by Annette Holmstrom
As a fierce squall line from the Gulf zeroed in on Key West’s Coffee Butler Amphitheater, Dave Barry pivoted from prepared notes.
“I have notes and Carl never does,” Barry had reminded us earlier, as he waved paper at Hiassen, his long-time friend and fellow Florida humorist. Barry had teed up, then launched, punchline-perfect Sunshine State stories for the two of them to tell, a buddy movie romp for the literary set.
Before the talk, Seminar Director Arlo Haskell said that Barry had asked if he’d ever kicked someone out before (no). So as the plot complication of hurricane-force winds threatened our scene, one could imagine these merry pranksters plotting such mayhem backstage. What better way to blow up a staid literary crowd, just settling in after lunch? It was as if we’d been plopped in the middle of Hiassen’s novel Stormy Weather, for real.
And so, the pivot. Barry teed things up:
“Now we’re going to take just a moment to discuss hurricane preparation. What do they always tell us? First of all, there’s nothing to worry about, but you’re all going to die.”
The topic now launched, Barry and Hiassen unleashed a torrent of impromptu jokes, with helpful instructions:
– When a hurricane approaches, where should we go? To Publix. That’s where everyone goes.
– While there, buy useless 9-volt batteries; they’re all that’s left. Buy food, all of which you’ll eat while waiting weeks for the hurricane to arrive.
– The cardboard plants onstage are fake, and if hurricane winds come here, they’re going to slice off some heads. The duo didn’t mention how stacks of books in the book tent would make perfect airborne decapitation missiles, but they could have. They had us thinking about it now.
– But don’t worry. You’ll have eaten so much you’ll be too heavy to blow away.
Earlier, the tee-up was pythons.
Barry claimed that Hiassen had an ‘unnatural fondness’ for reptiles, but Hiassen defended himself: “For Norwegians like me, snakes are an appealing pet, because they give you unconditional indifference.”
Barry refuses to touch them, ever. The reptilian love/hate dynamic fueled numerous stories, as Hiassen shared how Barry wrapped up an egg for a wedding gift, but refused to say what type of egg it was. Just that “you should get a cage before it hatches.” It never hatched, since Barry gave the egg to his wife. She put it in the freezer.
Which is, in fact, the way to deal with invasive species. When Hiassen described the proper euthanizing procedure, Barry recoiled. “So I’m supposed to catch this thing I don’t want to touch, somehow put it in the freezer, and stay married somehow?”
Hiassen replied, “See? People like you, Dave, are the reason we haven’t been able to solve the invasive species problem.”
Finally, cruise ships.
When an audience member asked about Key West cruise ship concerns, Hiassen turned from the easy jokes to go for the hard stuff.
“It’s unbelievable. When the vote is overwhelmingly against letting them in, and someone gives someone $950,000, and a politician figures out how to overturn that election with the entire legislature backing him up? It’s a disgrace.”
By this time, tarp-colored plastic ponchos dotted the crowd as wind-driven blasts of rain swirled under the amphitheater’s sails. So Barry pivoted to the denouement:
He asked, “Where are the Bum Farto t-shirts?” and expressed disappointment that few recognized Farto, a 1970’s Key West fire chief/turned drug trafficker who vanished.
Right after that audience members bolted for cover, with Bum Farto’s name echoing in their minds.
Annette Holmstrom is a Seattle-based travel writer, currently working on her first novel.