LOVERRO: The old columnist and the look-alike contest

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I’ve had this itch ever since I walked the streets of Havana in 1999 and a group of Cuban children surrounded me and chanted, “Hemingway, Hemingway.”

That became my nickname among the writers traveling with the Baltimore Orioles, who were in Cuba to play the Cuban National Team.

On that trip, I also met then-101-year-old Gregorio Fuentes — the old man from “The Old Man and the Sea” — in his home in the small fishing village of Cojimar. 

There’s a framed photo in my office of me and Fuentes, the real-life fisherman who’d served as the inspiration for Ernest Hemingway’s famous story, and it often brings back memories of the children, Havana and the mystique Hemingway conjures still to this day.     

I’d read with curiosity about the Ernest Hemingway Look-Alike Contest held every summer at Sloppy Joe’s bar in Key West, Florida, where the writer lived from 1928 to 1939.

This would be the year I would scratch that itch — the 42nd contest, scheduled for July 19-22 at Sloppy Joe’s. Plane tickets were bought, hotel reservations made.

Josh Harris and his little football deal? Excuse me, we are talking about paying homage to Hemingway here, a giant of American literature. I had a story to tell, and unless a contestant got up on stage at Sloppy Joe’s and told the judges — former winners known as “Papas” — that they had actually met Hemingway, no one was going to have a better tale.

Even with “The Old Man” in my pocket, I had no illusions of winning. I had surmised that those who win are generally returning contestants. The “Papas” value camaraderie and I certainly understand and respect that. They have built up a unique event here that also raises thousands of dollars for the Hemingway Look-Alike Scholarship Fund. They have every right to reward those who make the return trips to Key West in hopes of being the winner.

But I had taken on the “Rocky” plan — just go the distance. I thought I had a chance to make the finals. I had the “Old Man” — the most important figure in the history of Hemingway literature. I was two degrees of separation away from the man this shindig is named for.

Preparations had to be made. I purchased a safari-type shirt like Hemingway would wear big-game hunting. It seemed to be the standard contest garb. I bought a Hemingway-style fishing hat and then read a list of suggestions posted by a veteran contestant on the Hemingway Look Alike Society Facebook page that said do not wear a hat on stage. The “Papas” like to see your eyes. So no hat.

Finally, I had to get a Hemingway-style haircut. I went to a hair salon a week before leaving for Key West to arrange to get their best cutter. I told them I needed my hair to look like Hemingway’s and showed them a photo. They responded, “Who?”

When I came back a week later for the cut, the stylist had done her own research, with several photos on her phone. She did a good job. But before we started, she asked me, “What’s his name? Irving?”

“Yes. Irving Hemingway. He wrote ‘The Old Man and …’ I forgot.”

There were three nights of competition on stage at Sloppy Joe’s — two nights where the many contestants were divided into two groups, with finalists selected from each group to compete in the final night. I would go on the second night.

They gave you 30 seconds to make your case to the judges seated in front of the stage. Some contestants sang, read poems or told family stories. I told the story of my meeting and interview with “The Old Man,” and I had receipts — a blown-up photo of me with Fuentes in his home in Cuba with a painting of him and Hemingway in the background.

It might as well have been a picture of me and Pee Wee Herman on a fishing pier.

The boisterous crowd quieted down a bit. You could hear a few oohs and aahs, and one person could be heard saying, “Hey, this guy’s really got a story.”

But the Papas? Not impressed. I was out — 30 seconds. Done.

There would still be the “Running of the Bulls” on Saturday, the final day, where contestants and others dressed in white with red berets and red scarves “ran” behind several plaster bulls on wheels pushed around the block outside Sloppy Joe’s. It was goofy but fun. The whole event was fun, even if I didn’t go the distance.

I was right, by the way — the guy who won has been in the contest 11 times. He was due, and he let everyone know it in his opening-round presentation where he seemed a bit upset that he had gone home empty-handed 10 times before. Not this year — even though he looked more like Raymond Burr than Hemingway.

As I walked through the streets of Key West nursing my loss, one guy called out “Hey Papa. You met the Old Man. That was pretty cool.” That was a pretty cool consolation prize.

This will be my last column until September. I’ll be in Spain for the month of August (maybe I should have told the judges I was leaving for Spain in a week, where I would be hanging out with bullfighters and fighting the fascists). Call it a Decompress Danny Retreat. I expect big things from Josh Harris and the new Washington Commanders when I get back.

Until then, hasta la vista, baby.

You can hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

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