Lost in Lotusland: Elizabeth in The Villages FL

Elizabeth Boleman-Herring

“If my life is a horror flick—and I am now not entirely certain it is not—last fall marked the moment in the plot when a wise voice (off camera) should have intoned, “I wouldn’t go down there if I were you two,” thereby diverting the film’s hero and heroine from a fate worse than death, and causing them to divert, instead, to, say, Sedona, Chapel Hill, or Asheville: real communities with reality-based residents.”—Elizabeth Boleman-Herring

By Way of Being

By Elizabeth Boleman-Herring

Little houses, larger houses, and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky.

Little houses, larger houses, and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky.

Elizabeth Boleman-Herring

PETIT TRIANON Florida—(Weekly Hubris)—10/19/2015—Economic refugees fleeing the harsh realities of 21st-Century Greater New York City, a region that will never recover from the cultural and financial meltdown ignited by George W. Bush, and climate change, one of whose least attractive masks to date was Hurricane Sandy, my husband and I headed south, for good, last autumn . . . to North-Central Florida, and a gated retirement enclave to which Dean’s parents and sister had already relocated.

If my life is a horror flick—and I am now not entirely certain it is not—last fall marked the moment in the plot when a wise voice (off camera) should have intoned, “I wouldn’t go down there if I were you two,” thereby diverting the film’s hero and heroine, and causing them to divert, instead, to, say, Sedona, Chapel Hill, or Asheville: real communities with reality-based residents.

Anywhere but The Villages, Florida, aka “America’s Friendliest Hometown.” Honest to God, Gentle Readers, that’s the tag-line The Villages’ developers came up with for this place. I don’t know why they didn’t just go, like Thomas More, with Utopia: an island with one entrance and one exit, where only the islanders know how to navigate their way through the treacherous openings.

Instead, last November, we bought the house here, if not yet the farm and, in a month, will have been here a year, almost the full four seasons in hell.

During this entire time, I have made not one friend, written not one line of prose, nor awakened one blessed morning without a feeling of sinking dread.

Like Oliver Sacks’ anthropologist on Mars, I am surrounded by others who may seem roughly sapiens (I’ll get to the specifics soon), but either I, or they, are living in some sort of demented fugue state. If I stay here much longer, I assure you I and they will be living in similar demented fugue states, as I fear the condition of the locals may be contagious. 

In The Villages, behind its myriad key-card-operated gates, I feel I have been dropped (as a female version of Truman Burbank, himself) into “The Truman Show,” or stranded, like Thomas More’s Raphael Hythlodaeus, in Utopia, or even  beached and imprisoned, like Jonathan Swift’s Lemuel Gulliver, among the six-inch-tall Lilliputs.

To say that I am a fish out of water here would be the height (depth?) of litotes.

Let me describe this place and its inhabitants, although, fair warning, the international press has already been here and done that (see Bibliography of articles at this essay’s end).

Fake-bare-bottomed rider at The Segue Club Christmas Parade.

Fake-bare-bottomed rider at The Segue Club Christmas Parade.

To begin with, the place is huge (this year, the Census Bureau named it the fastest-growing US metropolitan area for the second year in a row) and The Villagers are old.

Very old. I’m not sure that, at any age, I will be as old as The Villagers, whose psyches seem to have gelled, set, and frozen stiff in the mid-20th-century. And there are thousands upon thousands of them/us; more every month: at last count, well over 100,000 elderly residents, most of whom dress identically, get around in golf carts, and live in almost identical homes on identical faux-Spanish-monikered streets, where no one stirs after 8 p.m.

Seriously, you can hear a pin drop at 10 p.m., except around the three ersatz “town squares,” where the drunks, the ancient floozies, and the occasional lost grandchild may be found “partying,” assisted (apparently) by lots and lots of Viagra. (The Villages boasts incredibly high rates of STDs as compared with the rest of the state, so some of the staid couples here are not as staid as they’d have you believe.)

When I go out, I feel as though I’m in some vast Disneyworld ride open only to those over 70, the men’s dress code specifying voluminous khaki shorts, white socks and white New Balance sneakers, golf shirts (in pastels) tucked in, usually over massive guts; the women, with hair shorn almost to their skulls, wearing whatever they can find to fit them (this place is well above the Florida average for diabetes and obesity, and it’s all on display and veritably spilling out of the golf carts), and always sitting in the passenger seat.

