The following is an excerpt from “BEST. STATE. EVER: A Florida Man Defends His Homeland” by Pulitzer Prize winner and bestselling author Dave Barry. You can read more from Barry on his blog.
It’s a lovely bright-blue-sky Wednesday morning in March, and I’m driving on the most spectacular road in Florida, Route 1, the famed Overseas Highway, which hops from key to key for 113 miles. To my left is the Atlantic Ocean; to my right is the Gulf of Mexico. Also to my right is my friend George Pallas, who will be my wingman on this expedition to Key West, the end of the road, the most flamboyant, decadent, debauched and pungent place in Florida.
Key West is Florida’s Florida — the place way down at the bottom where the weirdest of the weird end up; the place where the abnormal is normal. Down there, it feels like there’s one bar for every three residents, although the actual ratio is probably more like one to four. Key West is the home of Fantasy Fest, a Halloween-week event that could also be called People Walking Around Stark Naked Except for Body Paint. On any given night, Key West’s main party drag, lower Duval Street, makes Bourbon Street look like Sesame Street. It has a distinct scent — warm and sticky ocean air mixed with stale beer, Harley exhaust and cigar fumes, accented with a whiff of vomit, a dash of urine and maybe some other fluids. If it’s possible to catch an STD just from breathing, lower Duval Street is where it would happen.
In short, it is a fun town. And George is the perfect companion for an evening there, because he’s a fun guy and a criminal defense lawyer. Also he knows and loves Key West. He owns a bunch of properties there, and he’ll use any excuse to visit. When I asked him if he’d be up for a guys’ night out on Duval Street, he was all for it. For the record, neither his wife nor mine was thrilled.
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We arrive at George’s house in the early afternoon. Realizing that we will be visiting many bars in the hours ahead, we decide to prepare, physically and mentally, by drinking some cold, refreshing beers. George then gets out a couple of bicycles. He has defended many DUI cases and is a big fan of using bikes for transportation. He has customized his bike with high motorcycle-style “ape hanger” handlebars and a small sound system blaring music. You may think this sounds silly, a grown man riding around on such a bike, but I guarantee you would not say this to George in person. He is a large bald man, and although he’s a thoughtful, intelligent person and skilled attorney, he looks like a guy who comes around to your house and persuades you to pay your gambling debt by hitting you on the head with your own femur.
With reggae pulsing out of George’s bike speakers, we set off pedaling down Duval Street, which is starting to get lively, tourists drifting in and out of the bars and stores selling T-shirts that it’s hard to imagine any tourist actually wearing back home (“I shaved my balls for this?”). At the end of the street, we stop at a food truck and have lunch in the form of excellent fish tacos washed down with cold refreshing beers. Thus fortified, we start making our way back up Duval, bar by bar.
Our first stop is the Hog’s Breath Saloon, which is filled with middle-aged tourists drinking beer and listening to a guitar-playing singer who sounds like Jimmy Buffett. These guys are everywhere in Key West, which apparently has a law, rigidly enforced, that says you cannot operate a bar without a guy in shorts and a T-shirt who sounds like Jimmy Buffett singing next to a tip jar. As you wander Duval you hear Buffettlike voices coming from everywhere, singing “Margaritaville,” “Miss American Pie,” “Piano Man” and other songs that middle-aged beer-drinking tourists like. You do not hear a lot of rap music on Duval.
From the Hog’s Breath Saloon we go to Captain Tony’s Saloon, named for the late Tony Tarracino, a legendary Key West character. At various times, Captain Tony was — according to him, anyway — a bootlegger, a gambler, a shrimp boat captain and a gunrunner who worked with the CIA in a plot to overthrow Castro. He was also elected mayor of Key West in 1989, serving one surreal term.
George and I enjoy some cold refreshing beers at Captain Tony’s while listening to the entertainment, which consists — prepare to be surprised — of a guitar-playing singer who sounds like Jimmy Buffett. He is singing “American Pie” and the tourists are singing right along.
From Captain Tony’s, George and I head across Duval to Sloppy Joe’s, which is one of the biggest and most popular bars in Key West. There’s a big tourist crowd on hand, drinking beer and listening to the entertainment, which consists of — and this may be the secret to Sloppy Joe’s success — two guitar-playing guys who sound like Jimmy Buffett.
Adapted from BEST. STATE. EVER.: A Florida Man Defends His Homeland by Dave Barry, to be published on September 6, 2016 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Dave Barry.