Volume 6 part 028 The Golden Keys
Earnest Hemingway, Bohemia and the allure of exclusivity associated with remoteness had attracted me to Key West for many years. Pete’s mate “Wendy” (David) beat us to it a few years earlier booking a trip with his partner, Bill without inviting us. They subsidised their holiday by agreeing not to exchange gifts that Christmas. Bill sent flowers to a rent-boy he enjoyed in Key West. Wendy found the Credit Card receipt! I recall Whitney Houston being in the charts with some song about credit cards and a meal for two. Pete and I broadcast the song being played on a Juke box to Wendy over a mobile phone from a bar in Rimini during the Millennium new-year stop over on the Adriatic.
The destination of Key West remained on a back burner.
For the Canaries, Christmas 2013 “The Pasion” had been nice enough but on the wrong side of town. It all felt a little claustrophobic. The pool was small. The bar was small. The beds were tiny. The residents were generally as aloof as the staff. A battered SAAB was the only automatic available at the airport. The wrangling caused us to arrive in St Augustine in the dark and finding the resort was by shear fluke. We lolled by the pool every day and ate at the Yumbo every night alternating between Bei Lello and The Centro steak House with a French restaurant that served rancid pork and a Spanish restaurant that served rancid prawns filling in the gaps. After dinner drinks comprised a quick one in the Bear Cave followed by a death defying sprint on the outer ring road back to St Augustine. On One occasion we bumped into two old acquaintances from Pete’s drinking days. We followed them into Na Hund to say hello. It was all very awkward. They clearly didn’t want us there! Being in the Canaries over Christmas offered nothing novel except for cocktails and nibbles at seven on Christmas Eve attended by four complete strangers with nothing in common other than English as a second language and a sad taste in polyester Primark shorts. We slipped out unnoticed for a steak.
To ward off the boredom of Christmas in the Canaries, I was scanning a German, gay-fashion magazine one morning when I spotted an advertisement for a gay resort called “Island House”. A tour company was offering great deals for summer 2014. The ad caught my eye because the operator was based in Aachen! The magazine belonged to a bald German guest also staying in the “Pasion” Bungalow complex on the outskirts of San Augustine. He force-fed me on magazines for the rest of the week unaware that I was mostly restricted to reading the pictures.
A trawl through the internet confirmed “Island House” as ranking in the top ten gay resorts in the world. There was now an excuse to endure eleven hours plus multiple connections for a flight to Key West. Air France code shares with Delta. Delta fly Manchester to Atlanta. Atlanta is the hub for Delta with direct flights to Key West. A two flight option with business class seats all the way for under five grand for two was too good to miss.
By February “the company” of MHCA invested five thousand pounds plus accommodation costs for a fact finding study tour for its two directors to Key West. After-all, ninety-five percent of the design work executed by the practice used American planning standards. Once I retire properly, “study trips” of this magnitude are off the table.
I consider the flight to be all part of the fun and has to be so when taking two days out of your life as an excuse for a holiday. Pete hates travelling which probably explains why we always leave half an hour after the absolute deadline set the night before. He allows no contingency yet would nag till hell freezes if we ever missed a flight. Bubble was just the same. I have endured two decades of my nearest and dearest sabotaging the efficient start of a holiday. The only difference between the pair of them was that she didn’t insist on driving to the airport. Pete passed his test in 2010. He is a self-proclaimed driving expert. Having only hit two stationary targets, been hit once, acquired a speeding ticket in the first sixth months of holding a licence and acquired a list of parking and lane violations sufficient to wall- paper a toilet door he is evidently better qualified to drive to the airport than a partner with more than forty years longer driving experience. The holiday got off to a typically fraternal start.
Pre-take-off checks for Pete include, Passports, tickets and credit cards. That is, have I got his passport, our tickets and my credit cards? Pete takes care of the sun cream and I take care of everything else. That way, if I forget something it’s not his fault. It is my responsibility to remedy the potential omission of shower gel, phone charging gear, ear plugs, Imodium and head ache pills. He packs a makeup-bag with more cosmetics than Liz Taylor and Michael Jackson combined after neatly laying out his clothes on my bed. I pack the suitcases. I repack the suitcases when he produces the makeup bag ten minutes before we leave for the airport. A last minute change of travel outfit has on occasion led to a third re-packing. A double check of his favourite skinny ribs tee shirts invariably means a fourth.