When things really start cooking around here—upon the return south of the so-called Snowbirds, Villagers here only for the winter—empty liquor mini-bottles litter the green verges, where roughly 50 golf courses break the monotony of the same-same architecture: without GPS, no one here would ever find his or her way home if dropped down in the far reaches of the development.

Then, there are the dogs. The tiny little yapping dogs. Soon after we arrived, Dean quipped that there must be some vet’s office somewhere here named The Stepford Dogs. Because, of course, there are no children, no young people here; no one but old, old couples at The Villages . . . and so all of that thwarted maternal and paternal energy must go somewhere. Thus, the dogs. Riding with their “parents” in the golf carts. I’m sure there are also cats, but it’s the omnipresent tiny white fluffy dogs we see every day.

White because, I assume, everyone else at The Villages is white. Over 80 percent of the residents are lily-white Caucasians of Northern European descent, right out of the snow-belts of the Northeast and Midwest. And over 80 percent of them are married (the long lonely walk, hand in hand, to the grave or, in the case of most folks here, the crematorium: ads for crematoria are everywhere).

Got the willies, yet, My Pretties?

I don’t know why being amongst solely old white couples with little white dogs freaks me out so much but, I assure you, it does. Where are the black people, I ask? Where are the Asians (ah: they’re here doing acrylic nails)? Where are the Hispanics (well, they’re on their hands and knees in our flower beds, or spraying some 40-odd poisons on the St. Augustine grass and extravagant foliage—so they’re accounted for)? But where, too, are the threesomes, the fivesomes, the unruly family units not composed of two old married people plus dogs? Not here, I can tell you. Here, marriage is between one old man and one old woman, and they are white, and each deviates not one iota from the determined-by-sex roles laid down in the 1950s and early 1960s.

The Cleavers live on. Here.

The mural that speaks a thousand words.

The mural that speaks a thousand words.

If these people experienced the late 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, not to speak of the 21st century, I see no evidence of it.

There’s a mural in one of the central shopping centers which depicts what I’ve come to call The Villages Wet Dream. In it, Breck Girls cavort with High School Quarterbacks . . . and the couples are riding in, you guessed it, golf carts. All the folks depicted are as white as early-60s Coppertone ad bottoms. The Villagers’ glory days—when they look back on them—occurred in high school. Not college. Not graduate school. Not in true adulthood. The crowd here is decidedly anti-intellectual, and their finest moments occurred in late adolescence. In a real way, they never moved on from adolescence, and have congregated together here so they can pretend they are still 18, 19, 20.

Need I add that these people are also: 1) registered Republicans (over 70 percent voted for Romney); 2) Christians (and proselytizing, bumper-sticker-sporting Christians); 3) Middle-middle class (or working-class made good at the very end); and 4) relentless joiners (as in the Billiards Social League, The Happy Stitchers, Coach Mo’s Pickleball Clinic, The Village Growth Stock Pickers, The Italian-American Club, The West Michigan Shoreliners, etc., etc., etc.). 

For a woman who hasn’t joined a single club in her life and who ran screaming from the Girl Scouts, all college sororities not called PBK or PKP, clubs named after charismatic megafauna, and any and all other groups requiring a special handshake, a uniform or, heaven forefend, meetings, this place is a group-speak nightmare.

Our first week in the new house, we went to our particular village’s village meeting and, about 10 minutes late, found that every scrap of food had been scarfed up by the crowd (“You have to get here early to get the free food!” we were told), but that we weren’t too late for Bingo, which was being run by several women not of sound mind nor ear. I was wearing a nice dress and heels; Dean was in dress shorts and Italian loafers. We looked like a couple of aliens from Planet Grown-up.

And did I mention the veterans? We’re up to our ears in men sporting multiple stickers on cart or car advertising them as former members of the Marines, the Navy Seals, the Airborne Rangers, etc. I said, only half-jokingly, to Dean: “We’re surrounded by self-identifying killers.” He opined that many of them must simply have shuffled papers during the Second World, Korean, and Vietnam wars. I, who’ve spoken with many of these men, know otherwise. For many, many of the male residents here, war (against others), and being part and parcel of rigidly defined male hierarchies, comprised the high point of their lives.

White, far Right, and whiter.

White, far Right, and whiter.

