The Dream of the Suburbs Doesn’t Have to Die

Author’s Note: If you want some background information on the city I’m talking about – or if you just get a little confused – go ahead and click over to my Dispatches page for a quick overview.

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The Villages works. It works for a very specific demographic. Currently, you cannot live in The Villages unless you (or your spouse) are older than 55. Visitors under 18 may not stay with you for more than a set amount of time. If you work in The Villages or its surrounding enterprises, you are excepted and have access to send your children to The Villages very own K-12 Charter School.

On paper, this place doesn’t make a lick of sense. Set up a sprawling suburban complex in the hilly, pastoral beauty south of Ocala National Forest. An area already scarred by meth and other plagues of rural poverty – still visible on the fringes of the neatly ordered community from the drive up to The Villages from Tampa. In the setting up of said residential complex, tear down the raw beauty of the wooden range fences that pen in rolling hills of rich green horse country – with refrains of ancient, dangling oaks and other shade trees spotted throughout. Run high tension power lines over groves of fruit trees and frighteningly beautiful local flora. Build islands of malls – three of them, with a fourth on the way – perfectly arranged in a calculated pocket of suburban hell. In each mall, which is of the outdoor and faux-European variety that infested every well-to-do region of the country in the last five years, place a stage and gazebo in the center where terrible, stilted and hacky musicians will play terribly white and safe country licks, and they will do it nightly like the robotic bears at (the now tremendously scary) Chuckey Cheese, except that these robotic woodland musicians have blood and veins and a conscience and can’t at all take any joy out of what they do night in and night out. What should offer the chance of culture, good food, interesting shopping and beautiful walks ends up in the form of three, too small (for any real walking), circular and utterly fake shrines to commercialism. Here’s where I’ve just realized in my writing that those born early enough as to have missed the birth of irony in the 80s won’t understand a word I’m saying – and those that will understand, already agreed with me before they’d ever heard of The Villages. So, allow me to decelerate my liberal arts didactic argument and instead engage a series of real problems.

The food is terrible. I sort of already got into that over in the third piece I wrote after my first serious visit to The Villages. The “local” eateries – as in, not immediately recognizable as chains – offer nothing but mean, loveless sustenance. An authentic Indian restaurant with bland samosa and weak raita and spiceless dal. An authentic Thai restaurant – a sister restaurant to the Thai Ruby in New Tampa on Amberly Drive (we spoke to the owner and she was very nice and helped out a great deal) was way better tasting in Tampa versus the identical interior and menu and everything else at the Thai Ruby in The Villages. Sure, the Panera tastes like Panera and the Starbucks tastes like Starbucks. Are those victories anymore?

The awful food experience stole the cake when we went to this Grand Old Opera place where they performed live shows in a massive dining area and people danced in the center on the ground floor. We sat and ate upstairs on the outdoor balcony overlooking the previously described squares of crappy country music and dancing zombie-like old people and local youths, too young to have kids, but with broods of their own enjoying the only type of public entertainment available in their particular region of Florida. Maybe this seems disingenuous for me to pick on, but the menu made literally no sense. Each page and sometimes multiple times on the same page, the font changed, the color of the font changed, the sizing varied. There was almost no organization or way to decipher what food belonged in what category. I don’t mean to say this menu took some avant garde left turn. We are in a retirement mega-community. This design either jives insanely well with the popular cocktails of uppers, hardeners and spinners they get the old folks on or it confuses them even more than it does me. Which can’t be true. What HAS the be the real story, is that the old folks never bothered with the menu in the first place and just shout what they want, letting the wait staff pick up the pieces as they choose. Or, the Kindergartener-designed color/font combo triggers the only unravaged portion of these feeble minds and they have some sort of DareDevil clarity with the whole thing.

Heaven help me there wasn’t a vegetarian dish on the whole goddamn four-paged menu – but I knew beforehand I’d have to eat creatively. The parents, my brother and I arrived at a crowded time and hung out at the bar while we waited for a table. No drink menu. None. This means you have to ask the bar tender what beers they have and what wines they have, etcetera. And it was a legit bar too – not like flag down waiters in a lounge (but there was a lounge too, for people waiting, with chairs and small tables for appetizer munching and getting drunk while you wait for a table). This was literally one of the fanciest dining experiences the property has to offer. But, so, when they listed off 5 very poverty-indicative beers, I asked what wines they had and he (the bartender) just said types like Merlot, Pinot Noir, etc. but they just had like one bottle brand and it’s the like 7-11 brand red wine bottles. Nowhere else would legitimate eaters stand for this kind of crap with the brain-damaged child engineered menu, lack of any beverage options, and do I even have to talk about how horrible everyone’s food was? Everyone’s food: even my totally unpicky Dad felt cheated and punished by the experience.

