He was past the guy who was dressed as Carmen Miranda and past the guy who was strapped to the portable electric chair, but before the human six-pack of Heineken. He was 250 pounds of body hair sporting spiked heels, a slinky cocktail dress, the big do of a Denny's waitress and a beauty-pageant sash that read MISS ING LINK.
And now we had a problem. Was this the weirdest, the most bizarre, the tackiest thing my photographer and I had seen so far in the Florida Keys? Or was it the guy who puts dead fish in his mouth and feeds them to moray eels? Or the 30-foot-long lobster replica outside a gift shop? What about the Bat Tower? And the guy who, for a tip, will lie on a bed of nails and have another man place a concrete block on his crotch and shatter the block with a sledgehammer?
You think it's easy trying to find the weirdest, the most bizarre, the tackiest person, place or thing in the Florida Keys? You try it. It's like trying to find the straighlest noodle at Kraft or the worst shirt in Paul Shaefer's closet. The Keys are the Bloomingdale's of questionable taste. We had six days to find the loss leader.
Not that weird, bizarre or tacky means bad. The truly tacky, for instance, is wonderful. The truly tacky is so godawful that it comes all the way around toward respectability, like really bad yard statuary or a 50,000-watt Christmas-light collection left up all year round. If it contains a shred of cool, it is not within a Japanese drift net of tackiness. If it is Pepto-Bismol pink and lime-rickey green, if it juliennes potatoes and is made mostly of conch shells, we've got to have it.
Our plan was to start at the northern lip of the Keys, in Key Largo (Mile Marker 106), and slowly, inexorably sink, bridge by bridge, toward the capital of kitsch, Key West (MM 0), where we hoped to run smack into the infamous Fantasy Fest parade, the Holy Grail for America's weird. Naturally, we started our search as any of you would: at an underwater hotel.
One thing we learned right away is that nobody is actually from the Keys—"except the fish," as one man told us. Most maps of the U.S. don't even show the Keys. They're like P.O. Box 1000, Atlantis. According to most histories, the Florida Keys were settled by a slow leak of weird people from Cleveland (which is due north of Key West, by the way), people who just kept drifting south until they could drift no farther and clung to a coffee-shop stool or a surfboard. Keys people are all part of the Great Disattached, and when you are disattached, rules tend to mean squat. The societal standards that work in the northern 48 seem to disintegrate in the American Caribbean. Traditions spring up in an instant, and inhibitions come off like wedding dresses.
Why else would a man build an underwater hotel? Jules' Undersea Lodge in Key Largo (MM 103) is the only one of its kind in the world, and we had reservations. For instance, we had reservations about how we were going to get to our rooms. We had reservations about what would happen to our luggage. We had reservations about the whole damn thing.
Luckily, when we met the friendly proprietor, Neil Monney, we stopped worrying about such silly little things. Instead, we began to worry about dying. This is because Mr. Monney informed us that if we wanted to spend the night in the hotel instead of on the gravel driveway, we would need to scuba dive down in the next 45 minutes, before the sun set. "Do you see those bubbles out there?" Mr. Monney said as he pointed out to a vast and murky lagoon. "Your room is 30 feet under those." Hey, an ocean view!
We were sort of thinking along the lines of glass elevators whisking us undersea to our rooms. Or futuristic tubes or maybe a minisubmarine. Wrong. You dive to Jules' Undersea Lodge or you call Howard Johnson's. Not that there was any real problem with this, except for the small fact that we had never dived in our lives.
So we learned. Still, it is one thing to have learned to scuba dive in the last 45 minutes and to try out your new skill in the shallow end of your local YMCA pool. It is another thing entirely to have just learned to dive and to be on your way to live underwater for the evening. Tough. As we began our descent, we noticed that Mr. Monney was in a very good mood. "You might see all kinds of things down there tonight," he said. "There's been a shark hanging around lately."
So as we made our way down into the inky depths, it was both strange and comforting to see a hotel come into view, to be able to look in the portholes and see our warm and inviting living quarters, lights on, pillows fluffed, warm towels at the ready. But just then a black glove seized my throat! Struggling, I could see a shiny steel knife cutting my air hose! I spun madly around and saw.... Sorry. That was Lloyd Bridges's trip to the Keys.
The lodge sits on pillars, so guests swim under it and pop up into it through a four-by six-foot moon pool. The air pressure keeps the water out and the guests dry, as it would in an empty glass forced upside down into a tub of water. We had arrived, feeling safe and happy. Safe and happy, that is, until Carla, our instructor, said, "I'll be going now."
