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Shadow on the Sun

On a tour through The Villages.


It took Jason a little under five minutes to completely suss me out. Jason was a real estate agent for The Villages, the largest retirement community in the world. It was his job to sell houses in Florida to old people, and he appeared to be very good at his job. He was about my age, somewhere in his early thirties, but he probably made ten times my income. In fact, this was one of the first things Jason told me when I got in his enormous Toyota pickup. He apologized for being late, and said he’d been up until dawn the previous night playing cards. He’d won big. He’d won twice what I make in a year.

There are a few retirement communities in the U.K.: in any English seaside town you might stumble across a plasticky apartment building or a cluster of small, neat cottages that have been set aside for the old. When you’ve been alive for a while, your skin starts to hang slack. You develop small scratchy patches on your face, and your eyes turn the color of expired cream. Your bones go brittle. Your mind goes dull. Nobody wants to look at you too closely, in case they see where they’re headed. The world is loud and confusing, and you’ve long stopped trying to make sense of it, so you sell your home and come here. Here, by the seaside, there might be a little square of AstroTurf where blue-haired old dears play a gentle game of bowls under the heavy spitting sky. Here, it’s bingo night every Thursday, and on Friday, classic films. On Saturday, the nurses will herd you into a minibus to the local spa. You can fade until you vanish altogether, safely out of everyone else’s sight.

The Villages is something else.

Jason’s Toyota purred down the highway, past rows of identical pastel-colored bungalows and retail parks. Scholl Foot Care. Urology Associates. Cracker Barrel. Jason told me about The Villages. He explained that The Villages occupies around eighty square miles of central Florida, which makes it substantially larger than the island of Manhattan. It’s home to some one hundred forty thousand happy, active retired people, with more constantly arriving: this is the single fastest-growing metro area in the entire United States. It contains nine state-of-the-art hospitals, four gun ranges, two one-thousand-seat concert venues, and eight vast churches. It has more than fifty free golf courses, enough for you to play on a different range every week of the year. Ninety swimming pools, not counting the ones in people’s backyards. Twenty of them are Olympic-sized. Something like ten million square feet of commercial space, including a dozen sprawling shopping centers and over one hundred restaurants and bars. Residents also have their pick of around three thousand community social clubs. The Acting Out Theater Club produces its own original musicals. The Red Sox Nation Club has more members in The Villages than it does in Boston. The MAGA Club has hosted members of the Trump family. You can sail or scuba dive or line dance or learn the ukulele or discuss Ayn Rand. The Villages has its own radio station (W.V.L.G.), TV channel (V.N.N.), and newspaper (the Daily Sun), and somewhere north of eighty thousand homes. Jason couldn’t give me a more precise figure because it’s constantly changing. The Villages builds four hundred new houses every month.

I tapped away at my phone, noting all this down. Jason started telling me about the roads. The east-west roads, he said, the major ones, were mostly retail. The north-south roads, like the one we were about to join, were purely about getting people from one place to another. “If you really need to travel,” he said, “you’ll be taking these. It’s like, it’s like . . .” “Like arteries,” I suggested. Jason slapped his steering wheel. “Yes! Exactly! Like arteries. Like the whole place is a human body. That’s good, bro. You’re pretty good with words.” It sounded like a compliment. But he said it like an accusation.

I was in The Villages because I’d been commissioned to write the piece you’re reading now, but I didn’t want Jason to know that. A few days previously, I’d phoned The Villages’ real estate division and asked if they had someone who could show me around. Florida developers are a fairly cagey lot, so I’d decided that telling them the truth—“Hi! I’m interested in excoriating your fiefdom!”—was probably a non-starter. So I lied. I gave them a fake name, and even made an email account to go with it. I was going undercover. I was doing serious journalism. I said that my mother was interested in maybe retiring to Florida, and since I’d be in the area anyway she’d asked if I could head down to The Villages and check it out on her behalf. To make sure I didn’t slip up, I’d concocted an elaborate backstory in my head. In this version of reality, my parents were separated but not divorced. In this version, my mother was a very different person. She’d kept the house, but it was too big for her to be living in all by herself. And anyway, she wanted to get out of London. That great calcified pile of limestone and birdshit, with its miserable skies and its miserable economy: the whole city felt like her failed marriage writ large. She had a sister in Florida, nephews and nieces. They seemed happy there. So why not? Why not line dance and learn the ukulele? Why not enjoy some nice weather? Why not be happy too?

