The Ride and Flop : Days 5 & 6

Day 5 – homestead => key west

For the record, one spare tube and six patches are not enough to preserve your dignity if you’re trying to cover 120 miles on ‘vintage’ tyres. It took three roadside surgeries where I tried patching two different tubes every which way, in the hopes of getting to the bike shop on Marathon Key. Knowing that the patches were shite i had to use two of them to cover three holes (how the fuck do you get three holes at once anyway?). So I was literally praying out loud as I rolled off the bridge onto Grassy Key, the last one before Marathon. Sadly, my luck was not in, and i felt the familiar bump of rim on tarmac just as i pulled up outside of the Dolphin Research Center. It’s very possible that the language which escaped me at that point was not entirely appropriate for the young visitors who were queueing up to pet Flipper.

However, whoever is responsible for putting nice people in your way came up trumps, because the two ladies in the Dolphin Research centre called me a cab and found me a bike shop that stocked the requisite 23 x 700c’s. I was picked up within minutes by a sizeable Cuban Lady with a bike rack on her taxi. She told me she had been living in the Keys for 27 years and the furthest afield she’s been in that time was Orlando. Keys living looks like it could be habit forming.

Otherwise, it was quite the slog. Don’t know how i would have fared over the last 40 miles to Key West if the wind hadn’t been behind me. As it stood, I was verging on delirious from arse pain and energy drinks by the time i got there. And the three beers i drank in quick succession did little to help matters….although they did help to soften the blow of what was to follow when i went in search of accomodation….

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Seashell Youth Hostel, Key West 8:40 PM

OK, so I’m starting to get the picture about Key West in March. Here I am in shared dorm accommodation, and the price is $60 including tax. If you want to stay in a ‘motel’ at this time of year, expect to pay upwards of $200. And it looks very much like people are prepared to do this.

Speaking to Steve, the cycle-friendly owner of the Patio Motel around the corner, it would seem that I’ve been lucky to get even a bunk bed (it’s a lowsie, in case you were wondering. My neighbour from ‘oop top’ has just emerged from the shower and is arranging himself and his clothes on the various hanging places around our bunk. All I can actually see of him are six inches above and below his blue calvins as he sashays around our bunk , no doubt looking forward to a Friday night out in Key West . He’s got thick glasses, a generous belly, and those rather suspect jeans with rear pockets sewn on the front). If for nothing else, it’s making me a little nostalgic for the times when Tash and I were real backpackers: where every hostel was essentially a grab bag of international characters, about whom you learned loads of things you never really wanted to know.

And, given that today has put 120 miles and three beers in the bank, i’m considering dancing front bum pockets at eye level to be fairly fitting icing on a funny old cake.

Day 6….still at the youth hostel.

There’s nothing like waking up to the crunch of a plastic mattress to make you long for home. Then you realise that a part of your body is actually touching part of the bare mattress (which must be plastic because loads of your predecessors couldn’t help pissing on it, right?) and you’re revolted enough to get the hell out of bed, hangover or no.

Of course, that just means that you have to join the queue for the toilet, since three other guys have just had the same experience. Then, since the last thing you were expecting to do was to stay at a youth hostel, you have to shake yourself dry, since you didn’t think (and didn’t want) to bring a towel on a bicycle road trip.

Amazingly, people seem to be queueing up for this experience. Myself included. In the course of going to get some breakfast, it seems the last of the bunk beds has been allocated; making me homeless as I write this now.

Technically I could cycle back to Marathon this afternoon. I’ve already decided that there is no point paying $55 for a camping spot on Key West. My fate lies in the hands of the young Polish guy running the hostel, who seems fairly jaded from doing the job of housing drunken students for four years now. He wants to go back to Poland soon, next year he says, since he only came out here to see his Mum for a visit, and ended up getting stuck. You see what i mean about habit forming.

The Green Parrot – key west

Meanwhile, the afternoon drinking crowd continues to swell at this famed Key West drinking hole (not the one Hemmingway frequented – that’s Sloppy Joes or Captain Tony’s depending on what you read and who you believe) . There seems to be no end of people willing to feed the jukebox with requests for gems from the sixties and seventies. Cream doing Crossroads is currently on for the second time in an hour. Not that I am complaining. If you’re going to be nostalgic, it may as well be for the good stuff.

Some guy with lumbar-length hair is starting to fiddle with the mikes onstage, which means we’ll soon be treated to live variations on the same theme. In watching him setup, i get talking to Rusty, an older guy with grey hair in a pony tail who is getting ‘toasted’ (his word) with his wife Dina. it turns out that we have far too much in common; he plays drums, fiddles on the internet for a living, loves motorcycles (ridin’ an’ fixin’) and is generally intolerant of being told how to ride his bike by the pillion passenger. Dina objects. “Don’t believe a word of it! When we’re at a stop sign, I just sit there. Sometimes I even close my eyes. I don’t tell him to hurry up, or we’re wasting time. I don’t want to cause an accident.”

Key West is definitely not the place for the solo traveller. The cliques and cadres (to use the Sheenism) that ebb and flow through the old town around Duval Street are bent on one thing: getting into a mess. If you are willing to shout at people in the street, or shop yourself shamelessly, then perhaps you might make some drunken collegiate friends. Otherwise, you are going to spend your time alone on the fringes. This was the case last night, as I wandered the streets, drinking a tin of Corona, thoughtfully wrapped in a brown paper bag by the guy at Walgreens, and just observing as the caterwauling reached increasingly frantic and depressing levels . In and out of the bars, up and down the street, everyone doing the same futile searching, tussling and sniffing that requires you to be drunk or else makes you realise what fools we all are.

