July 20, 2011

LOCATION: Salute! On The Beach, 1000 Atlantic Boulevard, Key West, Florida
THEME: Lunch with a tightrope walker

Will Soto came to Key West with friends for a brief visit. He planned to see the town, maybe have a few too many drinks, kick back and relax. That was 30 years ago.

He’s been a resident of the Florida island ever since. Based on my own trip down there this July, it’s easy to see the attraction. Key West is a quiet place where the people are welcoming, the weather is often perfect and the pace of life wonderfully laid back. There also appears to be a seemingly infinite number of outstanding restaurants, their specialties being delicious fish caught that day.

One such restaurant was Salute! On The Beach, the venue for my lunchtime interview with Will. After spending an hour in his company at this waterfront establishment I’ve come to the conclusion that every Dining With Strangers interview should take place in similar environs.

It was the day after my 31st birthday celebrations and I was somewhat under the weather from the late night before. Will picked me up from my hotel and on the drive to Salute he kept breaking into a raspy but warm laugh as I explained last night’s misadventures.

As a former navy man Will said he was all too familiar with nights of rampage at watering holes, though these days his lifestyle runs at a far more reasonable pace. He chose Salute because it was “typical Key West,” which he defined as casual and tropical.

A gymnast, personal trainer and tightrope walker, Will has an athletic build that puts my doughy 31-year-old body to shame against his lean 65-year-old frame, which is dotted with colorful tattoos and topped off with a thick head of long white hair, pulled back into a pony tail. Entirely at ease with himself, Will’s soft-spoken style is peppered with just enough knowing winks and chuckles to hint at a lifetime of experiences good and bad, some of them probably not fit for print on this family friendly website.

At Salute a cheerful waitress showed us to an outside table overlooking a man-made, sandy beach where tourists and locals were sunning themselves. Mercifully a large awning covered the tables and hid us from the baking noon sun. It was a welcome respite for my pasty British skin, which was otherwise turning a delightful lobster-red shade while in the Sunshine State.

Salute is a nicely low-key place with tables spread just far apart from each other that diners aren’t distracted by conversation from the other tables. Perfect for a lazy lunch.

We toasted our upcoming meal with glasses of water — sparkling for Will, still for me — before passersby shouted a hello to my dining companion. Turns out he’s something of a local celebrity, and the strangers were congratulating him on another good show.

Five nights a week Will takes his tightrope-walking skills to Mallory Square, a pier with a long history of attracting street performers who entertain crowds while they wait for the picturesque sunset. As I’d learn later that night watching Will’s performance, he draws a big, cheerful crowd. Seems the shouts of praise from passersby is pretty typical for him.

Though he’s now a fixture in Key West, Will’s originally from Chicago and straight from high school did a stint in the navy. “Incidentally, my navy ship pulled in here when I was in service. That was my first little peek of Key West,” he said, noting it was a much different town back then, packed more with casual smugglers and servicemen than today’s tourists.

When he got out of the navy, Will went to Southern Illinois University before heading down to Austin, where he lived for a year, but that was about all he could take. “I liked Austin but I did not like the rest of Texas, it’s like an oasis in the middle of a conservative wasteland.”

Following Austin it was on to New Orleans. There are two constant interests in his life — gymnastics from his high school days and arts and crafts. It was the latter that he focused on in the Big Easy by working as a sculptor. At the same time he was also showing some of his work in galleries and traveling to arts festivals up and down the United States from Minnesota to Miami.

“Key West is so green and so lush and so tropical

His move to Key West came about entirely by what he called “happenstance.”

It was 1976. Will was still touring the art festival circuit and traveled to Miami to exhibit at a large art show. A friend met him there and told him he was living in Key West, inviting Will to visit. He was initially reluctant and planned instead to head home to New Orleans. But then came a rather heavy night out in Miami that would soon change his life.

“After going out and partying in Miami, I woke up in the back of my other friend’s van with all my stuff and my dog crossing bridges. He goes, ‘Come on, I’m kidnapping you.’ I said, ‘Okay, I’ll stay for a few days, then I’ve got to go back.’”

After spending a few days in Key West, he was smitten. “I said this place is kind of nice, it smells so sweet, there’s flowers blooming 12 months a year, everything’s so green and so lush and so tropical, the ocean was beautiful, so I was feeling good about it already.” A big contrast from his brief visit while in the navy, which Will said was mostly spent in bars.

His relocation from New Orleans to Key West a few years later in 1981 was secured following a visit to Mallory Square, which back in those days wasn’t the tourist hub it is now. Instead it was a place for locals to gather, dangle their feet over the pier and into the water and share a glass of wine or a toke of something stronger as the sun set over the island. “When I went to Mallory Square and saw everybody there gathering and watching the sunset and whatnot, I thought, ‘I could get used to this,’” Will said.

The Mallory Square celebrations signaled the beginning of the evening, with people singing, playing drums, others skinny dipping. There was nobody to offend back then. “We’d get out the limbo stick and do the limbo and the drummers would play and it was like some great tropical beach party you wish you had stumbled upon somewhere and I had stumbled on it,” Will said. “It was one of the last hippie hangouts that I had seen, especially on the East Coast.”

