The image that sticks in your mind is of being awakened by the sound of young girls laughing on a bright and sunny Tuesday morning in Paradise. It is early April, and Paradise is brimming with college girls. Their laughter briefly overrides the unsteady clatter and hum of the air conditioner. One of them lies in the bed next to you, overdyed scarlet hair covering the pillow, thin and delicate, skin as white as a glass of milk, snoring gently, an unfinished piña colada on the table on her side of the bed, a fat roach in the ashtray, a smear of white powder on a mirror. You get up and make your way to the bathroom. Looking up into the mirror, you are shocked by the miraculous appearance of Groucho Marx. But it is not Groucho Marx: it is you, mouth crusted with the dried menstruum of the sleeping angel in your bed. Good morning, Count Dracula. Howzmabout a nice hot shower?
Sade understood Nature perfectly, which is probably why he wound up in an insane asylum. Nature is full of cruel tricks, like mosquitoes, like that false spring that arrived just after Groundhog's Day, the warm snap that came to remind us that in these times not even the rodents can predict the weather. Paradise is dangerous. Is it Eden, or Kundry's Garden? I make no claims to any sort of psychic abilities. There are days when I can barely think at all. But I have coyote instincts: I've always had a knack for avoiding serious trouble, stepping out of the room just before the guns were drawn or the cops arrived, that sort of thing.
The death of my adoptive mother climaxed a recent course of life lessons in the form of a series of shocks that have cumulatively left me with an unaccustomed confidence in my own head. I feel vindicated. That's the only word for it.
It occurred to me when I received my modest inheritance that I hadn't had a real vacation since 1989. I make it a point to involve myself in monetary pursuits that require travel. I need to remain in motion. I decided to burn a few thousand dollars on some sort of mindless pleasure and boldly go where I had not gone before. I hate flying, so it got down to places I could drive to. It had to be warm, it had to have beaches and it had to be depraved. I require periodic doses of serious depravity. It didn't take long to narrow it down to Key West.
I took my time getting there. I drove down I-95 with no timetable or real route agenda. I took whimsical detours. I stayed overnight at South of the Border, just over the South Carolina state line. South of the Border is a 50-year-old mutant hybrid of a theme park and an interstate highway service area. The motel is a very comfortable low-budget arrangement with a pool. There are rides and an arcade and a bunch of restaurants ranging from greasy spoon to the closest thing to haute cuisine to be found on I-95. There are several shops offering things like souvenir shot glasses and rubber alligators, leather goods and knives, pink flamingos. The place is a monument to 50s kitsch.
There are fireworks in abundance. I got stoned in my room and wandered into one of the fireworks stores. Forget gun control: the mind reels at the amount of mayhem and destruction one could actuate with the kind of explosive firepower available at these outlets. I bought a shitload of really powerful rockets and mortars and loaded them into my trunk. I was a tad off my nut, thinking things that could get me busted if I put them into words. I was moving into the Zone of Whimsy, and not yet quit of New York and all of the Byzantine crap that surrounds us here, the nearly irresistible pull of other people's conspiracies.
I stopped in Sarasota to see some of my old circus buddies and drop off some goods and money for my ex-wife. Her breast cancer recurred after nearly 10 years in remission. The doctors are telling her the chemo for the last bout probably caused this current unpleasantness. She blames my late mother. "Stress," she says. I tell her I blame society. I spent two days there, smoking endless joints with her and watching tapes of The Sopranos, trying in vain to connect with this person I once loved so fiercely. I gave her a weird object I'd acquired for her during the course of a bender in Tijuana, a Frisbee-sized depiction of a wedding in hell full of little plaster demons and flames. She'd left it behind along with a bunch of other stuff when she'd moved out, and I didn't want it in the house anymore. I'd hand-carried this thing back to her in 1989, vomiting my way over the continental U.S. on some hideous cheap flight out of L.A., first hint of liver damage neatly revealed in the year the doctors discovered hepatitis C, disease du jour for the 90s. I was diagnosed in 1991. I think that fucking beaner objet d'art cursed my marriage. It's okay. I'm happier alone. So is she. I left the rockets and mortars behind in her shower on the day I lit out for Key West.
