2017-05-18 / Top News


Just Smithers
Florida Weekly Correspondent

Many of us in Key West are on a first name basis. In fact, probably a good percentage of us only know of each other by our first names, even those we’ve known and even worked with for years. It’s just the nature of this place. Before Facebook, most people didn’t know Melissa Smithers by anything other than Smithers or whether she even had a first name. It was just Smithers.

She was born in northern Minnesota, in Brainerd, 30 miles north of Fargo. “My grandparents bought a resort after World War II. I started working bars when I was 12. Coffee shops, bars, trained in a supper club. I was a cocktail waitress when I was 16, learning drinks like Manhattans.”

She also grew up playing hockey while she attended Pequot Lakes High School. “I blew out my knee while playing. After I graduated, I bought a one-way ticket on a Greyhound bus to South Lake Tahoe in 1998 with $100 in my pocket.” She found a job as a lift attendant in a ski resort. “Five of us had a studio apartment right on the lake. I worked two jobs. The other was as a breakfast waitress. I had to hitchhike to work at 5:30 a.m. every morning.”

She traveled Europe alone at 19 — England, Belgium, and Amsterdam — and still remembers the tulip fields and windmills across the Netherlands countryside. But soon it was time to come back home to Minnesota. “I had worked two great places, the Wharf in Minnesota and Captain John’s in Tahoe, right on the lake. We called the lake the Big Blue Aspirin. It never got over 70 degrees. When you were hungover, you just jumped in and it sobered you up really quick.”

In 1999, Ms. Smithers discovered the band, Widespread Panic, and she took off to see them play for the first time. “Music changed my life,” she said. “Beastie Boys was my first concert, if you don’t count Alan Jackson and Faith Hill at the state fair.” She went on to follow Widespread Panic around as a fan, seeing them play more times than she can count.

In January, 2002, Ms. Smithers found her way to Key West for the first time. “I had some friends from CB’s (Pizza and Grill) in Tahoe who were living on Higg’s Beach. It was 70, 80 degrees and no snow. I decided then I just wanted to ride my bike and wear no clothes.”

Her first job was at Tiki Beach, where the Smokin’ Tuna now sits, right off Duval Street on Charles Street. “I started as a barker, up near Red Garter, trying to get people to come down the alley. I went from waiting tables to bartending to managing.”

She went through a break-up with longtime boyfriend Andy in 2006. “I took off and drove 4,000 miles in a car by myself, to visit family, and three weddings in three months. I was going to fly, but my plane to Atlanta caught fire,” she said. “I’m a professional bridesmaid, like 12 times now.”

She figured she was going to leave Key West at the time, or go back to Tahoe, but ended up in Hilton Head, S.C., with a group of friends instead.

“In 2007, Evalena at Schooner Wharf called me and asked if I would come back for Fantasy Fest, and that was it. I’ve been at Schooner Wharf ever since, for 10 years now.”

Smithers’ boyfriend, Dan Carbaugh, is a parasail captain for Fury Water Adventures, and they have two dogs __ a pug called Howser, and a year-old pugbrindle French bulldog mix, Greta.

You can find Ms. Smithers behind the bar at Schooner Wharf on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 2-11 p.m., Fridays from 1:30-10:30 p.m., on Saturdays from 11 a.m. till 7 p.m., and sometimes on Sundays from 10 a.m. till 6 p.m.

“When I’m off I like to go see live music whenever I can, at Schooner or the Parrot. My favorite thing is when somebody makes me a drink!” she said, laughing. “I like riding my tricycle around town with as little clothes as possible, ringing my bike bell. Everyone is like ‘Smithers!’ ‘Smithers!’ ‘Hi, Smithers!’ We’re one great big family here.” ¦

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