Will had been tinkering with some public performing while working as an artist in New Orleans’ Jackson Square, and stepped it up when he settled in Key West. Already a skilled juggler, he began drawing crowds in Mallory Square with a juggling and magic show. Occasionally he’d mix it up with some Houdini-style escapes. Then he started to get interested in rope-walking, which now forms the grand finale of his nightly performances down on the pier.

One day he was visiting a friend who used to work for the circus. The friend had a practice wire in his backyard three feet off the ground. “I just jumped up on it to give it a try and I knew it immediately when I got on there, I could do this, it feels comfortable. So I started working on it. It was probably a year before I performed on it,” Will said.

The correct word for the art of rope-walking and wire-walking is funambulism (from the Latin words “funis” for rope and “ambulare” for walking). There are different types of funambulism, including the tight-wire on steel cables that Will typically uses at the pier, and tightrope, which is walking on a natural rope made of hemp or another material.

Over the years he’s practiced till it made perfect, saying the easiest way to learn how to tightrope walk is to keep doing it until you quit falling off.

He also has more detailed advice for anyone interested in funambulism. “I would say two words that would describe it the best would be ‘focus’ and ‘relaxation’. You have to relax, you have to go fluidly because if you’re tight, you’re jerky in your movement, it throws you even more off balance, so you’ve got to be really relaxed. And you’ve got to focus.”

Will’s developed his tightrope-walking, juggling and banter with the public into a neat routine for Mallory Square five times a week, two to three shows a night. But even with his experience Will said that every night up on that steel cable in front of the tourists in Mallory Square is just like the first time, and there are many factors that could screw things up, from the wind to the tension of the cable. All the time he’s walking the wire about nine feet off the ground with no mats below. If he falls he’s going to hit concrete. “It’s still enough to bust your back so you gotta pay attention.”

It’s important to Will to keep tabs on all those small factors that could make the difference between hearing the roar of a crowd or the siren of an ambulance. “If you don’t have it exactly right you’re going to be working your butt off. When everything’s just right I feel like I’m on the ground. When it’s not right you’ll see sweat just running off me because I’m working so hard,” he said.

“Gymnastics is fun once you learn to trust yourself

Thankfully Will’s only ever taken a serious tumble once in his years of tightrope-walking. A nearby performer had been using WD40 to clean their equipment. Taking a hefty whiff of the chemical fumes, Will lost his balance. He landed hard on his back, but broke the fall with his arms. He asked two men in the crowd to help him up slowly, and happily found that nothing was broken. Then with a wink he told the men that the fall was all part of his act.

That was an isolated incident, one reason being that Will credits his lifelong passion for gymnastics in helping keep his balance on the steel wire.

“Gymnastics is fun once you learn to trust yourself, and for that reason I highly recommend it to all my friends because it helps you in all other aspects of your life mentally. It teaches you how to believe in yourself, how to trust when you’re upside down, going somewhere where you can’t see, to trust your instincts,” he said.

Will told me I’d get to see his show that night at Mallory Square. The timing was perfect. I could have lunch, wrap up the interview, nap, get over my hangover and see him perform.

Right on cue the waitress aided my recovery plan by delivering lunch. Though I spent most of my time in Key West indulging in a variety of white fish meals, that lunchtime my unsettled stomach led me to play it safe with a Caprese salad served with grilled chicken.

The portion was generous and the mozzarella, tomato and greens all pleasantly fresh. The dressing’s vinegar flavor was quite strong but not overwhelming. Loading a slice of everything onto the fork, including the perfectly cooked, juicy chicken, the overall taste was familiar in a good way. Nothing groundbreaking but it was a well-done version of a safe dining option.

Will chose the Gorgonzola salad with chicken. The serving size was again generous, he said it was enough for lunch and dinner. I didn’t try his dish but he said it was excellent.

As we ate, Will looked out on the beach that lay just a few footsteps from the restaurant. “Before this all was suntan lotion and cabanas, in the late ’70s and early ’80s I learned to windsurf here, I used to windsurf off this beach. I spent a lot of time on the beach,” he said.

That led into a conversation about the older days of Mallory Square. Apparently the city of Key West in the 1980s was looking to tourism as a new industry for the island, and got a little nervous about the pot smoking and skinny dipping at the sunset celebrations. It wanted to attract cruise ships and their rich passengers, and made a push to shut down the celebrations and make the pier exclusively a cruise port. “That was the first growing pains of the sunset celebration,” Will said.

Several of the Mallory Square performers got together and held some community meetings to save their place on the pier. The performers were wowed by the response, winning support from many residents and merchants on nearby Duval Street, which these days is lined by bars and restaurants. People would go up the street toward the pier, watch the sunset, then head back down Duval Street and spend their money in the dining and drinking establishments, creating a boost to the local economy.

“When I first came here, Key West was like a frontier town

The popular supported prompted Will and six others in 1984 to form a non-profit corporation called the Key West Cultural Preservation Society. They ended up reaching a deal with the city to lease the pier for the evening’s sunset celebrations. The cruise ships lines didn’t care, they wanted to arrive at Key West in the morning and get people back on the boats well before the sunset celebrations began so passengers would spend money at night in the on-board casinos and restaurants.

