It was looking bad for a while. People were starting to call it the winter Hamptons. The Marriott chain reopened the grand old Casa Marina Hotel, forswearing their usual neon-Mediterranean decorating instincts. Restaurants with names like Poor Richard's Buttery could cater to the private-jet crowd striding around in their go-to-hell maroon pants and bi-focal sunglasses. This island of broken glass, stray dogs and amputees of the psyche was going quaint, which is to say harmless.

The prognosis is dicy, but there's hope that Key West won't be able to shake its pirate heritage-that, as the saying goes, you can dress her up, but you can't take her out.

The first hint, this season, was a bumper sticker-nothing cute or ecological, like the "No Jets" placard that everybody rushed out to buy on Martha's Vineyard-but a strange query, indeed: HOW RUDE HAVE YOU BEEN TO A TOURIST TODAY? It's a question that cuts both ways, at least to the tourist, and especially after the rumors which had wafted northwards about gay-stompings, and a printed report of an assault on Tennessee Williams.

The next omen was a conversation overheard on a beach, just a voice floating in under the eyelid fireworks like an old radio show. The speaker, it seemed, was some kind of go-between. He had a flip, lobotomized, no-diphthong accent, universal gangster, cool menace.

"Lightweight, meet Hit Man," the voice said. "Hit Man, this here's Lightweight. Lightweight got taken off, man. They smashed Lightweight's window and they took him off, took it all, man. So maybe you and him can go someplace and talk about this thing. Maybe you can do something about it."

A few minutes passed, featuring the usual Key West soundtrack . . . pelicans collapsing into the milk-aqua water like windblown umbrellas . . . conga drums on the tape recorder of a beautiful black man in drawstring trousers . . . a fragment of conversation: ". . . got into a heavy sexual thing, and I lost my space . . ." Then:

"Hey, Lightweight, what did Hit Man tell you, man? He couldn't do nothing for you, huh? He couldn't do nothing for you because it was too small, it was too small a matter, you ain't never going to get that pot-back, man . . ."

Half the beach could hear them. They didn't care. It was Key West.

Of course, you don't come to Key West looking for beautiful people. Key West has always been on the other side of the cultural sieve-"The Last Resort," it's proud to call itself.

In 1822, the Navy came in to string up a treeload of pirates. Discouraged, the natives decided that if they couldn't sail out to the plunder, it would have to come to them. This came to be known as the "salvage" business, and there are those who claim that lanterns were lit to lure hapless pilots onto the coral heads. As a United Press reported put it in 1935:

"Key West citizens are working for nothing except food and shelter, many in such curious jobs as training fish to perform in an aquarium, others playing guitars. Everybody in Key West is engaged in some form of boondoggling."

In 1955, the Navy threatened to close its base-a closing in the '20s nearly ruined the island-because of police brutality, and prostitution in the form of "B-girls," in that fine old phrase. And the island has always been infested with writers, including Robert Frost, Thornton Wilder and, most prominently, Ernest Hemingway.

"He was the first of the hippies," said the dowager guide at a botanical garden."He used to walk around barefoot, didn't get a haircut for months, just wore dungarees he'd cut off for shorts."

Key West is funky-all tropical towns are funky if you give them half a chance: The votive candles in the Cuban groceries, hippies in baseball caps, bicycles with plastic milk-bottle cases for front baskers. Chickens run loose. Palm fronds pile up in the gutters. It is home to every broken muffler south of Macon, Ga., as if Key West were the Lourdes of hopeless back-pressure, baffles, headers, Drings . . . and home to newspaper photographs of cops filing out of their own trials for marijuana smuggling, barely a front-page item; of the legend of Robert Palmiere, who, when he was busted for drunk and disorderly in 1972, spent $2,405 to bail himself and 23 other prisoners out of jail; of an old man who tosses live iguanas onto the shoulders of screaming girls at the Mallory Dock sunsets, to the accompaniment of a Salvation Army band pumping out "The Old Rugged Cross."

Sunset was where the last hippies in America really got it on: congas, finger cymbals, hammer dulcimers, guitar cases opened and bared like the abdoments of affectionate reclining English setters; jugglers; the banana-bread man . . . But this year, on Mallory Dock, there was a new element.

"Hey man, don't you say 'excuse me" when you walk between two who are talking?"

"Excuse me."

"Because we were talking, man, and you walked right . . ."

"I said I was sorry."

The offended party wore the obligatory beard and kerchief of the Key West pirate, and his eyes had the tunnel-focus glint of somebody who was suffering what Jimmy Buffett sings about in "A Pirate Looks at 40": "The occupational hazard is that the occupation just ain't around."*

Over at Sloppy Joe's, a scattering of greasers frown at the bar, looking like they just missed the chance to kick somebody to death. They're new this year, too. Everyone says they're from Pensacola, but nobody has explained what they're seeking at this latitude.

"It's gotten nastier," says Becky, an astrologer and babysitter who has lived here for six years. "These kids today don't think like we did. And there's this bad thing with Neptune . . . ."

An artist named Michael says yes, he worries now about being on the streets late at night because the locals have been acting up.

"But I never go anywhere without these," he says, drawing a pair of nunchaku sticks from his bag and setting them whistling around his head in a figure-8 pattern that it said to be good for smashing both kneecaps and collarbones. "But I've never had to use them."

Then again, the big-money tourists keep touching down at the Key West airport, and you hear more people debating the merits of the Thai chef at Claire's than the potency of the latest marijuana to hit town - the latest recently being the bales of marijuana that someone jettisoned off a hotly pursued boat near Sand Key . . . "square grouper," as the pirates call it. One resident, known to his friends as "Sector D" because of his taste for dissolution, despair, drugs, decay, deracination and so on, is thinking about moving south to seamier pastures - Belize, formerly British Honduras.

"Belize," he says, evoking images of netted hammocks and soiled linen suits. "It's the last of the great fever ports." CAPTION: Picture, no caption, AP