Thursday, June 12, 2008

Key West on my mind

Rachael and I have been in Seattle for more than half a year, but the Florida Keys still tug at me now and again.

The cool and rainy weather we’ve been having these past few weeks has reminded me of a man I knew for a time in Key West. It was public record that his parents named him Douglas James, but his friends under the Cow Key Channel Bridge called him Dougie.

He was fifty-five years old, but you might guess his age at seventy, if you bothered to look at the bearded little man with the shy smile and bright blue eyes, wearing a ragged Santa Claus hat.

It seemed he was everywhere. Sitting on the seawall along North Roosevelt Boulevard, watching the smooth-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico, while he sipped from a paper-swaddled smooth-green bottle. Wandering Duval Street in downtown Key West, trying to catch the eye of a passing tourist to cage a handout. Asleep under a bush at the buss stop in front of the Winn-Dixie store; that’s where I came upon him one August day.

Dougie was sprawled on his back, snoring. An empty bottle was close at hand, its threaded snout peeking from a rumpled paper bag. His head and shoulders were resting beneath the bus, where there was shade, but his feet, one of them shoeless, were off the curb and in the path of traffic.

I knew him from the Monroe County Detention Center, where I worked as a corrections officer, and where Dougie was what the staff called a frequent flyer. Fourteen days for public intoxication, perhaps; a month for trespassing. Then back onto the street for sixty to ninety days, before returning for another round.

Inside, Dougie cleaned up without effort. After a week of no alcohol, regular meals, medical care and frequent baths, he looked the part of an elderly uncle or that retired bachelor teacher everyone liked in high school.

That is what he claimed to be, a teacher, at least once upon a time. High school history, he said. He was vague about where he taught. “Up north,” was all he ever would say, but he was certain how long he had taught.

“Seventeen years,” he would say. “I taught for seventeen years and then the booze got the better of me.”

He had been in Florida for fifteen years; in Key West since 1998, he wasn’t certain of the exact date. Like other homeless men and women, he found the place local residents refer to as Paradise very nearly that. He discovered that living without a roof was easy where the thermometer almost never drops below room temperature. And, with a little luck, you could survive the mosquitoes, head lice, bored police officers and occasional hurricanes.

And there was always a bottle, somewhere, to be passed around. For Dougie, the bottle was the best part. He was a man for whom a bad habit had become vice, and he just wanted to be left alone with his demon.

On one of those rare rainy days in Key West, Dougie’s luck ran out. He was crossing North Roosevelt Boulevard, with two friends, also homeless, when he was struck by a delivery truck.

“We was crossing the road, right there at Sears,” Dougie’s friend, Terrence, told me later. “Me and Heather and Dougie. He was behind us, and when me and Heather got over to the bike path, we turned just in time to see that truck clip him. Jeez, he went flying.”

The paramedics pronounced Dougie D.R.T. Dead Right There. His remains were taken to Lower Keys Medical Center; no one claimed the body, so it was cremated and the ashes scattered.

There were no services and the only eulogy spoken was said over shared bottles, so I offer these words to Dougie’s memory. His parents named him Douglas James, and he is gone now, but still remembered by one wandering soul who, thank God, never lived under the bridge.