It didn't take long for New York native Raymond Moffitan to get used to roasting hot dogs and frying twisted pretzels for a living. The 54-year-old former car dealer and hospital administrator was all smiles on a recent night in Mallory Square, the site of Key West's daily Sunset Celebration.
Every evening, visitors and locals alike flock to Mallory Square to mingle with the jugglers, musicians and psychics. They shop for crafts before catching the last glimpse of the sun before it sinks into the horizon.
"Adjust to people not yelling and screaming in the car dealership? Adjust to people not dying on you and bemoaning the loss of life in the hospital? It wasn't hard to adjust to those things at all," said Moffitan, wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt and black beret.
Moffitan came to Key West five years ago with his wife and Vogue, a dog named after a drag queen. He joins a host of others who have given up more traditional careers to live a simpler lifestyle on this tropical, slightly eccentric island about 110 miles from mainland Florida.
Take Ben Benton, a 48-year-old former manager of a shoe store, who moved here from New York to strum his guitar in the clubs and on the streets of Key West.
Benton first came to Key West more than 10 years ago and quickly found he could make a lot of money performing. While singing for dollar bills on Duval Street, a musician approached him and asked him to come jam with his band.
"I stayed here for 16 days in a row, working every day in three places," said Benton, with a worn brown hat drooping over his tanned, wrinkled face. "I thought it was pretty cool. I said this is where I need to be."
Now Benton is one of the Sunset Celebration "grandfathers," a handful of performers who have come to the square several nights a week for at least 10 years. The grandfathers get a permanent space, while newcomers and seasonal workers must enter the general lottery each evening for a spot.
"It's kind of a family. Everybody knows the goods and bads, but just like a family they argue, they fight. It can be very competitive," said Benton, who has a small square on the edge of the ocean, large enough for him, his guitar case and black, curly haired terrier, Bonnie.
"I don't make the big money," Benton said.
The more famous acts include Dominique the CatMan, whose felines walk across a tightrope and jump through flaming rings, and the Great Rondini, who escapes from chains and a straitjacket while suspended upside down from a steel tripod.
On this night, a couple of tourists stop by to chat with Benton. But he doesn't attract much of a crowd.
"Thank you very much," Benton said to no one in particular after crooning the Beatles' tune, All You Need is Love.
Mimes Shellyn Leeper, 25, and Desiree Dundr, 23, both Ohio natives, fare much better on this night.
"Don't walk away. Remember this is how we eat. This is how we pay our rent," the pair shouted to the dwindling crowd. "All you people who walk away -- we will find you."
Leeper and Dundr have been here for the past year. Dressed in black leotards, the women danced on either side of a pretend mirror, getting laughs and applause from the audience.
"We had to learn how to work a crowd, get them to tip," Leeper said. "We're starting to get there."
Connecticut native Dennis Riley, 47, works three jobs to support himself. He manages a rental property and antique store, but earns most of his income by playing bagpipes at Mallory Square.
Riley says the island is slowly losing some of its fabled charm, known as the haunt of artists and writers. Ernest Hemingway spent 10 years here, from 1929 to 1939.
"A lot of the old-timers are leaving or dying off or just been run out," says Riley, wearing a red hat and brown kilt. "They can't afford to live here anymore and the rich have taken over."
But for some, Key West will always be a special place, no matter how high the rent or how crowded it gets during the tourist season.
"There's always going to be the naysayers, those who say, `You should have been here when.' Just enjoy the moment," Moffitan says. "I'm enjoying it right now."
But that doesn't mean Moffitan wants other Northeastern Baby Boomers to follow his example, by leaving everything behind and heading for Key West.
"It's an ugly place to live. The rent's too high. The food's terrible," Moffitan says with a hearty laugh. "I don't want to spoil the paradise by giving it away."