And we have quite a few who seem, as well, still to be fighting the Civil War. At one of the nearby “country clubs” (and I use the term very loosely, as one of them has a demented member who shaves and brushes his dentures in the communal Jacuzzi), a golf cart driver regularly flies aloft a Confederate Battle Flag as large as his vehicle.

I have never, in any “community” (and I also use that term only loosely for The Villages, which is no “community” but, rather, a development designed down to the last golf cart course by a cynical and grasping land-baron) seen so many American flags. One neighbor, on his golf cart, manages to fly two flags above a “Fire Obama” bumper sticker: there are three large flags, as well, in his yard. We, ourselves, inherited a lighted-at-night-and-huge Old Glory on a flagpole in our own yard: that sucker came right down.

I have a big, big thing against flags. All flags. I believe it’s just OK to trot them out for the Fourth of July and Memorial Day, but making a big, day-in-and-day-out thing about Patriotism, with a capital P, is so very not for me. The omnipresence of American flags, here, there and everywhere at The Villages, smacks of underlying fascism. (Oh yes, Anne Coulter, Mitt Romney, Florida’s Governor Rick Scott, and the entire Tea Party in general just adore The Villages’ demographic. When I visited the two county libraries in an attempt to find reading material, I found instead multiple copies of every title under the sun by O’Reilly, Beck, Coulter, et al.)

It is, as well, a place where euphemisms abound and reality is thin on the ground. Facilities to warehouse the demented are called “Memory Preservation Centers.” That one stopped me in my tracks. In the “town squares,” which resemble, in every way, the artificial “squares” of Disneyland and Disneyworld, 1950s and early-1960s music is piped from speakers in the shrubbery: it’s inescapable and the tunes date from, you guessed it, the late 50s. There is no trash. There is no crime. The “store” fronts are architectural “copies”; the trompe l’oeil upper stories of the buildings (where the real business of The Villages is conducted, behind the scenes) sport faux-weathered ersatz brick and fake “historic” signage.

And, breaking the silence beyond the squares, lots and lots of sirens scream, as ambulances ferry stricken octo- and nonagenarians to emergency rooms entirely not up to the numbers of incoming stroke and heart attack victims.

Our local ER is soon to be a three-story building: that should just about do it.

When the first siren sounded here, my husband piped up with, “Another tee time just opened.”

But I don’t play golf, or mahjong, or pickleball; my glory days were decidedly not in high school, nor even in college or grad school but, instead, after I had become an adult (if I look back on any of my earlier decades with fondness, it’s my forties and fifties); I am neither a Christian nor a Republican nor a carrier of just one country’s passport; I fly no flags, ever; and, to me, a “community,” a “village,” is only, ever, something that has grown organically, never planned nor plunked down like a pre-fab fait-accompli in the middle of nowhere, and certainly not conceived of, like this Rosemary’s Baby of a place, by a family like the Morses.

You can build a Levittown, Pennsylvania—and they most assuredly did, in 1959—and you can call its lily-white population “Levittowners,” as The Villages’ residents are called “Villagers,” but you cannot give such places hearts and souls.

Communities’ hearts and souls cannot be “developed.”

The Villages is a fake city hatched in the head of one very greedy man (with a little help from early business associates), designed to make him and his heirs some real money, and oh, oh, has it ever done that.

But it takes a true, organically-grown village . . . to make a village, something this abomination will never, ever be.

Post Script: After writing this essay, I at last read Leisureville: Adventures in a World Without Children, reporter Andrew Blechman’s scathing 2008 account of his embedded visit in The Villages. In his 30s when he wrote the book—and he covers several other American geritopias as well—his reactions are, hook, line, and sinker, my reactions. But . . . he could, at least, and quickly, vote with his feet and, after a stay of several weeks, return home to his young family in their real, New England hamlet. The Huffington Post, for which I also write, turned down this essay of mine—not happy and shiny enough for their blog. I despair because I feel, strongly, that sentient 60-year-olds need to be warned off such diabolical enclaves as this one, and there is precious little in the mainstream press to counter The Villages’ powerful propaganda machine: the developers own every news outlet here, and have become a virtual Big Brother, selling, selling, selling their message through The Daily Sun newspaper down to the omnipresent “DJ” who assails one and all to party on (and buy a house) from speakers mounted in the shrubs and on lamp posts here. A year more of this and I will be in a straitjacket in one of the “Memory Care” facilities, repeating ad nauseam: “It’s another beautiful day in The Villages.”

