Wednesday, July 19, 2006


Beethoven's Lignumvitae

A year ago, I found myself in between symphonies--from my notes on my Key West trip, July, 2005, during Hemingway Days; loosely titled, "Wilting in the Tropics." N.B.: last September I published another excerpt on this blog: "Beam Me Up, Ernie."

MONDAY, JULY 18, 2005

Quarter to eleven already. Gosh darn it, you wouldn’t think I’d awakened at 7. Even with clumps all over the house, ready, set to go, there I was, furtively looking at the clock. I was just about to pack my toiletries next to my casuals and undies, and to plop my dresses on top. Just like a thin layer of meringue on a key lime pie.
Going up the street to Roma’s for a quick café con leche and pastelito de guayaba, I realized, hey, I’m not ready. No perfume, no braided silver and pearl earrings I’d left on top of the bathroom vanity. I felt naked, especially in front of los obreros downing their cortaditos and coladas.
Hell, I felt naked, even in front of myself.
Setting myself aright, I still had to make it to the bank just off Ponce. And then I’d be ready. Perhaps I should have gone to the ATM the day before, when I’d had all the time in the world?
No matter. With an early Cuban merienda in my belly, and cash in my purse, I made it to US 1 at 12:07 p.m. I was finally on my way to The Keys.
In the midst of an unpredictable mid-July day in South Florida, the clouds had gathered, just so. Drizzles fell down, enough to warrant the wipers and lights. Cars were inching down US 1. Oh, boy, I’ll never get there, I fidgeted.
Looking to the right, I saw the tower at The Falls, followed by the turquoise and yellow sign announcing the entrance to Cutler Ridge and Perrine. The clouds had begun to lift, by then.
The farther south I drove, the more hole in the wall Hispanic restaurants I spotted; the faces driving the more and more dilapidated vehicles became more and more ethnic. Migrant territory: beginning to approach Homestead and Florida City.
I’d first spotted the tumbleweeds by the side of the road during my Keys trip in February. Staring at them dumbfounded then, I continued to do so, today. Flat buildings that appeared to have sprung out of nowhere, preceded or followed by these wild grasses.
Or by flat land: by nothing at all. By gnarled trees with bark exposed like gaping wounds.
Andrew. I hadn’t been around in 1992.
I remember speaking with Mami that morning. “A hurricane’s coming,” she’d said. I’d laughed. Later that day, she lost her electricity, but not her phone.
The next day, we’d spoken. “In my almost eighty years, I’ve never heard a sound like this storm,” she’d told me. Boqui, the fifteen-year-old tuxedo cat, had accompanied her by lying, Sphinx-like, on top of the dining room table.
Andrew. I couldn’t look at the pictures of the aftermath then, or now.
No wonder I shuddered at the tumbleweeds, not only in February, but also today.
Continuing down the highway, I also couldn’t help noticing, with both amazement and dread, the increase in the number of markers indicating people who’d died in accidents.
The big Homestead water tower loomed in front of me, to the left. More and more goose bumps shot up and down my spine.
In The Gables I’d barely felt Dennis, and The Keys had, fortuitously, been spared.
But you never know.
A little water began to show by the side of the road. In my driving haze, I’d bypassed Florida City.
I was truly on my way now. Still clinging to my favorite radio channels, I began my long, slow descent to Paradise.
The ride seemed to go at a much faster clip than it had back in February. When the radio frequencies fizzled away into nothingness, I popped in one of my CD’s. Beethoven: I’d very deliberately brought my collection of Beethoven’s symphonies along. Compact discs, packed in their compact box.
Much different from the disparate collection I’d wildly gathered at the last moment on my way out of the house over five months earlier. I’d been desperate, then.
Only a desperate person could listen to Ray Charles’ “Unchain My Heart” blaring forth and sing along, at the top of her lungs, over and over.
This time, it was my childhood favorite, the Pastorale Symphony, which lifted me and enabled me to soar over the Seven Mile Bridge.
I can’t remember the last time my heart leapt so high. Perhaps in February, though, when, with a sidelong glance of recognition, I’d spotted the original Seven Mile Bridge?
The eight or nine year old had come to life. I still can’t find her, all the time, but she’d gone back, back, back…
What was blaring forth then, I wonder. Now that I think of it, we probably didn’t have a working car radio.
I’d just left Marathon behind. For me, Marathon = Milestone. I love the place, with its yokels, dockside eateries, barbecue and cracked conch joints, its consignment shop, its bookstore, its pelicans...and its herons. “Funky chickens,” I call them.
Keeping an eye out for the names of all the Keys, all the channels, is a great road—and time—passer, I’d already discovered. Lignumvitae is my favorite, for all the Latin language loving reasons that anyone could possibly ascribe to me. The thread—or cord—of life: whoever named it knew what matters.
The Keys dangle off the southernmost tip of the Eastern Seaboard just like the stubbornly resistant end of a thread you try to tear off with your teeth or snip off with a blunt pair of scissors. Chances are you might get lucky. Or, then again, you might not.
I was about to begin to learn a thing or two about the Conchs.
With only a pit stop at a McDonald’s on the mainline side of Islamorada, I arrived at the Cow Key Channel Bridge intersection at roughly 4:15 p.m. In a little bit less than four hours, I had reached the city of Key West, my home for the next week.
Not bad.
Driving along as slowly as possible up North Roosevelt, and then Truman, I spotted the At Home In Key West office on the right-hand side of the road. The driver in the car behind me patiently waited for me to pull into the parking lot.
No honking, no beeping, allowed: unheard of, in Miami.
Gathering my keys and insisting that the young woman let me write out my own map, I drove toward the Truman Annex. Crossing Duval at Southard, I told myself, aha, I know this. Frances at Southard in February, now Emma off of Southard.
Not quite. The kindly guard at the Truman Annex gate directed me to the gate down the street. Not Emma, but rather, Thomas.
I found out the next day that Thomas Alva Edison had stayed at the Little White House, when it was the home of the Navy Commandant.
All you have to do is to follow your history around this town.
My car found its spot right under a palm tree top-heavy with coconuts. Two days later, I’d have to move it while lawn maintenance men removed the coconuts. “You wouldn’t want one of them crashing down on your car, now, would you?” The security guard asked me.
That’s when I met the first Papa look-alike, a slightly pot-bellied stunner with killer blue eyes. He’s the co-chair of the contest, and was staying in a unit right across from me. With his son: oh, rats.
My little one-bedroom townhouse unit lived up to its pictures. Cute, quaint, nautical, tropical, modern, campy, all straw and wicker, bright colors…and the largest patio in the row of units, I later noticed.
First, though, I had to check for the air-conditioning control, a phone jack in order to be cyber connected, and coffee filters. Check; check; huh?
The next morning I found out I’d checked all the kitchen cabinets, except for the right one. I had a little trouble finding extra towels, too, at first.
Tired: four firmly focused, fixed hours behind the wheel, after all.
However, not so tired that, after lugging my luggage upstairs—and setting up the computer to my liking—I ventured forth with gusto. My Hemingway Days adventures were about to begin in earnest.


