UPPER KEYS -- Keys people, it's often said, are a breed unto themselves.
A drive along the Overseas Highway and a quick stop at the corner bar or government center will often reveal one or two special characters, people whose looks, personality, mode of transportation and garb set them apart from the "normal" Keys person. Not that there is such a thing.
"Box Man" is a good example of someone who truly lives outside the box, if you'll excuse the pun.
A roadside fixture over the past 25 years, Box Man is the Keys Largo resident who drives his bike along the edge of the highway dressed only in shorts and a baseball cap. Wedged between his handlebars is always a box of some variety -- cardboard, plastic crate or otherwise.
Harold Schulman, 51, is Box Man. A retired special education teacher from New York City and a self-proclaimed "eccentric," Schulman says he feels like a small-town celebrity.
The question people ask him most is, of course, "What's in the box?"
He has a simple explanation.
"It originated with Charlie at the flea market at [mile marker] 103," he says. "Charlie had the best produce and I love fresh vegetables. I would buy so much stuff I didn't know how to get it home. He put a box on my handlebars. It was so heavy he had to give me a push to get me started."
Since then, he's used the box as a convenient tote as he travels the highway.
"I've been through this with the cops. It's not full of contraband. It's not full of drugs. It's not a big deal," he says.
As to why he prefers riding along the edge of the road to the bike path, Schulman says it's because he's a free spirit and he believes it is safer, despite having been smacked many times by the sideview mirrors of passing vehicles.
"I'm not suicidal," he said. "People don't stop at the bike path when they are turning onto the highway. They don't look. It's safer to ride on the roadway. The bike path is dangerous."
Schulman regularly passes Beyer Funeral Home at mile marker 102 during his daily travels along the highway.
Marilyn Beyer, 60, despite endless hours of public service with youth athletics and fire-EMS issues, is perhaps best known for her bare feet.
Since coming to the Keys in 1969 from Pittsburgh, she has remained mostly barefoot, except during services at her funeral home and a few other occasions.
"My father used to give me hell all of the time for going barefoot," she says. "I was one of eight kids. Dad was a drill sergeant and he made all the kids cut their hair short and always wear shoes. As soon as I moved here the rebel came out.
"It's comfortable. That's all," she adds.
Another rebel is Charles "Chip" Declue, 58, who grew up in Ocala. He and his wife, Marcia, own Declues Art Printing and Framing in Islamorada.
Folks recognize Chip by his ubiquitous "hippie" shirts, colorful tie-dye swirls straight from the 1960s.
"I worked for Winn Dixie at age 16," he says. "We had to wear bow ties. I worked my way up to store manager and always wore a white shirt and a tie. I did that for 31 years."
"But there always was a rebellious hippie inside," he admits.
Now Declue's uniform of the day is long hair, a beard, tie-dye shirt, shorts and deck shoes.
"They used to call me 'Chippie the hippie,' but now they just call me 'tie-dye,'" he says.
But not everyone is known for their appearance.
The fast-talking, Long Island lilt of Capt. Allan "Skip" Bradeen, 66, is synonymous with fishing in the Upper Keys. As skipper of the Blue Chip Too, Bradeen has been providing daily fishing reports for 22 years as host of the local radio show, "On the Water with Capt. Skip Bradeen."
Born and raised in New York, Bradeen is the son of a charter boat skipper. He says he came to the Keys on a two-week vacation and never left.
"The show was my own concoction," he says, describing his sandpaper-rough voice as "unique."
"After a cocktail, it gets more New Yawk-ish," he confides.
"See ya, babe," he says in his trademark sign-off.
A much smoother voice goes with the Southern gentleman from Richmond, Va., Timothy Nicholas Thomes, attorney at law.
Along with the voice come quaint mannerisms and possibly the most dapper of suits in the Upper Keys, including the ever-present bow tie. Thomes, 64, says he has more than 200 bow ties.
"It's a sickness," he says with a laugh. "I have racks in my closet and they sort of march up the wall, but I'm trying to cut back. I'm in 'Bow Ties Anonymous.'"
Thomes started wearing bow ties in prep school and continued to do so through law school at William and Mary. He moved to the Keys in 1984 and opened his own law practice a year later.
"Bow ties in the South are a spring and summer wear thing," he says. "Here, it's summer year-round. Bow ties are my trademark."
His bow ties run the gamut from conservative to ...
"... Crazy ones, Jerry Garcia bow ties -- I used to promote the Grateful Dead -- Escher bow ties, someone gave me a bow tie with elephants all facing one mouse," he says.
He's so well-known in the legal community for his bow ties that some refer to Thomes in shorthand as "TT with the BT."
County Judge Reagan Ptomey, who calls Thomes' bow tie his "birthmark," is himself known for something on the opposite side of the neck.
Ptomey's thick head of wavy dark hair sprouted a tail about 16 years ago, a tuft that now stretches over eight inches. No exaggeration. It's known as the "Ptomey tail."
Before you judge the judge, consider how it came about.
"When my oldest son, Luke, was a baby my wife, Suzie, cut his hair. She left a pony tail on Luke and didn't tell him," Ptomey smiles. "It's a family joke. It took him a year to notice he had a pig tail.
"Unbeknowance to me, she was doing the same thing to me," he says. "It's a big family joke. I decided I'm going to keep mine as long as Luke has his. He'll be 22 in December and his pony tail is now part of a Rasta thing. But I promised Luke. I'm a man of my word."
Upon reflection, he says he keeps the tail for another reason.
"This is a tangible connection to everything that was cute," he says. "It's a memory."