I'll be going now?
It was going to be just us, alone undersea, left at the mercy of the deep? We eyed the open portal of the moon pool and wondered what was to keep your average troubled-youth shark from leaping into the lodge through the moon pool, devouring us like petits fours and slipping back into the depths, full. Absolutely nothing, we decided.
Still, this was easily the nicest underwater hotel we'd ever been in, for it provided stereos and VCRs in both of the bedrooms and the same in the common room. Our hoped-for tackiness was nowhere to be found: not a single lamp made of sea netting or a single starfish alarm clock. Alas, we made the best of it. We watched Creature from the Black Lagoon (what else?) and microwaved our six-course lobster dinner, which was included in the price of the suite ($295). Everything was all right, except for our uneasy feeling that at any moment lobsters might begin picketing the portholes.
All in all, you can't help but relax in an underwater hotel, what with the soothing gurgle of the moon pool, the gentle pattern of the currents, and the grouper and angel-fish dallying by, glancing at you as they go wherever they are going. That's when you come to the odd realization that you are in the aquarium and they are the keepers of the tank.
Grouper: Hey, new humans in the tank tonight!
Angel fish: Cool!
Grouper: I'll go tell the shark.
The next morning Mr. Monney told us we were two of only 4,000 people in the world to have spent the night at Jules' Undersea Lodge. However, he said, we would not go down in history with other overnight aquanauts at Jules' who had 1) gotten Domino's to deliver a pizza down there, 2) called all over Florida until they found a scuba-diving stripper to come down for a birthday (No, no, no! Leave the flippers on!) or 3) set a world record for most days undersea—69. The last was done by Rick Presley, who, I should note, suspiciously resembles Mr. Limpet.
Mother lodes of weirdness awaited us down the coast, including an appointment to make another dive and watch a grown man put a dead fish in his mouth and let a grown moray eel swim out and cat it.
Along the way we saw a place where you can insert your head into the mouth of a huge painted shark and have a picture taken that looks as though the shark is actually eating you] That was almost as good as the open-mouthed giant stuffed alligator we found that can be positioned next to a friend's head or rump and then photographed for a small fee. Hilarious!
However, the only thing better than a phonied-up photo of human devourment is the real thing. This is where Captain Slate comes in. Captain Slate has been accredited by the Coast Guard to run dive charters, and even his face is seaworthy. It has been battered not by the moray eel he feeds from his mouth but by the barracudas he nourishes in the same fashion. Barracudas have the approximate visual acuity of Irving R. Levine without spectacles, and some of them have mistaken Captain Slate's nose for an expired fish. Three times a fast-charging barracuda named Psycho has slammed into Captain Slate's mask hard enough to blacken his eye and wobble his brain.
Unfortunately, Captain Slate, a Key Largo city councilman and secretary of the local Chamber of Commerce, was bogged down in meetings that day—Councilman Slate, we could hear you better if you took the ballyhoo out of your mouth—and so, for $37 apiece, we were sent out on a boat with a man named Harry, supposedly one of only two other men in the world who can feed eels and barracudas with their teeth. As proof, Harry has a nice scar on his face and a huge one from his wrist to the tip of a digit, a memory from the time Shredder, the moray eel, decided to have the finger food.
After a three-mile trip out to the reefs of the underwater John Pennecamp State Park, we jumped in with Harry and made haste for the wreck of the freighter City of Washington, where Harry found two hideous green eyes gleaming out at us. A moray eel would make an excellent stunt double for whatever creature next plans to come ripping out of Sigourney Weaver's chest. Harry knew her. It was Melba.
Melba was a lovely participant. She ate hungrily from Harry's hands and curled up around Harry's neck like a Siamese cat. Then a barracuda came by but was either not hungry or thought Harry was a piece of colorful driftwood, because he refused to eat. Harry never did do the mouth trick. We nearly drowned trying to pantomime the trick so that Harry would do it for the camera, but Harry just looked at us as if we had a case of sea ticks. I don't think Harry will ever make the city council. He didn't even stick with Captain Slate. Harry, the councilman told me recently, "moved farther south to lead a less stressful life."
Off we slunk, farther toward Key West, and great glorious gobs of tackiness made themselves available to us. Outside a truly tacky gift shop was that 30-foot plastic lobster, which immediately vaulted into our front-runner position. All the lobster lacked was an accompanying giant cup of drawn butter. There also was the Naughty and Nice Gag Shop, the blind crocodile at the Theater of the Sea, the Great Grunt Rodeo (a fishing tournament) and the annual underwater music festival. I liked (glub) it. It had a (glub) good (glub) beat and (glub) was easy (glub) to (glub) dance to.
