Thursday, February 23, 2012

Avocados For Breakfast


"Avocados for Breakfast" Art. Truth. Beauty.
It's a rare day when we are not asked for directions to the Hemingway House, located just around the corner. The path to Key West's number one tourist attraction is worn quite smooth.You would think the location of the town's most famous writer would be anything but a mystery, and yet, nearly every time I exit my home I am approached by people who ask in tentative tones, "Is this the way to the Hemingway House?"
   I was once hired to write a brochure for an English painter named Patricia Townsend who moonlighted as a tour guide at the Hemingway House. I invited her over for dinner, at which time I hoped to get to know her better.
    "Can you come at six?" I asked.
    "Yes, if the damned tourists don't keep me late asking ridiculous questions about the great Hemingway," she said scornfully.
    "What kinds of questions?" I asked.
    "Obnoxious ones. They want to know: 'Is this where he shot himself?' and 'Is this where he went to the bathroom?' They're disgusting! "
    "So we'll see you around six?" I asked.
    "Yes. All right. But tell me, what do you eat? No meat, I hope."
    "No," I assured her. "No meat. I'll fix pasta."
    "With tomato sauce?" she asked. (She pronounced it toe-maaa-toe.)
    "Yes, and lots of garlic," I said. "We love garlic. It discourages the mosquitoes."
    "Oh, I can't have garlic! It will carry on my breath when I give tours to the Hemingway fans," she said.
    "Fine. No garlic," I said.
    "You don't have any animals do you?" she asked.
    "No." I said.
    "Because I hate the way you Americans go on about your house pets. People go mad for those mangy Hemingway cats. They pick them up and kiss their little faces! I find it utterly appalling!"
     "No animals," I said. "But we do have a little boy. Do you like children?"
    "Ab-hooooooor them," she said, turning her head as if avoiding a bad smell.
Waiting for Hemingway.
    "Oh, I see. Well, perhaps we'd better postpone this visit until my son grows up and moves out," I said.
    In fact, I never did write that brochure. And Townsend, who'd hoped to find happiness and artistic success in Key West, was ultimately very disappointed. Her next move was to Indiana, and that's where she died.
The avocado tree next door.
   Townsend and her eccentric personality was much appreciated by my great friend, the late Richard Heyman, who owned the Gingerbread Square Gallery in those days. He was charmed by her painting, although, sadly, Richard's enthusiasm was not shared by people who bought art. Our wedding gift from Richard was a Townsend painting entitled "Avocados for Breakfast."
       The heavy bough of a particularly productive avocado tree hangs in our neighbor's yard. We imagine there was a time when Hemingway noshed on these beauties. Of course we do, too.
        At avocado time, which is now, we eat lots of avocados. We cut them in half. Remove the seed. Fill with oil and vinegar salad dressing. The Cubans make a salad with avocado chunks, onion slices, and oil and vinegar. Yum. And when we eat our avocados, we prop up Townsend's painting, which we love, on the table, before us. We display it in the kitchen, always, and in the 25 years it has been with us, I'm afraid it has suffered through more than a few splatters of one thing or another. Nonetheless, we feel it belongs in the kitchen.
     I'm sure Townsend would ab-hooooor that.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Fine Art of Being Marion

