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Most folks can conjure up a meaning when they hear the word “funky.” Like a lot of patois, the word is so loose that a unique definition probably exists for every single human being who has heard the term. “Funky, man.” To get to the true meaning of the word, you’ve gotta travel about as far south as you can go in the Continental United States; down to the Conch Republic. Key West, in layman’s terms. And it’s pronounced Conk — as in a conk on the head.
Natives of Key West are conchs. Anyone who lives there without passing the five-year-in-residence mark is a fresh water conch. It is not good to be a fresh water conch. Animal kingdom conchs (real ones) are very ugly, giant snails that live in beautiful shells. Human conchs say they are good to eat — well then… OK… we’ll take your word for it.
In modern terms, funky refers to a particular rhythm in music. But it later spread from there to reflect a manner of dress and finally came to connote a style of living. You can find it down, way down, in The Conch Republic .
Driving the Overseas Highway from Miami, passing through the little islands that mark the boundary between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, a traveler can feel rhythm in the humps and heaves of the road, hear it as the tires pass over joints in the concrete pavement, and see it in the boats bumping up and down in harbor and cuts.
If funky has a color, then it would be aquamarine to match the varying hues of the shallow waters in this mini-archipelago. So there you are… driving down the Overseas Highway and your RV is undulating gently up and down, in a conga-line of autos, trucks and Rvs; tires boompa-boompa-boom… uuh, boompa-boompa-boom… uuh on the concrete; boats dance on the waves and the color of the sea blends from one shade to the next. It’s a rhythm. It’s funky.
Like zooming in on a map to get more and more detail about a specific place, making the journey to The Conch Republic serves as preparation for understanding the final and true meaning of the word. Funky. Stop half way and you won’t get it, because funky makes initial contact on a subliminal level — preparing cells, nerves and digestive apparatus to dance, eat and embrace life in The Conch Republic. Without this preparation, you doom yourself to an unenlightened existence. Cold. Dull. Pragmatic. Unaware. Worse than a fresh-water conch.
Vibrations now in tune, cross the last bridge over Cow Key Channel and drop into Key West — divided by old and new. Turn right at the light and drive along the gulf shore where all the modern conveniences — Verizon, Walgreens, Publix, Mattress Discounters — line one side of the road. Turn left at the light following the Atlantic shoreline and swing into Old Key West.
Stay in the conga line until you reach Duval Street. This is the essence, the true heart of funky. You are now down-way-down. Soak it in. Gay bars, a Gentlemen’s Club, a clothing-optional bar, shops, wild roosters, restaurants, and houses dating back to the 19th century mingle on the narrow street. Tennessee Williams wrote “A Street Car Named Desire” here. Ernest Hemingway lived a few blocks from Duval Street. In those days, the island was known only as Key West, and its inhabitants were mostly conchs.
The Conch Republic came about much later — 1982. According to legend, federal agents closed the highway and checked each mainland-bound car to see if it transported illegal aliens. The funky conga line transformed into a burning fuse, miles and miles long. Officials in Key West asked the agents to desist. The agents refused. In that moment, The Conch Republic sprang into being. Key West seceded from the United States and declared war.
The conch army assembled outside the Navy Base, dressed in full uniform: flip-flops, shorts, T-shirts and a can of beer. They lobbed a few eggs and other debris at bewildered sailors and immediately surrendered, then made a request for foreign aide. Later, the new country — which has never rejoined the Union — adopted the motto
“We seceded where others failed.”
Often, a cool breeze zephyrs in from the Atlantic. It blows down Duval Street and dips under hurricane shutters and then through the tall windows of 19th Century Key West. Perspiration evaporates leaving a sensual salty residue over most of the body.
Older folks sit under their tiki-huts with a cocktail and remember the warm, zephyr filled afternoons of youth and the sensual residue lingering on another’s body as fingers drift
slowly all the way down the long indentation of a lover’s back. Sigh. Getting old is not funky.