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I had two expectations of my trip to Key West, Florida: a magnificent drive and a snapshot next to that famed buoy declaring Cuba's presence not more than 60 miles away. Other than that, I had just planned on sipping cocktails, lying on a beach (which turned out to be contaminated and barren) and trying to avoid thoughts of what I had to do when I got back to the real world.

The drive was truly and unfortunately memorable, marred by rain and a thunderstorm unmatched by my California standards. In other words, not much need for the convertible I'd rented in Miami, but beautiful nonetheless. My picture next to the buoy occupies a wonderful little corner of one of my photo albums. In order to get it, I had to jockey for position amongst Japanese and German tourists, lunge when a space became available, then act as relaxed as a cow in Delhi when the shutter snapped. A true masterwork.

Ironically though, my greatest memory of Key West was neither of those two events. It was actually a surprise that bit me on the nose only after my arrival to the hotel. Before my trip, I had no idea that Ernest Hemingway had made his home here and that his home was now a museum for all to behold. I remembered the stories of Papa having lived in Cuba, in Spain, even in Paris. Perhaps I even remembered him living in Florida, but my memory did not recall a home here on this little island, the last in the chain.

Once this fact was presented to me, I made it a point to go there and see the home of one of my greatest literary influences. After spending the afternoon in true Hemingway fashion at one of the many bars on Duval Street, my girlfriend and I proceeded to the parallel Whitehead Street where Papa's old house was located.

The Spanish Colonial style of the home was so fitting for Hemingway that it seemed like this house had been custom built for him, although it had not. The grounds, covered in palm trees and swaying flora, were the a perfect hangout for any of the more than fifty six-toed cats that take up residence there--another lingering Hemingway tale. Legend has it that an old Caribbean pirate/colleague left Ernest Hemingway a six-toed feline as a gift before parting, and within the confines of Chez Papa, they flourished.

The inside of the home, albeit rather modest, screamed of adventure and freedom. The furniture and art was light--unhindered by earthly shackles, much like Ernest himself. What is enchanting is the collection of art that he collected along the way. In one of the rooms upstairs is a sculpture that was discovered years after his death in a box in the basement. It's an ornate cat of many colors, given to him by none other than Picasso himself.

Being a writer though, I wanted to see the room where he created his major works. I expected a large study or a quaint room with a view of the ocean. Instead, like a mother-in-law, Papa's chosen writing quarters was the upstairs portion of a backhouse, unconnected to the main building. I walked up the stairs filled with anticipation and was not disappointed.

A metal gate barred true entry into the room, but I could get enough of an eyeful to make me never forget it. The languid blue walls screamed of serenity, the heads of gazelles and antelope reported something else entirely. An old typewriter adorned a single table in the middle of the room, and an old, wooden chair next to it completed the ensemble. Once again--subtle, yet moving. The floors and filled bookshelves were of a dark oak flavor, reflecting Hemingway's sturdiness and strength of character. After ten minutes of trying to memorize every detail (and a tug on the shoulder by one of the Japanese tourists again telling me to get the hell out of the way), I descended the stairway with a sense of awe and admiration. I tried to fight the feeling off, to pass it off, but failed. No doubt about it, the experience made me want to write great tales.

There are many other aspects of the home, along with great stories about Hemingway's life and world, that make this part of a visit to Key West truly satisfying. The best story I heard though was on the way out, looking across the street and hearing the tale of the lighthouse situated less than fifty yards away. Apparently Ernest, always being a big fan of the bottle, chose his home near the lighthouse in order to find his way home from his favorite bar on Duval Street, Sloppy Joe's. And with that grin on my face, I exited the front gate and returned to a world awaiting the results of my inspiration.

November 2001

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