This was the story I’d given Jason on the phone. Now he was explaining how property ownership in The Villages worked. Something about a thirty-year bond. I asked what the bond paid for, and Jason gave me a sudden sly look. “You know what I reckon?” he said. “I reckon you’re a writer. I reckon you’ve come here to write something about this place.” “I’m not,” I said, pathetically. “Doesn’t matter to me,” said Jason. “Whoever you are, anything you write about me is just gonna make more people want to come here. I want attention. I want people to know what we’re doing. That’s great news. That’s only gonna be good for business. So let’s say you are who you say you are. Sure. Look, I believe you. You’re just looking for a place for your mom.”

He was right about one thing. This is an attempt to prove him wrong about the other.

Jason had a good reason to be suspicious, because I am not the first interested outsider who took the trip down to Florida to gawp at The Villages. Indie documentarians, in particular; there seems to be a new film about it every year. It’s good cinema. All those endless pastel suburbs. Those wrinkled bodies in the swimming pools, synchronized swimming. Happy people golfing over sad eerie music. Essayists love the place too: this perfect manicured Disneyland, just waiting for some millennial to dig down into its festering Lynchian heart of shadow. The right-wing politics, or the sex. Everyone knows that The Villages has the highest rate of S.T.D.s in the United States (it doesn’t), that residents attach colored loofahs to their golf carts to signal their wife-swapping preferences (unlikely), and that there’s a vast black market in Viagra (this one’s true). I was warned that I’d probably be pounced upon by some lubricious sexagenarian. (No such luck.) People treat it like a curio, a weird Floridian quirk, which it is: this city populated exclusively by the retired. But the real story goes deeper, and The Villages is not just a bubble. Its residents might never have to leave their little utopia, but it is deeply, deeply enmeshed in the workings of the world.

This wet tract of bungalows is the unacknowledged capital of Planet Earth. Whoever you are, and whatever you do, if you work then you are probably working for The Villages. In Jharkhand in India, there are open mines where children, some as young as five, squat in the toxic dust and dig out nuggets of coal with rusted shovels. They don’t know it, but they are working for The Villages. In Brazil, there are sweatshops where women trafficked from Bolivia and Peru sit in silence for twelve hours a day, stitching clothes: they are also working for The Villages. In New York, there are finance guys who snort cocaine and move billions around like chess pieces and they might think they run the world, but the sole purpose of everything they do is a two-for-one frozen margarita night in The Villages. Container ships cross oceans for The Villages. Artillery shells pound the muddy ruins for The Villages. The arms companies might prolong the world’s wars to boost their profits, but the arms companies are all secret subsidiaries of The Villages. And so am I. What I learned in The Villages is that there is nothing outside The Villages. In some way I can’t quite see, I am also a minor node in its great global empire.

I’m exaggerating. But only very slightly.

Retirement is not just big business; in a sense, retirement is business, full stop. The U.S. has a total G.D.P. of twenty-three trillion dollars, but the assets of all American pension funds are nearly fifty percent larger: thirty-five trillion, a monstrous pile of money accumulated for the sole purpose of allowing Americans to have a nice time when they retire. These pension funds are the biggest players in the financial markets and the biggest investors in every level of the economy. The richest people in the world—the richest countries in the world—are utterly dwarfed by the sheer fiscal mass of millions upon millions of ordinary middle-class Americans’ 401(k)s. When we talk about corporate profits, or the capitalist class, or even capital itself, we are talking about pensions.

In the 1980s, when the pension funds first started taking over the economy, this led to some strange outcomes. Often, an industrial firm would be bought up by its own pension fund, who would then decide that the firm was hopelessly unprofitable, sell off all its assets, and fire all the workers. Today, things are calmer. The United States has quietly transitioned into a command economy. Between them, the three biggest asset management firms—Vanguard, BlackRock, and State Street—own almost the entire corporate sector. (They also own an increasingly large chunk of the residential real estate market.) They are strangely unconcerned by the profitability of any individual firm they invest in, since they also own a significant slice of all its competitors. Instead, they’re content to gently guide the entire system of global capitalism towards a maximum general return on investment. In an era of stagnant growth, this requires total control: every industry integrated, every possible node accounted for. (During the COVID pandemic, for instance, BlackRock instructed the major pharmaceutical corporations to collaborate on vaccine research. The asset managers didn’t care whether Pfizer or Johnson & Johnson or Merck patented a vaccine first; they owned all three.) These firms manage investments for individual billionaires, sovereign wealth funds, and central banks. But most of all, they manage pensions.

