioned as that of bygone era. He was a big man, with a comb over, heavy glasses, an eyebrow of a moustache. He got bigger as he sloped downward, to a thick waist and broad hips. He wore shorts that ended above the knee, with short-sleeved button down shirts. I could picture him in a sky blue polyester business suit, having drinks over lunch with other men, ogling women, never having to make more than small talk with them. He had been a bachelor until close to retirement, when it seemed to occur to him he would need someone to spell him at the wheel of the RV he had bought to cruise the country in.

His wife, who I will call Edna here, seemed, if not to hate him, to be harboring a lasting grudge against something or things that had occurred in the years before their marriage. She was a generation younger than he, and from another country. Her English was complete, heavily accented and shrill. She called him, I’ll say “Griffin,” here, which was his middle name, which no one else called him, and which he didn’t seem to like.

Griffin! Griffin! Pull up your zipper, your pants are open,” she called to him after he had walked around the store that way for a while one day. Stolidly embarrassed (could she not have told him quietly, the way nice people do?) and clearly used to it, he glanced down and pulled it up. She giggled.

He in turn dragged out the pronunciation of her name: Ed-din-nuh.

They had dated for years, she explained to me once. He had dated other women during that time too. Finally, it occurred to her that she was miserable.

“I thought I might feel better if I was married,” she told me, the same way you might say you hoped an ice bag might relieve pain from your pulled muscle.

She shared that with Griffin, and when he didn’t get the hint that he could play a role in making her feel better, she packed up all her stuff and shipped it to another city where she had found another job. Then he got it. They were married right around the time he retired, and drove, literally into the sunset in the house-sized RV he had bought.

Some people come to the Keys to be Parrot Heads, some to be artists or writers, some to be drunk all the time, some because it offers a chance for a homeless bum to blend into the general scene in a place where even well-to-do people pass out in public places, stumble around, wear tattered clothes. Banner settled in Key West because he found a good deal at the mobile home park where he anchored his land yacht. Then he found what he felt was another good deal on the bookstore, which here I will call “Good Buy Books.”

It was mainly the type of bookstore where people bring their books in for credit, which they can use to get books that other people brought in for credit. It was possible for people to keep both the bookstore and their home libraries stocked without any money ever changing hands.

Banner enhanced his bargain by stocking things that he felt people would pay for, filling the front of the store with scores of pornographic magazine titles, in huge quantities, returning great numbers every week, delighting in the business they brought in. His priority, though was stocking the store with things people would pay for, that he didn’t pay for himself.  He took in anything anyone would give him on consignment.

Then, sometime in the year before I came into the store, he met Clark. Clark had trouble retaining a job as a dishwasher, the definite lowest rank of working person in Key West. But he had, before leaving his hometown of Pittsburgh, in a rare burst of planning (or perhaps in retrospect, rehabilitation), gone to a vocational school to learn how to produce silkscreens to print t-shirts and posters. The limits of that training were dawning on him: he had the skills but not the equipment, which he couldn’t afford, and he didn’t like to work for the man.

The meeting between Bob Banner, always alert to a deal, and Clark, who wanted to move up without answering to anyone, must have seemed fortuitous, briefly, to both of them.

To be continued tomorrow in Part 3

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