A fellow I know used to tell me that I spent a lot of time on the “atmospherics” of a situation, and ignored the cold hard facts. I do. But then, “cold hard facts” of themselves don’t make a good story, and I like stories. In a sense everything is a story, and God the story teller. But we can talk about that another time.
I suppose it’s the demographics that are the cold hard facts…
I remember reading about certain places in Arizona years and years ago when Arizona was still a desert and had not been turned into a bone dry tropical paradise by sucking all the water from the ground from the edge of the Arctic to our border with Mexico. These were places which advertised themselves as retirement communities, and drew a lot of folks, all old asthma sufferers I guess, from the smog covered Northeast to the clear dry eternally blue skies of whatever smarmy thing the developers of aplace called it; if you weren’t Jewish, I guess, and duty bound to head for Miami and the humidity and flying roaches.
I always wondered what it would be like to live in a “planned community”. I lived in the Bronx, as random and erratic a place as may be found on earth. Then, about fifteen years ago, I visited one of these places in New Jersey, with my wife Sheila, may she rest in peace. We were paying a call on her aunt and uncle. It was in some bit of New Jersey that was neither sea shore nor oil refinery. That should pinpoint it for you.
It was a big place with lots of little houses. It was incredibly three things: neat, quiet and empty. I got an eerie Stephen King kind of feeling driving down the street that the world had ended and Sheila and me were the only ones who were away from the phone when the call came to pack up and go.
Then I thought, “This is New Jersey, for crying out loud, crooks in every nook, corruption on every corner and no major league team, except if you count the New York Giants and the vandals who play basketball for a living. There’s gotta be at least a few FBI agents around.” And I also thought, “Arizona must be full. They must have run out of walkers and commodes, or else nothing like this would make it to New Jersey where most of what grows is garbage dumps and seagulls that live off them, and extra lanes on the Turnpike so more people can get through the place at exponentially slower speeds.”
We had a nice visit, but I couldn’t wait to leave this anteroom to the funeral parlor. I remember telling Sheila that it was like being at a wake and talking with the dear departed who sat up and served coffee, a very weird feeling. Driving out of the place…and the drive was a series of gentle curves at the top speed of fifteen mph, like a go cart ride in an amusement park…not a carriage, nor a basketball backboard, nor an open garage strewn with bats, balls, lawn mowers, grills and all the other mess of normal life did I see.
The little snap shot you are looking at now is not from that day. I took the picture a few days ago in Shrewsbury, a town just to the east of Worcester, MA. We happened to be staying at the home of some friends for a couple of weeks. They were two lovely ladies in their 80’s, not an unusual occurrence these days. Of course along the way they had accumulated the usual assortment of equipment failures and shortcomings that I find myself gathering, and that was our reason for being there. We were the “sitters” while the husband of one was traveling with a couple of the children and a small herd of grandchildren on vacation in Switzerland.
It is a planned retirement community for active people. I think that’s how the brochure would would describe it; The Meadows at the Orchard, or some such, a real Fruitlands. On arriving I was thrown back in time to that place in New Jersey, immaculate, neat, quiet and empty. Of course it wasn’t empty. It just seemed so. And was so good at seeming so that it might as well have been.
I took the picture from the porch at about 11:ooam on the first morning after we arrived. I could have taken the picture every fifteen minutes around the clock for two weeks, and except for the weather nothing would have changed. On that first day two cars drove past the front of the house, and about five people strolled along the street. Of course there were no cars parked on the street (except the one we drove there in).
Across the street from us was a Commons, an open space about a hundred yards square rising gently and crowned by a graceful gazebo at the center. Mariellen and I sat there reading one afternoon and were joined briefly by a neighbor who was walking her small grandson, visiting with his father and two brothers. The little boy was a magnet for my attention while his grandmother eagerly asked us all about ourselves and why we were there. She left, soon, when he got bored, his father and brothers came, and all of them scooted away, away from the quiet and the neatness.
We met the husband, the grandfather, who was not happy his wife said, living there with nothing to do. Of course, the rules don’t allow “doing” , of most any normal kind anywhere on the grounds. That kind of thing can get carried to absurd lengths. I watched, early one morning, a woman walking behind her Bichon Frise with a tin plate to catch her pet’s “doings” before they hit the ground. But, then, what she was doing was, at least, something.
In the kitchen of the house where we stayed the sun shone against the wall through a skylight and skirted the big clock. Here it is at about 10:05 am one morning, its light and the hands on the clock the only things moving, the muffled noise of the rest of the world blocked by the double windows and the central air.
I sat one morning watching the rectangle you see march down the wall until it began to inch along toward the table. Almost an hour had passed, according to the clock. But that was the only way one would have known, that and the almost imperceptible movement of light across the blank wall. Outside nothing was “doing” much.
I am aware that I could rearrange the last sentence above in a more conventional order. It might give you the facts. It wouldn’t, though, convey the atmospherics.