Once, not so long ago, old people who couldn’t work were either looked after by their families, or not at all—and that “not at all” was a very frightening prospect. A century ago, fifty-eight percent of American men over sixty-five still participated in the labor market: it was either that, or burden their children, or starve. This was not a very good state of affairs. But what we have now instead is deeply strange: mass consumer pensions have turned our entire adulthood into a preamble to old age. You work for three, four, five decades—all so you can enjoy those few, brief, useless years between retirement and death. Not just that: everyone in the world is now working to increase the value of your pension, even the coal miners in India and the garment-sewers in Brazil and all the other billions without any pensions of their own. The entire global economy is now a machine for producing satisfied retirees. Capitalism, which blundered about the world for four hundred years without any ends other than itself, has now found its purpose.

The job of The Villages is to be that purpose. It is here to soak up as much of this extraordinary bounty as possible: to ensure that a significant slice of an entire planet’s worth of economic activity ends up in central Florida. They do this by selling the thing that all these people have been working for all their lives: perfect leisure before you die. Like the pyramids for the Egyptians, or the moai for Rapa Nui, The Villages is the final output of our society; the thing all our collective efforts have come together to produce. Our monument. It is a place of infinite, affordable delight. I have been there. It is the worst place I have ever been.

I met my first Villager before I even arrived. Mike was the only other passenger in my shuttle from Orlando Airport, and he did not look how I’d imagined someone who lived in a retirement community would look. Mike’s hair was jet black, and he had substantially more of it than I do, even if he’d sheared most of it into a crew cut, black strands fuzzing down the back of his neck. He wore wraparound Oakley sunglasses and a goatee pressed deep into the folds of his face. An upturned nose; black eyes. And unlike most people who live in a retirement community, Mike was not actually retired.

Mike worked as an engineer for Caterpillar; he kept saying that he’d worked there for thirty-five years. I didn’t ask his age, but I totted up the numbers in my head: assuming he’d gotten the job right after he left the Army, that would make him fifty-seven years old, just above The Villages’ minimum. He said that most of the people he met in The Villages assumed that he and his wife were there visiting one of their parents. He’d just flown in from a work trip: his job took him all over the world. Mike worked on mining equipment; he was present everywhere vast machines tear into the bowels of the earth. Once Mike had been sent to a diamond mine in Russia, north of the Arctic Circle. This inhumanly cold desert where your tears freeze to ice crystals in the corners of your eyes. The miners had to wear oxygen masks. They had blasted an enormous circular pit into the ground there, nearly half a mile wide. They worked all through the winter, even when the sun doesn’t come up for weeks on end. Searching for diamonds in the dark.

What made Mike decide to move to The Villages was another business trip, this one much closer to home. He’d been sent out to Jackson, Mississippi, and the client had insisted on providing him with a car and a driver throughout his stay. If he drove around by himself, they said, he’d be carjacked and murdered. Mike knew that America was falling apart. He said that in New York, they’d stopped prosecuting crime altogether. You could just walk into a store and steal anything you wanted, and the cops couldn’t do a thing. In Chicago, which is where he was from, things were even worse. The whole show, he said, was being run by a bunch of crooks. Five of the last eight Illinois governors, he said, were in prison. (In fact it’s four of the last ten, with two others acquitted.) The only laws they still enforced had to do with gun control. He started talking about a new law on magazine capacity they’d introduced somewhere, which I didn’t fully understand, but the upshot was that it meant that anyone who owned a pistol with a magazine—and Mike owned several—had to register it with the state authorities. This, he said, was the beginning of the New World Order.

With the rest of the country in a state of lawlessness and collapse, Mike and his wife had moved to The Villages. “It’s clean,” he said, “and it’s safe. What more do you need?” He liked to hang out at the bars, and he was glad that his wife preferred to stay at home: “There’s some hotties around for sure.” He didn’t mean the residents. He meant their college-aged grandkids, come to visit for the holidays. Admittedly, he had some problems with the place. “They need more restaurants,” he said, “but nobody wants to deal with The Villages because they’ve got their hands in everybody’s pockets. They want to take eighteen percent of your profits.” But it was worth the lack of restaurants to live somewhere clean and safe with hotties around. He liked Ron DeSantis and thought that Florida was generally well run. But Mike’s prognosis for the rest of the country was bleak. “It’s gonna turn into martial law one of these days,” he said. “My kids are doing okay, but by the time grandkids come around, I don’t know how society’s gonna be.” The Villages was his holdout against a world gone mad. A holdout with golf.

