In the interests of science and literature, as ol’ Huxley would say, I had gone into the field in the summer of ’99 and returned with this report.
It’s late afternoon July in Key West, hot and sticky as the Bacardi and grapefruit juice on my flip-flops. I’m off the tourist track, just outside of Bahama Village, the “Southernmost Hood in the United States,” interviewing a street hustler named Nicky. I want to know about the ghost of Ernest Hemingway, who once lived just a few blocks away, and whose 100th birthday is being celebrated this month. I’ve been talking with Nicky for ten minutes, persuading him to allow me to record our conversation. He’s reluctant, but finally agrees. The tape begins here:
“No shit…” I say.
“…federal gov’ment, wanna obey, espionage, want put you away,” Nicky raps.
“…alright man…” I agree.
“You wanna do it?” he challenges.
“Yea, tell me what goes on around here – tell me about the ghost of Hemingway.”
“Is it on?”
“It’s on, man,” I reassure him. “You are on the record.”
“It’s on, it’s on, it’s nevah gone, I’m Irish and Eye-tal-yon, ain’t nut’in goin’ on in the Hood, it’s all good, Bahama Village don’t get misundastood, we got da reckuds, makin’ songs…”
People across the street are swinging their arms and hollering as Nicky raps.
“…dream about life lika lika lika lika lika lika lika lika lika lika like it or not…get shot, not in your arm…”
“So that’s what’s goin’ down, huh?” I sense a need to prod my subject. “Well, tell me about the ghost of Hemingway, what do you know about the ghost of Hemingway?”
“He’s singin’ in the stars, he sails on da cold keel, at da speed of warp, you wanna fly, help put up da sail…and do some ‘caine, then you’ll be wid us…”
Nicky’s female companion is giggling from a doorstep behind me. Nicky keeps on truckin’.
“…den we all be da same, got to run wit da big muthafuckin’ dogs, don’t complain ’bout your sore feet if you want ta run wit da wolves…if you want to hoot wit da owls you bettuh be able ta fly wit da eagles, don’t need no steel cable…” more shouting from across the street “…I got an I-yan hawse straight out da Last Chance Saloon, dis ain’t no bullshit.”
“So,” I say, “that’s some right-on shit. You just sit out here all day and do that? That’s fucking great.”
“So, ummm, you were talking about the ghost of Ernest Hemingway?” Nicky’s nameless companion mutters.
“Yea, da guy with the beard, right?” Nicky asks.
I turn to look at his partner. She motions me closer.
“I’ll tell you about Hemingway,” she says. “I would know.”
“How would you know?”
“How would I know?
“‘Cause I’m a witch.”
Nicky laughs, and like Kurt Cobain I say:
“What’d she say?” Nicky asks, still laughing.
“I understand,” I say, giving them my best Chauncy Gardner.
“He no capeche,” Nicky says, “but that be between you guys, dat ain’t none my bizness. Ever you want somethin’, I get you somethin’…”
“I agree,” I start again, “the man’s gone…”
“…take your pick…” Nicky says, suddenly pulling an assortment of braided hemp necklaces and bracelets from his pocket. A dealer! Is he showing me Hemingway’s ghost, locked like Mickey Rourke’s Chihuahua in an amulet for eternity?
“…let him rest in peace…” I continue.
“…dey only twenty dollars each.” Nicky says. “Here…”
“What is it?” I say.
“It’s only twenty dollars each.”
The girl laughs at Nicky. I sense a play.
“It ain’t no joke,” he raps. “This not no game. Those are real stones, they’re all the same.”
“How much each?” I ask.
“Twenty. Twenty bucks.”
“Man, I can buy a hemp bracelet kit and make ten of these for thirteen dollars.”
“Well,” Nicky says, “name your price. Take one and gimmee the money…” A woman is violently berating what seems to be her boyfriend just up the wall from where we are negotiating, but Nicky keeps on “…or I’m unna give you one fo’ free if you don’t gimmee no money, I’m a give you one fo’ free.”
I blurt out a disbelieving: “Shit!”
“I definitely have to give you somethin’ for it,” I say. My mistake.
“No, you don’t.”
“Wait a second,” I say, and there is a break in the tape.
The next portion of tape Nicky rambles but uses words that don’t translate well to micro-cassette, but I believe this is what he said:
“See, the rules (world?) don’t matter.”
“No shit?” I say.
“You can use his purse with no more talkin’, he uses you for his spending. In season and out of season, stand on the back of…”
“I used to work at Disney World,” I interrupt. “I know about seasons. I know about seasons.” I am jealous. Nicky is acting out how I always wanted to working for the Rat, but rarely did.
“You don’t know about…” he begins with an invalidating shrug, “you don’t know about…but you tryin’ though, but you know what? I don’t advertise…” something about a “private thing”. Here the words become too garbled to even attempt a translation. The tape cuts off and comes back with Nicky. He is angry.
“You think it’s a fuckin’ joke? Dis ain’t no muthafuckin’ joke,” he laughs, a satisfied, “huh. Fun an’ games, three strikes you’re out. So you gonna have a drink with me or what?”
While the tape was off we had discussed going to a hotel bar for happy hour, two-for-one rum-and-colas, and continue the interview off-street.
“If you pay for it,” I say. “Otherwise gimmee my change ’cause I can’t afford it.”
Also during the break we had somehow negotiated a price of twelve dollars for a necklace that he had shown me but not handed over. I had already given Nicky a twenty-dollar bill for it when he walked away singing “See ya!” I had to encourage him back to argue about my change, not to mention actually giving me the necklace I had paid him for. Savage revenge for Manhattan Island.
“Let’s go in the deli,” he says, meaning the store we are standing in front of, “I’m a buy you an Icehouse.”
“Fuck an Icehouse,” I say. “What about all that change, man.”