Back a week tomorrow already. Whew! Still on my Papa high…

On the way back home, I stopped three times: once, in Marathon, to try to make its consignment store my own. Foiled again: closed Mondays. I’ll never learn…

Beethoven’s Ninth had lifted me over the Seven Mile Bridge this time. I’d clumsily been pushing the forward-backward button, aiming to find the right point—just the right point—in the Ode To Joy chorus.

I was so intent on this I neglected to look at all the gorgeously iridescent water that was surrounding me.

So I paid a little more attention while the Fifth boomed out, POM POM POM POM, POM POM POM POM.

Aha! Channel Number Five loomed in front of me. I instantly thought of Chanel Number 5, that classic fragrance I’ll never get tired of from time to time.

Channel Number Five – Chanel Number 5 – Beethoven’s Fifth. How apropos.

I was beginning to fathom that the Pastorale heralded my childhood; the Ninth, possibly my apoplectic highs; and the Fifth, the classic that’s going to surround me for the rest of my life, whether I get tired of it or not. Adulthood.

Between childhood and adulthood, though, comes adolescence. Swerving off the road at the last minute, so much so that both solid and liquid particles of gravel adhered themselves to my car’s sides and tires, I picked up my hot sauces at the key lime products stand in Key Largo. Hot sauces, for a hot rodder, I sheepishly thought to myself.

Back on the road, I calmed down inwardly, and began to listen—to really listen—to the Fifth’s soothing undertones, before Beethoven led me to ride the more subdued crests of HUM HUM HUM HUM HUM HUM HUM HUM HUM. HUM HUM HUM, HUM HUM HUM. Nananananana…

Somewhere just beyond Key Largo, I saw it: Lignumvitae Lane. If I’d blinked, I’d have missed it.

There it was again: the thread of life. I wondered if the person who’d named the channel had also named the lane. Probably. Too much of a coincidence, don’t you think?

This was when I seriously began to think about the stages of life.

The next thing I knew, I’d once again bypassed Florida City, and—after a fashion—Homestead. I didn’t think about Andrew as much this time.

However, with my favorite radio frequencies within reach again, my fingers began to fidget nervously. Will I ever get back?

The tower at The Falls loomed to my left this time, roughly three and a half hours after I’d left Key West. Goose bumps? Nah.

My third stop was in Pinecrest, at one of my favorite yogurt places. This would be lunch, after my “Senior” IHOP breakfast on my way out of Key West that sultry Monday morning. Fairly legitimately trying to shave a few dollars (and some calories) off, the tab had still amounted to over nine dollars. Price Gouging In The Tropics next time, remember?

And then I continued my drive up US 1 and turned left at Le Jeune.

I sincerely hope my lignumvitae continues to be stubbornly resistant for a long time to come.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

My apologies to Ludwig von Beethoven for mangling his notes.

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