In the early 1970s, Tom—fresh from a divorce—planned to move to California. Start over. Get a change of scenery. A fresh start. But before he left New Jersey for the West Coast, he decided to fly to Florida for a visit to some friends who lived in Ft. Lauderdale.
Three days after he arrived, he happened to land a job as a DJ in the Library Discotheque at the Hilton hotel. Their DJ had just left, and Tom had owned a record store back in Jersey, so he knew a thing or two about music. The job was his.
Only thing was, he wouldn’t play disco. He just played music he liked. Which wasn’t disco. It shouldn’t have worked—this was the height of the disco era—but it did. The dance floor was packed every night. Tom and the disco’s manager used to bet money on whether Tom could get people dancing. And Tom would win. Every time. But he refused to play disco.
Tom was like that.
Tom was a high school football quarterback, an avid surfer, a record store owner, a natural leader, a brilliant man who always found a way to make things work. Even thing that shouldn’t work.
At the disco, he met a waitress called Chicken. After a season in Ft. Lauderdale, they moved together to Key West. Tom and Chicken didn’t last, but so began a love affair with the Keys that would continue the rest of his life.
There was something about Key West that captivated Tom.
And I can understand why.
Key West isn’t like anywhere else I’ve been. It has the funkiness of San Francisco, the irreverence, without the edge. The tropical air is sweet. Everything is colorful—the fuchsia bougainvillea, the turquoise water, the brilliant oranges of the sunset. Every day, people celebrate the sunset in Mallory Square, where you can watch cats jump through hoops of fire and men walk tightropes. And of course the Cuban food there is amazing—the fried plantains, the black beans, the Cuban sandwiches and Cuban mixes. The café con leche. The flan.
Roosters walk the streets, strutting, causing cars to stop and wait.
Hemingway lived there, in the Conch Republic. Some say that Tennessee Williams wrote a draft of A Streetcar Named Desire in Key West. There’s magic there, in the island closer to Cuba than to Miami.
It was in Key West that Tom and Vicki met. He was working as a project engineer for the Lower Keys Bridges Project, and Vicki had moved to the island to be with her sister, Terri. Vicki landed a job in the office where Tom worked. One day, she walked past an office where Tom was talking to someone. She caught his eye, and a voice in his head said, That’s the girl you’re going to marry.
Later that day, he asked her if she’d give him a ride home; his truck was in the shop. She agreed. On the way back, Tom asked her when they were going to go out together. She said she was dating someone else.
“That’s okay,” he said. “I can wait.”
And so he did.
That was summer. By the following January, they were married.
They left Key West—Tom had gotten a job at Kennedy Space Center, working on the shuttle program—but for the rest of their married life, they took regular visits. They brought the kids there, too, introducing them to the color of the water, the Plumeria-scented air, the Cuban food. And when Jesse and I started dating in high school, they’d take me along too.
In 2004, Jesse and I honeymooned in Key West, in a little bed and breakfast called the Mermaid and the Alligator. After we booked our room, we learned that Tom had once lived there, back when the building had been subdivided into apartments. It was a perfect little oasis—love birds and orchids and palms. Fresh papaya for breakfast. Juicy and sweet. The July heat was intense, but it was a heat we were used to. The sun kissed my bare shoulders, and it felt good.
Eight years later, in 2012, we spent the last weekend of Tom’s life on the island. He lay in a hammock on the beach, smoking a cigar and drinking a piña colada.
That weekend, we drank café con leche from 5 Brothers Grocery, ate Cuban sandwiches and plantain chips from Cuban Coffee Queen down near Mallory Square. We lay on the beach near Tom’s hammock, letting the sun warm us, letting it soak into our bones. We watched the waves gently kissing the sand. We squinted into the sun. We knew it was the last time. We knew it was Tom’s last visit. We knew it was the last time we would all be on this island together. It hurt. It hurt, but it was beautiful.
The next June, we took some of Tom’s ashes back to Key West in a Café Bustelo coffee can, per his wishes. We spread some of him under a palm tree on Higgs Beach and sprinkled some in the water. The day was bright and hot. I was sunburned by the afternoon. But the heat felt good, it felt restorative, as if something deep in me was being warmed again. From the beach we could see the hammocks we had been in that last weekend with Tom.
It was fitting.
This past Monday was Tom’s birthday. He would have been sixty-three. So this weekend, I made Cuban food in memory of him. Ropa vieja, a shredded beef dish, his favorite, along with black beans and rice, fried plantains, flan. The food was good—the ropa vieja tangy and comforting, the flan sweet. It tasted like Key West, a little warmth and heat in the dead of winter. After snow and an ice storm in the past month, it felt good to eat Cuban food, eat the food of the Keys, the food we ate on our honeymoon, the food Tom ate all those years ago when he was falling in love with the island. When he was falling in love with his future wife.
And he’ll always be there, on that island, and it will always be in us. The tropical smells, the goofy tourist shops, the hole-in-the-wall places with the best Cuban mixes, the sweet sweet coffee, the smell of sunscreen, the chickens in the road, the drunks at Sloppy Joe’s, the mopeds and the bleached white Catholic churches and the conch houses and the wet, humid air. All of it.
Ropa Vieja – adapted from GOYA
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 ½ lbs flank steak, cut into 3” x 4” pieces
Adobo with pepper
2 yellow onions, chopped finely
1 ½ – 2 green peppers, chopped finely
6 oz. Sofrito (I used GOYA, but you could certainly use homemade)
6 cloves garlic, chopped finely
1 packet GOYA Sazón with coriander and annatto (don’t skip this)
1 tsp beef “Better Than Bouillon” or 1 beef bouillon cube
¼ tsp black pepper
1 cup olives stuffed with pimientos, sliced
2 oz. capers, drained
1 Tbsp or more fresh cilantro, chopped
1. Heat oil in a large pot. Season beef with adobo and add to pot in batches until well browned. Transfer to a plate. Lower heat to medium. Add onions and peppers and cook until soft, about 10 minutes. Add Sofrito and garlic; cook for about a minute.
2. Add 3 cups water, tomato sauce, Sazón, bouillon, and pepper. Bring to a boil. Return beef to pot. Lower heat to medium low and simmer, covered, for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in olives and capers. Cover pot; simmer another hour to an hour and a half, until meat shreds easily. (Add water if needed.)
3. Remove meat and shred. Bring the sauce to a boil and add back shredded beef. Add cilantro and serve with white rice.