With a lease in place and the future of the celebrations guaranteed, the gang of seven then formed a committee to screen the artists. They wanted to make sure that anyone selling artwork at Mallory Square could prove their goods were handmade. “And then we have a performers committee that kind of screens the new performers that come in just to make sure that they’re not a danger to themselves — well, we’re all a danger to ourselves — but at least not to the crowd.”

The performers work in harmony, never competing for tourists at the same time. For example, when Will’s done with his set a performer next to him will start up. “If you’ve been doing it any amount of time and pay attention you realize that it just cuts both your throats when two guys right next to each other will be working at the same time, it splits your crowd,” he said.

Will kicks off his routine with some juggling and banter when he has roughly a dozen people in front of him. There’s no official starting time. “It’s a little bit different each night depending on who’s there and how early they come. It’s what the load will bear.”

Mallory Square has changed over the 30 years Will’s been in Key West, and its rich history has prompted Will to start work on a book about the sunset celebrations. “They had to get homogenized a little bit for the middle American tourists because it was pretty nutty,” he said. “When I first came here, Key West was like a frontier town, there was hardly any tourists, everybody was smuggling, the police, the firemen, everybody in the city government, the teachers, everybody was smuggling.”

The smugglers moved contraband liquor, drugs and other goods. But the Coast Guard’s increased presence over the years has tempered the smuggling and nowadays Key West is a tourist’s haven of relaxation, fine food and great weather. Having witnessed Will’s show and other Mallory Square performers, I can recommend the sunset celebrations.

After some juggling and tricks Will works the crowd up into egging him on to get on the steel wire. He pretends to do so reluctantly before wowing his audience with a juggling routine atop the wire. I put up pictures from Will’s routine rather than video, because his performance is definitely something best seen in person rather than online. Judging from the reaction of the tourists at the show I saw, I’m not the only person that feels that way.

Will said he likes the back-and-forth with his crowds, playing people from different states or countries off each other. “All you got to do is go to one state and ask them about the state next door and they’ll tell you everything, they all have their little rivalries going,” he said.

In addition to adoration from visitors, the nightly celebrations also brought Will love as he met his wife at Mallory Square one night after his show. She’s 17 years younger than Will and was about 32 years old at the time they met. She said she’d been watching his shows since she was 13. “It’s a good thing I didn’t pursue that, I’d still be in jail,” Will said as he burst into his throaty laugh. But seeing as his future wife had reached the far more reasonable age of 32, they got together.

Perhaps subconsciously, while talking about his wife Will rubbed at a tattoo on his wedding finger that takes the place of a ring. Juggling would damage a ring, and he didn’t want to have to keep taking a ring on and off every day. So he and his wife decided to get ring finger tattoos in the place of wedding bands. Apparently the Sotos are fond of body art. His wife is now working on a full back tattoo. “They’re like signposts on the road of your life they tell about what you’re going through at that period of your life, things like that,” he said.

As we wrapped up lunch with cups of café con leche — a satisfyingly mild and milky coffee popular throughout Key West — I asked Will if he and his wife intend to be on the island another 30 years.

Will said he retired once about five years ago. He moved with his wife to North Carolina. “My wife and I love it up there because number one it’s real quiet and peaceful.” They indulged their love of kayaking and had a great time. But six months later they moved back to Key West, the lure of island life and the fun of performing in Mallory Square proving irresistible.

“I’m not closing the discos anymore

Separate from his routine Will also teaches tai chi and taekwondo, in addition to working as a personal trainer in his home gym. He also gives kayak tours advertised only through word of mouth, taking tourists off the beaten path for a special look around the island.

He’s a busy man. He paces himself with a regular routine, waking up around 6:30 am to walk his dogs then have a coffee and read the paper. After that he’ll work out for a few hours then take care of whatever business he has that day before taking a nap. Around 4 pm he’ll get up to get ready for his show. It’s a slower pace of life than his hard-partying navy days. “I said to somebody the other day, I’m not closing the discos anymore. They said there’s no more discos left. You’ve just dated yourself.”

But there’s nothing dated about Will. His energy is constant and the man gives off a pleasant vibe, and was nothing but supportive of my hangover recovery. I told him that being hungover for the interview was a poor move on my part, but he didn’t care. Hanging out with him is a great experience for listening to someone who’s been there, done that, lived to tell the tale and happy to joke about it.

Not that he’s shutting the bars down anymore. The packed agenda of training, kayaking and tightrope-walking keeps him busy until he gets into bed at a reasonable time.

“I used to go out literally and stay on the road for five, six months out of the year, working, going all over working for festivals, special events. And you know that was the life, going to all different cities, meeting new people, going to all the new clubs, staying out all night, partying,” Will said.

He took a final gulp of coffee. As we rose from the table he flashed me another wink and grin. “Now I just want to go home and work on my garden,” he said.

Quick shout out to thank Carol Shaughnessy of NewMan PR for putting me in touch with Will. NewMan PR is responsible for the Florida Keys’ official tourism website.

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