Where the music led us: Duval Street

When you look at a map of Florida, you don’t generally notice the specks that curve out from the tip toward Cuba. One of the specks is Key West. It’s an easy place to avoid not just geographical notoriety, but also the disapproval of buttoned-up mainland America. The uninhibited sexual culture is the most well-known example of the town’s famous tolerance: homo-, hetero-, bi-, trans-, a-, whatever-sexual — just don’t molest the chickens that wander the streets or you will “run afoul of the law,” as one tour guide put it.

Key West also embodies the more open-ended suggestion that you can shed not just your suit and tie and all the rest of it (at Garden of Eden nude bar), but also your past, if you’d like. You can lose your identity and become someone else, who you really are, or who you wish to be if only for a weekend.

My friend Red and I arrived here after a six-hour drive from Fort Myers, over dozens of bridges that carried us past pretty teal waters to our destination on Duval Street.

“Everyone is welcome,” the inn keeper told us when we finally made it, an encouraging sign.

People can disappear here among the tolerant attitudes, literally at the end of the line (or the starting line), the southernmost point in the United States. There is an especially high level of withholding judgment in Key West, especially on Duval, that might seem a little reckless. That’s part of its charm. If you make a drunken fool of yourself as you rediscover your wild side, well, you wouldn’t be the first.

“You’re not going to last in this town if you’re intolerant,” a bartender told me. “This is a town of tolerance and acceptance.”

Which is to say, people tend to accept how you present yourself at face value. One resident described how a middle-aged, mild-mannered bar back was suddenly arrested one day by a heavily armed team of law enforcement officers and extradited back to wherever he was accused of a crime. It reminded me of “The Silence of the Lambs” when Hannibal Lecter disappears into a sub-tropical setting not unlike the Keys, lost among a crowd not unlike that on any given evening on Duval. But if Duval’s anything-goes attitude has a dark side, a relentless never-ending party held for the benefit of tourists — one that can be brutal for service industry people who live here — it also has a silver lining. The dream of Key West, at its best and most idealistic, is about protecting the right to let your freak flag fly. It’s about harmony and unity, live and let live, and a place where truly everyone is welcome. n

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