On the only occasion that Pete and his bags failed to arrive at the same destination Courtesy of Monarch Airlines, it was my fault requiring a trip to the diesel outfitters in Player Del Ingles to rectify “my” incompetence.
Bubble once complained that her suitcase was presented to check-in the wrong way around. The handle should be facing her has it disappeared into the rubber curtain shrouding the conveyor taking it to a Ryan Air, no-frills flight from Ancona. Needless to say, when it reappeared from a baggage chute at Stansted airport the handle was facing away from us causing me to lose a couple of finger nails to retrieve it from the carousel. “I told you that you had put it on the belt in Ancona the wrong way ‘round….” Came the swift and unsympathetic rebuke from Bubble.
I present the passports and visas to check-in. Pete comments that my bag is heavier than his even though I’m carrying enough sun screen to grease the birth canal of an African elephant. I shepherd us through security having always provided a priority pass. In the executive lounge I serve the latte topped up with a double espresso. Peter scowls at me for taking breakfast. The couple or so glasses of complimentary Merlot I take to numb my resolve to open the emergency hatch at thirty-five thousand feet amplifies his disdain equalled only by the eye rolling that says we’ve headed for the gate too early. Without exception he occupies the window seat without any reference to his boarding card complaining to anything and everyone that the seat and frequently the full lay down bed, is shit.
To avoid a secondary sneer, I take orange juice instead of complimentary Champagne. He takes water, animatedly extolling its health benefits over orange juice. Invariably the food served on real china table-ware with real metal cutlery laid over real linen napkins is also “Shit”. Stop-overs are a necessity for Florida and always too long. Upon arrival, I grab the bags from the carrousel. Peter takes a seat and yawns. Having bought matching luggage equipped with wheels avoids the Mexican stand-off generated by which of the two of us steers a trolley. Receiving instructions on which way up I stack his case in the boot of the chauffeur driven airport transfer is invariably the first civil comment between the pair of us since that morning’s alarm call.
In Key West, the Taxi was a mini bus with no doors to the rear seats. I squeezed my gut and carry-on luggage past the first three rows of passengers to a running commentary from Pete who had already taken up position in the middle of the back seat. Had he gone to the toilet while we were waiting for the bags rather than after them being rescued, we wouldn’t have been at the back of the queue for the “taxi”. The full audience got to hear first-hand that he’d actually been for a shit. Thank-you for sharing!
Island House is located at the corner of White and Fleming. We were the last passengers to be dropped off by the mini-bus doing a circuit of mostly straight venues. By the time I had prized myself clear of the van, Pete was already checking in, abandoning me to pay the driver and offload the suitcases.
Dragging both bags from the back of a bus would have been far too much to expect from a partner who invariably puts number-one first.
The resort is a two storey, painted timber former colonial residence built around a couple of courtyards. Rooms are accessed direct from balconies that circuit the entire perimeter of the buildings. External stairways lead to the upper balconies along with a bridge-link above reception equipped with an internal stair linking to the spa and gymnasium. The spa and gymnasium can also be accessed through reception. To the rear of the main block is the pool. Eight, prime suites overlook the pool from both ground and first floor. We occupied 212, a deluxe suite on the first floor. To one side of the pool an open bar- restaurant offers a varied twenty four house service. The communal facilities are open to non-residents on a subscription basis ensuring a daily turnaround of fresh faces. With the exception of the gymnasium the whole complex is clothes-optional fuelling Pete’s perpetual observation that we pack too much.
