Of Papa and Politics: A Week in Key West

I don’t know about you, but I’ve reached critical mass on the political front.

My God.  Does it ever end?

Like Dr. Thompson said, “How low do you have to stoop in this country to be President?”


Back-to-back national conventions, coupled with the steady drumbeat of the local races, have left me longing for a time before campaign signs, stupid slogans and the constant dissection of every word spoken by every candidate from municipal dog catcher to the presidency.

It’s the quintessence of the 24-hour news cycle run amok.  I’m certain this is the tenth circle of hell that Dante missed.

I think we should declare a temporary ceasefire.

Just a few days to catch our breath, talk about something other than politics, and stop the relentless carpet bombing of party strategies, meaningless endorsements, staged debates, contrived campaign slogans, forced smiles, trash-talk, worthless billboards and the omnipresent talking heads.

A chance for our friends and neighbors who are running for local elective office to take a much needed break from prostrating themselves before the electorate and collect the last remaining shards of their personal dignity.

Last week, when I just couldn’t take it anymore – I bailed.  Sorta.

I learned a long time ago the benefit of taking a few days away to change perspective and recharge the batteries.  For most, the balance of life – the yin and yang, if you will – wobbles when they work hard, but fail to play with equal enthusiasm.

I’ve never had that problem.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going – and I take a vay-cay.

No one ever accused me of hyper-extending myself.  Especially since I laid my burdens down and joined the ranks of the gainfully retired.  Like Augustus McCrae, I’ve always thought that since Patti works so much, I have an obligation to do less.

You know, to keep the world balanced on its axis.

For the past week or so, I’ve been in Key West enjoying the company of close friends and all the wonderful things that Florida’s island paradise has to offer.

The Keys have changed dramatically since I first went down as a teenager in the mid-1970’s.

In many ways, Key West has transformed into everything the “end of the road” once rejected – t-shirt shops and theme bars patronized by throngs of cruise ship warriors hustling their way through a precious few, dreadfully humid, hours on Duval Street.

Most of us know Key West as the place Jimmy Buffett wrote about in songs like “A Pirate Looks at Forty” and “Woman Going Crazy on Caroline Street.”  But like Buffett himself, Key West has slowly transitioned into a mega-marketed, uber-wealthy, plasticized version of what it used to be.

I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing, but when most of your old haunts now have logoed tank tops and neoprene beer coolies strategically placed for retail sale as you stumble out, you know times have changed in Margaritaville.

It’s still a great place to visit and decompress, and it remains one of the most unique cities in the country.  And with the right pair of eyes you can still see vestiges of Old Key West when you venture off the beaten trail.

If you go down, take some time to get off the bar stool and explore the Lower Keys – it’s an amazing eco-system and offers some great local history, from stories of drug smuggling to the infamous Sugarloaf Key Bat Tower.

That’s right.  A bat tower.

Along about 1929, a guy named Richter Perky had the idea that he could build a thriving community on Sugarloaf if he could just get rid of the millions of malaria-carrying mosquitoes that made the place virtually uninhabitable.

The pests swarmed in huge dense dark clouds, screaming and humming then setting upon and biting incessantly any warm-blooded creature that happened onto the island.

In the summer, it is said that the few locals were driven temporarily insane by the sheer number of the bugs.  So many that one early resident lamented that he could rake the mosquitoes off his arm in the late afternoon.

Seeing an opportunity, Perky decided to construct a bat roosting tower from plans purchased from a self-described bat expert in Texas.  The thought being that the bats would control the mosquito population while living comfortably in their brand new, state-of-the-art high rise.

In fact, the 30-foot tower was marketed as having, “all the conveniences any little bat heart could want.”

With construction complete, Mr. Perky went to San Antonio and purchased hundreds of the furry winged creatures which he transported back to the island in his specially constructed “bat mobile.”

It was quite a happening on little Sugarloaf Key.

All the townsfolk turned out to watch their new pest controllers take up residency.

Bleachers were built and festive bunting was affixed and the whole town was in a froth of welt-scratching civic pride when Perky ceremoniously opened the door of his truck – and every single bat flew out and away, and away, and away, never to be seen again.

Not one bat ever roosted in poor Perky’s tower.

Today, the tower still stands as a monument to the folly of man at the end of an unnamed dirt road just south of the Sugerloaf Lodge, a few hundred feet from a suspicious landing strip which is home to a skydiving operation run from a thatched hut on the crumbling asphalt ramp.

While I was staring up at the tower, I wondered to myself how many times that “expert” in Texas sold those same bats?

But I think ol’ Perky would be proud.  Today, the real estate market on Sugarloaf Key is booming with single-family homes starting in the mid $600,000’s.

Only in Florida.

Last Friday night I stood as a contestant in the 36th Annual Hemingway Look-a-Like Contest at Sloppy Joe’s Bar.

For the uninitiated, Ernest Hemingway lived in a beautiful Spanish Colonial home on Whitehead Street during the 20’s and 30’s, one of the most prolific periods of his career.