“All what change?”
“It’s gotta be happy hour somewhere…buy me, buy me a…let’s go to happy hour and get us a couple of rum and grapefruit juices.” At least if I can talk him into paying for a couple of happy hour drinks the money will have gone for the same thing I had intended for it anyway.
“Naw,” he says.
“Well then gimmee my change,” I demand. “You just gonna walk away with someone’s money? I mean…”
“Well get the fuck outta here den, man!” Nicky moves at me fast.
“Naw, dude.” I stand firm.
“Get the fuck outta here, man,” he repeats, waving me off. I stand firm.
During the break in tape I took pictures of Nicky posturing in front of the local Elk’s Lodge, which is next to the store. Now he wants his image back.
“Gimm’ my voice back, gimm’ my camera, gimmee da film in it.” He becomes aggressive, grabbing for my camera. I agree to buy the necklace for twenty bucks. I see his point.
“I’ll take it, just give me the necklace for twenty.”
“The fuck you think that’s worth, man?” he spits.
“You can use my person when were talkin’…I can use yours for my spendings. You suspectin’ me and I put one o’ yo’ teeth out. You walk around lookin’ like a Halloween pumpkin. Right? Be just dat simple.”
“I’ll give you twenty,” I repeat.
“Give it to me then.” He was shrewd.
“You already got it. Just give me the necklace.”
Nicky is America’s wilderness, not about to be cheated, and willing to use force when necessary, and I am the ghost of Hemingway, turning the other cheek. Suddenly he hands over the necklace.
“Yeah, well here then,” he softens, and the conversation turns again.
“We’re cool, man. I ain’ gonna fuck you over,” I say. “Shit, man, my parents rasied me right!”
“What town?” Nicky asks, with a sudden and tender, although brief concern, same as an infinitely anonymous stranger you might meet at the end of a bar at two in the afternoon.
“Fuckin’ Aurora, Illinois, outside of Chicago…” He tries to break in, but I am on a roll. “…you know, but, I agree with you. I know where you’re comin’ from, and you know where I’m comin’ from.”
“Yeap, this ain’t a game,” he says again. “It’s the wild, wild muthafuckin’ west.”
“Same thing workin’ at Disney World…” I blurt. Disney again, representing me, Florida, America, illusion, the ‘game’ Nicky speaks of. “…you gotta deal with…” I continue “…fuckin’ tourists…” as he begins:
“M-I-C-K-E-Y,” mocking me in a hilarious street-spoof-sarcastic presentation of what Disney means to him (or does he spell N-I-C-K-E-Y?) Of course, my talking about dealing with tourists is exactly the same shit Nicky is going through right now, with me, the eternal tourist, not accidental, but definitely drifting. I continue, attempting to drown out his rendering of “The March”:
“…you gotta deal with all the tourists that come in here…” I sympathize with him and Hemingway’s ghost.
“…and they say…”
“…Mick-ey Mouse…” At least I know he is listening to me – he freestyles off what I say – or is it the other way around?
“…’this is my home for a week.'”
“Hey,” he says, thinking laterally of Orlando, “have you ever seen Shaq O’Neal grab the mutherfuckin’ hoop, go like this to somebody, c’mere, I’m a show you how he does it, right…”
“I used to take pictures at the Magic games…” I say, not wanting Nicky to demonstrate anything.
He doesn’t stop talking:
“…right in front of the referee’s face. Stand right there. Dis how Shaq does it, right?”
“Mmhhn,” I agree.
I am standing under a huge oak tree that is growing out of the sidewalk, and am naturally hesitant when Nicky wants to include me in his demonstration of Shaq’s style by slamming an imaginary b-ball over my head where juts a tree limb. He starts running at me, and I back away to avoid a kick in the face. He halts his charge.
“Stand right there!” he says, pointing and flustered as a schoolyard bully, “I ain’t gonna hurt ya!” His voice on the tape is distant, and I can tell he is planning on getting up a head of steam before he dunks.
“I thought you was gonna slam right up here,” I say. “I don’t wanna, like, get kicked in the face.”
He tells me how Shaq does it with the ball, I laugh, and there is the sound of a car horn and someone screams “Nicky!”.
“…he’s so high in the air he gotta hold dat basket, he just goes like this…c’mere, get’cho ass over here in da front, I’m just goin’ ta show ya, alright. C’mon! He go like dis…”
Nicky runs at me and demonstrates a Shaq dunk.
“He looks right in the cameras. In the playoffs, dude turn’ aroun’ and threw the ball at ‘im. Personal foul! And what he did to him was so much worse…but you know what? He couldn’t help it, dude, he’s ALLOWED to do that! Hey, ’cause it ain’t a joke, kid.”
“Hey,” I say, “let’s go get that drink, man. Weren’t we talkin’ about drinks? I know we were.” I want to attempt to get my change, now that I’ve got the necklace.
“You go and get a drink, man, I got other things to do,” he says. I laugh.
“Yeah, I hear ya, I understand.” I walk off. “Well, hey man, if you’re here, and shit happens and all that, I’ll remember you…Nicky.”
“Yeah. Don’t ever forget me,” he says, without a hint of wist.
“I ain’t never gonna forget you, dude,” I say, with a shot of wry.
“Ain’t no shit. I’m fuckin’…I’m twenty-one.”
“I know where I got this necklace, man.”
“Thanks a lot.” The customer service farewell.
Here he calls something about a tight ship.
“I hear ya,” I answer. “Son of a Navy man.”
This is where I walk off, around the corner of the market, out of sight, but not out of mind. The tape has been in my pocket, and all I can hear now, as I leave with my necklace, is the sound of mopeds whizzing by on the street. My final words before I stop recording are:
“I tell ya, a man with a camera in the hood makes about as much sense as a hole in the head.”