The Songlines of Key West: Doing the Duval Crawl

Travel Stories: In a three-part series, Bill Belleville burrows deep into the spirit of the mythic island.

Built in an old morgue, Tony’s still has that fecund and decadent feel that once marked all of this old town of pirates and wreckers, spongers and shrimpers. And Tony’s was the place where Papa met his third wife Martha Gellhorn in 1934. If you squint into the dark cavern of the bar, past the trunk of a banyan tree growing through the ceiling, beyond the bras and thousand shards of notes and money hanging from the walls, you can still imagine Papa, sunburnt from fishing on the Gulf Stream, with the brainy and striking Gellhorn, hunkered down on the wooden bar stools. 

Back out on the street, we stop in Sloppy Joe’s where a clutch of white-haired cruise ship passengers is huddled around a table under a stuffed billfish and a large photo of Papa. On stage, some tattooed slackers are banging out a rock cover song that is so discordant I can’t even identify it. I notice the air conditioning is blasting away, even with the doors swung wide open. Ceiling fans spin, but only as an accessory. For now, one can purchase an $8 “Papa-Rita” and more than 300 pieces of merchandise with the bar’s logo in the adjacent retail store, including golf balls. 

The band mercifully breaks, and I look up on the stage and see Michelle in her mini-dress, shooting photos of the crowd, which is looking at her shooting photos. Behind me, a “Sloppy’s Bar Cam” captures her on a nearby screen, just in case you missed it the first time. Umberto Eco was right about thrice-removed reality seeming more real to Americans than reality itself. 

Out we go into the balmy tropical evening, heading for the Schooner Wharf bar, which edges up to the waters of the Key West Bight, the historic harbor of the island. Not so long ago, working shrimp trawlers berthed here, so thick you could walk the entire harbor from one deck to another, ducking below the nets and outriggers. Faced with a gentrifying harbor with costly docking fees, the raw, picturesque boats and their raw, picturesque crews moved north to Stock Island. Today, the Bight is full of expensive yachts and sightseeing charters. 

The poet Elizabeth Bishop, who lived on nearby White Street in the 1930s, once wrote “The Bight,” a poem that was elegant and precise. Some of her images still remain today:

Black and white man-of-war birds soar
on impalpable drafts


At low tide like this how sheer the water is
White, crumbling ribs of marl protrude and glare. 

But other images have not fared as well:

The frowsy sponge boats keep coming in
with the obliging air of retrievers

Except for one room with a pool table, there are no walls at the Schooner Wharf, just a bunch of frond covered huts. The Bight, where tarpon still come and roll under the soaring man-of-war birds, is just a few feet away. There is a large dog sitting at the bar, drinking a beverage from a cup held up to him by a pretty woman. Nearby, a lean, dangerously tanned guy in tight shorts and a plaid fanny pack is gyrating to the music on the gravel and dirt floor, alone. His eyes seem to be focused on some point that is far, far away.

MORE ON KEY WEST: Slideshow | Part two: The Other World | Part three: The Conch Republic, Unscripted.

Bill Belleville is an author and documentary filmmaker specializing in nature and sense of place. He once lived in Key West in a little Conch house on White Street, not far from where Elizabeth Bishop wrote "The Bight," and a few blocks from where Hemingway once refereed boxing matches in Bahama Village.

3 Comments for The Songlines of Key West: Doing the Duval Crawl

DeeVon Quirolo 01.08.09 | 11:18 AM ET

Bill—you’ve done your magic again, spinning that special spell of words that bring up the very best of Key West.  So glad you came back for a visit.  See you next time.  DeeVon

jim scurti 01.28.09 | 7:39 PM ET

Hi Bill & Thanks for the “Duval Crawl” article.  I too remember Shortys…open all night…where the cabbies hung out and you could grab a great breakfast before leaving the island early in the morning. I remember watching Capt. Tony watch his patrons with world weary amusement and patience. For two consecutive nights ,a thousand years ago it seems, I danced with a dental assistant from Virginia who I was wildly in love with…and I had a few miles on me even then…35 years or so ago…I still think about her…the band was The Pacific Orchestra. I stayed at the La Concha where the walls were marbled with stains, and the Southernmost..which was only one motor lodge then…you could even walk around in Hemingways writing studio…touch the books on his shelves.  El Cacique was the first place I had yellowtail…my God, I thought I’d found heaven!  First place I ever had coconut ice cream too. God bless us all.  Thanks, Jim

Liz Randall 02.08.09 | 11:11 AM ET

Hey Bill, thanks for the great virtual trip to my favorite island. Can’t wait to swelter on the Conch Republic again.

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