November 11, 2008
cricket reads to capt. tony in the backyard . photograph by michael blades
THE LAST MANGO IN PARIS l CAPTAIN TONY TARRACINO
by Cricket Desmarais
I’m sitting in a world-famous bar built around a tree from which 77 criminals were hung, feeling a bit like a rebel drinking a Corona on a Tuesday afternoon. I’m not there to drink, per se, or to enjoy the live music I’ve heard for so many years emanating out of this little dark bar covered in business cards and bras, so much as I am to collect the real story about a man that’s so infamously famous, he’s been dubbed “the salt of Key West” by the New York Times.
And I’m a little nervous he may have forgotten about me. He is, after all, nearing 91. But then a car pulls up and I see a flash of white hair and feet decked out with house slippers behind the car door that is now slowly opening. Out steps the ultimate rebel himself — Captain Tony Tarracino — former bookie, shrimper, gun-runner, gravedigger and mayor, as well as father, husband and general legend of lust, love and lore.
We make our introductions and tuck ourselves into a corner to keep us free from distractions, where I quickly learn there is no such thing when it comes to this man. Captain Tony is like a rock star or a celebrity of sorts — people recognize him and want a little piece of who he is. He is more than happy to oblige. Within minutes, a small crowd has gathered nearby.
“My daughter,” he announces to the crowd, motioning to Josie, who has just returned from parking the car. “One of 13.”
They balk, kindly.
“Where you folks from?” he starts in. The bantering goes on for some time, and then he says “I’m gonna tell you a joke to make you happy.” He points to me and says, “I’m taking you home.”
“I gotta tell you girls,” he adds. “The advantage you have. Every woman has a little bit of whore in them.”
More laughter, except from me. Sure, I’m half-smiling, but my professional footing feels more than a bit shaky. I figure I better roll with it, though, or I’m in for a tough run with this legendary figure who clearly plays by his own set of rules. But this captain’s not insensitive, either; He sees my discomfort and quickly shifts his game. Later he’ll confess that, “in the end, if you want to win people, go to sex. It’s the bottom line.”
“I come here from 7 to 10,” he says, “and tell stories. I sign their boobies, I sign their bellybuttons. You can’t believe what I do.”
There’s a long pause, as if he’s reflecting on the hours of storytelling he’s done over the many years here in his namesake saloon. But then he says, “No one honestly has really done me. The way I feel it should be.” He hands me a manila envelope filled with articles, photos and letters from his children. “No one really captures what I think they should have captured.”
“Which is what?” I ask him.
“The truth, without the bullshit. Sometimes my language is rough. Sorry about that.”
His eyes peer into mine. Right then and there, I decide that I’ve been given unspoken permission to reveal something below the surface of this man, something far beyond the shtick he performs to the people that seek it. A story he hasn’t told. Only I have no idea what that is.
“You got something that I like,” he says. “I can tell. I can tell people that are human beings. I have some things I’ve never said and I’d like someone to carry the message. All I ask is that somewhere you put down that Captain Tony wanted you to help carry the torch.”
“I’ll do my best,” I say, and for the next few hours, I just sit and listen, taking it all in.
Captain Tony’s bad-boy reputation of bootlegging, smuggling, gambling, booze-loving and womanizing has become the backbone of his now larger-than life and iconoclastic image. Most people who know anything about him know that he hitchhiked to Key West in 1947 with $12 in a milk truck, on the lam from the mafia, his lucky streak of gambling coming to an almost fatal halt. They’ve more than likely heard he became a shrimper and a skipper of a charter boat (coincidentally called “Greyhound,” dogs he loved to bet on at the old race track out on Stock Island). That he caught what is reportedly the largest tiger shark on record (12 feet long, now pictured in the Smithsonian), took care of Tennessee Williams’ pet monkeys, and participated in the Haitian invasion and the Bay of Pigs rescue in the ‘50s and ‘60s. And certainly they’ve heard about his two terms as mayor, with Jimmy Buffett as his campaign manager, a friend who the Captain paid in six-packs in exchange for playing at his bar before Jimmy became a Key West icon himself.
“The two best years of my life,” he touts of his time in the political hot-seat, where he unabashedly called a spade a spade, unveiling real estate scams and helping establish a two-year moratorium on big development.
“When I ran for mayor, they were calling me a dirt-bag,” he recalls. “But The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal ran <positive> editorials about me.