Having more than one way to get anywhere in the complex lends itself to discretion. A trip to the bedroom could easily become a stopover in the sauna or steam room without ever being missed on the pool side. Taking the first floor scenic route avoided eye contact with reception. Two beds by the pool, immediately below our balcony were our adopted base for the fortnight. A small but varied menu meant that we could choose whether or not to bother getting dressed in the evening. People came and went. Americans are renowned for short holidays, fortunately, most staying for only three or four days. Staying for a fortnight was unheard of, to the point of suicidal decadence for an American. Two other Brit’s, from Manchester stayed a week but were regulars and preferred to do multiple trips over the year traveling economy, rather than a longer summer break.
“JJ” was hosting in the pool every day. Considering that he originated in North Carolina he was charming and articulate and an alcoholic who had been exiled to Key West by his family. Island House became his sanctuary and retreat during the day retiring to a shack somewhere near Duval each evening before sunset. Not an hour passed-without the boast of an “… I Live here…” boomed nasally into the ear of any unsuspecting redneck from somewhere remote like Idaho or Arkansas jealous for a gay good life in a tropical paradise, daft enough to listen. He walked the pool, hour after hour, wearing nothing but a straw hat, a smile and a banana Dakari. The majority of “JJ’s” relatives lived in a belt between New Jersey and Atlantic City. Each Christmas they held a family reunion that sounded very much to be an intervention adding to speculation that they had all contributed towards his relocation package. A mottled “ginner”, also in a straw hat and also apparently without a day job emerged to be the local small time drug dealer, setting up his stall on a patio table outside the room adjoining ours until motivated to move on by my evil eye.
A seventy two year old black man with a dick the size of a donkey sunbathed daily on the roof top terrace above the bar. He, too had retired to Key West after pressure in his mid-sixties to stay in the closet and now lived on an unseaworthy fishing boat. Other than to put his generous tackle on show I couldn’t get why someone the colour of coal needed to sun bathe. I kept well away from it. Apparently it’s not good to be Gay in Philadelphia. The black man’s family were still unaware that he was gay. They thought he’d moved simply because he liked “fishing”.
The manager of the local Hyatt joined us, at dinner one evening uninvited. He came from San Francisco which said it all and, sadly it took him over an hour to take the hint. The following day by the pool he found it necessary to absolve his lack of manners by apologising for the previous night. Assuring this complete stranger that he was not in the least objectionable, simply totally obnoxious but that this is what we had come to expect from anyone from San Francisco, went straight over his head but appreciated by an aging exotic dancer who now worked at the Las Vegas “Blue Room”. The “Blue Room” was an exclusively gay venue set up to rival Island House but slipped into bankruptcy that season. His managerial skills were clearly on par with his dancing.
Duval was only a fifteen minute walk. Duval is the main street of Key West. The four gay bars are located to the East of the junction with Fleming. Raucous straight watering holes and swinger’s bars lie to the West including “Sloppy Joes” although not the original Sloppy Joe famous for pickling Earnest Hemingway’s Kidneys while he was still alive. Restaurants abound. Those with few customers are worthy of a second look. Having linen and no pictorial menus is a sure sign of quality. Those displaying photo-shopped images of the food they claimed to serve were the most popular with “White trash tourists” compounding the observation that most American’s can’t read.
Since the airport had been extended with a short take-off and landing runway Key West had acquired “International” status yet still requires an A320 to come in like a flying-brick with brakes already fully applied. The “international” tag came with a once a day connecting flight to Mexico City.
For the most part, the “International Airport” attracted the “domestic white-trash” indulging in the vices the gays’ had invented half a century previous.
What didn’t arrive by air came by sea in an endless chain of budget cruise liners docking to see the legendary sun set from Malory square which, in turn, the mountainous ships had successfully eclipsed. This was no place for “Earnest Hemingway” who, far from being a bohemian was an alcoholic propping an “authentic” bar renowned for having relocated twice since his death.
The “Bull Dog” boasted a “swinger’s terrace“ at roof level for anyone still under the illusion that Key West was an outpost of Confederate Congeniality. Wall to wall, Tee shirt shops sporting “rude” Tube topics to cover whatever your preference or proclivity, offer a shopping experience rivalled only by Blackpool. I did a gay bar to take advantage of a urinal during a last minute, day time souvenir hunt. In day-light the place needed a good scrub, by night it was the few customers pulled in from the sidewalk by desperate go-go dancers who needed the good scrub. The open go-go bar with the predatory go-go dancers is directly opposite a show bar from where gigantic Transvestites lassoed passing punters. Redneck homophobes take safe passage by to corralling their obese broods along the white line in the centre of Duval street.
