The Songlines of Key West: The Conch Republic, Unscripted

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

Nearby is the Blue Heaven Restaurant, two-story pinewood with tin roof, blue shutters and a courtyard where most of the food is served on handmade tables. Tropical foliage bushes up from every corner, almond and Spanish lemon trees, with a lush royal poinciana canopy overhead. To the side of the courtyard, two guys are playing ping pong at a table, and chickens are pecking about, no worries about ever crossing a road. Jimmy Buffett once wrote and sang of a “Blue Heaven Rendezvous”—a place where there’s “still some magic left in this tourist town”—and the lyrics fit perfectly. 

Back on the street, it’s quieter now, no neon and noise, just the lightest scent of a trade wind breeze picking up off the water from somewhere, as it should be. We walk deeper into Bahama Village, moving a few years back in time with every step. I hear dominos being slapped down on a table from somewhere nearby, low murmuring, the click of glass. I know many of the trees from years of traveling in the Antilles: Kapok, Jacaranda, Poinciana, Orchid, descendants of seeds riding here on the Gulf Stream, opportunistic like the early pirates and wreckers. 

I hear James Brown singing “I Feel Good” from a yard, inside a brightly painted picket fence hung with lobster and stone crab trap buoys. A very affable man looks up from tinkering with a three-wheel bicycle, and invites us into his yard. His eyes are bright and his mustache is white. The bike seems like a miniature parade float, a wonder of low-tech whimsy, cobbled together by our host—so it appears—just for the sheer fun of it all. 

The bike architect is James Chapman, who is somewhere in his 60s. “The street’s named after my family” he says, pointing to a sign that reads “Chapman Street.” James grew up here, right in the house behind us. “Played marbles as a kid, made tops, and kites and yo-yo’s. It got so I could build anything I wanted, just to have fun with it,” he says. What James has fun with now is his bike, which has a large box behind the seat. Atop the box are two foot-high figurines he crafted. “This one would be James Brown,” he says, “and that would be Louis Armstrong.” 

James reaches somewhere into the box and toggles a switch and James Brown begins to feel good again. James rings a bell on the handlebars, and presses another button that blows a horn. James shows us an oil painting an artist did of his buddies, all fishermen, sitting on the porch, playing cards. “All good guys,” says James, remembering each of them by name. He stops, spreads his arms, points to a tree overhead. “This here’s a sappy-dilly. You can make good ice cream with its fruit,” he says.

And across the street is a banyan tree. “The white crowned pigeon likes it,” he says. James shows us some ice tongs he used when he sold ice. When he was a kid, he shined shoes. “I’ve done whatever I’ve had to do,” he says. 

Michelle asks about the fanciness of the modern island, and how people respond to it now. James pauses, smiles widely, as luminous as the moon rise. “They just don’t understand ... that Key West is not part of the United States.” And he is right: The new transient wealth is just another skin peeled away, or added; the core of the place remains. 

We thank James for his time in his yard, the music on his bike, and say goodbye. All else that makes no sense to me about this strange island in the stream dissolves, and I walk into the tropical night exhilarated with the knowledge that an unscripted Key West still endures here, out on the turquoise water, at the top of a half-fictional hotel, in someone’s back yard, under a sappy dilly tree. 

I search for a way to understand this, something profound maybe, but all I come up with is a shard of another Buffett lyric:

What makes it all happen is still a mystery to me.

MORE ON KEY WEST: Slideshow | Part one: Doing the Duval Crawl | Part two: The Other World.

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 of "The Bight," and a few blocks from where Hemingway once refereed boxing matches in Bahama Village.

1 Comment for The Songlines of Key West: The Conch Republic, Unscripted

Marilyn Terrell 01.10.09 | 7:49 AM ET

Thanks Bill for introducing us to James Chapman and the alternative universe of Key West.  The folks crowding Mallory Square don’t know what they’re missing.

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