By Cricket Desmarais
How does a kid from Connecticut with a bachelor’s degree in graphic arts and illustration become manager at one of the most popular Key West bars? If you don’t know which bar, you either don’t get out much or haven’t lived here long enough to experience the island institution.
Named one of America’s 24 Best Bars by Playboy magazine, the No. 1 dive bar by Southern Living magazine, and mentioned in Vogue as a classic Key West experience, the iconic Green Parrot Bar at Whitehead and Southard streets is host to a quintessential jukebox, pool table, pinball machine, motley assortment of oddball ephemera, and a tiny stage that hosts incredible live music — all without a cover charge. There’s a parachute draped from the ceiling like a big-top tent. The circus below it is often raucous and always reliable. Drinks abound and sniveling isn’t allowed.
But the people make the place, and the Parrot’s patrons are as diverse as the staff is dedicated. Enter Jim Fossum, as unpretentious as the bar he manages. “Co-manages,” he says. “My wife Dani is really the boss.” Smart guy.
Fossum has worked there since 1995, two years after arriving on the island after graduating from Jacksonville University. When his post-college camping trip collided with a New England cold snap, he and his friend drove south to his parents’ condo in Key Colony Beach. After a few months on a barstool at Barefoot Bob’s, Fossum was offered a job as a barback, a position he’d never heard of.
“They said, ‘Do you know how to tap a keg?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘Do you know how to clean glass?’ I said ‘yes.’ ‘You’ll do fine,’ they said.”
Within six months, he was bartending and there was “no turning back.” Parrot bartenders Pat Lonergan, Mike Johnson and Eric Bissell soon scoped him out and gave him a shift.
“I was scared sh*tless,” he says. “Here were these big, burly construction dudes and I’m, like, a young kid from Connecticut. I was the only person working — we never had barbacks. I changed the kegs, got the ice, kicked people out. But, you know, within a short period of time, I realized that everybody sitting at the bar was my security team. They always had my back.”
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Parrot – already a great blues bar— started booking big-name bands from New Orleans, providing them a place to stay and a sense that the bottom of the road was about as good as it could get.
“I think it reflects the fact that we care so much about the place,” he says. “It’s just a handful of people who strive really hard to make a little bar work. Everybody who works there puts a lot of passion and effort into it.”
He also gives a nod to the establishment’s customers and how they welcome and interact with the musical acts. With the stage just steps from the bar, the atmosphere is more living room than standard performance venue. Bands appreciate the intimacy.
Fossum has been a manager since 2010. Five years in, his life took a turn for the better with lifestyle changes he says are helping him grow into a life beyond his wildest dreams. It was at that time that Green Parrot owner John Vagnoni put a camera and a B&H photography catalog in Fossum’s hands with a directive to pick one for Christmas. He’d seen what he was capable of, not just behind the bar, but behind the lens, during a manager’s retreat in Telluride, Colorado. Armed with a BGMC 20 16-millimeter 1.4 camera, he “just started snapping stuff.”
Things took off for him creatively during COVID. Inspired by people taking pictures in the empty streets, he pursued his own portraits, with his 16-year-old daughter as the subject. (She’s a company member of the CoffeeMill’s Young Dance Collective). They used locations like the Strand, the Tropic Cinema, White Street Pier and Harpoon Harry’s as backdrops. Check out his IG accounts @dancingthestreetsofkeywest and @jimfossumphotos and his account featuring Parrot bands in the walk-in cooler: @walkinoffame.
“I’ve sold a couple of my prints in the store,” he says. “I don’t really know where it’s gonna take me. It’s probably not much. I really just enjoy doing it. When I get acknowledged by photographers like Lawson Little, it’s a really good feeling. Maybe there is something out there for me besides this, but I don’t know. I mean, I love what I do. I love being trusted with one of the coolest bars in the f*cking world. But, you know, again, there’s a lot to that. It’s a team effort to make it all happen.”
Quick Q&A with Jim Fossum
What’s the last song you listened to on your Spotify playlist? “Florida” JJ Grey and Mofro
What’s your signature drink? Root beer barrel, of course.
What’s something bartenders (or you) do that people don’t realize? Bartenders are smiling even when it appears they are not.
What would you like to be remembered for? Being a good human.
Who chooses the juke tunes? Whoever’s got a buck.
What’s the dumbest thing anyone has ever asked behind the bar? Not sure this is the dumbest thing I’ve been asked, but definitely not the most thought-through: Do you live here?
Dream vacation destination? A “trip” back in time to Hartford Civic Center March 26, 1987.
What was in the most recent Amazon package that arrived at your house? Dog poop bagsWhat’s your superpower? Making pints of ice cream disappear