The Keys

May 1, 2009 | Leave a Comment

Category: Society

This last February, Marcia and I jumped into a rented convertible and drove from Evanston to the Florida Keys.  Neither of us had ever been there.  Chicago was cold.  The Keys were warm.

Driving across country using interstates, we have little opportunity to see or feel what the region looks like.  So, it has been my habit for a couple decades to eat a large percentage of my meals in waffle houses so that I can listen to the banter of the locals and watch the theatre of a talented grill cook.  It often feels like I’ve walked into someone’s home.  Folks are charming and warm.  I just wish the food were good.  (I’m a health food snob.)

We stopped near Melbourne, Florida, and visited Marcia’s aging, ailing uncle in a nursing home and my healthy father in Ft. Lauderdale.  Moving on, driving the four hours between Homestead and Key West, we were able to observe local commerce, fauna and exotic birds.  The cruise was leisurely.  There was much to take in.

Driving down Highway 1 across the Keys, I found myself speed reading the commercial signage to get a feel for place and a read on the economy.  At the same time, Marcia and I were gawking at the incredible variety of maritime bird species and at their astonishingly large size.  (In Chicago, the biggest birds are crows and seagulls.)  Reading commercial business signs, noting the variety of restaurants, the kinds of local services, picking out unique stores that signal the kind of society that we’re driving through, I begin to put together a picture of the local economy.  Having spent thirty years serving local shops and businesses in northern Illinois, there is this radar I don’t turn off when traveling that gathers information on the nature of local commerce.  I expect I feel how a biologist must feel when entering a new biosphere.  I’m fitting all the familiar into patterns while interpreting the anomalies.

Arriving in Key West, Marcia and I walk the commercial drag.  We are both veterans of the gift trade, totally uninterested in a purchase.  We’re observing patterns in display, target market orientations, income distributions, music styles and novel display conventions.  I’m astonished that the T-shirt companies are still coming up with jokes I haven’t heard.  Marcia notes a manikin with double D breast size and nipples.

We see that stores are selling to the neo-hippy, new age, country western, rock ‘n’ roll, heavy metal, gay and the affluent.  With the Keys so filled with gorgeous wildlife, it’s easy to view both the Highway 1 commercial activity and the Duval Street shops as human sexual selection versions of more naturally selected local flora and fauna.

Regarding sand castles, it was too cool (75 degrees), too cloudy and too windy.  The sand was coarse.  Knowing the structure of the islands, I didn’t expect to find fine grain shell sand.

Checking into the office each day, I found that clients continued to go out of business or cut costs, letting go of their websites.  In the first five weeks of the year we lost 18 clients, 4% of our client base.  The warmth of the Keys was feeling like a good place to withdraw from the chill of the economic crash and the Chicago winter.  It was peak tourist season in Key West.  The birds were beautiful.  Top down, ecologies and economies seemed intact.


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