Then he described a chain of gas stations in Texas called Buc-ee’s. “They have a beef jerky bar that’s forty-five feet long,” he said. “It is fantastic. Every time I go there I spend about a hundred fifty dollars on beef jerky.”

We were veering through the tangle of freeways around Orlando. Outside, Florida looked entirely empty. Vast rolling plains with nothing in them. Here and there, in the middle of this nothing, there’d be a tiny collection of low houses with pitched roofs and swimming pools out back. Like a fragment of suburbia that had come loose in the wilderness. Sometimes the thin layer of turf cracked and you could see what lay underneath, which was sugary yellow sand. Two million years ago, this entire peninsula was underwater, and these sands were the seafloor. Before long, they might be submerged once again.

Our driver was called Gabriel, and he did not live in The Villages. He lived in one of the smaller, shabbier towns that have yet to be gobbled up by the development, where families can still live together. A dormitory for the armies of younger workers who service the retiree utopia: the people who staff the tills and trim the lawns and flip the burgers and perform the bypass operations and wipe up the piss and teach the aquarobics classes and assemble the houses and fix the plumbing and drive the shuttle bus to and from Orlando Airport, two hours each way. He liked it there, but he preferred it in The Villages. That’s where he went on a Saturday night. He agreed with Mike that there were some hotties around, but he added that not all of them were people’s grandkids. Some of them were prostitutes, and Gabriel had discovered that the prostitutes were not interested in him. They’d come to siphon off someone’s pension.

Another car pulled in front of him on the freeway without indicating, and Gabriel swore. “People here are dumb, man,” he said. “I went to high school in Florida and these are the dumbest people in the world. I failed all my classes, but I still got the highest score in the state of Florida in the state tests. It was in the newspapers, the governor even came over to give me a medal. You know why I got the highest score? Cuz it was the same tests I was taking in fourth grade. That’s how dumb people are here.” He stared at the road for a few seconds. Dumb Floridians speeding around in their dumb cars, in this dumb landscape under a bright dumb sky. “I was a horrible kid,” he said.

Unlike Mike, Gabriel had noticed that I wasn’t from round these parts. He told me that he had absolutely no desire to ever go to England, because of what we were doing to the kids. “They’re kidnapping the kids over there,” he said, “they’re just grabbing them up off the street and cutting them open.” I said that I was pretty sure this wasn’t happening. Gabriel shook his head with some force. “I’ve seen videos,” he said. “They take the kids, they cut them open for body parts. You can buy a kid’s heart in England. It’s the Russians, or the Ukrainians, the Russians or someone are cutting up kids for body parts. The Albanians. It’s all on video. I’ve watched dozens of videos of them cutting kids open. They’re still awake when it happens, man. Don’t you go on the deep web?” He had one more observation about my country. “I hear you’re trying to get rid of the Indians over there,” he said, “the same way we’re trying to get rid of the blacks.” He laughed. Gabriel’s father was Chinese from Guyana, and his mother was Jamaican. He was, by American standards at least, black.

For my stay in The Villages, I would be holed up in the Comfort Suites near Spanish Springs. According to the official history, Spanish Springs was the first part of The Villages to be completed, although strictly speaking this isn’t true. The Villages was the work of one Harold Schwartz, one of the great mediocre American salesmen. Schwartz grew up, like quite a few of his eventual clients, in the Midwest. His grandparents had come over from Hungary to live in a different kind of poverty. They couldn’t afford to feed their family, so Harold’s father and his two uncles ended up being abandoned to an orphanage. Harold grew up without grandparents. His father ended up as a tailor, and not a particularly successful one. The entire family had to squeeze into a tiny, humid tenement on the South Side of Chicago. When Harold turned eighteen, his father put him to work as a traveling salesman, hawking suits. He’d wanted to be a violinist. Harold was not a natural: a few years later, in the midst of the Great Depression, his father’s business collapsed.

But there are ways of selling without selling. The young Harold Schwartz went into the mail-order business: distanced, touchless. He sold vitamin pills and cuckoo clocks. He wrote all the ad copy himself, and handled all the shipping from his father’s tenement. He married a non-Jewish woman who’d grown up in the same building and moved her in with his family. They had one son together, and then fairly promptly divorced. After the war, Harold bought up radio stations just south of the Mexican border, not-quite-legally broadcasting to Texas and California. Their purpose was to advertise his mail-order vitamins and tat. And eventually, he started selling land.

