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It’s 10:30 p.m. and I’d be wiping down the kitchen and running the dishwasher if I were home. Instead, I’m sunburned and half-tipsy and the night is just beginning. I’m sandwiched between three friends and a group of inebriated college guys who are nowhere near the loudest ones here. In fact, if I weren’t walking near them I might not hear them over the din of the crowd, the horns and engines, and the four different strains of music blaring from the bars. 

A drag queen stops a group of couples, all Baby Boomers, and hands them the flyer for tonight’s show. The women chat with the star until a gaggle of rowdy bachelorettes nearly plow them off the sidewalk. I smell New York pizza, which is impossible, because I’m in Florida, and then I forget the pizza when I’m distracted by a married couple in their thirties making out against the side of the building. 

I know they’re married, because they wear wedding bands and carry the requisite bag of souvenirs. They’re also dressed nicely enough, but neither have dressed to impress anyone else. They smile as they kiss each other playfully and I wonder if their kids are at home with grandparents or if the grandparents are on vacation as well and it’s just their night out. What bliss – the stolen night, the easy freedom to just be lovers again. 

It is the people-watching I love best in Key West. I’m not much of a drinker and the beaches are finer elsewhere in the Keys. It’s a glorious tourist-trap but a tourist-trap nonetheless. No, I come to observe people. They’re lighter here, and freer. Good girls do slightly naughty things and feel great about doing it; no one is a slut on Duval Street because no one is really watching. Everyone’s just too busy being

I’ve been to Las Vegas, and Key West is not Las Vegas. Key West lacks Sin City’s excessive, orgiastic air. People aren’t here for excess, they’re here for freedom. That’s clear in the art galleries, where airbrushed fiberglass stingrays fetch upwards of $1000; it’s clear in the Leather Master, with its BDSM Barbies posed throughout the self-proclaimed “Toy Shop for the Adventurous”; it’s clear in the sunset worship at Mallory Square. Key West is a place that feels like home when I go there, and I think it’s because it feels so free. And I’m not alone – from my experiences people-watching on Florida’s most fascinating street, I can safely say a whole lot of people find their freedom here.

That’s what makes the people-watching so fantastic. I love to be a fly on the wall, and it’s perfect here. Everyone is happy. The trip to Key West takes me down highways full of exhausted drivers, into gas stations and grocery stores full of harried working folks, and past busy airports. But on Duval Street, the shackles of daily life are shed. No one is concerned with which gas station has the lowest price by a penny or whether to mow the grass before or after dinner. The new office dress policy is forgotten. Final exams are a lifetime away. The kids are in bed or having a really fun time eating kettle corn and watching Disney Channel with the grandparents. Life is good. So good. 

I make my pilgrimage once a year. Every April I wander through the tables of Key West-themed tchotchkes as the sun blazes in the horizon, and I can imagine why people once worshiped the sun when I see it through the eyes of the awestruck crowd. I take a picture at the Southernost point buoy and I talk to the chickens who wander happily through the yards. I peek over the wall at Hemingway’s and try to catch a glimpse of a six-toed cat napping in the sun. And I watch people get free and happy. 

It’s the one place I sometimes think, What if I just packed a bag…? I love the thought of absorbing all that positive energy every day. Even just thinking about it now I’m smiling. It’s life as it should be: unhurried, come-as-you-are, a beautiful bohemian mecca. 

Plus there are the chickens. Those damn chickens. Those beautiful, free, happy chickens.