Cruising eastward across Alligator Alley I got to thinking about the strange initiatory process that my hep C diagnosis triggered. It all started with a plantar wart. I was home from the circus, nursing Bonnie through her first bout with cancer. She had taken a paid leave of absence from her job at IBM, and that IBM insurance package was a godsend. The thing about circus work is that you really have to take good care of your feet. This plantar wart on my right foot was getting to be a real drag, so I looked up a neighborhood podiatrist and arranged to have it sliced off while I was off the road.
The corrupt old quack I selected must have seen that IBM insurance coming. The son of a bitch ran $800 worth of tests and charged $400 for the minor surgery of removing a fucking wart. He told me I had hepatitis C. The wart grew back and I wound up removing it once and for all myself with a Swiss Army knife some months later.
I knew about hepatitis A and B. My first lover was a really sweet and beautiful guy named John Kitchen Hobbie, from Moorestown, NJ. Kit was a trustfund kid. His father owned a shit-processing factory, was a fertilizer magnate. We had a casual, on-again, off-again affair going for years, from 1968 until his second bout with hep B in San Francisco, 1977. Hepatitis was moving like wildfire through the male homosexual community at that time. I was there for him, doing his laundry, cooking and other household stuff, but I stopped sleeping with him at that point. "I'm a drunk," I explained, "I gotta protect my liver. These bathhouse romps of yours are gonna kill you."
Ultimately, they did. My fear of hepatitis probably saved me from the AIDS plague that killed Kit in 1988. I stopped making it with guys altogether when the "gay cancer" arrived in 1980. That's when I hooked up with my now ex-wife. Bisexuality has its advantages.
The irony of finding myself approaching the turning point of 40 HIV-negative but infected with a variant of the very disease that I had so carefully tried to avoid wasn't lost on me. I got a referral to a respected gastroenterologist from my wife's oncologist and went for an exam. Once she ascertained that I was, in fact, infected, she proposed a liver biopsy and a "prophylactic regimen" of alpha interferon.
"Whoa," I said, "Cool your jets, here. I'm not sick. I'm in robust good health. I'm lugging circus tents around and setting them up in fields and parking lots all over this grand and glorious country while the rest of you sleep. Let me take a look at this, then we'll talk."
I admitted that the idea of her jamming a big needle in under my ribs had a certain appeal, but only if I was nude, in restraints, with no anesthetic. Tit clamps would be nice. She told me I'd have to quit drinking. I said I'd be willing to give it a shot, but I'd need a decent shrink to talk to. I'm disinclined toward any of the 12-step crypto-Christer crap and I don't buy the disease model of addiction at all. I am not powerless. I use booze as a buffer, and without it I knew a lot of nasty things would surface?very powerful nasty things. "Think Hannibal Lecter," I said. We made an appointment to see each other again in two weeks, when she'd have a psychiatric referral and I'd have a decision on her proposals.
I downloaded a pile of papers from the Internet on hep C and alpha interferon. I got the general impression that medical science was pretty much whistling in the dark with the whole hep C thing. The papers were frequently contradictory, some suggesting that the disease can be sexually transmitted (it can't), all giving wildly differing appraisals of possible mortality rates. Alpha interferon, on the other hand, was a clear and present danger. The IBM insurance plan would probably cover the estimated $16,000 a year it would cost, but the substance itself would kick my system totally out of whack, probably render me an invalid, and the side effects included anxiety, irritability and depression. I was already anxious, irritable and depressed enough to go on a six-state killing spree, and I figured that removing the alcohol and pouring this shit into the mix would definitely push me over the edge. I decided to opt for a real effort to quit drinking, and no damned alpha interferon...
