Thursday, April 26, 2012

Finding Hemingway's Bar

Finding Hemingway's bar is harder than you might think. It's location is ambiguous, and there's a certain amount of booze involved. However, as you can tell from the rosy expressions on our faces, we gave it our best shot.

According to the Hemingway Research Center, Hemingway really dug Key West. He actually said, "It's the best place I've ever been anytime, anywhere, flowers, tamarind trees, guava trees, coconut palms ... Got tight last night on absinthe and did knife tricks." During the 30s, he lived here, wrote here, fished here and, yes, drank here, I'm assuming in copious amounts. Vlad and I attempted to follow in his footsteps - minus the absinthe, the knife tricks, the writing of great literature and the copious amounts of drinking - so we went to have a pina colada at Sloppy Joe's, a Key West hotspot on Duval Street that claims to be Hemingway's bar.

According the Sloppy Joe's menu (hey, it's a better source than Wikipedia, right?), Hemingway was BFF with Joe Russell, the original proprietor, and Hemingway even came up with the name Sloppy Joe's. Russell opened up shop the day after Prohibition ended, and he originally called his establishment The Blind Pig, until he added a dance floor at which point the bar became The Silver Slipper.

At first, I was a bit unimpressed with Hemingway's christening abilities. I mean, here's a scion of English literature naming something Sloppy Joe's. However, once I heard the previous names, I realized that Hemingway had definitely stepped it up a notch from The Blind Pig days. Plus, he stole the name from a place in Havana known as "Whatever-the-word-is-for-'sloppy'-in-Spanish Jose's."

As it turns out, though, our pina colada sipping in Sloppy Joe's was all for naught because this wasn't actually the bar that Hemingway hung out in, according to a woman who worked in the restaurant's gift shop. (Interesting aside, it seems like every bar in Key West has a gift shop that sells, you guessed it, bad t-shirts.) Sloppy Joe's moved locations, but the original Sloppy Joe's building is still standing and is still a bar.

Of course, we had to go investigate. The bar where Hemingway hung out is now called Captain Tony's Saloon and does not serve pina colada's. Instead, it sells a dangerous mixture of rum, gin and fruit juice called Pirate's Punch. Arrrr, indeed.

The inside of Captain Tony's was more like what I had pictured Hemingway's bar resembling. It was dark with low ceilings and had Key West's hanging tree growing up through the middle of it. However, the decor was not quite what I expected. The walls were layered with yellowing business cards stapled five deep and crusty dollar bills, and many a bra dangled from the rafters.

The hanging tree.

A lot of bras. Too many, one might say.

Somehow I doubt the bras were around when Hemingway drank here. Vlad and I were sitting quietly at the bar sipping our Pirate's Punch and discussing how much money in women's lingerie was floating above our heads when we were approached by a harried looking woman carrying a giant handbag who asked us frantically if we'd seen Patrice. Unfortunately, Patrice had passed out in the bathroom. She couldn't stand up, and the bartenders called an ambulance. Evidently, the bartenders also had no idea where she'd come from because they hadn't served her and no one had seen her come in. The situation elicited a lot of jokes from the other patrons. Stuff like, "I'll have what she had ... Or maybe half of that." Perhaps there weren't any bras hanging from the ceiling when Hemingway hung out here, but I bet you there was the occasional Patrice.

Captain Tony's has seen its share of famous people. In fact, this is the very spot where Jimmy Buffett got his start. He came into the bar and asked Captain Tony if he could play a few songs when the band took a rest. Captain Tony said yes, gave him $10 and three Budweisers, and the rest as they say is history. Buffett then campaigned for Captain Tony on his many mayoral races, which the captain finally won in the late 80s on an antidevelopment platform.

Maybe it was all the Pirate's Punch, but I got a warm fuzzy feeling while reading Captain Tony's obituary they had framed on the wall. He seemed like the kind of guy Hemingway would have liked to have owning the old Sloppy Joe's - an amazing fisherman, a habitual gambler, a chain smoker, married five times with 13 kids and a genuine character. Also, I'm blaming the Pirate's Punch for this photo that Vlad took in the men's restroom.

The bar framed the spot where Buffett scrawled a few lines of "The Last Mango in Paris" above the urinal. Too bad they didn't get the first lines of "For Whom the Bell Tolls," too. I guess Hemingway wasn't as into graffiti.  

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