It had been a fabulously tasteless day. a day that could be topped only by a one-night stay at what might be America's only trailer-park hotel, the Blue Lagoon Resort (MM 99.5). Whoever named the Blue Lagoon a "resort" must be the same person who named the Hardee's Golf "Classic." Nonetheless, where else, for $25, could you spend the night in a hideously ugly trailer with a view of the beach? Nowhere is right. The hilarious writer Joy Williams is a Blue Lagoon fanatic. "Fantasize that you arc in a fifties movie," she writes in The Florida Keys. "You are on the lam. You are attempting to escape from something terrible. You sit on the green plaid bedspread and listen to your breathing. No one will ever find you here." No one is right. The Blue Lagoon was sold out.
Instead we got marooned at the Moorings in Islamorada (MM 82), a place that just doesn't have the true Keys feel. No I'M WITH STUPID T-shirts. No plastic pink flamingos. The only thing the Moorings has (starting at $115 a night) is tasteful cottages sprinkled on 17 acres of pristine beach from which—this is true—every strand of seaweed is raked twice weekly. Everything is done with understatement, style and class. We left at first light.
Actually that was good, because we wanted to beat the crowds to the Bat Tower (about MM 17). Honestly, what self-respecting tackiness freak would skip it? A 35-foot tower erected in 1929 for the express purpose of luring bats to the area to eat mosquitoes! The mosquitoes, it seems, were driving the fishermen nuts at R.C. Perky's fishing camp and gambling emporium on Sugarloaf Key. Then Perky read about a man in San Antonio who was selling plans for bat towers, brown-shingled edifices that were supposed to bring in thousands of friendly bats to dine on every mosquito in the county.
Perfect, thought Perky, who had the tower brought in, constructed and baited with hundreds of pounds of the required bat guano. Then he sat back, held his nose and admired his work. Surely this was the grandest bat tower ever built, a colossal four-legged Bat Hilton with everything a bat loved. Most folks anticipated the greatest inflow of bats since the Louisville Slugger company picnic.
They are still waiting. Either Perky's bat marketing was poor or San Antonio was too good a place for bats to leave, because not a single bat showed up. Sixty-three years later, as we drove up, Perky's Bat Tower was still, sadly, batless. Unfortunately there were no people around, either, not to mention any tacky PERKY WAS BATS T-shirt stands. It seems Perky went bust, the fishing camp burned, and Perky eventually died, leaving the Bat Tower to sit quietly at the water's edge, alone in its humiliation.
Back to the rental car and the never-disappointing tidal wave of concrete poured down the middle of the pristine seascape. We saw a 30-foot mermaid ringed in lights outside Lorelei's restaurant in Islamorada that was splendid in its garishness. Farther on, we had beer served in mason jars. We fed wild tarpon for a dollar, if you call wild the sort of tarpon that never leaves the end of Robbie's Dock and will leap four feet into the air to snatch a dead fish you have hidden up your sleeve. Still, we were greatly disappointed to miss the Sugarloaf Lodge, where a dolphin named Sugar has been kept in a small pond in front of the restaurant for 17 years, doing tacky tricks with cups, saucers and small change. Nuts.
Ah, but ahead lay Key West, the southernmost point in the U.S., closer geographically to Havana than to Miami, closer spiritually to Mars than to Earth. In fact, Key West has a painted sign (at last, MM 0) that reads WELCOME TO THE END OF THE RAINBOW. It should read AMERICA BEGINS HERE, for Key West is the Louvre of tackiness. Key West has, among other things, pink taxicabs; the very popular lunch spot B.O.'s Fish Wagon, whose name seems to scare nobody off (B.O.'s slogan? SEA FOOD AND EAT IT!); a former mayor who water-skied to Cuba; a very ordinary grocery store that calls itself Fausto's Food Palace; Doris Day Night at the Copa gay bar; the fringed Conch Train, which is not a train at all but a disguised and overworked jeep pulling four cartloads of tourists; and the Green Parrot Bar, whose raison d'‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢tre is on the wall: SEE THE LOWER KEYS ON YOUR HANDS AND KNEES.
