Finding My Florida – The New York Times

The Keys

Key Largo was the setting for and the name of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s last film together. Bogey’s ghost retired here, perhaps drinking a beer at the Caribbean Club, the “poor man’s retreat” that opened in 1938 and was used as a location for the film. At midmorning, it’s a mix of bikers, leather-skinned fishermen and two guys who look as if they’re staying at the Yacht Club, their Vineyard Vines shirts a match for their pink skin.

Driving through the Keys, I pass island after island, as well as the famous Seven Mile Bridge. The ghostly Bahia Honda Rail Bridge comes into view in the distance. I think of the Keys travel book that Joy Williams wrote. She is best known for her fiction, but I picked up her 1987 history and guidebook and it set up my last leg of the trip nicely. Her words about the abandoned structure echo in my head — “it is said that Henry Flagler loved concrete with a passion,” and that the sheer size of the project proved too daunting for his young engineer at the turn of the century who “literally worked himself to death on the project,” a year into construction.

I make it to Key West and pull up to a bungalow. I’m greeted by Mark Straiton, whom I know as Cowboy Mark, a guy I met years ago somewhere on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He is an old friend, someone I made sure was the last person I’d get to spend time with on my trip.

We were both younger and drunker when we first met. He wasn’t an actual cowboy, as far as I knew (he is from Connecticut); that’s just always been his name. Mark’s New York City life saw him in bars that aren’t around anymore. He looks like a hoodlum from the 1950s, all tattooed up, dressed head to toe in vintage denim. After so many nights closing down bars, Mark made his way down to Key West. Like so many before and…

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