When the pub-crawl gang got off the bus at the Schooner Wharf bar in Key West Marina on a recent Saturday, the men and women standing behind the beer taps and the slushy-drink machines began the eyeball-rolling.
Schooner Wharf is not a coupon-drink sort of a place. It is a self-proclaimed throwback to a time when Key West was a kind of last outpost of dissipation. It was the French Quarter without beads or cream sauce, a place where collegiate spring-breakers were no more welcome than mosquitos, a place your cousin Davey might have disappeared into back in '78.
Things have changed, of course. Fish with odd sounding names are available for $28 a copy in damask-napkin restaurants. Spring breakers show up in waves from LSU and Alabama and the rest of the SEC. The beat-up rental bike is now $12 a day. But the bike is still the best way to enjoy the above-ground cemetery and Dog Beach, a narrow spot of waterfront where dogs and those who love them chase tennis balls and throw tennis balls into the surf, usually in that order.
It's like that old Jamie McMurtry line about this being a much better place before people like me came here.
That was the view of the professionals behind the stick at the Schooner Wharf on the previously mentioned Saturday. The posture here is anti-Key West 2009, and folks with and without coupons make their way by the fishing boats, T-shirt emporiums and some pretty bad art to get there.
A person who likes bars can feel a bit like a gunslinger walking into Schooner Wharf. That's part of what they're selling. On your right are two guys with those barbed wire tattoos on their arms. They are discussing the merits of a strip club in Marathon whle yanking dollar bills and quarters out of their jeans for another brace of Miller Lights.
On your left is a couple from Eau Claire, Wisc., perhaps. They look about as crazy as Brian Williams, but they're eating and drinking and they don't have coupons. One of women behind the bar - both seaside dishy and slightly ravaged in a Jagermeister T-shirt - likes them just fine.
Hemingway didn't drink here. Deal with it.
On this Saturday, a gentlemen of uncertain years is playing a guitar and singing - really - "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." He sings Jimmy Buffett songs by request as well, though you get the feeling he doesn't want to.
The NCAA basketball tournament spins out on TV but the game isn't drawing much attention. Most of the participants are drinking for the narcotic effect, it seems, and Schooner Wharf is comfortable with that. The beer is cold. The office is a long way away. Nobody cares much about the stimulus package.
Another one? Sure. Jagermeister is standing in front of me, so I tell her I heard The Wailers were in town the other night.
Don't know, hon, she tells me. I was right here.
Over the last cold one, it struck me that I was in my third decade of seeking out whatever it is the Schooner Wharf was offering. Only a handful of visits in that time, but the place always rose to the occasion.
I bought a T-shirt for $22 - God forgive me - and stumbled off into the sunshine.