We just spent a lovely couple of days visiting my dad Eli and stepmom Toni down in their Florida winter hideaway. Among the amusements and activities was a side trip to a spot in Florida that I never knew existed… a place with a bizarre, alien culture.
No, I’m not talking about Gibsonton. Also known as Gibtown, Gibsonton is home to mutants and carnies during the off season – it is, as a friend of mine put it once, “where all the real freaks live when the circuses and fairs are in hibernation.” That place is meat for a complete anthropological dissertation on its own… but I will save that for another occasion.
I’m talking about a place that’s even more sinister and bizarre. I’m talking about The Villages.
A massive retirement community carved out of the desolate mangrove swamps and savanna-like grasslands of Central Florida, The Villages bills itself as “Florida’s friendliest hometown.”
You’ve watched the movie The Truman Show, which takes place in a town possessed of a certain creepy conformity? That was filmed in the Florida Gulf Coast community of Seaside. Now (as the Missus puts it), imagine Seaside on steroids and jacked up on methamphetamine, and you’ve got a tiny idea of The Villages.
It’s like a permanent Disneyland for elderly folks. Elderly folks with money, anyway.
You approach The Villages by traversing the seedy small towns of central Florida. Old pickup trucks on blocks in the front yards. Body shops. Hair salons offering tax preparation services. Bail bondsmen. And then, of a sudden, you realize that you have crossed an Invisible Boundary. Restaurants! Shopping! Hotels! More restaurants! More shopping! Golf courses! And hordes of tanned, wrinkly Q-Tips populating them all.
As we drove deeper and deeper into The Villages, a feeling of having been transported to the midst of an Exotic Culture came over me. It was, I thought, much the same feeling anthropologist Margaret Mead must have had amongst the Samoans. We were strangers in a strange land. A very strange land.
Like any Exotic Culture, this big game preserve for silverbacks has its own societal norms. The first one that strikes you is the amazing plethora of tricked-out golf carts. Residents of The Villages must own golf carts, presumably because there are areas off-limits to street-legal vehicles… but to call some of these things golf carts is to damn them with faint praise. No: These rides have been pimped. Your average gangsta rapper in the ’hood, with his diamond-studded grille, flashy hoopty, and Excessive Bling, could be schooled by these oldsters.
Some look like little Hummers, others miniature Rolls-Royces or vintage Chevys. On almost every one, the names of husband and wife are prominently displayed, always in the same script lettering… and (Eli informed me) when one of the spouses keels over, the replacement’s name is carefully painted over the former one.
In a mating display reminiscent of the peacock’s great fan of tailfeathers – or the gorilla’s chest-thumping – hundreds of these golf carts thunder past, cruising the squares and main streets of the Villages, looking to impress tourists and the occasional unattached female. It’s quite impressive, really.
We stayed long enough to enjoy a movie (the cinema palaces at The Villages are exceptional, complete with gold-plated faucets in the Gents’ Room, and a tuxedo-clad cologne- and towel-distribution agent) and a fine meal at one of the local establishments, then made the hour-long trek back to Chez Eli. Back to some sort of normalcy.
She Who Must Be Obeyed is ready to pick up and move to The Villages. I told her she could… after I’m defunct. Disneyland is fun, sure, but as a daily diet it would get tiresome in a big hurry, don’tcha think?