The first incarnation of The Villages was Orange Blossom Gardens, a patch of swampland just north of U.S. Highway 27. Schwartz bought the land at one-hundred fifty dollars an acre, parceled it out into quarter-acre lots, and sold them off sight unseen through his mail-order catalogs: two hundred fifty-seven dollars each. The idea was that you would buy a mobile home, park it on your patch of swamp, and live there for the rest of your life. Over the first decade, he sold barely a few hundred plots. In 1983, Orange Blossom Gardens was a sad shamble of trailers with a few shuffleboard courts and a nine-hole golf course. That year, Schwartz brought in his son, H. Gary Morse, as a business partner. Morse had been raised by his mother in Michigan, and ended up taking his stepfather’s name. He was also an immeasurably better salesman than his stepfather. I wonder what kind of subtle Oedipal play was at work when Morse, who had first wiped out his father’s name, then decided to bulldoze everything his father had built and start again. He got rid of the trailers and started putting up houses: lots of houses. He wasn’t selling a place, but a dream. The wonderful life you always deserved—which meant building Spanish Springs. And then, right in the center, he put up a statue to Harold Schwartz, who had sat on this prime Florida real estate for decades and not known what to do.

From the ground, Spanish Springs looks like the center of a charming old mission-colonial town. The streets are tidy and walkable. The buildings have shutters and colonnades, and in the warm evenings the stucco glows. It looks like a nice place to live. In the middle there’s a plaza with a bandstand, and every night of the year a live band covers the oldies and the Villagers gather there to dance. Local legend says that Juan Ponce de León really did discover the fabled Fountain of Youth in Florida, and he found it here: it’s the same fountain that gurgles around the statue of Harold Schwartz. A few brass plaques describe its more recent history. One building was once, back in 1872, the law offices of Allan & Storms: “The law firm’s habit of successfully representing small ranchers against powerful local cattle interests led Robert Allan’s uncle, the prominent cattleman Robert McCall, to lament that having a lawyer in the family was bad enough, but having an honest lawyer in the family was nothing short of humiliating.”

A small town with a rich, quirky history. The Villagers, these fit and socially active old people, thronged its streets. They ducked into shops and bars. They chanced by people they knew, and stopped to say hello. It really did feel like there was a community here. After all their kicking against the pricks, after all the convolutions of the twentieth century—the race riots, the rock and roll rebellion, the hippies fleeing their hometowns to drift aimlessly from coast to coast, the kids packed off to kill and die in foreign jungles, the utopian communes, the vast tangle of freeways, the de-industrialization, the main streets moldering, the big-box stores, the malls, the opiate crisis, the world’s great daring plunge into nowhere, the heart torn out of America, piece by rotting piece—after all that, in their sunset years, the Baby Boomers have finally come back home.

It looks slightly different from above. From the satellite view on Google Maps, Spanish Springs is a tiny dense huddle, three blocks by three. And surrounding it, for acres and acres on every side, the parking lots bloat. Beyond that, there are only suburbs and golf courses. Suburbs without sidewalks, flat sterile streets feeding into eight-lane highways. Golf courses lodged into every gap. The blank formless form that destroyed all the tiny old towns so convincingly simulated by Spanish Springs. There was never an Allan & Storms. There never was a Fountain of Youth. Something depthless and cruel, with the face of its long-vanquished enemy flayed off and worn as a mask.

The Villages is the size of a city, but it is not a city. Spanish Springs calls itself a town square, but there is no town. The Villages has no municipal government, no mayor or city council, no town hall, and no police department. It does not even have any meaningful city limits, and it’s not always clear where it begins and ends. The place sprawls indifferently over three Florida counties, which are all now effectively run by the Morse family. And while the U.S. Census Bureau recognizes a Census-Designated Place called The Villages, The Villages itself is substantially larger. Essentially, The Villages consists of all the land that has been bought and improved by H. Gary Morse and his descendants. But the Villagers don’t really talk about Morse and his family as people. They talk about something called The Developer, which is the closest thing this place has to a god.