When Hemingway first arrived in Key West from Paris, he claimed, “It’s the best place I’ve ever been anytime, anywhere, flowers, tamarind trees, guava trees, coconut palms…Got tight last night on absinthe and did knife tricks.”

I can report that not much has changed in that regard.

To commemorate the Nobel prize winning author’s legacy in Key West, each July the city plays host to “Hemingway Days,” featuring a literary contest, three-day marlin fishing tournament, and a wild “Running of the Bulls” event, all centered around the world famous “Hemingway Look-Alike Contest” at Sloppy Joe’s – which is said to be one of Ernest’s favorite watering holes back in the day.

It’s an amazing spectacle with over one hundred portly, white-bearded old guys parading across the main stage to the hoots and hollers of hundreds of drunk supporters, tourists, and disinterested locals, all vying for the coveted title of “Papa 2016.”

Having registered for the event back in February at the urging of a friend, who, while quaffing drinks at Sloppy Joe’s, saw my likeness in the bar’s Hemingway-themed logo and drunk-called me to urge my participation.

“You’re a shoo in!” he said. . .

The call caught me drinking some daiquiri concoctions called “Papa Dobles” (a favorite of Papa Hemingway), so I thought, “It’s an omen! – Why the hell not?”

The contest is spread over three nights with the preliminaries beginning on Thursday.

Strategically, I selected the second night to make my appearance; the thought being I could gain some good intelligence by watching the first round contestants.

I later learned that very little can adequately prepare you for this incredibly unique competition.

About six o’clock the sprawling barroom transforms into a swarm of screaming supporters, each waving signs, paddles and hoisting gigantic spinning heads featuring the likeness of their “Papa Wannabe.”

Add to this the open and shameless bribery of the judges – each of whom is a former winner and member of the Hemingway Look-Alike Society – dogs wearing beards, and eastern European tourists clamoring for photographs with the contestants and you have a variety of pandemonium I’ve rarely encountered.

During a meet-and-greet with fellow participants and former winners, I actually saw a young lady, 20-something, snuggled-up to a fat guy who looked just like me (they all did) while her boyfriend urged her to remove her right nipple from her bikini-top so he could take a picture for posterity.

I thought this must be some kind of weird Field of Dreams for hypertensive old white guys. . .

On the night of the competition, we were herded to the edge of the main stage while two guys serving as Masters of Ceremony fanned the crowd into a frenzy of anticipation.

In the only element of organization evident during the entire event, we were called – eight at a time – in alphabetical order and given just 15-seconds to plead our case before the white-bearded judges seated in front of us.

Having fortified myself with several rum-based libations – I was well in the spirit when, suddenly, a microphone was held to my face and my 15-seconds of fame began.

Now, I’ve done my share of public speaking and I had practiced my “campaign speech” to perfection. I felt my spiel had just the right mix of humor and “aw shucks” humbleness necessary to sway the vote in my favor.

But when the moment of truth finally came, I found myself shouting something akin to, “Errrrrmeeegerd! Soooohabbytoobeeher!  I’m a troubled man for troubled times!  Vote Barker 2016!!”

And just like that, the crowd went crazy – as only a packed house of slap-happy drunks can – and the microphone was quickly moved to the mirror image standing to my right.

There was a whole lot of heart on that stage.  There was also a whole lot of high blood pressure and prostate issues. . .

After much tabulation and anticipation, the Papa’s totaled the votes and the preliminary finalists were announced – and, alas, I wasn’t one of them. . .

I didn’t feel so bad, after all, some of my competition have been involved for many years (one gentleman was celebrating his 20th year in the event without once having been selected as a finalist).

I also learned that the selection process has a great deal to do with your level of participation in the Society – fundraising, etc. – and less to do with how much you may or may not favor Ernest.

Politics.  At the end of the day, I simply traded one weird campaign for another, I suppose.

On the bright side, I met some wonderful people – including Michael Groover, the husband of southern super-chef Paula Deen – who made it all the way to the finals on Saturday night, only to be vanquished by Dave Hemingway (no relation) of North Carolina who was ultimately crowned “Papa 2016.”

(For the record, both Ms. Deen and her husband were incredibly warm, inviting and approachable.  Wonderful people, indeed.)

It was a weird scene to say the least – one of the strangest things I’ve ever been involved in (and trust me, I’ve been involved in some weird shit) but I truly enjoyed the experience.

You know what they say – “There’s always next year” – and I’ll definitely be back to try again.  A little grayer and a little fatter – but it’s the only race I know where those two things are considered attributes.

Let’s end with a Hemingway’s quote on politics:

“All the contact I have had with politics has left me feeling as though I had been drinking out of spittoons.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself, Ernie. . .


2 thoughts on “Of Papa and Politics: A Week in Key West

  1. A fabulous read Mark….felt like I had been there. Highly colorful….as it always is when you pen it! Glad you had a great time!


  2. Loved the ending quote! About sums up the tenor of the times and I usually love this stuff. Excellent read!


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