Tennessee Williams' painting of Frank Merlo, his one true love.
Does anyone remember Marion Stevens, founder of the art gallery, “Artists Unlimited,” and heroine of a hundred crazy stories of old timey Key West? There’s a story of her chasing her naked husband, the artist Paul Stevens, down the middle of Duval Street, screaming and waving a knife over her head in the infamous wee hours on one otherwise quiet night. Marion, who arrived on the island in the late ‘50s, loved Haiti, Haitian art and Haitian men. She vacationed there often and chummed around this island, and Haiti, with the gruff and ever adventurous Margaret Foresman, editor of the Key West Citizen.  She sipped martinis at Delmonico’s on hot afternoons. She stormed the mayor’s office whenever her civic dander was up and addressed the Key West City Commission with such conviction she appeared to many to be mad. And maybe she was. She was very, very creative, using her body language, as much as her words, to get her sharp points across.
The also colorful Barbara Kellner (left) and Marion Stevens. This photo hung on the wall at the Square One Restaurant, a gift from Bill Divens to Square One owner Michael Stewart. They were absolutely not friends, Stewart says, which makes this photo rare indeed.
    And when she was older, and no longer running a gallery, or chasing her lovers through the streets, she rode her bike around and around the streets of Old Town. She wore elegant white shirts, capris, huge sunglasses, and sandals, her head high, like the dancer she’d once been.
    So who was Marion Stevens and how does she fit into Key West’s history, legend and lore? Finding the answers to those questions, and turning that information into a stageable narrative, is the job these days of playwright Toby Armour. Armour has been commissioned to pull together all the stories and fables and create a play for the purpose — according to the grant underwriting the project — of “capturing the heroic and colorful people who made Key West the unique place that it is.” Armour, a playwright of considerable insight, has had many of her works performed. (I Googled her. She’s the real thing.)
   Through research and conversations with people who have known, in one way or another, the eccentric gallery mistress Marion Stevens, Armour is fashioning a character based on a person she never met. There are quite a few of us left on the island who did know Marion, apparently, and the project has become both monumental and fascinating to the handsome and articulate playwright.
From Key West Arts Review, 1977
   Armour told me she’d learned that Stevens studied dance in Germany in the 1930’s with the renowned Mary Wigman, the mother of expressive dance. Among Wigman’s students were Martha Graham and Isadora Duncan. Armour is frustrated that the trail of Stevens in Germany has gone cold. All Stevens ever said about Germany, and this to her sole surviving niece, is, “I got out.” Provocative, eh?
Le Solitaire, by Tennesee Williams. According to Key West Arts Review, Stevens was the sole agent for Williams' paintings in Key West.
    The Key West Fringe, formerly called the People’s Theater of Key West, has as their motto: “Key West is our theatre.” Their presentations go on at the Key West Women’s Club, 319 Duval Street, just a block south of Steven’s Artist’s Unlimited Gallery, which stood at 221 Duval. Their next production, "Dinner," by Moira Buffini, opens February 24. Go to keystix.org for tickets. The play, "Tennessee Williams @100," scheduled for August, 2012, is already sold out. No date has yet been set for the premiere of the play about Marion Stevens, still under construction.
    If you have something to contribute to the Marion Stevens saga, Toby Armour would like to hear from you. Her address: tobyarmour@msn.com. In the meantime, stay true, stay real, be memorable. One day the play being staged by the Key West Fringe may be all about you.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Eye of the Beholder

The famous Rainbow Flag doing the infamous Duval Crawl. Summer, 2003.
According to CoedMagazine.com, Key West is at the top of the list of trashiest Spring Break destinations. This certainly doesn’t sit well with people like Andy Newman, spokesman for the Florida Keys Tourism Bureau. Trashy is not a nice way to describe a paradise on earth like Key West.  Key West, with its exorbitant hotel rates and many pristine and romantic hideaways is anything but trashy, Andy says. Turns out, Andy misunderstood. No insult intended! Trashy is a good thing!
     “This is a double thumbs up,” said editor Neal Lynch, of CoEd.com. “It’s definitely a seal of approval....Our goal is to redefine the word trashy.”
    Did you hear that? Redefine the word trashy? This is not gonzo journalism. This is journalism gone. I would go wherever this guy tells me not to go.
Beautiful Sushi's annual New Year's descent from the top of Bourbon St. Pub puts Key West at the top of anyone's list of best places to party on New Year's Eve.
    Last month another journalist somewhere created a list of America’s Gayest Cities. Of 15 cities selected, Salt Lake City was number one. Key West was not even mentioned.  A guy at work, seeing the story on the front page of the Citizen that day, took offense.
    “Hey!” he said. “How can Key West not be on this list?  This is wrong!”
Anybody can sit in Sushi's shoe, as long as it's not New Year's Eve . . .
    The guy questioning the story is not gay, as far as I know. It really doesn't matter. He was thinking of our many gay friends and coworkers, our fellow Key Westers. How would they feel to be left out of this story?    I’ve noticed in Key West it’s like that trailer park tee shirt warning: “F--- with me and you F--- with this whole trailer park.” One of us has the power of all of us. United we stand. Divided we go to tea dance. 
    Ultimately I see that it’s a good thing not to be on this list. I mean think about it: would you rather be gay in Key West or in Salt Lake City?

The Sweet Spot: Key West, Fla.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Survivors Who Lunch