And rightfully so. He achieved more than just glory and a title by winning that 1989 race (“We won by 31 votes. 28 were hookers,” he says), helping the city get state assistance to create firmer financial footing, boosting the economy and proving it could be done without outside investors who would inevitably come in and change the face of the island.
“Tell me what you think a rebel is,” I ask, alluding to the theme of this issue.
“A rebel is a very honest person. He’s not afraid, he’ll say what he believes. A rebel is not interested in what the reaction is or what people think. This is my life. That’s it.
“A rebel does not give a damn if it’s gonna hurt him, if it’s gonna help him. He’s not interested if a person believes him or not. This is me, this is what I feel.”
He recounts a story of buying the saloon.
“You gotta remember I’m going back to the ‘50s, the first gay bar, out-and-out gay bar, in Florida. It was called the last … well, something. A great guy from Pennysylvania. Didn’t even sell beer. Way upscale, way ahead of its time.
“I came to this bar, I was making a lot of money fishing, and I was having an affair with a Navy wife, who I married later on. The big scandal was me having an affair with the navy officer’s wife. But the BIG scandal was the big doctor in town made the mother superior of the church pregnant. But I was the one they talked about.”
People don’t talk about people that are boring, so the saying goes.
“There isn’t anybody in the world that don’t have enemies,” he adds later on. “You don’t know why. In fact, I have two people in Key West that destroyed me. For no reason.”
We talk local politics for a while, exchange stories about the misuse of power, how one can quickly be side-swiped for speaking out too loudly or standing up for something unconventional or unpopular.
“This is history,” he reminds me, and then adds, “I’m blackballed. I’m really blackballed,” shaking his head in disbelief.
Then another crowd comes in, and the Captain switches gears, not missing a beat. They gather around him, smiling and taking photos.
“They’re real, man,” he says, cupping one woman’s breasts. “You guys are lucky.
Oh my God. Take me home.”
They soon leave and he turns his attention back to me and calmly asks, “Now where were we? See, that’s what happens. Every Friday, Saturday, Sunday. It keeps me young. Now how are you going to describe that?”
Real. If there’s one word I would use to describe Captain Tony, that would be it. Genuine, fundamental, essential — serving as the quintessential reminder to be more ourselves without apology, to stand up and do what we feel is right — even at the risk of seeming unpopular, of getting blackballed or beaten down.
These are things he learned long ago, growing up in the ghettos where he “was always a fighter, and always for the underdog.” He was a also “a labor organizer and supported the gays,” the hard knocks of his own life adding up to something that made him more than willing and able to embrace the diversity Key West is so well known for. Refusing to posture as a victim, he instead focuses on the positive and keeps a pro-active attitude. He remains open to the world as it presents itself to him, with a sense of wonder and humor that keeps him moving forward without pretense or regret.
“My secret is — I’m confessing now — if I can make people laugh, if I can make them smile, if I can make them feel good about themselves, I don’t want nothing.”
But he knows when to shelve the humor, too, getting dead serious at the drop of a dime.
“The world is changed. The whole nation is disappearing. We can’t speak anymore. They take all these kids and put them in college and all they teach them is the right answers — Don’t offend anybody — Money is God — Money is everything. And they don’t even know how to use it. They don’t even know how to buy good food. All they know is automobiles and houses. So when they come out of college, you got a bunch of blanks.”
Later, inside the packet he’d given me “to help me with my interview,” I find photocopies of articles from The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and the Miami Herald and photographs of his fishing days, the skipper on docks lined up with tremendous grouper and other salty dogs from days and ways gone by. But most telling is an old school assignment from the very daughter (now a graduate student of psychology) that brought him to the interview, given to him on some far-gone Father’s day:
I was upstairs doing my weekend homework when my phone rang. Too lazy to strain her voice, my mother was calling to tell me dinner was ready. I hurried downstairs and plopped into my chair.
I noticed my Dad’s place at the table wasn’t set and I was wondering where he was. No sooner had I had that thought than he came down the stairs in a pair of tuxedo pants and a white dress shirt. He went to the mirror and began combing back his wet hair. He slicked it back and then made sure he had a clean shave around his grey beard. It was Fantasy Fest night and my Dad was to be on a float playing the one and only Capt. Tony. As he fastened the cufflinks on his shirt, he panically yelled, “Where’s my tie?”
“Right here,” I said, waving it in the air.
My mother helped him put on the tie and he smoothly slipped into his jacket. He added some Old Spice cologne — he has to smell good for the women — looked into the mirror one last time, and replied more to himself than us, “Your old man doesn’t look bad.” I secretly rolled my eyes. This was Capt. Tony the hustler and womanizer. He placed his top hat on his head and with a twinkle in his eyes, walked out the door.