Bibliography

1) “Fastest-Growing Metro Area in U.S. Has No Crime or Kids

2)Seniors’ sex lives are up—and so are STD cases around the country

3)The Villages Retirement Community Exposed After Couple Allegedly Had Sex In Public

4) “Fresh and juicy scandals in Disney World for old people

5) The Villages: Florida retirement community provides foundation for Republican candidates

6) “Ten women to every man, a black market in Viagra, and a ‘thriving swingers scene’: Welcome to The Villages, Florida, where the elderly residents down Sex on the Square cocktail in ‘honor’ of woman, 68, arrested for public sex with toyboy” 

7) “The Villages, FL—America’s fastest-growing metro area” 

8) “Club Meds” 

Note: Mural photos were taken by the author; the photo of the Segue Riders Club derives from http://photonews247.com/2013/12/villages-florida-2013-golf-cart-parade/segway-riders-club-wears-plastic-naked-butt-at-the-villages-2013-golf-cart-parade-in-florida/.

To order Elizabeth Boleman-Herring’s memoir and/or her erotic novel, click on the book covers below:

Elizabeth Boleman, Greek Unorthdox: Bande a Part & a Farewell to IkarosElizabeth Boleman Herring, The Visitors’ Book (or Silva Rerum): An Erotic Fable

About Elizabeth Boleman-Herring

Elizabeth Boleman-Herring, Publishing-Editor of Weekly Hubris, and a columnist for The Huffington Post, considers herself an Outsider Artist (of Ink); a bargain-basement love-child of Lenny Bruce and Sylvia Plath (out of Erma Bombeck). The most recent of her 15 books is The Visitors’ Book (or Silva Rerum): An Erotic Fable. Her personal columns (written sans mask) make some readers squirm; her political columns, usually incendiary, make other readers squirm. (Boleman-Herring believes squirming is the 21st century’s antidote to sitting on the sofa watching “America’s Got Talent” and “Project Runway.”) Thirty years an academic, she has also worked steadily as a founding-editor of journals, magazines and newspapers in her two homelands, Greece and America. Three other hats Boleman-Herring has at times worn are those of a Traditional Usui Reiki Master, an Iyengar-Style Yoga teacher and, as “Bebe Herring,” a jazz lyricist for the likes of Thelonious Monk, Kenny Dorham, and Bill Evans. (Her online Greek travel guide is accessible at www.GreeceTraveler.com, and her memoir, Greek Unorthodox: Bande a Part & A Farewell To Ikaros, is available through www.GreeceInPrint.com.)

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20 Responses to Lost in Lotusland: Elizabeth in The Villages FL

  1. Dear Elizabeth,
    You’re scaring me. It sounds like a nightmare!
    Meredith d’Ambrosio

  2. Eve akel says:

    Dear Elizabeth……
    So sorry, I saw all of this on my first visit there and ran for my life…….and I told you so……You should always listen to your elders!! Why not use your talent and write an Erma Bombeck book…..I laughed so hard, I cried, and released a few other vitals, while reading your article..
    It would definitely be a best seller and allow all of us to laugh at our selves, and your neighbors…It could also contain erotic scenes, the Kama Sutras, for old white folk! Much love!

  3. Rod Baum says:

    Great story. It would be funnier if it weren’t so true. We escaped from Florida many years ago.

  4. Athinadi says:

    Sounds to me like you’d better sell up and get out of that nightmare – FAST!
    Did you not check it out first before making such an important move?

  5. Elizabeth Boleman-Herring says:

    Thank you, All Above, for your comments and, yes, we knew SOME of what we were in for, but Dean’s parents are here and he wanted to spend some quality time with them. It was the right thing to do for about a year and a half. But the move also comprised a failure of imagination on our part–pretending that there would be some sort of life for us here. Now we’re having to re-think everything. I’ve made so many huge mistakes in my life thus far: what’s one more whopper, says I! And yes, Eve, I waited a calendar year to write THIS essay, but there will be more to come. The Villages represents an evil trend in US cultural life, and it’s the burgeoning ghetto-ization of America. We left one ghetto for another…. I will not make the same mistake thrice!

  6. I am so sorry for you, you brought these dead to life with your vivid, sad prose, and I shudder to think of you there.

