I arrived in Key West near Easter a long time ago. It was long before ‘Margaritaville’, (the song, the place, the conglomerate) and the year-round festivals that keep Duval Street packed with revelers. It might be hard to imagine for some what Key West was like back then. But if you go back and take a wander deep into the streets of Old Town Key West you can still see it and feel it. Especially at night.
The first house I stayed at was on a one way, one car at a time road called Windsor Lane. There was a tiny grocery store half a block down Windsor that I’d get fried bollitos, (black eye’d pea fritters). They came in a medium-sized brown paper bag. A very cold can of beer came in a small brown paper bag. A short stroll from there was the graveyard which I loved to roam in and step even further back in time, beyond time for the souls in there. I padded barefoot past the graves even late at night. I was almost always alone walking there. It spooked me and enthralled all at once. The grave headstone portrayed the parenthetical information of a soul coming to life and leaving it, sometimes denoting those left behind or what malady had condemned the person entombed in the rocky earth below.
One night I walked past the church pictured above.
I could hear the emanations from the church long before I got close. It was a breezy spring night about this time of year. I was 21 years old and a long way from the quiet mannerisms of my Methodist church in Diamond Lake, Illinois. How far from that well-conformed community of spiritual piety struck me deeply that night long ago. I walked increasingly slowly on and I ultimately could see the source of the music and singing soaring out into the tropical Key West night. She stood stage center on the alter, legs akimbo. The front door wide open.
She was BIG. She was Aretha Franklin big. She wore a dress that was bridal white, skin tight and clutched her rocking body like a sailor holding onto a broken raft in hurricane. She played a clear plexiglass electric guitar. The wide leather strap cut into the heavy flesh around her left shoulder. The amp on her guitar wailed feedback but her voice above it howled, hissed, soared…far into the starry sky above that church’s roof, above the skittering clouds, far past the Milky Way. She was going to find her way all the way to Heaven, she was going to GET THERE! through sheer belief, the rocket and engines of her heart and take her and all of the “Amen Sister!” parishioners with her by God or that guitar would be smashed on the alter I was sure as hell of that! The preacher lady scolded, warned, shook, sweated and sang all the while hitting the guitar like a broken juke box.
She sang, “DO YOU WANT TO GET TO HEAVEN?”
The church goers cried back, “WON’T YOU PLEASE TAKE US THERE?”
I stood across the street on the far edge of the cracked, buckled sidewalk. I was afraid to go closer for fear I’d be pulled in like a person into a riptide. I watched until she finished her number and the crowd; men dressed in severe black suits and the ladies in many shades of Easter blue shouted to the world around them. “I won’t be here long! The Lord is going to take me to a better place!” The call and response of the preacher lady to the penitents had a perfect cadence. It was and is where the blues was born and lives. Everyone knew the sequence and within it everyone could post their very personal level of AMEN! TELL IT! I SURELY WON’T! I SURELY WILL!
I walked away into the darkening little streets..away from the soul-searing and soul-searching sounds and lights and of that Church wondering where all of that power came from.
Not knowing how long it took to be born, nor how long it would take to be free.