KEY WEST -- The coming storm caused the Half Shell Raw Bar to close early. A great personal calamity, for sure. But the old storm chaser worried that it just might not be enough.
A few strong verbs — that was all I asked of Isaac. A little wind-blown catastrophe to leaven my usual column fare of government corruption, guns gone wild and the coming Burmese python apocalypse.
Winds buffeted Key West, but I needed something that might be described as a howling blast from the depths of hell. Intermittent bands of rain swept along the street and I can personally attest that anyone drinking by the open window of the Bull risked getting risked getting… well… damp. Yet there I was, as the storm bore down on the island city, brave enough to go carousing down Duval Street without my Gore-Tex rain slicker.
By midnight Saturday, my faith in Isaac as a news event had begun to falter. “Are you worried,” I asked an unworried-looking woman knocking down Jagermeisters at Durty Harry’s.
“Worried about what, Honey? You?” she answered, sending me into a kind of existential crisis. I was transfixed by weird tattooed symbols on her neck and beefy biceps that could crush my head like a ripe cantaloupe. It would be just my luck, having come to Key West in search of journalistic glory, to get ingloriously throttled by a mean drunk of a woman.
There, in that hefty package of indelicate femininity, was the great untold dilemma of hurricane coverage. Most nice, respectable, sober tourists had heeded the hectoring of the emergency management officials (finally, their existence was validated) and the overwrought auguries of doom voiced by TV weather guys, standing before screens showing giant fearsome infrared swirls devouring the entire island chain. The good quotes all left town. So we media types were forced to extract meaningful utterances from not-so-fearful hurricane partiers and nonchalant locals and oblivious drunks — none of whom provide the necessary reflections about their growing fears and worried prayers as the awful storm approaches.
“All I’m worried about is going home alone tonight,” said the big woman, studying the questioner with unfocused eyes, sending me moonwalking backwards into the less-than-furious night.
Truth is, as a storm chaser, I’ve never been much of a success. I chase. I just don’t catch. I once logged 1,400 miles on a rental car in futile pursuit of Hurricane Elena as she danced across the Gulf, performing two full curlicues. I visited, along the way, New Orleans, Mobile, Pensacola, Fort Walton Beach, Apalachicola, Cedar Key, Yankeetown, Crystal River, New Port Richey. Then back to Apalachicola again. Then Panama City. Then Mobile. Yet I still managed to miss landfall when Elena finally decided to crash ashore in Mississippi. I was late to both Hugo and Bob when they whacked Charleston, missed David altogether as he bumped up the Florida coast, and was 50 miles north, contemplating my ruined birthday celebration, the night Hurricane Andrew walloped South Florida. I did manage to get in the way of a piddling Category One called Danny outside Lake Arthur, La., riding out the unspectacular storm in a bar called the Red Rose Inn in the company of utterly unconcerned Cajuns. And not a quote in the joint.
Isaac, adding to a long career of weather event disappointments, didn’t even amount to a Cat One as the storm crossed the Keys, doing not much more than disrupting the first day of the mind-numbering speechifying at some political convention in Tampa. (The hateful storm did pause long enough in Fort Lauderdale to mock me, blowing my favorite wind chime out of my old frangipani tree.) Isaac now closes in on Louisiana and Mississippi, undoubtedly churning up verbs and drama and worried prayers and revived media careers, while leaving the aging storm chaser far behind.
Before I left Key West, I did manage to snap a photo of some vaguely obscene graffiti splashed across the front of a Duval Street Bar: “Isaac blows.”
My sentiments exactly.