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Authors: Andrew D. Blechman

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BOOK: Leisureville
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“Life in The Villages is really too much to describe,” Betsy added. “It's simply unforgettable. For me, it was love at first sight.” She patted her heart for emphasis. “I can only equate it to the movie
The Stepford Wives
. Everyone had a smile on their face like it's too good to be true. But it really is.”

“I was real worried about Elizabeth when it was time to go,” Dave said. “I was worried she would just crumble when we left to come back up here. The place really touched her heart.”

“There are a lot of people just like us,” Betsy continued. “I was very comfortable there. It's where I want to be. It has everything I could possibly want.”

I was struck by how many of Dave's newspaper clippings described the residents' unusual leisure pursuits, including their fascination with gaining entry into the
Guinness Book of World Records
. In the eight months Dave had his house up for sale, his compatriots down south qualified for the big book twice: first for the world's largest simultaneous electric slide (1,200 boogying seniors), and next for the world's longest golf cart parade (nearly 3,500 low-speed vehicles).

As amusing as these descriptions of daily life in The Villages were, they left me feeling dismayed, even annoyed. Were the Andersons really going to drop out of our community, move to Florida, and sequester themselves in a gated geritopia? Dave and Betsy had volunteered on the EMS squad, and Betsy also volunteered at the senior center and our local hospice. By all accounts, they were solid citizens with many more years of significant community involvement ahead of them.

And frankly, our community needed the Andersons. There were whispers that the town intended to pave over our little neighborhood park with a 20,000-square-foot fire station. Other sites were being considered for the station, but because the town owned the property it would be cheaper to build it there. The Andersons were a known quantity around town. They were respected and presumably knew how to navigate town hall and the surprisingly acrimonious politics of small-town New England. And now they were leaving—running off to a planned community where such headaches in all probability didn't exist. Rather than lead, they had chosen to secede.

As Betsy described The Villages' accommodations for the terminally ill, it was clear that she had no intention of ever returning to our community. “The rooms overlook a golf course!” she said. “The Villages has even made dying a little more pleasant!”

After spending so much time discussing retirement living with the Andersons, I decided to take a peek at one of the few places in our town that I'd never bothered to visit: the senior center. I found it to be a rather glum-looking building, resembling an oversize ranch house, with small windows. One look at the activities offered, and it was plain to see that they paled by comparison with the hundreds of activities going on at The Villages: just a lunch “excursion” to a local Chinese restaurant, an art class, and a weekly bridge game. A flyer on the bulletin board advertised a free seniors' seminar titled “I Don't Want to Go to a Nursing Home!”

Money budgeted for seniors' activities and services represented less than half of one percent of our town's annual expenditures. Meanwhile our school system devoured fifty-five percent of the town budget, and residents had recently approved a $20 million bond issue to build two new schools.

This lopsided arrangement isn't lost on Dave. “Pretty soon, Andrew, your daughter will be school-age and your greatest concern will be the school system,” he told me one day as I struggled to install a tree swing in my backyard. “You'll want your tax dollars to go there. But our needs are different and we're in competition for a finite amount of resources. It's not a negative thing; it just exists. At The Villages, there's not that same competition. It's not a matter of funding a senior center or a preschool program, because at The Villages we spend our dollars on ourselves.”

By September, the little ranch house across the street had found a buyer. The Andersons spent the month packing up their belongings, while I planted crocuses in preparation for winter. The Andersons were positively ebullient on moving day. “The Villages puts everything we had here in a different light,” Dave told me, while waving good-bye to our mailman, Kevin. “Sure, we had a lovely home, a nice neighborhood, some status in the community, and some good friends. But none of that measured up to the two months we spent in The Villages.”

Betsy mechanically surveyed her empty home as if she were giving a hotel room a quick once-over before checking out. “It's called ‘new beginnings,'” she said. Dave asked me if I wanted his winter boots. “I won't be needing them anymore,” he said.