  7. Elizabeth Boleman-Herring says:

    Could be worse, Alex. Could be on a Chines-built life-raft in the Aegean. But, for me, and for you, that’s the ONLY place it could be worse. If this place is my karma, I’ve been a very, very bad girl. :-)

  8. Jean Nolan says:

    I know I’m supposed to be terrified, but this makes me laugh so damned hard. And, now, I not only love Dean Pratt because you love him. That line about a tee time opening up is stupendous. Oh, my dear, what a chronicle!

  9. Elizabeth Boleman-Herring says:

    Jean, I SO wish Dean’s line hadn’t been uttered many, many times before he thought he’d made it up: it’s even in “Leisureville,” we find. But yes, he’s much more amused than I: I just walk around like Gore Vidal in Tulsa. :-)

  10. diana says:

    Is there no place where we can go and live simply and normally. Greece certainly has its problems, but I think I’ll take them over your ghetto (or any other) in the Sunshine State. Man does not live (nor Woman) on sunshine alone. But your wicked sense of humor is still nicely honed, I see. Just get the hell out while you still can. Or take up golf. Maybe we could head for Ano Korakiana?

  11. Athena Scotes says:

    Dear Ms. Boleman-Herring,

    I can’t thank you enough for your refreshingly brilliant article about life at “The Villages”…I moved to Jensen Beach, Florida a year ago today and find it to be a variation of the same life (or should I say fugue state) you describe so eloquently. The only solution is to leave or rather flee, as soon as you are able. I am already planning my escape from the Truman Show! Wishing you well, Athena

  12. Elizabeth Boleman-Herring says:

    Diana, Athena…at least some of you out there “hear me,” which is the only way, right now, right here, that I know I still exist, and I am so grateful for your comments. We came here for honorable reasons, but even those have proven illusory….as illusory as these gated horrors in north-central Florida. I’m convinced, though, that “real places,” where one can live simply and normally DO exist but, next time, I want to rent before buying…and make sure.

  13. Serena Hasselkus says:

    Elizabeth, you gave me your card when you came in as a member to Insight Credit Union. I sat here when you left and just realized how accurate it is. I then shared it with the rest of the branch! Stay strong out there!

  14. Elizabeth Boleman-Herring says:

    Serena, I just knew this essay would “resonate with you.” Without exception, all the many people I’ve spoken to among the hundreds who work here “serving” The Villagers, have confirmed my conclusions, and I gave the place a year before writing the above: I wanted to be sure my first impressions were justified. I can only say that I empathize with anyone who, on a daily basis, must deal with all these ancient spoiled brats. We ALL need strength and perseverance just to get through our days. I’ll check in on you on a monthly basis, and thank you so much for reading me. xoxoxoxo

  15. Michael House says:

    Come off the fence, e. Tell us what you really think.

  16. Elizabeth Boleman-Herring says:

    Michael, these folks need to be imprisoned, en masse! Oh, wait a moment: they already are. :-)

  17. Bob says:

    Elizabeth, your post is right on. We visited The Villages a few years ago, my most vivid memory is how slow people drive UNTIL they are about to enter the round-abouts, circles, rotaries….they would look me in the eye as I was about to enter from a different direction and intentionally speed up to beat you into it! It happened every time there was “competition” for the right of way. I thought how hilarious it was for these retired people to do that, like they were beating you in line to St. Peter at the gates of Heaven. We want diversity in our life and The Villages certainly doesn’t provide that. Thanks again for your insight, don’t think you’ll be adding more friends from The Villages to your social list soon ;)

  18. Elizabeth Boleman-Herring says:

    Bob, at least I can comfort myself with the thought that no one, absolutely NO ONE here reads me!

  19. Shawna Harrington says:

    At least I’m not living in my surroundings, but in my life. I fly no flags, am not religious or Republican, don’t go to most of the advertised events, read Kurt Vonnegut and Franz Kafka and am still a successful songwriter currently writing a musical about the life of Mae West. After our paper put a story out about my career, I was contacted by a Professor at Penn State and will be performing at a theatre there next year. I don’t think I fit your stereotype of the usual Villager. Maybe that’s because I live with an open mind, not one looking for reasons to dislike anyone who is different than I am.

  20. Elizabeth Boleman-Herring says:

    “Maybe that’s because I live with an open mind, not one looking for reasons to dislike anyone who is different than I am.” Yep, Shawna, you’ve exposed me for what I am: looking to dislike anyone who is different than I. Glad you’re thriving here in Disney-for-Aged-White-Toddlers: I’ll leave you to it.

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