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REDISCOVERING KEY WEST // By Night

Long after the sun went down on the other side of Mallory Dock, when the night-blooming jasmine rode the ocean breezes that funneled down the narrow lanes of Old Town, Key West was at its best.

That was a couple of decades ago, before gentrification: The shady old town was extremely enticing in dim lights.

At night, you never knew who you might find on Duval Street: Tennessee Williams riding his rickety old bike, both hands on the handlebars and a lighted cigarette between his lips; the leathery old man with the pet iguana; the pretzel man, who would sit on a bar stool and twist his legs around his head like an octopus; and the gorgeous transvestites, who flirted with unsuspecting young men from out of town.

But Duval Street, Key West's main street, has undergone some unseemly changes in recent years _ namely T-shirt shops and lounge singers. "Trashed" is how old-timers describe it.

At night, parts of the street are as bright as a Kmart with unflattering blasts of fluorescent lights from rows of T-shirt shops.

Duval Street had sunk to a thudding low, I thought, as I read the T-shirts in the windows screaming such eloquent messages as "Help, I've fallen and I can't reach my beer!" And "So many bars, so little time."

Williams and Ernest Hemingway, another old-time resident, would surely be ticked off by this dull-witted drivel.

To find out how bad it really was, I walked the 5,810 feet from the Gulf of Mexico end of Duval to the Atlantic Ocean at the other end. Then back.

The good news: As the hour grew late, and the moon got high, and the temperature dropped 15 or so degrees, the street got more intriguing. It's trashed, but some of old Key West remains.

The man with the pet iguana, a fixture for decades, was gone, but I met Bruce, the 10-foot snake, wrapped around his owner.

Starting place _ the Sunset Pier, an outdoor cafe attached to the huge Ocean Key House hotel. It's as far as you can go on the gulf end of Duval.

Dozens of what appeared to be well-dressed young honeymooners slow-danced as Lenore and Michelle sang _ "We had it all, just like Bogie and Bacall . . . "

A Cuban fisherman on the end of the pier wisely had thought to bring a Walkman.

The next stop was the Quay bar, where the featured performer crooned that "It's in his kiss." She could have been at any airport hotel lounge. Pretty depressing, and seemingly predictable as entertainment that would go with the big hotels at that end of the island.

The music, and listeners, got more rambunctious on the next block, starting with the rock band at Hog's Breath, where a dozen Harleys were parked next to rented convertibles.

The landmark Tony's Saloon, a half-block off Duval on the next street, also had a rock band. This was Hemingway's favorite bar, and there's still no air conditioning. It has always been a reliable hangout for Old Town residents, and on this night a dozen of them sat at the bar, away from the fray on Duval.

The next block was a battle zone of warring bands from Sloppy Joe's, Rick's Place across the street, Dirty Harry's next door and Rum Runners. These are the stops of choice for young, drunk anglers. The colliding bands were either exhilarating or unbearable, depending on the listener's degree of inebriation.

Fast-forward two blocks south to Celebrities bar. Latin couples of all ages danced to the salsa rhythms of Caribe. The older dancers were in perfect, fluid motion.

Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville was next, and a Buffett-like acoustic band played angler tunes. Across the street was the Copa, the island's premier gay club, where guys danced in a silver cloud of disco lights.

The best place on Duval was the San Carlos Institute, its extravagant Spanish baroque exterior splendidly spotlighted. The Cuban cultural center has been sacred ground for Cubans since 1871, when it was founded by exiles who came to Key West to organize Cuban independence.

It was empty and abandoned for 20 years before restoration began in the late 1980s. It opened Jan. 2, 1992, 100 years to the day since Cuban patriot Jose Marti first visited. It's a museum, library, school and theater.

At the ocean end of Duval, gentle waves lapped a sandy cove _ an oasis of tranquility compared to the other end of Duval.

A full moon is always the best part of a night in Key West.

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