Key West. It’s the southernmost city in the continental United States. It’s closer to Cuba than it is to the nearest Wal-Mart and It’s the end of the road for all sorts of eccentric characters and inveterate wanderers. It isn’t too much of a stretch to say that Richard Quint is one of them.
Quint, 31, has lived here for around seven years. Like many in the service industry he works several jobs. He helps manage a popular café, choreographs music and lighting twice a week at the 801 Cabaret and, most conspicuously, is the effervescent host of the naked pool parties at Island House Gay Men’s Resort.
Quint is just one of thousands of locals who cater to the vacationing public, part of the wallpaper of waitresses and bartenders and hotel clerks toiling away against a backdrop of turquoise water and poinciana trees. Every one of them surely has an interesting story, but Quint distinguishes himself from the crowd.
Where others worry and moan about the humidity or the traffic he seems to always be happy. He is of mixed race, so his warm brown complexion often sets him apart from the pink and orange-tan torsos lounging by the pool. He skateboards everywhere, weaving left and right, often while scrutinizing a dog-eared book. Look closely and the text is likely to be something surprising for a sunny place like Key West: Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the Book of Job, Martin Heidegger’s works on language or the lectures of Gilles Deleuze.
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Key West is chock full of characters like this: retired people, immigrants, millionaires, gay men, literary women. There’s something about this small dot of land at Mile Marker 0 that suits some people perfectly. Quint clearly fits.
“I was born in Manhattan but grew up on a horse farm in northwest Indiana,” he reveals.
He speaks in a noticeably formal manner. I tell him that his delivery reminds me of William Buckley. Thankfully Quint isn’t appalled.
“I speak this way because I read out loud,” he explains. “Words are extremely important to me, so I say them. Over time I’ve come to speak in a certain way all the time, I suppose.”
I learn that Quint’s African-American mother died in a car crash when he was four. That’s when he and his two siblings went to live with his father’s family in Indiana, where his paternal grandmother raised them.
“My grandmother is the cornerstone of my life,” he says. “Everything I am today is because of her.” He unpacks this a little, tells me that she comfortably described their surroundings as “redneck.” She understood they were dark-skinned children living in a racist society, and she was clearly going to guide them through it.
Quint recounts a pivotal moment in her childhood. At age 12, his grandmother — who had been happily living alongside suburban Chicago’s African-American community — questioned an elder of the church as to why all the figures in Christianity were white. The elder replied that the blacks were in the cages on Noah’s Ark with the rest of the beasts.
Upon hearing this she abandoned her religion. Quint went on to take a similar stance against Christianity, too — a position he says has softened over the years.
“Ultimately, and essentially,” Quint concludes, “my grandmother taught me one thing that has been of supreme importance: The act of questioning is a kind of power.”
Quint, who is thoroughly in his element asking questions and probing assumptions, could discuss the subject for hours and would, if it weren’t for a boss who gently reminds him that he has a tray of Jello shots to serve. He promptly leaps out of the pool and strides to the bar, fit, handsome, leaner by the month (no meat and now no dairy) and absolutely comfortable moving through the world without clothing.
Quint’s grandmother is also responsible for introducing him to Key West.
“She would drive us down from Lake Hill Downs — our horse farm in northwest Indiana — to another family farm in Ocala, Florida,” he explains. “She has an adventurous spirit and was usually compelled to take the road all the way to the end.” His first visit was when he was just 7 or 8, he says, but it wasn’t until New Year’s Eve when he was 13 that the town made an impression on him. “The town’s gay energy struck me,” he says. “We were on Duval, and I saw and understood my attraction to men’s bodies.”
The experience remained tucked away in a memory bank until Quint was in his 20s. In between, he went to the University of Indianapolis, graduating cum laude with a degree in philosophy.
After graduating he wanted to travel. First he went to Hawaii and then spent time “vagabonding” — his word, not mine — through the West, jumping trains, invoking Jack Karouac’s quintessential road trip. His road brought him to Key West in 2010.
“I enjoy the intimacy [in Key West],” he says. “I like the close-knit sense of family, the community. I love it. But I don’t think I will be here forever.”
Quint’s grandmother is 79, and her devoted grandson is confident he will return to his family soon. The long delayed decision to attend graduate school looms closer, too.
We agree that students of philosophy don’t really need a diploma, but Quint wants to teach inner city children, the incarcerated and homeless. For that he needs school.
Despite the slippery boundaries ever-present in a party town, Quint maintains a remarkably disciplined work ethic. He insists on writing, mostly poetic verse but also essays, for several hours each day.
“I must make time for everything,” he explains. “Human interaction is vital, but I can’t devote myself entirely to social activities.”
I’ve grown to know Quint over the past three years, watching him at work and sharing numerous long conversations. He treats everyone with the same bright, openness. I rarely see him angry or down.
We are in a bar for a final meeting, a gaudy place with a burlesque vibe. Peppered across the room are a handful of afternoon drinkers. Outside, the street is hot and bright. I ask Quint about his seemingly constant, undisturbed happiness. His face becomes neutral. “I’ve come to live in a place of immense joy,” he says. What’s surprising is that he doesn’t struggle to find the answer. It’s right there. He adds, “All my other feelings and emotions are simply nudging the supremacy of joy into place.”
There are 25,000 stories in Key West. This is just one of them.