The next morning, I came downstairs to get breakfast. And as always, there was my dad. A cup of coffee and The Key West Citizen sat in front of him on the table. A cigarette was secured between his lips and the Weather Channel was on T.V. He had been transformed overnight. Capt. Tony was now the skinny old man in pin-striped pajamas that I saw every morning. His hair never combed and his main concern being what the lotto numbers from the night before were. “Good morning, daughter,” he’d say in an annoying New York accent, nagging at me because I was getting up at noon. “Good morning,” I’d have to yell, because he keeps his hearing aids off until he’s done reading the papers.
I never really look at my dad as the famous figure of Key West. He’s just my dad. Every now and then I get a glimpse of Capt. Tony and it amazes me how well he plays the part.
“The greatest thing I ever did,” he tells me during our interview, “I raised all my kids. Lucky.”
More than all his high-powered adventures and misadventures, it is his love of his family—the one he was born into and especially the one he made with the women he loved— that has given him his biggest sense of success.
“I made women my life.” He says. And then, with great pause, “I lost three of them. To cancer. But I made women my life. Every woman to me is like a treasure. I can’t believe how fabulous they are. And yeah, they are whores. They’re like a mystery…
“My wife today … I’m so lucky,” he says of Marty, whom he’s been with for 34 years. “She keeps me alive.
“Imagine having 13 children!” he continues. “And when I see them, I see their mothers … so it’s like a reward, like nobody died. I brought it all back. What a reward. Isn’t that beautiful?”
When ask him about his life as a Jersey boy, it’s as if he’s teleported himself back in time in the telling of it.
“I come from a great family, four boys,” he reminisces. “We’re all theatrical. My brother Sal, who was gay, he made it big in N.Y. — an artist, played operas by ear, you can’t believe it. It was my gay brother, 10 years older than me — then there was Louie and Joey — who took me out into the world.
“We used to go to the opera, 50 cents was WAY up. I loved Aida because it had camels, elephants. There’s so much you could talk about. He taught me about art, the great artists. I fell in love with the guy who cut his ear off. He’s my favorite.
“Back when I was mayor, we had one week in Chicago where they invited mayors from all over, and they had all of his (Van Gogh’s) paintings. I couldn’t believe it. So I got to know a lot of artists,” he says, talking especially about Polaroid photographer Marie Cosindas, who snapped the image of him that now sits inside The Museum of Modern Art in New York.
“And I got to know the great writers,” he says, meaning Hemingway, Capote, Williams and the many others that bellied up to his bar on more than one occasion.
“What a life.”
Earlier this year, that life was compromised by some serious health issues. Carotid artery disease was severely decreasing the flow of blood to his brain, putting him at a very high risk for a massive stroke and causing heavy forgetfulness. But with a visit to Mount Sinai and some cutting-edge procedures, the Captain regained his blood flow — and yet a few more stories to tell.
“They couldn’t give me any anesthetics, so they had these Cuban girls in the room with maracas, dancing and showing their breasts. The guy was working on me while they were dancing. It’s a true story!”
It was doctors like these and priests that were the gods to him in his life.
“I was an altar boy,” he says. “I loved it. Father Anthony was my guide. When he was going to Italy for some kind of course, he asked me for a big marble and I gave it to him. Twelve years later he comes back and gives me the marble. I never forgot it. He said to me, “Anthony, you grew up, you’re a little man now, I want to tell you something, Now you listen to me. You belong to the world. And you go out there. You get older and you travel. There’s no better education.
“And so I went to the biggest college in the world. The streets. I could have been a multi-millionaire 10 times over,” he says. “But I made my life living and gambling.”
Tony Tarracino gets quiet for a moment. He is getting tired. But before he ends our session, he puts me on the spot, asking me what I will tell people about him.
“Well,” I venture. “I would say that you are honest. Entertaining. Alert. Genuine. At the same time you’re bullshitting for all the entertainment, there’s still a direct genuineness. An immense heart. And you’re a little bit feisty, too, which I think we all need a bit more of.”
We walk toward the sunlight streaming in from Greene Street. He gives me a black T-shirt with his face on it, makes me try it on to be sure he picked the right size. He did.
“I’m good, aren’t I?” he asks. And then, “He told me to go out into the world. And I did. Man. …What a lovely life we live. If I died tomorrow, I didn’t miss anything.”