“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
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).
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.
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.
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.”
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”
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/.
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