Former resident Ernest Hemingway seems to be the poster boy for Key West tackiness, with his stern visage plastered everywhere, even on the front of pink motor scooters, as if to annoy his spirit. Can you see Hemingway on a pink motor scooter? It was a good scooter. Christ, it was good and strong. The brakes were fine. For that matter, how do you think Hemingway would have reacted to seeing his head floating out of dry ice during the annual Hemingway Haunted House tour, conducted at Halloween in the home in which he wrote nine novels, including For Whom the Bell Tolls!
There is even an annual Ernest Hemingway look-alike contest. It may be the only contest in the world that you lose for being too young and too thin. Take Al Hoffman. He has made the finals for seven straight years and is a favorite to win someday. He needs merely to get older, drink more scotch and lose more hair. It is a job nobody wants, but Al must do it. "What else am I gonna do?" he says. "Model swimsuits?"
Hemingway said he would rather "cat monkey manure than die in Key West," but Papa did not know best. To our way of thinking, the Key West graveyard is the happiest, tackiest place on earth to live out your dead years. It is smack in the middle of town, so one is never alone. Kids constantly take shortcuts through it. Parades often begin beside it. Tourists happen by every day, fascinated. Calypso music wafts up from the Bahamian neighborhood nearby. Best of all, nobody in the place gets bent out of shape about having croaked. The gravestone of B.P. Roberts reads I TOLD YOU I WAS SICK, while another stone says AT LEAST I KNOW WHERE HE'S SLEEPING TONIGHT.
And then there's the crypt of Jose J. Abreu, a Key West native and Navy veteran. All his nicknames are on the stone: Mr. Clean, Baldy, Joseito, Jojab, Jacinto, Joselillo, Diablo, Uncle Tio, Cousin, Loco, Kojak, Gamba, Calvito, Pepito, Skinhead, Primo and Nuts. Not only that, but Mr. Abreu, a big Harry Truman fan, has an epitaph: THE BUCK STOPS HERE. What's more, the crypt is empty. Mr. Abreu, 87, is alive.
Naturally Mr. Abreu became our new tackiness leader, but then, and God help us, the Fantasy Fest parade began. The Key West Fantasy Fest parade makes Mardi Gras look like Librarians' Night Out. One parader wore the right T-shirt: KEY WEST: WHERE THE POSSESSED GO TO MINGLE. Key Westers have an unparalleled willingness to throw off every shred of pretension—not to mention clothing—for the sake of a party. If a taboo was left standing after the parade, we can't imagine what it was.
The most respected business in town, Fast Buck Freddie's department store, won the contest for the best float, with its Devil's Octopussy, a spinning purple fire-breathing octopus with eight moving tentacles manned by eight barely dressed men and women. The rest of the parade was much more strange. There was a cyborg with moving electric parts, who kept repeating, "Resistance is futile. We will be assimilated"; every conceivable costume Pat Robertson wouldn't approve of; a human motorboat with an actual water-expulsion tube; the Pope and George Bush together; Amelia Earhart in a missing-child announcement on the side of a milk carton; a lady giving out $5 street massages; Miss Gay Washington, D.C., in a red convertible; a gaggle of pregnant nuns; and a constant pulsing of Latin dance music, which shook the windows on Duval Street all night. The music was so intoxicating that it overcame the driver of a parade truck, causing him to abandon the wheel, climb on top of the cab and dance uncontrollably, despite attempts by parade organizers to get him down. For three minutes the parade went nowhere; then they dragged him down. Killjoys.
It was an orgiastic plunge into a world where no preconceptions existed. Men were women; women, men; dogs, people; people, dogs. You could drift along without actually walking, carried on one side by a human shower (complete with curtain) and on the other by a giant tongue. It was all that two eyes could take in, and I'm only sorry we missed the parade 13 years ago, in which a woman was stripped, painted bronze and made into a hood ornament. Still, we thought we had seen it all until we saw Beauty and the Beast rolled into one: the fetching Miss Ing Link. Exhausted, we declared him/her/it the winner and collapsed happy.
We never did find our socks.
Being a rookie diver didn't stop Reilly from sizing up the reef residents at John Pennecamp State Park or reaching an underwater hotel. Fortunately, his only run-in with a shark took place on land.
A baptism into Keys life includes taking in a saltwater savior, a restaurant that needs a shower, and a die-cleaner whose motto might be "Give 'em starch, Harry."
The Key West Fantasy Fest parade is a dandy's inferno whose participants, whether two-legged, four-legged or tentacled, put on the glitz and scale unforeseen heights of bad taste.
B.P. Roberts is finally at peace, but not that giant lobster by the roadside.