Lightning flashing in the distance pulled me back to the here and now of Alligator Alley. A sudden squall blew over, one of those amazingly violent South Florida thunderstorms with raindrops the size of NATO rounds pounding down out of the greenish sky. It ended as I approached the exit for Rte. 1 South, the road to Key West. An enormous and very solid-looking rainbow appeared to the north. They were playing Wagner on NPR, Das Rheingold. It was perfect, and I took it as an omen. I proceeded to cross the Rainbow Bridge into Paradise.
The archipelago known as the Florida Keys is unique in the world. Ponce de Leon is generally credited with their discovery in 1513, but there is a convincing argument to be made that Sebastian Cabot discovered them 15 years before de Leon's crew dubbed them los mártires, "the martyrs," owing to the deadly, ship-killing coral reefs that serve to keep the waters around the Keys as still as a country pond. In those days these islands of limestone, coral and oolite were covered with trees common to the Caribbean and a solid carpet of soil-generating red mangrove. The interior was a scary jungle inhabited by tiny rats, deer, Florida panthers, bears and thick swarms of biting insects. On the beaches dwelt the indigenous people, the Calusa, an exceptionally tall tribe of hunter-gatherers who lived mainly on shellfish until they were wiped out by the neighboring Seminoles. White Europeans have no monopoly on genocide.
Geologists currently put the age of the Keys at about 150,000 years, but they could be older, much older. To the east in the Atlantic lies the nation's largest reef of living coral and the first underwater park in the USA, the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, named for an associate editor of the Miami Herald who made the conservation of the Keys and their surrounding reefs a personal cause. The park offers snorkeling and diving expeditions wherein 55 varieties of coral and more than 500 species of fish can be seen. Many of those fish bite, so I skipped it.
I left the mainland at about 6 p.m. It's about 120 miles to Key West, and the speed limit shifts drastically and frequently, doubtless providing a tidy income for the various municipalities that comprise Monroe County. For the most part it's a one-lane highway, and on Key Largo I got trapped behind a garishly painted school bus that looked as if it had slipped through a time warp from 1967. I followed this bilious atavism across the 43 bridges into Key West as the sun dropped into the Gulf of Mexico. One of those bridges is seven miles long.
I hit Key West just after sunset on a Saturday night. Driving through Old Town on a Saturday night is very similar to driving through Soho on a Saturday night: the sidewalks are so full of people that they spill out onto the street, necessitating a great deal of patience and caution. The big difference is that while we have a lot of pedestrians here, they're not all drunk. The KWPD lets you drink in the street, as long as it isn't in a bottle or a can, so people do what is known as the "Duval Crawl," roaming from bar to bar on Duval St., drinks in hand, until they are unable to walk any farther. There were drunks on foot, drunks on bicycles and drunks on little rented scooters, weaving and wobbling over the length of Duval St. and the surrounding side streets. I slowed down to 10 mph, idling around in search of a room for the night. I figured to check in, park the car and get down to the business of some serious drinking.
I could feel the mellow depravity of the place seeping into my brain even as I went through the three-hour ordeal of finding what was probably the last room left in Key West that night: a $220 suite in the Southernmost Motel, a block away from the zero-point marker of Rte. 1. An elderly couple on bicycles wobbled ahead of me as I pulled around to the parking lot, laughing and weaving, good-natured drunks. Some idiot kid in an SUV with a blaring sound system began honking his horn at me as I slowed even further to cut the couple some slack. My final real New York gesture consisted of shifting into park and turning up my radio, waiting for the cretinous punk to get out and start some shit. This skinny little buzzcut wigger in his Hilfiger jeans jumped out of his tank and started yelling at me, waving his hands around in some stupid Virginia college boy imitation of a rap video. I smiled and smoked, turned the radio up some more, Vivaldi it was, and put the car in gear. As I parked the car in front of my room, my right front tire popped and went flat. Perhaps this is a sign, I thought, just like the rainbow. An indicator that I have found my true destination, as in destiny.