But the vistas are very nice. Overlooking the lake and the causeway that’s lit up like an oceanfront boardwalk pretty much puts you in the mindset of being on the beach. When it’s nice out at night, it’s just a great place to walk after a meal. Every now and then you’ll turn a corner or cul-de-sac in the suburban hellscape and appear on a hill overlooking the massive cathedral and the adjacent cathedralesque sprawling hospital complex with a small pond in the foreground and children with kites visiting grandparents or great-grandparents and it will all make sense for a few seconds.

In the end, why it works – why I am convinced it works – is the dream of the 50s. For those of us who grew up in the 80s or 90s, we probably don’t fantasize about home ownership and gated communities, pools to clean and lawns to mow, etcetera. But a still very viable and baby-boomer large slice of the population craves that shit like a concave junky sprinting up steps for a chance to maybe just have one more hit. Up here in central Florida they’ve captured it and buckets of the stuff – the raw stuff, totally uncut – just flows around for everyone. What’s best is you can’t fry your brain or ruin your nose or blow all your veins. The Dream of the Suburbs, forever and ever.

For these folks, any level of success that doesn’t end in a home and a lawn big enough to keep away pesky neighbors and absolutely requires long drives for even basic sustenance tasks isn’t a level of success at all and a goddamn shame if truth be told. Why else all the fucking golf carts decked out in body kits like Aston Martins, beamers, winged and turquoise Cadillacs. These are signs of success to certain types of people. Very few young people (anymore that I know) drool over the thought of Mercedes or BMW, but a very profitable section of the population when condensed into a stew of like-minded dreamers all go bat-shit-crazy for cheap body kits for golf carts that top out at 20mph. Body kits that resemble the same success as the suburban utopia they were promised on TV and in movies growing up in the 50s and 60s. But there’s little special roads everywhere just for golf carts – and pedestrians and cyclists, I guess. And its a beautiful place to bike: period. It may be one of the best in Florida: the greater Ocala / National Forest / Villages area.

And allow me to get all liberal arts again because the body kits thing hurts my heart. It pulsates with a very real sadness to me. All these dreams wrecked – no BMW, no Mercedes, no glittering retirement Rolex. Instead, a couple grand worth of plastic body kit for a golf cart. Maybe they have other levels of success – but this is the car generation as much as its the suburbia and Eisenhower one. So, when all those gearhead fantasies yield low-horsepower resignation… I just choke up at all the loss. I even tried to paint this picture for my dad and ask if its a sincere sadness and he just sort of shrugged at me as he dragged me outside to look at his burgundy golf cart with pleather interior and special seat for the dog and straps for his golf clubs. Just like I said – no sense of irony at all. Great Value products are in fact a Great Value – without even a thought to whether they are also a Fit For Human Consumption product.

There aren’t a lot of big, shade-draped oaks anymore in The Villages. Far too much development happened, probably too quickly for caution. A few paths are lined with trees, some smaller, the larger ones maintained from before The Villages, most of them obviously transplanted. Think fresh suburban crop instead of glorious, old, historic shade draped driveways like in Seminole Heights or Coral Gables. The haunted looking avenues of a place like Savannah. Old places. Places people live.

What this place offers is a form of acceptance – and just now I have to think its the same acceptance a lot of them approached marriage with – and had a few because of it. The – well, that’s good enough, I guess – mentality that’s almost anachronistic to Boomerism, but does in fact smack a whole lot of the Depression generation. The whole dream of 50s success in terms of how to live. But no one ever told them how to die. So, they swallow the pill and go off to take a decade to die isolated in the middle of Florida, two hours from anywhere – and that’s anywhere in Florida terms. Supposedly, kids visit more now that grandma and grandpa live in The Villages – that’s part of the sales pitch (did I mention each mall has massive – as in mansion-sized – and incredibly well appointed Sales Offices to get people to buy in The Villages?). I don’t buy that pitch, though. I don’t want to visit. I miss my parents. I miss them living somewhere I wanted to see them and I don’t think I ever have or ever will see them living somewhere worth visiting. Just getting sicker around boring, 55+ seniors in a continually sprawling population of 120,000 or more, far away from kids to take care of them or give them grandkids to spoil rotten. Far away where only a sociopath would bring a baby or a family to visit this leper colony of self-exiled geriatrics. There’s a reason Children of Men was such a preternaturally terrifying premise. Remove any sign of youth from a population and what’s the fucking point?

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