KEY WEST, Fla. -- The tourists line the pier dutifully at sundown, every sundown, to watch a fat orange sun fall into an aquamarine sea.
In the '60s, it was stoned students who gathered, in a hippie tribute to the end of the day. Today, the tourists tend to be gray-haired, in sensible shoes, fanny packs strapped snugly around their waists. They're there because the Key West tourism machine thrums incessantly that this is where all visitors must be, drink in hand, at sundown.
But these tourists are not really Key West.
Note the compact, barefoot woman, her ponytail a peroxide yellow. She's wearing jeans scissored into short shorts, and a red-white-and-blue bra in stars-and-stripes motif, which fails to cover a Harley-Davidson tattoo. If the city had a contest for mascot, this woman could be a finalist.
So could the juggler who stands a half-block down Duval Street, promising a fine show right there in the street after sunset. "Last night's wasn't so good," he calls out to passers-by, as if to let them know he's gotten incompetence out of his system.
Or the bartenders, serving drinks for breakfast at Sloppy Joe's, the bar where Hemingway hung out when he wasn't in Cuba.
Since its incorporation in 1828, Key West has reveled in its reputation as hideaway for renegades and a haven for eccentrics.
Closer to Havana than to Miami, the city cherishes the pirates and artists and writers who decorate its history. The locals bike everywhere. Roosters crow at any hour.
But things have been changing in Key West, now that U.S. 1 from Miami has been widened and cruise ships have been arriving to unload passengers. The city streets are filled with tourists -- foreign, gay, rich, post-hippie. Pricey resorts loom over charming little guest houses.
Still, the soul of the city has resisted change. The 19th-century homes are at once elegant and a little shabby, because the tropical climate and termites are hard on the old wood and paint. Some residents apparently have tried to instill a little gentility in the place. That's been overwhelmed, however, by a low-grade zaniness visible everywhere.
There is the cemetery that includes the tombstone of Pearl Roberts, a hypochondriac who died at 50. The epitaph: "I Told You I Was Sick."
There is the motorcyclist known for driving through town with his dog; the dog often wears beads and sunglasses.
Sharon Wells, who guides walking tours of the island, says the town draws more middle-of-the-road tourists today than it did 21 years ago, when she arrived as a state historian. Back then, tourism wasn't big business. The visitors who found their way down the highway 150 miles from Miami tended to be "people who were just kind of looking for a place in the United States that wasn't the United States."
In Key West, they could hear Spanish, spend the days fishing, waste the nights drinking. And no one cared. Mostly, they still don't.
"People here do whatever they want to do, wear whatever they want to wear," Wells says. They may have to work two and three jobs to make a living. "But people are pretty happy here. And that comes across."
About 25,000 people live here year-round. Merili McCoy, a city commissioner, says Key West has the same concerns as towns everywhere in the United States. People fret about traffic, zoning, taxes, the high cost of housing.
"It must be the same all over," McCoy says. "We have problems."
That said, she acknowledges that Key West is indeed a place apart.
"Heaven with a fence around it," McCoy says.
What about Key West's legendary eccentrics?
Well, there's her husband, a former mayor. "He's the one who water-skied to Cuba. On one ski."
It was about 15 years ago, McCoy says, and a mayors' conference was convening in Havana, only 90 miles away. The trip took 6 1/2 hours. To protect his hands from the pressure of the towline, the mayor wore oven mitts.
Nancy Jameson, 82, moved to town from Washington in 1974. She missed Washington's theaters and museums, but she loved Key West's "live-and-let-live attitude."
"I couldn't wear these clothes in Washington," Jameson says. "I gave up stockings years ago. The hell with them."
The city is small. Shopping is limited. There's a department store of sorts, called Fast Buck Freddie's, which sells clothes but draws tourists as well with its oddball souvenirs. Jameson wouldn't bother driving to the mainland to shop. "Too much of a battle."
Her husband, Colin, first saw Key West in the '30s. "It was filled with a lot of people who hadn't gotten anywhere, so they figured they may as well do it here," he says.
McCoy says the city's reputation for embracing the strange "started with the first pirates who came here. Then there was a strong English ethnicity that came over from the Bahamas, and the English are fairly tolerant of the eccentric.
"And islands, you know, sometimes attract people who aren't following the usual path," she says. "Island people are a little bit different. It makes for interesting friends."
The daughter of a Coast Guard officer, McCoy moved to Key West in 1939, when she was 9. Across the street lived the Hemingways and their sons, Patrick and Gregory. She and her brothers would swim with the boys in the Hemingway pool -- unless the writer was trying to concentrate and the children were chased off.
Colin Jameson, 89, took Spanish lessons from a woman who had tutored Hemingway. He recalls her description: "He wears shorts cut off and a piece of clothesline around his waist and nothing much else above. And his sandals are too short. His toes stick out and his toenails draw pictures in the dust."
Hemingway lived here during the Depression, when the town was in despair. World War II brought jobs, the reopening of the naval station and prosperity.
And then President Harry S. Truman came for a vacation in 1946 and returned nearly a dozen times. That, Key Westers say, was the real start of the tourist industry.
The tourist district now is a mix of the genuine and the contrived: gracious old homes open for tours and cheesy souvenir shops peddling T-shirts embellished with indelicate slogans. (Among the most genteel: "Shut Up And Fish.")
Sloppy Joe's and Captain Tony's are bars that couldn't look dive-ier. Captain Tony's decor includes hundreds of bras hanging from the ceiling.
"There are some shops on Duval Street that I personally wish were not there," McCoy says. "And the city is addressing the cleaning up of those shops. We are looking to avoid offending any tourists. We find dirty T-shirts offensive, too."
But more genteel stores are following the tourists to Key West -- to the dismay of some residents. "The Hard Rock Cafe's here now," says Angel Ayrosa, who moved there from Baltimore 4 1/2 years ago. "Planet Hollywood's coming."
"The Limited came here," says Sherri Vilov, also a former Baltimorean. "Pier One's opened. Soon it's going to be generic. Key West is not going to be unique."
Pub Date: 3/06/97