THE VILLAGES, Fla
28° N, 82° W
“They’ll be back for the bingo.” So sez sunburnt Schmidt, the bartender in the visor and neon salmon golf-shirt, as most of his clientele leave their barstools for golf carts parked out front. It is fifteen minutes until 4 pm, the busiest time on the streets of The Villages as the elderly citizenry begin queuing at the early-bird buffets. Florida has many communities where the median age is north of seventy, but The Villages is a whole damn town devoted to the nearly dearly-departed. It is quite literally the largest senior-living gated-community in the known universe. The resident turnover here is higher than anywhere else in the country, mostly due to the already expired-by dates. Realtors seeking vacancies cruise through the streets like vultures sniffing for methane. Schmidt, who is stirring a jug of sweet-tea, lemonade and beer, warns me about the life-clinging desperados, “Don’t get between them old-fogies and the prime rib stand at the all-you-can-eat buffet bar. They don’t know which slice of beef might be their last if you know what I am saying.” I do. Schmidt also explains the only thing higher than the median age is the percentage of citizenry with STDs. “They don’t know which lay might be their last if you know what I am saying.” I do; condoms and bibs be damned when eternal slumber awaits. “You don’t want to be a drycleaner in this town” Schmidt sez.
This part of Sumter County wasn’t always a waiting room for the clock-conscious elderly; this used to be wilderness with a few trailers and hunting shacks and a lonely cemetery where gravediggers would toil and a lonely bar where the gravediggers would find solace in their cups. The bar, the Shovelhead Pub, still stands and the faded image of a shovelhead shark can barely be made out on the roadside marque. The cemetery is no longer on the other side of the highway as it was bulldozed to make way for Shady Palms Assisted Living and Crematorium, but the Shovelhead Pub remains and is haunted with decades of gallows humor and the musk of unearthed soil.
It’s after 4 pm and the bar is quiet. The townsfolk are somewhere else chin-deep in pea soup. The few warm bodies inside this joint are relatives bereaving the recently deceased. There is a guy to my side, Sal, who is trying to sell me individual recipe cards from a box of his mother’s last belongings. “$1 per recipe or the whole fucking lot for twenty bucks” Sal offers. He waves a recipe card before his face like a flirtatious flapper girl. “Chicken pot-pie” he teases the card. “It’s the Queen of Comfort Food, yeah?” Why not the king, I wonder. “Because pot-pie is delicate…” Sal insists, “and flaky… like a lady.” He puts the recipe back in the box before continuing, with a sudden smile, “And under the flakiness it is either molten lava or it’s like slow-drying cement, yeah?” No, I shake my head.
I’m nursing a Paloma made with reposado, red wine, grapefruit juice and a spoonful of psyllium husk to promote regularity (it’s a house special). First one today, I lift my drink to toast Sal, even though this is my second and I need to slow down and keep my wits lest the resident Angel of Death reap me by mistake. Even at the slow-pace, the second Paloma has me cooing a mariachi ballad about dying only to return as a reincarnated dove to serenade my unrequited love.
I’ve been waiting to use the loo but a pair of octogenarians had escaped their spouses to have illicit sex in the bathroom where they have since fallen asleep. Schmidt, the barkeep, has to jimmy the lock to open the bathroom door before taking a broom to sweep the young lovers out of the pub.
“Miracle of science;” Schmidt groans, “boner pills keep the fogies boning like they got to reach some quota set in their contract with the devil they signed to finance their new $20,000 golf cart. Meanwhile, everyone has the clap. Don’t sit down on any toilet seat while you’re in town is what I am saying.”
Sal has left, but there is another bereft survivor at the bar: a cross-fit fanatic in gym clothes wearing a watch set to Mountain Time Zone. She is speaking into her phone, telling whoever might be listening she is bawling her eyes out, except she mixes words and admits, “I’m crying my bawls out.”
“Sounds hormonal.” I suggest.
Schmidt nods then shakes his head; he doesn’t have a cure for what ails her. But he’s got something which might help and pours the fit lady a glass of chardonnay on the house.
I settle my tab and tip the man before leaving the Shovelhead Pub with a box of recipe cards.