Flying from the heart from the start

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Flying from the heart from the start
By Bud Navero

On a moonlit night off the coast of Havana in 1521 Ponce de Leon, Spanish war hero and New World explorer, lay dying. As the poison of the Colusa arrow infecting his left thigh pulsed though his bloodstream, he envisioned the eerily beautiful island he’d named Cayo Hueso some eight years before, revisiting that remote bone-strewn place with a mixture of awe and fear. What went on there? How had it come to pass that so many had seen fit to inhabit its shores and choose that place to leave this earthly paradise?

The closest thing to an answer that his fevered mind could conjure was the haunting distant squawk of a lone emerald parrot piercing the palm swept night. Again and again the call of the green parrot seemed to beckon him to a world beyond the duties and ambitions of the life he’d been leading.

Ponce’s heart pounded ever louder in his heaving chest and his body twitched wildly, as a luminous smile radiated from his face and the toxins shook him to his core, rattling his earthbound bones on the rolling Caribbean tide.

Green Parrot 1981

The ensuing years brought many a desperate dreamer to the risky uncharted edge of civilization. Slavers, pirates, treasure shippers, wreckers, rum runners, refugees, drug smugglers, shrimpers, treasure hunters, and solo sailors have all risked the shoals. Indeed, Ponce’s shake, rattle, and roll continues to answer the Green Parrot’s call. And Cayo Hueso, now known far and wide as Key West, continues to be its home, luring newcomers and old friends alike to a cool oasis of reverie where time takes its time as it has for lo these many years.

Perched on the southeast corner of Southard and Whitehead Streets, diagonally across from the courthouse and former jail, the low pitched roof harboring The Green Parrot had originally housed a grocery store owned by Antonio Sanchez, whose grandson Mario would go on to immortalize the building in one of his world renowned wood-cuts. There, the local Cuban and Bahamian transplants no doubt accompanied their staples with rum, cigars, the Latin rhythms of impromptu descargas, and the bones rattling through the conversations at the domino table.

After serving as a bunker-like Navy bar called The Brown Derby through many owners, the Green Parrot resumed its hold on the island, assuming its nom de guerre as “the Parrot” during Judy Sullivan’s hazy heydays of the ’70’s when it took its place among the pantheon of what immortalized bartender Phil Clarke called the “inland island bars” — those dark, off-Duval, away from the water’s edge watering holes where modern “expeditors of dreams” could conjure their own New Worlds far from the eyes and ears of the law and the uninitiated.

“Colusa arrows” notwithstanding, many a brave or foolhardy soul set sail from such a meeting to test his dreams against Ponce’s with a quest for an herbal remedy to a dead-end life. And many came back to their “northernmost city” financially re-born. Others were immortalized in song. While some sailed, most stayed behind and reaped the benefits from those who’d left — either directly as girlfriends and bar owners or indirectly as friends of girlfriends and bar owners.

Off the books and out of the way, Key West (officially in receivership to the State of Florida) and The Green Parrot, prospered. This prosperity came naturally in the unspoken mutual respect shared by those who “survived the ’70’s” – a decade in ample evidence around the bar and increasingly on the ceilings and walls where, bathed in the gaze of the inscrutable “Smirk,” anyone was welcome to savor a drink and to immerse themselves in the Parrot’s cultural collage of altered states.

If these walls could speak, they’d lay down some Kerouac, throw in some tales of Vietnam, soundtrack Hendrix and The Stones, relate tales of ordinary madness and beatific visions, and articulate an understanding of universal brotherhood…or announce a drink special and repeat the process until the message was hopelessly clear.

Green Parrot 2011

This “hippie saloon” immediately became a hotbed for hi-jinks in an island noted for its eccentric local characters and, on sultry summer nights when “you could roll a bowling ball down Duval Street” and hear the footsteps of approaching customers echoing up the street, many a daring prank was hatched to liven up the malaise.

First among these were the fabled appearances of “The Invisible Men” whose silhouettes still grace the walls. Numerous celebrities sought refuge in its cool anonymity, and they got it. But by and large, life at the Parrot, as it always had, reflected the “live and let live” sleepy generosity that had come to characterize Key West — a “last resort” whose tenuous connection to the mainland still more resembled the pre-Flagler days when it was indeed an island unto itself, or the Hemingway Days of the “poor man’s Riviera.”

Inevitable changes were underway.

With the widening of the Seven Mile Bridge, the enlargement of the water conduit from the mainland, the proliferation of international travel, and the steady output of books, photographs, and films, Key West and The Green Parrot were becoming better known, easier to reach, and less primitive.

As the shrimp fleet sailed away, the Navy pulled out, and smuggling history took another hiatus, they were increasingly replaced by visitors determined to experience a little bit of island life and spend some money in “the only Caribbean city you can reach by car.” Enter the New Age of Tourism and the Golden Age of The Parrot as a bastion of living history.

Nothing more defines the “Bean Years” of the Parrot since 1983, and separates the Parrot from all but a few national bars, than its full blown explosion as a mecca for musicians and music aficionados. Locals who’ve received their free musical educations at The Parrot have come to realize that on any given evening or late afternoon they’re likely, for the price of their beer, to hear a world-class talent turn it loose in virtuosic euphoria on a miniscule stage a few feet away.

Though the Blues predominates as the music of choice, virtually any music from any corner of the globe can find its way to the stage. It could be living legends like soca/calypsonian The Mighty Sparrow, “the human jukebox” Sleepy LaBeef, Hot Momma Candy Kayne or NOLA’s Galactic. Perhaps Grammy-bound bands like Miami’s multi-cultural Spam All Stars or young ensembles like Loray Mistik from Haiti. It might be Texas Swing, Delta Blues, Siberian Surfer, Jazz, Reggae, Zydeco, Chicago Blues, Soul, Southern Rock, Bluegrass, Salsa — whatever it is, it’s an experience unmatched in major cities where the same music would cost a pretty penny, you’d pay to park, and you’d be sitting somewhere in a designated seat, off in the distance.

It is the icing on the cake for The Parrot and an ongoing expression of gratitude from its owners to its customers. It goes without saying that navigating this whirlwind of daily derring-do couldn’t take place without the steadying presence of an indefatigable captain at the helm, pacing the deck and keeping all hands at their posts. This rare personage has been none other than John Vagnoni, whose keen ear for music and dedication to his customers has guided The Parrot into the institution it is today.

Now, The Green Parrot is casting off to explore yet more uncharted realms under the enthusiastic ownership of Pat Croce — a man made of energy and a genuine affection for Key West and its swashbuckling history. New Worlds will be discovered!

The Green Parrot has always been much more than a bar. In fact, it’s thoroughly suitable that it and the courthouse opened in the same year. The Green Parrot is the jury of your peers. Through its many incarnations, it has retained a stubborn respect for rugged and ragged individualism – leaving behind a legendary legacy of stupendous misadventures, understated kindnesses, everyday miracles and shoestring catches snatched from the edges of forgetfulness.

For many a wayward soul caught up in the vagaries of modern life, it has provided a measure of hope, comfort, and camaraderie amidst “the tumult of too much,” reassuring one and all that we’re all in this together.

The Parrot’s legendary Friday Happy Hours are the closest thing Key West has to a weekly Town Meeting. It’s been the scene of all manner of human imagination on display, from poetry slams to Bingo, from memorial services to hurricane parties, from pet birthdays and humanitarian flotillas to tattoo contests, workingman’s appreciation afternoons, and fund raising benefits too numerous to mention. The Parrot flies true, from the heart from the start, all the way through, and continues to… for you!

Bud Navero is a Florida-based freelance writer and editor.