KEY WEST, Fla. – This beautiful small island is like its own country: People don’t like to be ordered around, especially when it disrupts commerce. And business here is all about tourism, fishing and drinking.

Major emphasis is placed on the latter. Live and let overly indulge is the way of things, and that applies to men who walk down the main drag with parrots on their head, just for the heck of it, as well as to old timers who congregate on the sidewalk to share morning beers.

Hurricane Ike made no never mind to the 25,000 locals who call the southernmost city in the continental U.S. their home. Some boarded up. Many did not. On Monday, as the wind picked up and the skies clouded over and Ike appeared headed for points south and west, they gathered to watch the storm blow by.

In hard-backed chairs lining a narrow sidewalk, 72-year-old Jerry Walker sat with old friends, drinking beer wrapped in paper bags and watching over the neighborhood. “I’m not ever going to leave here until they carry me out in a pine box,” he said with a broad grin. “I was born and raised here. Weather don’t scare me.”

Like his father before him, Walker worked a shrimp boat until he retired 10 years ago. He lives in public housing in an enclave called Bahama Village, a working-class neighborhood of close-set houses, some no bigger than a shotgun shack. Walker’s father came from the Bahamas, and Walker was born here. “I’ve been here for every hurricane. I never leave. I’ve never lost nothing.”

His friend, Tex Gilbert, nodded in agreement. “We’re not afraid of nothing,” he said, taking a long drag on his ever-present cigarette. “I’ve always been independent. That’s just the way people are here.”

Some folks didn’t even bother to bring in the laundry. A few blocks away, white shirts and under shorts flapped on a front-yard clothes line. Locals with sun-bleached hair and chestnut tans pedaled by on beach cruisers and walked along the water. That is not to say the city teemed with everyday life. Most were at home.

The tourists, an estimated 20,000, had fled to higher ground over the past few days. But like the nature of this out-of-the-way place, where it is easy to lose one’s ambition, a hurricane warning wasn’t going to ruin anyone’s good time.

On Stock Island, where commercial lobster boats dock at the fish house to sell their wares, Jesus Medero and a rugged group of fellow seamen slammed tiles in a raucous game of dominoes. Medero had lashed down the 39-foot lobster boat owned by his cousin and they had tied it snugly to the dock.

The rest was out of their hands.

On Sunday, they had motored out to their 1,800 traps and hauled them to deeper waters, where storm waves hopefully would not bash them into useless bits of wood. “We just wait,” he said, as wind whipped off the emerald water, bending the palm trees and carrying the heavy scent of countless shell fish heaved onto these docks. “We just wait until the storm goes by.”

That ruggedness, and that surrender to things beyond a fisherman’s control, has drawn immigrants to these rich waters for centuries. It drew hard-living, hard-drinking temporary residents such as Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams.

In the 1800s, arriving Bahamians were called Conchs (pronounced “conks”), for harvesting the local conch shells and their meaty inhabitants. Overfishing nearly wiped out the local delicacy, whose meat has to be pounded into submission before being breaded or fried or put into stew. Now a protected species, local conch has been replaced by imports from the Bahamas.

The name, as it applied to residents, stuck. People born here are said to be salt-water Conchs; those who have lived in the area for less than seven years are called fresh-water Conchs. Then there are the part timers, which include Hemingway, who reportedly wrote “A Farewell to Arms” here while awaiting delivery of a Ford roadster, and playwright Williams, who is said to have written a first draft of “Streetcar Named Desire” while staying in the popular La Concha hotel.

But they are, for all intents and purposes, bone-fide Conchs in a city whose airport welcomes visitors not to Key West, but to the “Conch Republic,” an entity that made a symbolic declaration that it was separate from the United States during the 1980s when immigration checks choked off tourism.

Key West prevailed and the vehicle searches faded. Tourism bloomed anew. But folks here still don’t like to be messed with. That includes evacuation orders.

“It’s just going to make them angry if you tell them to get out,” said Walker, enjoying the shade of a low-hanging tree in his regular sidewalk spot. “They don’t listen. They want to decide themselves.”


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