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Saturday Night In Key West – Some Adventures to be Remembered:

Rather than join the hordes on Duvall Street for another night, i wheeled my bike around some of the less frequented parts of Key West. It proved to be much more…colourful. After about about an hour or so checking out the darkened suburbs, rather surprisingly full of shady people shuffling around in housecoats and carpet slippers, i decided to pull over at a corner store for a drink. I got hollered at by the car behind me, and, before i knew it, this little guy was out in the street yelling at the car as it rolled by. “Hey, you nearly hit this fucking guy! He’s on a bike man! What’s wrong with you guys!”

They honked and flipped us the bird, and then it was just me and my newfound ally standing in the street. He introduced himself as Jackie and offered to buy me a beer from the corner store. Little did i know that Jackie Bowman was the self-styled star of a huge cast that would be passing through ‘the Corner’ over the next hour or so like a bunch of characters transplanted from a Tarantino film.  Thanks to JMB, each and every one of them was regaled with tales of my pedalling prowess whether they liked it or not.

dramatis personae:

  • Jackie ‘Motherfucking’ Bowman . (his own designation) Five foot three of original conch mentalism. Possibly the most obstreperous person I have ever encountered. That’s before we even got to the ten years he served for attempted murder (aged seventeen to twenty seven). A painter by trade, just coming out of a divorce, pissed up from a day’s worth of drinking at some Conch Republic commemorative ceremony with his eight-three year-old mother and the mayor of Key West.
  • Richie – drunk but good-natured plasterboard installer man who hung around for half an hour, then literally ran off to fillet a lemon shark when his huge girlfriend Star pulled up in the car. He invited us back to his house, but it was clear he didn’t really mean it. I was, however, dying to know how he came by the cuts and scratches all over his face.
  • Pete – big dude with borderline ZZ top beard. never went further than his mom’s house or the corner shop, at least not since he lost his taxi license two years ago for DWI. Asked me if I wouldn’t mind standing a little further back, because people up close make him nervous.
  • Shaggy – a bocce-playing addict whose nervous twitches just kept on and on, like waves washing up on the beach. His hands would flutter through his hair, up his cheeks, pull on his nose, pat his eyes then rinse and repeat. Bore a striking resemblance to the Scooby Doo character after whom he was named, except for a mouthful of tobacco stained teeth that looked like they had been chucked down the street. Also lost his license for fifteen years for DWI.  We compared notes on bicycles before he rushed off to make the last game before the lights went off at 11.
  • Julio – tiny, psychotic Cuban who pulled out a knife and put it on Richie’s neck to demonstrate what he would do to anyone who fucked with him. Dressed quasi-dapper in pale jeans, matching blue jacket and baseball cap. Laughed like a maniac at the jokes no one else found funny, it came out of him in a phlegmy bark and then stopping just as suddenly, like there was someone even smaller at the controls.
  • The Cagey Looking Dude who Jackie hit up for a cigarette. ‘I smoked ‘em all.” “But you were only in here three hours ago buying a pack!” “I fucking smoked ‘em all.” He then proceeded to buy another pack, hand out a few, then sits down to sulk on a milk carton (where did that milk carton go, anyway? I was looking for it for the rest of the night). “See that guy,” Jackie says to me loudly while pointing at Cagey Dude. “He’s fucking rich, man. See that car? Cobra, man. The thing has got 500 fucking horsepower.” Cagey dude proceeds to look miserable, but says nothing. He finished his cigarette then melted away. I didn’t even see him get into his Cobra. He was that cagey.

The night wore on, getting increasingly surreal, and i found myself thinking it would be impossible to make this shit up.

Jackie told every single person that walked up to the shop (even those that were just passing) ‘Hey! You see this guy here! Drove all the way from Daytona. On his bicycle! On his fucking bicycle man!”

For a while, he accosted everyone who would listen, and some who wouldn’t, telling them of this miraculous feat. The frightening thing was that almost everyone Jackie spoke to seemed to know him. Most were wary. One really rich guy in a monster truck peered down at me as i stood there sheepishly and said “that’s fucking nuts.” This was all the encouragement Jackie needed. “I’ll tell you it’s fucking nuts….” “I mean nuts as in stupid. Now step away from the car, Jackie.”

Jackie, I noticed, was starting to sound like Tony Montana in Scarface. Drawling, shouting, and spitting like a man possessed. Must be the Cuban influence. Ninety miles as the crow flies. And nowhere was the impression stronger than when he was telling me about the time that he got sentenced to ten years and a day for attempted murder . “Walking down Duval Street, 3:30 in the morning,” “Were you wasted?” “Was I wasted? Fuck was I wasted. Charged up, drunk, you fucking name it!” “So then what happened?” “What happened is, some fucking faggot was walking by and he touched my ass. So I punched him. Not just a normal punch. My brother is a boxer. He’s even crazier than me. I hit him one right here.” He pressed his knuckles gently behind my ear. “Then I got down and started mashing his head against the side of the curb. They had to pull me off. Fucking guy was in a coma, for like, six months.”

I gulped and looked a little deeper into those glittering eyes, realising that I had understood almost nothing about what was going on behind them. Then i exercised the cyclist’s privilege and got the fuck out of there.