As the days grew shorter, the leaves turned fiery red and the sky a brilliant autumnal blue, I soldiered on in the garden while my wife pushed our daughter in her new tree swing. It would be several weeks before the new neighbors moved in, and I couldn't help looking across the street at Dave's leaf-strewn yard and empty house. It fell to me to organize the neighborhood against paving over our park,
and I reluctantly accepted the challenge. I soon found myself flushed with purpose, sitting at the computer writing editorials and waiting outside our local co-op grocery store in a bitter wind for signatures on a petition.

A few months later, I received an e-mail from Dave. “The Villages' mystique has not dimmed,” he wrote. “It was the right move at the right time for the right people. We've asked ourselves many times if we have any regrets. The answer is always the same, ‘No.' He went on to invite me down to see the place for myself. “Maybe you'll want to write a book about it.”

I'd already started taking notes, awkwardly following the Andersons around and writing down everything they said, like an ethnologist recording an oral history. Their move fascinated me—and kept me up at night. How could two bright individuals be drawn to something as seemingly ridiculous as The Villages? And by the looks of it, they were clearly not alone. Something was afoot; I could feel it. I suspected that the Andersons were in the vanguard of a significant cultural shift. I took Dave up on his offer.

As the day of my departure for Florida neared, it occurred to me that I had never visited a retirement community before, and so I had no idea what to pack. How does one dress for golf and bingo? I certainly didn't want to cause the Andersons any embarrassment. With gritted teeth, I resolved to purchase a pair of casual loafers, argyle socks, and a sweater vest.

2
Where's Beaver?

T
HE
V
ILLAGES IS LOCATED ROUGHLY IN THE CENTER OF
F
LORIDA,
about an hour north of Orlando International Airport, where I touch down feeling like a dork in my new argyle socks and loafers, and surrounded by giggling children running around in mouse ears. Given my travel budget, I rent an old beater, which is spray-painted black and is missing hubcaps, and whose odometer registers a quarter-million miles. The car shudders and misfires as I drive north along a relatively lonesome patch of the Florida Turnpike, which to my surprise cuts through rolling pastureland instead of swamps. This is Florida's “high country,” home to the state's cattle industry, which is slowly disappearing as ranchers sell their sprawling properties to housing developers and land speculators.

The sides of the road sprout billboards advertising retirement communities. Photos of seniors playing golf and relaxing in pools are plastered with slogans such as “Life is lovelier,” “On top of the world,” and “Live the life you've been waiting your whole life for!” Interspersed are signs advertising the central Florida of old: hot-boiled peanuts, deerskin moccasins, and 'gator meat.

I don't see any advertisements for The Villages, but I do see state highway signs that guide me there via an off-ramp and a few small towns filled with vacant storefronts and roadside citrus vendors.
I know I am getting close when the loamy soil and piney solitude segue into a construction site that stretches as far as the eye can see. A billboard displays a joyful phrase not often seen these days: “The Villages welcomes Wal-Mart!”

A short distance farther I spot the top of a beige water tower painted with The Villages' omnipresent logo—its name written in a looping 1970s-era faux-Spanish script. The construction is soon replaced with lush fairways speckled with golfers. I turn on the radio and tune in to WVLG AM640, The Villages' own radio station.

“It's a beautiful day in The Villages,” the DJ announces. “Aren't we lucky to live here? OK, folks, here is a favorite I know you're going to love. The Candy Man Can. C'mon, let's sing it together.” I listen in resigned silence to Sammy Davis Jr. and his effervescent lyrics about dew-sprinkled sunrises, feeling slightly claustrophobic and uneasy about living in a gated retirement community for the next month. Can someone under forty and as restless as I am survive an extended stay without going stir-crazy? Can I relate to people who play golf all day and play pinochle at night? Will they inundate me with Henny Youngman one-liners and stories about the Brooklyn Dodgers until I cry uncle?

