Key West: Spring Break for Middle America

It’s not your parents’ Key West anymore. To anyone whose frame of reference goes back several decades, the changes in Key West are as notable as they are noticeable.

The venerable Strand Theatre is now a Walgreen’s.

Real estate appreciation is through modest, Conch House roofs. Condo conversions are an issue. The Naval Station’s Tank Island is now the chi chi Sunset Key. Marriott, Hilton and Hyatt are in residence.

Even the Turtle Kraals by the historic seaport look gentrified. Monaco has nothing on the Conch Harbor Marina. Among the anchored yachts: Don Wallace’s splendent “Boo.” Even the dinghy, “Boo II,” more than hints at the good maritime life.

Not far from Hemmingway’s haunt, Sloppy Joe’s, is the less literate Hard Rock Café. Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville makes you think parrotphernalia and chain. Has it really been 33 years since “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean”?

Duval Street takes you to Mallory Square street theater and sunsets — as well as the Gay & Lesbian Visitor Info Center.

Cruise-liner lemmings descend on Old Town as if it were Cancun. There’s still a FEMA presence.

Where’s the Cookie Lady? The kilted bagpiper?

That said, however, Key West still delivers. It’s still the “Conch Republic,” as the airport’s emblematic signage proudly informs all arrivals.

It’s still truly tropical, even to South Floridians. It still has galleries galore, a literati legacy, a Victorian skyline, hoary banyan trees and narrow, quirky streets and cul-de-sac alleys. It’s a pivot point to the Dry Tortugas. And there are myriad reminders – starting with a confiscated Cubana Airlines plane at the airport — that Cuba is barely 90 miles – and a geopolitical gulf – to the south.

But most important, it’s still a state of mind in an exotic, soft-core bacchanalian setting. It’s still a retreat from the mundane.

“I’ve used up all of my sick days, so I’m calling in dead.”

Relative to where you’re from – WHEREVER that is – it remains laid back. There’s still that sense of being on the lam from routine.

“Why can’t we all just get a bong?”

And from drag shows to naughty humor emblazoned on everything from T-shirts to underwear — it’s still spring break for Middle America.

“I got duval-faced on Shit Street.”

Fast Buck Freddie’s

Perhaps no place embodies the eclectic ambience and what-the-hell spirit more than Duval icon, Fast Buck Freddie’s, housed in the erstwhile Kress Five and Dime building. Although its neighbors now include Starbucks, Chicos and Banana Republic, it remains a Conch constant.

“The house was clean yesterday. Sorry you missed it.”

Now in its 30th year, FBF is known for its home accessories, casual wear and popular window displays. But whether customers are looking through the Tommy Bahama collection or perusing restoration fabrics, carpets and window coverings, this much is certain.

“I’m out of estrogen, and I have a gun.”

Those shoppers – from tittering teens to staid seniors — will also visit the popular forum for crudeness and irreverence that is the “Tropical Trash” section of FBF.

“Grandchildren are the rewards for letting teenagers live.”

It’s a potpourri of poor taste ranging from variations on flatulence and belching themes to Red Neck dolls that parody incest to spicy “Vice Crispies” and “Porn Flakes” cereal boxes. There’s a “Jesus Saves” coin bank, a pop-up “Bog Monster” that’s concealed in a toilet bowl and (record your own message) “Talking Toilet Paper.” As in: “Susan will you marry me? Flush once for yes!”

Everything from pillows (“Next mood swing: 3 minutes”) to magnets (“No matter how good he looks, some other woman was sick & tired of putting up with his crap”) is fair game. Some, such as the “Get Off The Phone” Excuse Machine, seem down right practical. Others, like “Mullet Shampoo” with the “muscle-car scent,” might be.

And, well, much more.

“Jesus Loves you, but the rest of us think you’re an asshole.”

Local connection

“This is a place where customers can just be themselves,” explained FBF’s John Muhly, who has been general manager for 28 years.

“People don’t go out of their way to come here and not have a good time,” he says. “This is a place where customers can just be themselves. Don’t let the ‘prim and proper’ ones fool you. They’re more open-minded than you think. And we provide a tongue-in-cheek atmosphere where they can enjoy themselves.

“We have beautiful stuff all around the store, but right here it’s just nothing that anybody has to have,” noted Muhly. “All it does is make you laugh.

“I don’t know how many people can say it,” he underscored, “but I actually enjoy coming to work each day.”

It certainly wasn’t that way in a previous retail incarnation. The University of South Florida grad worked for the upscale clothier John Baldwin in downtown St. Petersburg in the 1970s. He said he got tired of catering to the wealthy and self-important.

“If they had a problem finding a parking spot, they would take it out on you,” he recalled. “Especially (wife of very prominent Tampa resident). She was the worst. We don’t get people like that here.

“So much around here has changed, but we’re still an oasis of bad taste,” Muhly deadpanned.

Oh yeah, I did score a note pad.

“Ladies and gentlemen: Welcome to North Carolina. Please return your hair to its full, upright position.”

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