I went up to my room and smoked a joint, then I hit the street. Pretty much anything goes on Duval St. on a Saturday night. A small platoon of transvestites was drinking on the sidewalk outside Divas, one of them wearing a big black strap-on dildo, quite spiffed, spilling her hurricane all over her red patent-leather pumps as she whipped the strap-on with a strip of what appeared to be raw bacon, slurring the words, "Dog meat! DOG MEAT!" in a guttural growl reminiscent of The Exorcist. Tight little college hardbodies thronged the street guzzling mudslides and piña coladas, piling into loud and wild joints like Sloppy Joe's and RumRunners, occasionally pausing to puke into a litter basket with unexpected decorum. Elderly dowagers glided through the throng, moneyed consorts on their arms, sipping their cosmopolitans and inspecting the shop windows. Guys my age ranged in type from dope pirate to Agency Boy and everything in between, uniformly sitting quietly at the various bars, inspecting the college girls the way big cats examine gazelles on the Discovery Channel, waiting for an opening.
I hit every bar on Duval St. that first night, scarfing up conch fritters and swilling down hurricanes. By the time I got to the Ocean View Hotel, on the opposite end of the strip from my digs, I was totally shitfaced. I hailed a cab and got a good tip on a cheaper room from the driver. I went directly to bed and slept the sleep of the just.
I awoke without a hangover from a vivid, lurid dream involving the Htoo twins, JonBenet Ramsey, Elian Gonzalez and Dylan & Eric of Columbine fame. It was some kind of Broadway musical spectacle, saturated in shades of red, with Yoda and E.T. darting in and out of the action as William Shatner provided commentary like the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder's Our Town. Janet Reno was in it, flying around on a bicycle. Dylan & Eric were waltzing with Teena Brandon and Matthew Shephard, and Shatner was delivering a brief history of the Federal Reserve when I woke up.
I went down and checked out, then I went across the street to a scooter rental booth and asked the kid manning it if he knew anybody who'd like to make a fast 60 bucks changing a tire. An hour later I was rolling into the parking lot of the Duval Inn, right next to the KWPD headquarters on Angela St. I got a serviceable room for $65 a night, parked the car, rolled a couple of joints, smoked one and went off drinking in the general direction of the beach.
I never made it. I wound up at the Green Parrot, a bar off Duval on Southard that seems to function as some sort of booze-fueled town hall for the locals. The conspiracy of local drunks meets here, under a sign that reads "Excess In Moderation." I wound up wrecked on Bloody Marys in the middle of the afternoon, arms wrapped around a charismatic maniac who said he was Bud Navarro, "uno maximo luno loco" or words to that effect. He was a lovely guy; he invited me to a dinner and said, "Yoko says it's all right." I went back to my room and took a nap.
I woke up sometime after sunset, smoked a joint and set out for Duval to get something to eat and, of course, drink. Everything felt like a dream at this point. I found an inexpensive falafel place just around the corner. After dining, I ducked into the Green Parrot for a hurricane and directions to the nearest whorehouse. I made my way to the bordello, drink in hand, smoking yet another joint, and purchased an hour of astounding depravity at the hands of an eighth-generation conch possessed of a sensuous and laconic approach to the s&m game. Her tan was amazing. As I was leaving, a willowy college girl with milk-white skin and scarlet hair shot me a knowing glance from across the street and between the worlds, a glance that said she knew it all and wanted some, a glance I had to turn away from.
I wandered back to the Inn in a slight daze, picking up another hurricane on the way. There was a picnic table set up next to the unfinished pool by my room, and there I met Pirate Dave. Pirate Dave went from Iowa to Vietnam, where he passed his days and nights exploring the thrilling world of Vietcong tunnel architecture in his capacity as an Army "tunnel rat." He took a few hits from punji sticks and the like, but made it back in one piece only to find that Iowa no longer suited him. He came to Key West in 1975 and has only left the Keys three times since. I offered him some weed, but Pirate Dave doesn't get high anymore. He had an aneurysm some years back, and the Dilantin he takes doesn't mix well with other drugs. He has an interesting hole in the left side of his head where the VA did the surgery. He remembers falling down and waking up 10 days later in a hospital bed stone blind with a hole in his head and a catheter jammed up his cock. They offered him a steel plate to cover the hole, but he turned it down. "I'm good at avoiding fights," he says.
