Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Crack House Blues

Key West is a unique and beautiful city. Located at the end of a 100-mile island chain, no more than four square miles, it is an old city with 19th century wooden houses. Despite the changes in recent years it has a culture of its own. Bahamian, Cuban, white, black, gay, straight, Yankee, and Cracker influences contribute to a melting pot under the tropical sun. Because of its compactness, everyone lives within an earshot of his neighbors. Almost everyone who lives there for more than a few months is connected via the "Coconut Telegraph." Because you’re likely to meet the driver you cussed out in traffic pushing a cart down the same aisle in the grocery store shortly thereafter, it’s a good idea to leave one’s "mainland attitude" behind. So proximity and closeness are another reason Key West is known for its "laid back" and tolerant ways, even today. People tend to mind their own business, and are unlikely to confront others doing something that they might deem objectionable, even though they know exactly what you are up to.

A recent post seen on the Bahama Village Blog (about drug dealing en plena calle) reminded me of another situation that occurred about ten years ago. (I know some us have had similar problems--even a distinguished city commissioner-- but most of us remain anonymous for obvious reasons: nobody wants a vindictive crack head on their hands.) Since our problem occurred more than ten years ago, and most of the players are long gone, I’ll tell the story.

An absentee owner turned his nearby rental property over to an unlicensed rental agent of dubious character. ("Why, he looks like nothing but a drunk!" said a police officer later.) He rented the relatively upscale furnished apartment to a young woman who, it was supposed, had just come into a sizeable inheritance. This explained the somewhat battered luxury car she drove, and the expensive motorcycle ridden by the oversized goon with whom she lived. But it soon became apparent that there was trouble in paradise.

A steady stream of "friends" were in and out of the apartment at fifteen-minute intervals around the clock. Another "faithful retainer," an older man, busied himself by day puttering around with bicycles in front of the house. In the early morning hours he would return with something that looked like a receipt book. There was a weekly visit from a young man who arrived in a black Mercedes with Miami tags. It was obvious that something was up.

After a number of weeks some of the neighbors began calling in anonymous tips. Nothing happened. Someone went to talk with the mayor. "It takes months to make a case like this. Be patient," they were told. Before long the situation deteriorated. Taxicabs would arrive directly from the airport for a typical ten-minute visit. The luxury car was towed away. The motorcycle disappeared into the apartment, where, we later learned, it was disassembled on the rich shag carpet. It was replaced by a scooter which the goon boyfriend rode in and out of the property every fifteen minutes around the clock. The young woman appeared rarely. She had lost considerable weight, and had open sores on her face.

At this point a friend who was "in the know" offered to help out. He spread the word among the "clients" that the place was "hot," and so most of the customers started shopping elsewhere. Due to the lack of revenue, they weren’t able to make the rent, and were eventually evicted. After they were gone, someone put up a big sign at the corner that said, "The Crack House is Gone: Smile for the Camera!" It didn’t last long. The "rental agent" tore it down in a fit of rage. We sometimes wonder if the sign had gone up six months earlier, we could have saved everyone a lot of trouble.

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