The Good Life, Key West Part 3

KEY WEST, FL — As you inch your way south on North Roosevelt Boulevard, just beyond the chain hotels and shopping centers, one of the first hints that you are arriving somewhere real comes in the form of a stagnant algae-redolent body of water to your right. Small, unseaworthy craft bob around in it, and perhaps one of the people who live aboard these vessels, ragged, shaggy, and filthy, will be rowing in on a makeshift dinghy, empty gallon jugs, waiting to be filled tied to its sides. It is a post-disaster-looking landscape in miniature. It was the dream of my friend, who I will call Knox here, to live on that water, among these near-shore castaways.

Knox was one of the group staying at the local youth hostel in the fall of 1986, who all had landed in Key West around the same time. He was one of the few Americans there, and enjoyed a feeling of bemused superiority to his European inn-mates. The British, he noted, overused the word “brilliant,” applying it both to the merits of his folding bicycle, and the merits of someone going to get another six pack of beer. He met a visiting German teacher there, who became his girlfriend, and who he implied wasn’t very smart. “Bathilda (I’ll call her here), it’s not that simple, I told her,” he would say.

He was frankly pretentious. He came from Alabama, but spoke with the accent of William F. Buckley. He referred to having been “in the construction business.” He quoted Shakespeare on the slightest opening and with questionable relevance: “The quality of mercy is not strained,” he would say, adding, “Shakespeare said that.” He worked as a dishwasher, and after he left the hostel, lived in a camper in a trailer park downtown. He had a plan though: he would build a boat all by himself, put it in the stagnant pond off Roosevelt Boulevard, and living rent-free, would devote himself to becoming a writer.

He came into the bookstore on Truman Avenue to read Boatbuilder Magazine. I was working there part-time, for minimum wage, making photocopies for customers, counting out credit for the tattered books they brought in, restocking the vividly titled pornographic magazines that came in each week, selling cigarettes, candy bars, newspapers, figurines, the days running into each other in a morass of chores and boredom. In fairness to Knox, that was part of my plan to become a writer.

Knox was deeply impressed with the status of my job at the bookstore when he realized I had a key to the place, having never been given a key to anyplace that he had worked. When I quit the bookstore to make the natural transition of tending bar at the dive across the street, Knox inherited my position. He ingratiated himself with Bob Banner, the owner, and they enjoyed something of a friendship, two heavyset guys sitting around talking about the funny ways of other people.

It was inevitable that Knox would feel superior to Clark, who continued to work for free in the back of the store t-shirt business of which he was a nominal partner. Clark, however, was ahead of Knox in at least one respect — although working for free, he also had figured out how to live for free. After his most recent eviction (evictions and fist-fights supplied the plot lines for his life story) he had carried everything he owned into the store in a pair of heavy-duty garbage bags one day. He had then spent the afternoon making a tremendous amount of noise in the backroom, throwing out ceiling boards, hauling beams up a ladder. By the end of the day, he had created a sleeping space that looked like it could have been an exhibit in the the Human Rights Abuse Museum, but that he called home.

In short order, Knox moved his possessions, in luggage similar to Clark’s, into the Adult Book Room.

In longer order, they both eventually moved out. But not before they had inspired another employee — the grave, professorial-looking clerk who moved into the New Age section, spreading a sheet on the stained carpet between the bookshelves there. Then, finally, the delicate, ladylike alcoholic of about 80, who drank in the bar across the street, who didn’t make it home one night — or lost her home — and was invited by Clark to take up residence on the counter of the t-shirt shop in the back. This act of humanity set back Knox’s feeling of superiority enough for a friend to conjecture that he now would have to invite “an intelligent little old lady” to share the quarters in order to regain his ascendancy over Clark. That competition was cut short though, when on her second or third night the old woman fell off the counter in her sleep, bruising her hip, and prompting Banner to order her out.

Perhaps by then Banner had a feeling that things were getting out of control. In the months that followed, his and Clark’s partnership dissolved in a falling out that included a padlock on the t-shirt shop door, a crow-bar to break the padlock on the t-shirt shop door, threats of violence and legal action, and, finally, some kind of compromise that allowed Clark to keep the equipment and Banner to get out of the t-shirt business, which had never yielded a profit.

Knox lasted longer, but was eventually discovered to have financed the materials for his boat with money lifted from the bookstore cash register. He was fired, banished, invited back to work off his debt, but the incident, I’m sure, left a blot on the escutcheon.

Still, Knox finished building his boat, or rather a platform on which he put the camper from the trailer park, which his landlord had given him when the place was razed. The last I heard, he was living aboard it in the pond of stagnant water off North Roosevelt Boulevard. Clark married extremely well, but as he didn’t change otherwise, quickly found himself single again. He eventually gave up on the good life in Key West. The last I heard, he had returned to Pittsburgh.

The bookstore had lasted 25 more years by the time I saw the shell of it, workers standing outside as if they didn’t know what to make of it. I had last been in it more than a year before. The clerk behind the counter looked part of the place — shabby, worn, familiar. Banner was ailing: diabetes, kidney problems, Alzheimer’s. He had been sick for the last few years, but only stopped coming in recently, when he couldn’t make change anymore.

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