shades of Hemingway / part 12, a blind pig, the silver slipper and Jose’ Garcia Rio

It was mid-afternoon, around 4 o’clock, really too early to settle in to one bar for the rest of the day, but it was our last night in Key West.  Actually, any time in Key West is right for partying. (or so I gathered)  We all agreed that it was time to dump our car back off at Marrero’s and take the short walk over because no one would probably be fit to drive by the time we were finished. 

I remember thinking about the shoehorn still tucked safely under our mattress and wondered how I could get my friends to agree to revisiting Hemingway’s Estate so I could (as inconspicuously as possible) return it.  I decided against telling them of the events of the past day and a half because;  1)  I didn’t want them to think I was so un-cool as to steal, (yep, still hung up about that one) and 2)  I didn’t want them to talk me out of returning it,  and finally,  3)  I didn’t want to talk myself into keeping it  (which I knew I could easily do with some well intentioned prodding by Keith).  So we freshened up in each of our respective rooms taking about 15 minutes, (the shoehorn was still there, I checked) then we met back downstairs and headed for Duval St.

There is an interesting history that goes along with Sloppy Joe’s Bar.  Joe Russell, the original owner, ran a speakeasy during Prohibition that became the first licensed establishment in Florida the day that Great Experiment ended in 1933.  Originally called the Blind Pig, it wasn’t near as glamorous as the name implies.  Located at 428 Greene St., Joe rented the place for $3 a week and catered to a pretty rough crowd that enjoyed cheap whiskey, gambling and not much else.  But he met Ernest Hemingway there and after Joe cashed a $1000.00 advance check for Papa (that the local bank had refused to honor), the two became fast friends.  Soon other celebrities that enjoyed the Key West lifestyle mingled in with the seedy bunch of locals that Hemingway would eventually fashion some of the famous characters from his books after.

Russell figured business was booming and wanted to class the place up.  He added a dance floor and changed the name to the Silver Slipper, though the place was still a dive.  But it was adored by Hemingway, the locals and visitors from all over.   Joe’s notoriety grew.  Then one day there was talk of a name change and Hemingway suggested “sloppy” Joe’s after an infamous night club in Havana that was run by another “Joe”, Jose’ Garcia Rio.  That club served hard liquor and iced seafood and was actually a cut above Joe Russell’s place.  But it had one flaw.  Apparently during those hot Cuban days the iced seafood melted and water ran all over the floor.  Patrons teased the owner Jose’, taunting that he ran a “sloppy” establishment.  From that, Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Key West was born.

But it wasn’t long before the landlord wanted to cash in on Joe Russell’s success.  Deciding to raise the $3 a week rent to $4, an outraged Joe took his name, business, fixtures and patrons across the street to 201 Duval St. virtually over night.  It is said that as the move progressed, patrons literally got up from one bar stool, walked across the street and sat down to another one without missing a beat, …or a drink.  

Today’s Sloppy Joe’s has much of the original furnishings and flair of Joe Russell’s time.   In fact, when Hemingway left Key West in ’39, he stored some of his belongings in the back of the bar that weren’t uncovered until 1962, a year after his death.  Many of those items are on display along with some of Joe’s own pictures to accompany the large wrap around bar.  

Joe died in 1941 of a heart attack and Hemingway’s visit’s to Key West were less frequent after that.  Now modern day 201 Duval St. is actually three establishments rolled into one with arcade games and a clothing line for sale.  Still… the notorious past clings to it’s walls like rolled paper.

We entered off of Duval and walked to the rear where the stage was.  Since it was still relatively early finding a table for the four of us only took about 45 minutes.  We casually hung out by the bar though there was really only one seat that was unattended and that was stuck back in the corner.  But patience is a virtue and eventually a table cleared out.  We swooped down upon it like vultures but the with style and grace of seasoned bar hoppers.  We were beginning to feel like we had some seniority since we had been in Key West for nearly four days.  We even felt sorry for any newcomers who didn’t have the savvy over that section of Monroe County that we did. 

The Pete and Wayne Show was our entertainment for the evening.  They are a raunchy couple of middle aged guys that dressed like 90’s grunge and parodied some well known songs with their own brand of humor.  Their connection with the patrons was superb.  They sought out good looking women from the audience to come up on stage to titillate the crowd with silly questions like, “Where are you from?”  “Who are you with?” “Why are you here?” Ofcourse the crowd of mostly young, obnoxiously virile males requested more than once that they “show us their tits!” 

It was somewhere between Pete and Wayne’s rendition of  “Ugliest Woman Blues” and “The Rectum of Ella Fitzgerald” that I looked back from the show and scanned the people that had filled the bar stools and most of the available floor space.  I thought I could see Hem off towards the rear with a group of old timers that looked to be part of the old crowd from the 30’s.  Hem was facing me and raised a shot glass in my direction just as I turned towards the show again.  I looked back to acknowledge him but young groups of new millennium partiers was all I could see.

We stayed, ate and drank until nearly 12 then decided it was time to head back to the bed and breakfast.  Though our ferry didn’t leave until 6 pm the next day, we had to check out several hours before then.  We also knew we wanted to make one last run around Key West and perhaps go back to some of the places we liked the best.  So having come to the realization that we had accomplished about all the partying that we could stand and still legally walk the streets, we left.  Once again we walked up Duval St. pleased with our ability to consume chicken wings and alcohol with impunity.

When Annette and I made it to our room, we were so worn out that we ended up sprawling across our bed fully clothed, ready to zonk out without even worrying about disrobing.  Annette was cutting zzz’s within seconds of hitting the sheets.   I had the presence of mind to reach under the mattress and pull out Hemingway’s shoehorn to examine it for a few moments.  I was tired and a bit tipsy but still aware of my decision to return the item and distance myself from any further influence.  But I felt a bit sad lying there looking at the ivory shank that spread out into a curved tongue designed to aid with the slipping on of hunting boots.  I ran my thumb over the initials EMH that were inlaid with gold on the inside of the hilt.  I wondered how many times Papa had held that instrument and worked to pull on his foot gear without giving a single thought to the future. 

I started to doze off clutching the shoehorn to my chest, sad that I had to leave it and my memories of Key West behind.  I was only slightly aware that I was also welcoming the  rat-tat-tat ding! (carriage return) that had beckoned me just two days earlier…  


2 Responses to “shades of Hemingway / part 12, a blind pig, the silver slipper and Jose’ Garcia Rio”

  1. Paul Knopfler Says:

    I like the way you write.

    Wish you the best.


  2. chirchi965 Says:


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