It was The Developer who built this wonderland, and The Developer sets its rules. The Developer decides what gets built and what doesn’t, which services and entertainments will be provided, and who gets to rent out the commercial space. The Developer effectively runs the three counties on which The Villages sits: most Villagers will vote the way The Developer wants them to. It helps that The Developer also owns the local newspaper, along with the radio station with its constant sunny ads for new housing stock. The Developer runs The Villages as an agglutination of seventeen different Community Development Districts—a byzantine hybrid form of local government, unique to Florida, pitched somewhere between an ordinary town and the system of feudal manorialism. (The C.D.D. form also allows The Villages to keep its very particular rules: no more than twenty percent of residents can be under the age of fifty-five, and anyone under nineteen is simply not allowed to live there at all. They can visit, but only for a maximum of thirty days per year.) Notionally, each C.D.D. is owned by its residents, who elect representatives to a Board of Supervisors. In practice, The Developer runs the show.

What it comes down to is this: if you see The Villages’ branding, then you’re in The Villages. That’s it.

I met Jim and his wife at a bar on the main square called Amerikanos Grille. Communicating with Jim and his wife was a strange and difficult process. Jim was capable of talking, at length, but he couldn’t understand anything anyone else said. The sole exception was his wife of forty-three years, a tiny creature with a face so wrinkled it appeared to be folding in on itself, and a low, indecipherable grumble of a voice that sounded like it was filtered through the sticky residue of roughly half a million cigarettes, which it probably was. But Jim could understand her fine. This meant that every time I said something to Jim, he would briefly seem baffled to the point of anger, until his wife leaned in close and hacked up a repetition of what I’d just said. At this point Jim would nod, satisfied, and then he’d usually talk on an entirely unrelated subject for about five minutes, at which point I’d buy him another drink and the process would repeat itself.

Jim wanted me to know that he and his wife were not like the other Villagers. They were snowbirds: they spent their winters here in Florida, and in the summer they moved around, ceaselessly, from place to place. They drove their R.V. across Montana. They pottered around the woods of New England. “I’m like a gypsy, but with money,” Jim said. He paused. “Do you know what a gypsy is?” I said that I did. Jim looked suddenly terrified. “What did he say?” said Jim to his wife. Jim’s wife growled like a Long Island demon into Jim’s ear, and I could just make out the words. “He’s saying he knows what a gypsy is,” she said. “Ah,” said Jim. “That’s good.” He seemed to lose his train of thought for a moment. “But with money,” he added. “You’ve got to have the money.”

Jim couldn’t bear to stay anywhere for too long: that was how people got old. He had a lot of scorn for the rest of the Villagers. Their basically herbivorous lifestyles, golf until noon and then drinking until night. “All these people here,” he said, gesturing at the happy crowds, “they’re all getting dressed up for a nursing home.” He said the best thing about The Villages was that the properties were in such high demand, if you didn’t like your place you could sell it in three months and leave. He’d bought and sold six properties within The Villages, and made money on each deal. I asked Jim, via his wife, if he moved around because he was hungry for new experiences, or simply because he got bored. Jim seemed very gratified by my question. “That’s good,” he said. “That’s a very interesting question. This is probably the wrong answer, but after a few months here I get sick of the food, I’m bored as hell of golfing all day, and all the same faces, I’m sick to death of every son of a bitch in this bar.” One of the sons of bitches in the bar made a face. “See that?” Jim said. “I’m not like most folks. I’m different. I just say what I think.”

Jim talked about a few other things. He and his wife liked Ron DeSantis. “He doesn’t deal with any of that woke crap.” Mostly, though, Jim talked about money. “Everyone has a talent,” he said, “and mine is my eyes. I can see what makes money. That’s all I need to do, I look at something and I can tell you if it’ll make money.” He asked me if I knew about the Rule of Seventy-Two, which I did not. “See?” Jim said. “They still don’t teach the kids anything.” The Rule of Seventy-Two is a method for judging any investment. You take the annual rate of return and divide seventy-two by that number, which gives you the number of years it’ll take for your money to double. This is all you need to be a successful investor, and Jim had learned it back in the 1950s, long before everyone else—except, apparently, me—had cottoned on. “Is your money working as hard as you are?” is another question he’d learned. It was his mantra, something he repeated every morning when he woke up.

It had taken a while for these lessons to sink in, though. Jim had been in the Navy. He was stationed in Havana before the revolution, where his role was to confiscate the sailors’ guns when they took their shore leave. If he didn’t take their guns, the sailors would end up drunkenly selling them on the black market, and then the guns would end up in the hands of Castro and his guerrillas. Not that taking their guns had much effect on the Cuban situation, in the long run. After that, Jim worked in an air-conditioner factory in upstate New York, where he seemed to have been working much harder than his money. He didn’t start putting what he knew into action until the 1970s, when he quit his job and started flipping properties. His first deal was in another retirement community, tiny by The Villages standards, in Virginia. He bought a house and sold it eight days later. Barely touched it. Doubled his money.

