During the Reagan administration, inspired perhaps by a message conveyed to that President and his nay-saying wife by their favorite astrologer, the federal government implemented a very odd, very stupid policy (one of many, some would say). It established a border-crossing where no border with another nation exists, where the Florida Keys meet the mainland, at or around Miami.
It was believed, apparently, that all kinds of naughty drugs and even naughtier immigrants crept into our Great Republic by way of the keys and that this traffic must be stopped. And so a great traffic stop was duly created, and cars were backed up for miles and people spent hours while federal agents combed through their vehicles and belongings and required proof of citizenship.
In its zeal to protect us from the drugs some of us--declining to "just say 'no'" as helpfully suggested by the FLOTUS of the time--wanted to consume and from nasty foreigners, it seems that the Reagan administration forgot, if indeed it had ever known, that legal problems result when those privileged to be American citizens are subject to search and seizure merely for traveling from one place in the United States to another. It also seems that administration either didn't know or didn't care that by establishing the equivalent of Checkpoint Charlie at such a place it would devastate the tourism-based economy of the wonderful islands that make up the Florida Keys.
The inhabitants of these islands knew very well that this would result, though, and could observe the devastation taking place. The response of those in Key West was dramatic, witty and effective. And so it came to pass that The Conch Republic was proclaimed on April 18, 1982 amid considerable ceremony and publicity, and Key West seceded from the Union because its people were being treated as second-class citizens or, worse yet, as foreigners. They could indeed claim "Civis Americanus Sum" but had been deprived of the rights and dignity traditionally accorded those entitled to make that claim.
The border-crossing was removed within a matter of days. Nonetheless, The Conch Republic lives on at least in the sense that one sees its name everywhere in Key West and its flag graces a number of buildings, hats and t-shirts.
I've visited Key West three times now, and find it charming and relaxing despite the many tourists to be encountered. Most of them have disembarked for the day off one of the floating stews of bacteria called cruise ships which you'll find tied to the docks by Mallory Square. I can understand why the likes of Wallace Stevens, Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and even John Dewey spent a good deal of time in the place. Hemingway's home--a very handsome building and one of the oldest on the island--has become a kind of shrine to the writer, and is dignified by the presence of some fifty cats descended from his cat Snow White. Wallace Stevens, it seems, lived in the Casa Marina when he was there, and he and Hemingway managed to come to blows one fine night for some reason; it hardly matters what. John Dewey's house is now a bed and breakfast.
It's remarkable, but even a few blocks from Duval Street, where most of the shopping, drinking and eating takes place, one can find streets and neighborhoods that are profoundly silent, and which when the sun has gone down are very dark and still but not at all in a frightening or disquieting way. Tranquility can be found there, as well as beauty and order in the neat smallish homes festooned with bougainvillea and plants and trees of all kinds from all over the world. Key West was once a thriving port, and its ship captains brought small parts of what they found and admired home with them on their return.
I am reminded of Stevens' poem The Idea of Order at Key West while there, but not I think of the interpretations of it one typically encounters. Stevens was certainly a philosophical poet (or perhaps it's better to say his poetry was philosophical), but I don't think the poem is a reflection on how we shape what we call reality. Instead, I think it acknowledges that though we're part of the world, it is in fact something inhuman and it is an error to think of it as human or something having human characteristics, or merely as a construct of humans. So, the woman in the poem sings beyond the genius of the sea. When we sing, or act, we make something and it may be said we make it because of or out of our interaction with the inhuman. But what we make is not the world or us, but a new part of the world.
That interaction may be rich and rewarding, though, and is particularly so in certain places. Key West is one of those places, for me and its seems for some others.