From the Desk of Canton Winer, Assistant Opinion Editor

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Canton Winer - Staff PictureI often wish that people would be more like Key West.

No, I don’t mean that I want to see more sunburned, overweight cruise ship-goers lounging under coconut palms while sipping on tequila sunrises from a mermaid-shaped souvenir bottle. Mostly, I just want people to embrace the weird.

If you’re wondering how I jumped from Key West to loving your inner freak, then you obviously have not been to Key West. The city of 25,000 has survived and thrived, not in spite of how outright bizarre it can be, but in large part because of it. Over 2 million tourists are estimated to visit Key West every year, not just to bask in the sun, but also to bask in the city’s strangeness.

The city, which claims to be the southernmost point in the continental United States, certainly has plenty of peculiarity to spare. To begin with, Key West has an unrivaled obsession with cats — I’m talking 70 year-old unmarried aunt-level here. Polydactyl cats (cats with extra toes), roam the city from their home base, the Hemingway House. The 40 or so polydactyl cats that reside in the home, which used to house Ernest Hemingway, are descendants of his cat, Snowball.

A cat even ran for mayor of Key West. Willoughby II, a 22-pound feline, ran in the 1989 Key West mayoral race and received 37 write-in votes. The fat cat’s 37 votes have been blamed for skewing the results of the tight race.

Every night, tourists gather in Mallory Square for the Sunset Celebration, yet another Key West tradition featuring the city’s favorite house pet. “Cat Man” wows tourists with his famous “Cat Circus” every night. The small Frenchman — yes, Cat Man is French — has trained a dozen or so stray cats to jump through hoops on command, walk across a tightrope and more.

My favorite part of the Sunset Celebration, however, is the nightly bagpipe show. The lone bagpiper (or as I like to call him, that-crazy-man-with-the-bagpipes) marches around Mallory Square in his Scottish garb, kilt and all, droning on his pipes until the sun sets.

The people of Key West have not lived without their fair share of struggles. On April 23, 1982, the people of Key West seceded from the United States and declared their independence as the Conch Republic. While the secession was a joke, the Conch Republic was founded over legitimate concerns. In 1982, the United States Border Patrol set up a roadblock and inspection point on U.S. 1 just as it exits the Florida Keys. Vehicles passing through the checkpoint were stopped and searched for narcotics and undocumented immigrants. The mayor of Key West and the city council protested, saying that the roadblock would disrupt tourism. When the U.S. Border Patrol did not yield to their concerns, Mayor Dennis Wardlow and the city council declared the Conch Republic’s independence, saying that if the federal government was going to establish the equivalent of a border station, as if Key West were a foreign nation, they might as well become one.

Mayor Wardlow was proclaimed prime minister of the Conch Republic, and he immediately declared war against the United States. The war was short-lived. Prime Minister Wardlow broke a stale loaf of Cuban bread over the head of a man dressed in a U.S. naval uniform, and hastily surrendered one minute later. He then applied for $1 billion in foreign aid. Despite the Conch Republic’s brief struggle for independence, the massive publicity stunt proved successful, and the roadblock and inspection point were removed shortly thereafter.

If Key West was just any old Florida town, you would probably not be reading about it right now. Key West’s weirdness is what has empowered it to flourish. We should all follow Key West’s lead and embrace our inner oddball. Our eccentricities should be capitalized upon, not hidden away. We may not all be as peculiar as Key West, but we all have our own polydactyl cats.