Eventually Jim’s wife got up to use the bathroom. While she was gone, Jim tried to order another drink. He leaned over the bar and attempted to communicate to the startlingly young and attractive bar girl that he wanted a Jack and Coke. “I’ll have a Coke,” he said. “A Coke and, and, and . . . a Coke and, not rum, not rum, no, not rum. . .” He looked down at his empty glass. “Ah, I’m getting into one of my moods again.” Jim cared about nothing more than his own personal freedom and independence, but without his mute wife he was basically incapable of interacting with the world. She was the only person he could understand. He was the only person to whom she could be understood. I found that very beautiful.

By ten, everything was closing down. These are still old people; they like to go to bed at a sensible time. On the way back to my hotel, I noticed something. Spanish Springs was supposed to be like the Main Street of a half-remembered small American town, and one thing those towns tend to have is a war memorial—so Spanish Springs had one too. There are more veterans in The Villages than anywhere in the country without an active military base: having a memorial is important. But in most towns, the memorial records the names of all the residents who died fighting overseas, and nobody from The Villages has ever died in any war ever fought. So instead of a list of names, there’s just a plaque dedicating the memorial “to all U.S. veterans past and present.” This was a memorial to the other soldiers: the ones who had lived to grow old.

The next morning, I had my tour with Jason. Despite having immediately clocked me as a writer, Jason was happy to keep talking. He played country music through the car’s stereo. I asked him questions and he answered. “You can note that down,” he said. “I don’t mind.” He talked a lot about The Villages’ spectacular growth. They can put a home up in thirty days. They’re all made of mass-produced vinyl and concrete panels. On the Google Maps satellite view, there are large stretches of ground that seem completely empty, but in fact there are entire neighborhoods, already built and sold. Jason said that he was one of four hundred real estate agents employed by The Villages, and most of the time they were competing to sell around four hundred newly built properties. It wasn’t always like that. He asked me to guess how many unsold properties there’d been during the real boom years before the 2008 crash. I shrugged. “A thousand,” I said. Jason looked at me like I was an idiot. “No,” he said. “Six.”

Most of the other vehicles on the road were golf carts. Everyone has a golf cart in The Villages; the whole thing has been built to be completely traversible by small humming buggy. Some people pay tens of thousands to trick out their golf carts with tinted windows and air conditioning. But eventually the system will break down. The Villages is too large now: to get from one end to the other by golf cart would take you an hour and a half.

Jason was taking me to a neighborhood that had just been completed, on the southern fringe of The Villages. The place keeps pushing south. They’ve bought enough land for the next forty years of development, but they keep on buying more. Churning the loose sandy soil beneath the cattle ranches, grabbing entire towns and then tearing them down, flattening woodlands, sucking up swamps. Fleets of bulldozers. Acres of concrete. Lot by lot, everything gets ironed out into tract homes and pickleball courts. In places like Spanish Springs, which have been around since the mid-Nineties—ancient, here—the residents tend to be pretty old. Some of them have been living in The Villages for decades. People in the new southern districts are younger. They’re in their fifties and their sixties, just retired. These places have a fresher, livelier vibe.

It didn’t feel fresh or lively. It felt like a desert. The southern districts have almost no services, since The Villages builds housing first, and then retail slowly trickles in later. Jason pointed out a patch of derelict swampland. “That’s gonna be a shopping plaza,” he said. It was a great idea for my fake mother to buy somewhere in the south, he explained, because of the equity. All the houses in The Villages are on only a fw basic models, but the older ones with lots of stores nearby are much more expensive than the new builds. If my fake mother could hold on to her new house until the commercial zones were fully developed, it might double or triple in value.

The other thing was the trees. Trees grow slowly. In the north, the streets are scattered with stately old trees, magnolias and gumbo limbos hanging gothic trails of Spanish moss. In the south, there are saplings, or nothing at all. I hadn’t really noticed the absence of trees until Jason pointed it out to me, just that something was dreadfully missing in this landscape, that it seemed stark and hollow and hideous. I thought about the gentle overgrowing trees that block the view from my window in my council estate in London, and how horrible it would be to live without them.

