At 16, I passed the GED exam, received a high school diploma and was granted emancipation from my parents. I asked my dad if I should join the army. “Hell, no,” he said. “You don’t listen to authority.” I decided to go on the road to the Florida Keys because I heard it was warm there and that there were jobs in the tourist industry. My dad gave me $100, helped me pack and told me, “Take care of your feet. They’re very important.”
When I arrived in Key West, I was penniless and so I slept on the ground under a house a couple of doors down from where Hemingway had lived. I met Trish Halford, a waitress at Antonia’s, an Italian restaurant on Duval Street. She got me a job as a busboy, a dishwasher and then in the kitchen making salads. I moved in with her in a two-bedroom apartment and did Quaaludes with her and smoked weed.
I made friends with Tony Regali, an Italian transplant from New York, and Allen Smith from Miami. We were scavengers; we drove around the islands in Tony’s Ford pick-up truck, salvaged copper and brass and took it to an old Cuban guy who paid us 35 cents a pound. We were also paid by the hotels to remove old air conditioning units which we broke down, gutted and removed the valuable insides. Then we flogged that stuff. On hot afternoons, we cruised the islands, looked for gutted buildings and took out hundreds of pounds of copper wire which we also sold.
Then we came upon something much more valuable: “sea weed” which was the weed that smugglers dumped overboard and into the sea before the DEA could catch them and confiscate the cargo. It was Colombian Gold. Much of it was waterlogged, but some of it was above the high water mark and salvageable. Tony, Allen scooped up the crumbs after the smugglers had come back and gathered the best of the contraband. When we cut into many of the bales and pealed away the outsides, we found a lot of good stuff on the inside.
One day, Tony stops suddenly and shouts. “Quick.” We leapt out of the truck and raced toward the bales he spotted. There was 8 1/2 pounds of “sea weed” which we scooped up, stuffed into garbage bags, tossed in the pickup and took to Tony’s trailer on Marathon Key, an hour or so North on U.S. 1. We smoked a couple of joints, broke the weed down into ounces and half-ounces and then over the next week or so sold to the tourists outside Sloppy Joe’s, The Saloon and The Green Parrot. We made enough money to keep the three of us in the beer for two months, and to make me feel I was on Easy Street.
I had learned a lot about Italian food at Antonia’s, and I liked the owner and his wife, who fed us great pasta every day, but with the money I made from the “sea weed” I didn’t have to work at the restaurant. When the weed ran out, Tony and Allen and I went back to junking and selling it to the old Cuban. “Where the hell have you been?” he asked. “I thought you were all dead.”
At last, I was beginning to feel like I belonged on the islands. I’d hang out at the Pier House Resort and Spa, where I could eat the free food, and where I met gorgeous Monique Modima on the private beach that was “topless optional.” She was sunbathing on a raft. I swam out to meet her. “You’re beautiful,” I told her. I was crazy for her. She had the most beautiful body I had ever seen and she adopted me, though we never did have sex. That was her decision. She was married to a doctor in Atlanta. After she went home, I hitchhiked there and called her; she had given me her phone number. We had dinner in an upscale restaurant and she found me a hotel room.
“I think you’re great and I love you, but I’m a happily married woman,” she said. “Don’t take this any further than it is now.” The next day I left the hotel and went back on the road. When I looked in my backpack there were five $100 bills. Monique must have put them there. No one else had access to my stuff. I made good time getting out of Georgia and the Carolinas. In Lynchburg, Virginia, not far from home, I stuck out my thumb and prayed for a ride. A Pontiac Trans Am flew-by with a blond behind the wheel. Then, suddenly she slams on the brakes, skids to a stop, puts the car in reverse, backs up, opens the window and takes one look at me. “Joey Munson,” she says. “Mrs. Pendergrass,” I say. She was the mother of my best friend and she drove me all the way home.