The past few months have changed our habits immeasurably, forcing us out of our daily rhythms, out of our quarantined homes in search of fresh air and much-needed changes of scenery. My isolation-prompted wanderings have propelled me to Truman Waterfront Park every morning with my dog to absorb an hour of clear skies before settling down to work from home, at my tiny desk in my tiny apartment.
The daily journey placed me in the path of other wanderers, which turned into a few delightful, if ephemeral, friendships. I was a little saddened when one such friend told me he and his wife were heading back to Rhode Island after postponing their departure, originally planned for March, due to COVID-related travel restrictions and health concerns.
They aren’t alone. The majority of Key West’s part-time residents — those who spend half the year somewhere up north — have found their typical six-month tropical stints stretching into nine months or more. For many, this extended stay has provided their first glimpse of an empty island — and their first stifling breath of our thick, summer humidity.
The next weekend, my friend was still walking the park with his dog, delayed again by a specialty car part that had to be shipped down to their southernmost home before they could hit the road — very Hemingway-esque. Key West has a long, storied history of delaying the exit plans of its visitors. Long before inebriated cruise ship passengers, jolted by the ship’s whistle, ran in vain to catch their departing ship, Ernest Hemingway found himself cooling his heels on the island. He arrived in 1928, eager to pick up his new Ford Roadster. But our venus flytrap of an island had other plans. The car had been delayed in transit and wouldn’t arrive for three weeks. Making the most of his time here, Hemingway hunkered down and finished “A Farewell to Arms.” The pause also allowed him time to fall in love with Key West. Three weeks turned into two years (at which point Hemingway took ownership of a house on Whitehead Street), which turned into a decade. Our COVID tale has a different, less romantic ending. Spoiler alert: The delayed residents all eventually resume their travel plans, although their extended stays had some unexpected effects.
Glenda Donovan normally heads up to the coast of Massachusetts in late spring, but experienced compounded delays this season. After deliberating between driving and flying, she finally booked a flight for June 1, splurging on first-class seats and plotting careful layovers that would limit her exposure to others. Unfortunately, an unexpected illness led to a hospital stay that further delayed her trip. Donovan is known as a fixture on the local theater scene, frequently directing plays and teaching stagecraft. She stays busy. In a three-month span, she was set to direct and act in three plays — one in Key West, one in Massachusetts, one in New Mexico. All were canceled. “I’m not used to all this free time. That’s been the real adjustment,” Donovan said. A perennial optimist, though, she points to the positives. “I’ve always wondered what Key West was like in the summer. I loved when we were closed down — our time down there felt really safe. Plus, it’s the first time I’d dared to ride my bike down Duval!”
Susan Goode figured she’d be back in Norfolk by mid-March. Two months after her expected departure, she and her husband have made it as far as their daughter’s home in Pennsylvania, pulled by the draw of their grandson. “If it hadn’t been for his birthday, we might have just stayed. It felt so safe down there at the time,” Goode said. The time passed happily for the pair in Key West. “I’ve cooked more in the last month than I have in the last five years,” she joked. “And really, looking out over the ocean every day is not the worst thing.”
Rose and Ed Sminkey spend winters close to their daughter Joanna Cooper’s family in Key West, living in an upstairs apartment they built onto the family’s New Town home. By early summer though, they’re always on the road back to Pennsylvania. “This year, we were very uneasy about going up there. We usually stop a few nights along the way, but weren’t sure if hotels would be safe, or even open. We must have changed our plans half a dozen times, but ultimately just felt safer here,” Rose said. “You don’t want to take any chances.” The Sminkeys are also taking things in stride, despite the fact that they haven’t spent a summer in Key West since a series of hurricanes, including Katrina, blew through South Florida in 2005. They know dealing with the summer heat will be a challenge, but are enjoying the family time. “Every Sunday night we watch a movie and eat dinner together with Joanna and Jim and the grandkids,” Rose said. Of course, living with family means compromise. “We wanted to see Les Mis this week, but Jim said it was too sad.”