Clark modeling the Miami J Collar
Are you a survivor? Survivors are the people who stay heartily engaged in living, no matter what fortune, good or bad, throws their way. They are people who remain valid. They count. They function in a way that enhances far more than detracts from the world in which they live.
    In the last two days I’ve been out to lunch. Twice I’ve dined on fish sandwiches in busy restaurants with some very impressive people, survivors all, who still sparkle with vitality and glow with love and enthusiasm for life. First, with the girls. Then, with Clark and Barb.
    The cancer survivors — my group — are perhaps the most obviously thankful to be breathing and dining and laughing and hugging. Cancer, just the word, plunges our imaginations into a very dark place. We survivors have been to that place, and climbed out of the blackness and back into the light. Today we can tell stories about our adventures, and laugh at them. Cancer and heart disease are our most constant calamities.
Clark's Key West album. It's a good one.
    Our friend Clark had a tumor on his spine. The surgery to remove it was long and torturous and painful. Then he needed to wear a Miami J Collar. You’ve seen them; they hold your spine utterly still while you attempt to live your life in spite of it.  Clark wore his to the restaurant where he works. For three months! One of his customers said “Oh, I see you’re wearing the Miami J Collar. I did time in one of those things, too,” the lady said. “Ugh!” 
    “Why did you have to wear it?” Clark asked. “What happened to you?”
    “Rough sex,” she replied, while the man behind her shrugged and grinned.
    In the grocery store Clark and his wife, my great friend Barb, were approached by an old timer who recognized the Miami J  and commented on it. “How long you been wearing it?” he asked.
    “A month or so, but I’m supposed to wear it for three months,” Clark said.
    “Well do like the doctor tells you,” the old guy said. “I took mine off too soon and I still can’t swaller right.” Then he grimaced and demonstrated his bizarre swallowing technique.
    The occasion of the lunch was to celebrate Clark’s recent PET scan. The news is good. No evidence of cancer.
    The funniest story I have about my cancer is remembering the day Barb, who is a nurse, removed a drain tube from my throat, after my lymphectomy surgery. I was very happy to be having the nuisance tube, that threaded around and about within my neck, and exited beneath my chin, removed. At last! With easy confidence Barb cut through the stitches holding the tube in place, grasped it firmly, and pulled. And pulled. That sucker was a foot long, and as it continued to emerge, like a trail of scarves pulled from a magician's sleeve, Barb’s eyes grew bigger and bigger. I was watching them. Finally her face relaxed again. The tube was out. At last!
A fuzzy photo of survivors June, Barb and Natale
    Our friend Natale was at lunch, too. Natale is a beauty, attracting the eyes of everyone in the room wherever she goes. She looks like an angel. She is an angel. But she’s been to hell, too. She grew up in Siberia. Her parents died in a car crash when she was 16 years old. She lost her husband to heart disease while she was still very young.  She raised a son, alone. She has worked hard just about every day of her life. And still, she smiles her Mona Lisa smile and maintains her sweet grace.
    Also at lunch the other day, Barb’s friend Jane. In the course of our conversation, the drug Synthroid came up.
    “Why do you take Synthroid?” is the question that inevitably follows.
    “I had cancer. The radiation treatment destroyed my thyroid,” I explained to Jane. “What about you?”
    “I was struck by lightning,” she said, popping a French fry into her mouth.
    OMG!!  Really?  Really.
June and Barb with Electro-Girl
    I demanded to know everything, every little detail, of this event — Jane being the first person I’ve ever known to be struck by lightning.  It happened on a clear, sunny day in Tuckahoe, New York. Jane walked out of her office and into the street and remembers nothing until she awakened in the hospital a week later. Her doctors weren’t quite clear on what had happened to burn her, paralyze her, and knock her consciousness right out of her head. She is just below 5 feet tall. A very tiny target! To see her you wouldn’t guess she’d had a problem in the world. Then you notice the medallion she wears on a chain around her neck to alert paramedics that she has seizures as a result of scars on her brain from that lightning strike.
    Barb told me that when Jane told her the story of being hit by lightning she said “Well, you don’t have to worry about that happening again. Lightning never strikes in the same place twice.”
    Turns out, it does. Some people simply attract lightning strikes. And Jane is very cautious about venturing out of the house, no matter what the weather report says.
    Barb’s brother David, seven years her junior, is battling pancreatic cancer back in her native Kentucky. The good news is that he’s doing very well on chemo. But there’s more. The brother she never knew very well has become very close to her. The two talk on the phone, or text each other, multiple times each day. They talk about the tiny dramas of daily life — the dinner menu, the progress of the neighborhood's new kittens, their mom, their families. They are just getting around to making solid a bond they never quite got around to before. It is very sweet indeed.
    My husband Michael has survived two cancers, but he rarely refers to them. It happened long ago and far away and he’s happy to distance himself from the memories. Nonetheless, cancer has changed our lives. We appreciate our days so much more than before. We work on keeping difficulties in perspective.
    Barb told me that at the end of each day she and Clark review the day and talk about the highs and lows of its course. Michael and I do that, too.
    The other day, as Barb and I posed for Natale’s camera, and Natale showed Jane how it worked, the sun was high in the sky but not too hot, and the breeze was balmy and just right. We had a moment together and I said to her “This is it, Barb. This is our life.”
    “I know it is, June,” she said. “And it’s just fine.”
    And then we smiled for the camera.

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