It doesn't take long before I am hopelessly lost. Every direction is filled with nearly identical rooftops, curvy streets, gates, and flawless golf courses. A little while later the pleasantly landscaped, meandering boulevard I am driving down ends abruptly at a pock-marked county road. Across the way, the green grass and lush golf courses are noticeably absent, replaced with a narrow sandy road surrounded by a scraggly pine forest. Once upon a time, these inscrutable forests were home to fiercely independent subsistence farmers, called Crackers, who delighted in squirrel meat and rarely traveled except to move deeper into the pines. I watch as a towering pickup truck with a Confederate flag turns onto an unpaved road and briefly loses its footing in a patch of deep sand.

I make a U-turn and continue to drive around aimlessly until I spot an arrow pointing toward Spanish Springs, one of The Villages' two manufactured downtowns. A sign beside the road cautions against speeding, noting that The Villages is a “golf cart community.” The road is more of a parkway, four lanes across with a handsome palm-studded median. What at first appear to be unusually wide sidewalks turn out to be roads specifically designed for golf carts, which whiz silently along them. I see another sign reminding visitors, “It's a beautiful day in The Villages.”

A few miles later, I drive by a hospital, an assisted care facility, and a large Catholic church. I go through another roundabout, cross an ornate bridge, pass something built to look like the crumbling ruins of a Spanish fort, and suddenly I'm in the “town” of Spanish Springs. I spot Betsy outside a Starbucks standing beside her shiny red Miata, dressed attractively in pale pink slacks and a white cardigan, and sporting a nice tan. She greets me with a relaxed smile and a friendly hug, and insists on buying me a very welcome cup of iced coffee. It's comforting to see a familiar face from back home.

“Isn't it nice?” she asks. “People call it ‘Disney for adults,' and I'm beginning to understand why. I just can't believe I'm here. I've met people that have been here for five years and they're still pinching themselves. It's like being on a permanent vacation.”

Surrounding us is an imitation Spanish colonial town spiced up with a few Wild West accents. There's a central square with splashing fountains, a mission-like building at one end, a stucco church at another, and across the way a saloon in the style of the old West with wrought iron balconies. According to The Villages' mythology, Ponce de León passed through this area, just missing these waters—the fountain of youth he so desperately sought. The streets around the town square are lined with buildings that appear to be about 150 years old. There are faded advertisements on their facades for a gunsmith, an assayer, and a telegraph office. I
feel as if I'm on a movie set, which strikes me as an uncomfortable place to live.

Betsy and I take our coffee to the central square, and sit on a bench beside the fountain of youth, which is strewn with lucky coins. The sun is shining, but it's not hot. We catch up on neighborhood gossip, the miserable New England weather, and the uncertain fate of our neighborhood park. Betsy is left pondering her incredible luck. “If we were still living up north, those problems would be our problems,” she says with a sigh. Although not meant unkindly, her comment stings. But she's got a point; her life promises to be a lot more carefree down here than it was back home.

We mosey around the square and then head to the western-motif saloon, Katie Belle's, which is for residents and their guests only. Outside, a historical marker explains the building's colorful past. “Katie Belle Van Patten was the wife of Jacksonville businessman John Decker Van Patten, who, along with a number of other investors, built the luxurious hotel in 1851. …”

The plaque looks so authentic that I have to remind myself I am standing on what was pastureland a mere decade ago. Inside the saloon the walls are covered in dark wood, and heavy draperies hang from several large windows. An enormous Tiffany-style skylight catches my eye, as do two dozen line dancers keeping time to a country and western tune. Many of the stools along the bar are filled with retirees holding draft beers. I look at my watch. It's just past two in the afternoon. “Line dancing is very popular here because you can do it without a partner,” Betsy explains. “They say the only problem with being a widow in The Villages is that you're so busy you forget you
are
one.”

Although I've sat for a beer at an American Legion Post before, I've never been to a bar solely reserved for senior citizens. The first thing I notice is that no one is what I would call particularly beautiful, at least not to my age-biased eyes. But they all look as if they're having a good time.

BOOK: Leisureville
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