The surgery seriously fucked up his vision, and he had to wear an eye patch for a while. Well, Key West, eye patch, it all just sort of fell into place, and soon he was tricked up in full pirate regalia, being photographed with tourists at 10 dollars a pop, reborn as Pirate Dave. His wife got into the act, and everything was perfect until she got killed by a drunk driver from Ohio who walked away from the crash unscathed. Pirate Dave is a relentlessly cheerful guy who makes his living weaving palm fronds into fruit bowls, can holders, roses, sailboats, even pirate ships. He recently sold an incredibly elaborate palm-frond pirate ship to a tourist for $2000. The thing had cannons and everything. Nothing gets Pirate Dave down; the man has some kind of total acceptance thing going. Pirate Dave is above it all.
A lot has changed since he first came here. Just five years ago, he says he could walk down Duval and see maybe a dozen or so people and know every one of them. An apartment that cost $500 a month then is going for $1500 now. He's not complaining, but he's not stupid, either. I looked at it myself. There's one bad neighborhood on Key West, it's called Bahama Village and it's basically Crackland. It's the only place there where you might be able to pick up a house for less than $200,000. This is Soho, 1980. The locals don't quite grasp what is happening.
Pirate Dave turned in for the night and I set out on yet another Duval Crawl. Somehow I wound up in a small bungalow full of transvestites and beach bums, doing bong hits and lines of blow off of a framed photograph of a dolphin smiling up out of a sun-dappled sea. A Ry Cooder album was playing against the constant sound of a blender grinding ice and fruit and alcohol into tropical decadence. I don't know how I got home, but I didn't get there alone.
The next morning I showered and puked a few times, dry heaves mostly, and returned to find her gone. She left a bag of cocaine on the table with a note on a postcard that just said, "Thanks!" The roach was still in the ashtray, so I smoked it. I probably shouldn't have, because it got me thinking about the whole illusion versus reality thing and wondering whether she had, in fact, been there at all. The sheets were clean. I choked down a fistful of milk thistle capsules and headed out to the beach at Fort Zachary Taylor with a couple of joints, figuring to avoid the booze for a day.
I got really stoned and waded out into the 78-degree water, as still and blue as a turquoise slab. There in the embrace of that maternal sea, sitting immersed in the body of Paradise, I spent the day contemplating the option of lazy perfection, blissful stasis, life on the beach. Wandering back to my room just before sunset, I realized that if I stayed one more day, it would be forever. I could just stop, drop out of the world, spend my remaining time in this heaven, this place where nothing ever happens. Disappearing women and mystery bags, increasing blurring of the boundary between dream and waking life, perhaps hallucinogens. No more tension, no more stress, only an endless mellow encased in amber, no need to strive or struggle, life in Neverland, forever at play with the other Lost Boys.
Wednesday came, and I knew I had to leave. I was nervous about my tires, so I drove out on Rte. 1 with Pirate Dave and bought a new set while he got a nifty new saw and a pair of comfortable straw shoes at Kmart. We stopped at a bar for a round and in the course of talking discovered that we are both adopted children of criminal biological paternity and we are both left-handed. I felt the need to make a lot of shifty, lame-sounding excuses for leaving Paradise. The fact is that leaving Key West is a clear symptom of some sort of madness or stupidity or both.
I dropped the Pirate back at the Inn and headed north on Rte. 1, against my better judgment. I knew it was completely psychotic to head back to New York, but I did it anyway. I forced myself, the same way I've forced myself to dry out so many times, the same way I quit shooting speed and bedding crazy men. New York is irritating and the weather frequently sucks, but the irritation and bad weather force pearls out of the rocks. Kundry's Garden is Paradise, where you lay back and rest easy. It's easy to get there: just head south.
I'm not ready for Paradise just yet. Key West is too beautiful to be trusted. There has to be a catch. I don't have to trust New York. I know her well enough.