To the rear of the show bar was the “saloon” renowned for being a watering hole for the more mature Gay which accounted for it being empty but also unsurprising due to being reached through a narrow alley blocked by Six Foot Transvestites. Ill equipped for the tackle either side of Duval we determined to give all bars a miss!
A corner restaurant with a quaintly Cuban name that escapes me, served Mushroom Martini’s on an air conditioned outside terrace. We returned three times. The Italian restaurant where the Bulgarian waiter loaned Pete his father’s reading glasses to resolve a perpetual dispute regarding why he insists on going to Restaurants aware that he is incapable of reading a menu, received two visits. The “Cat on a hot tin roof” despite its reputation and being so popular that we were relegated to the external balcony and sat on a high table with bar stools that nearly got us “doing a runner” had it not been for my short legs. The gin and tonic tasted like mouth wash. The tonic water tasted like gin. The bruschetta would have been put to better use for skeet shooting or exfoliating dead skin.
A taxi to Island House from “Duval” cost fifteen dollars. A peddle rickshaw cost twenty dollars. The cyclist was well worth the five dollar tip for the effort required to get my bulk into second gear. The momentum saved me from a ten dollar tip.
I’m sure that we must have eaten out more than six nights but time flies and in that heat who could be bothered! Maybe we did actually eat by the pool for most of a week? The red wine was very competitively priced and served only ten yards from the “beach Bed”. The staff fussed a lot, especially a little Peruvian in thick glasses with whom we became particularly fond. I was asleep in bed by the time the “boy’s” came back from the bars to frolic by the pool until the early hours. Pete stayed out to play most nights.
We bought a couple of cartoon oil painting prints as souvenirs, hand-made resin coat hooks and the obligatory “T” shirt. The Iraqi projects were paid partly in cash with the illicit dollars traded for a “James Dean” photograph which took the threat of a court order to get delivered eight weeks after we arrived home. Key West is nothing memorable but I was glad I’d been. Island house a delight but unnecessarily remote but all in all a good time was had.
The stop-over in Atlanta offered further insight into the highly developed impartiality perfected in the Unites State of America. Atlanta is a busy airport, allegedly the largest in the World.. With the exception of a hand full of Orientals, customers elevated to the executive lounge were almost exclusively white. An army of stewards were exclusively Black! From bar keeps to boot boys and cleaners to caterers they were all black. In a two and a half hour stop-over the divide was so conspicuous that the only black family to risk the facilities appeared almost apologetic. I want to tell the two we met in Brighton that in my limited experience, only New York approaches the myth of a classless society. For New York read, “Manhattan” and for Manhattan read the one percent who aren’t tourists but can afford to live on the Upper West Side and shop at Sachs. In New York the one percent feed on the ninety-nine percent who think that if they play ball and keep their heads down, and don’t smile on the daily commute, they too will someday be part of the one percent. For the rest of America they do it to themselves. The oppressed thank the ones who do the oppression. The ones who do the oppression do it because they can. After all, “they have god on their side”.
New York in October 2014 was altogether a failed experiment. Only three months after Atlanta I needed New York to wash away a newly acquired contempt for all things American. Having Joe and Elena along for the ride, and through no fault of theirs, was an opportunity for rediscovery, sadly missed?
Starbucks has taken over from a string of bars for the frequent pit stops required by anyone on blood pressure pills.
Key West had been the consequence of a chance encounter in the Canaries. New York in October was too close to the festive season to consider a Christmas break away. Two trips to the states in 2014 left me with a lot of catching up to do in the Middle East. Our resolve to stay at home until summer, buckled over Christmas day lunch. The tree and the dogs did little to offset the greyness. As compensation we booked the Canaries for February 2015.