Jason said he could show me a house that had just come on the market, but he’d also be doing a virtual tour for another potential buyer. Before we went in he spoke to one of his colleagues on the phone. “You’re going up against the Davises, and that’s tough. They’ll eat you, bro. They’ll eat your ass.” Sam and Sandra Davis were a husband-and-wife team and The Villages’ highest-performing agents. They were serious people. If you were trying to sell the same house as them, they would peel off your skin and tear out your flesh, strand by bleeding strand—metaphorically, of course. Jason wasn’t far down the leaderboard himself. He said that in recognition of his achievements, The Villages was naming one of the streets in a new district after him. I asked if he’d get first dibs on any house on that street. He laughed. “No.” And what about the Davises? What rewards did you get for being the very best? “Money,” he said. “A lot of money. A lot.”

Once the client was on the line, Jason showed us the house. It was, like all the houses in The Villages, a bungalow. Old people don’t like stairs. It was made of turd-brown vinyl and was almost impossibly grim. “Beautiful floors, huh?” said Jason. The floors were plastic, roughly textured to look like wood. The walls were cream. The ceilings were low. In the bedroom, the carpet had the greasy feel of polypropylene. A floor plan had been left on the kitchen counter. The biggest room in this house, by far, was the garage. Everything else was clustered haphazardly around its edges. I suddenly felt very, very depressed. While Jason continued his tour, I slipped outside to smoke a cigarette. Every house on this wide clean street was identical to the one I’d just been inside. They were packed together tight. One low crummy vinyl house after another. No birds. No trees. No gardens, just the same rough, vivid green grass in the narrow gaps between vinyl homes. Everything was silent, except for the rumbling, somewhere over the horizon, of construction machinery: four hundred new homes exactly like this one being plastered over the earth.

Jason wandered out of the house again. He was still on the line with his client. “I just love it,” she said through his phone speakers. “I want it so bad. Tell me what I need to do to have it.” She said that her husband had died two years ago, and for two years she’d been moping around with his memory, but now she thought she was ready to move on. “Maybe this is something you need,” said Jason. “You’ve been through a lot. You’ve suffered, you’ve really suffered. You deserve something good in your life.” The customer sniffed. “I think this is what I need,” she agreed. “It’s so cold up here, and everything’s on lockdown. I’m so lonely. I really don’t know if I can take another winter by myself.” Jason was practically stroking her hair through his phone. “This is the place,” he said. “This is where you can get out there again. That’s the great thing with these new developments. Everyone’s new here, just like you. You’ll make friends like that.” He snapped his finger. The sound echoed faintly in the empty grave-silent street.

Jason was in a good mood on the drive back up north. We talked about country music a little; he liked Brad Paisley and Jason Aldean. I also like Brad Paisley and Jason Aldean, but in a pretentious, half-ironic Euro-hipster way. He didn’t know Tyler Childers or Colter Wall or the Turnpike Troubadours, whom I like without any irony at all. A Chris Stapleton song came on. “I love this guy,” Jason said. “To me, this guy has the second-best voice in music, next to Chris Cornell.” I admitted to not really knowing much of Chris Cornell’s stuff, so he played me an Audioslave track, cranking the volume up loud, and screamed along to the lyrics. “And I can tell you why people die alone! I can tell you I’m a shadow on the sun!” Somehow, we ended up talking about conspiracies. He said he believed in some of them. I said that I did too. “I shouldn’t talk about this shit,” he said, “it’s not professional of me. I really shouldn’t talk about this.” He knew that I was a writer. “But the New World Order,” he continued, “it’s definitely gonna happen.” He said that this was what the elites had always been doing, right back to the Roman Empire. I decided to make a bluff. Maybe, I suggested, Christianity was the first resistance movement against the New World Order, against the pagan pedophile network of Rome. “Actually,” he said, “in my spiritual life, I’m more of a Daoist.” He recommended that I read something by Allen Carr. Allen Carr was a British pop-psychology writer, most famously the author of The Easy Way To Stop Smoking. His connection to the two-thousand-year-old philosophical tradition of Daoism is unclear.

Almost everyone I spoke to in Florida seemed to believe in the New World Order. They believe that the world is governed by a secret demonic cabal whose main two goals are to have sex with children and to wipe out the human species. And then they play golf about it.

Maybe it’s impossible to live like this in Florida without noticing that something is badly wrong with the world. Florida is no place for a mammal. It belongs to prehistoric nature: the fat jeweled dragonflies, the alligators wallowing in their green ancient murk. Here the cold-blooded creatures still rule. If you come here soft and hairy, insects will suck out your blood. In summer the air is dripping with damp. In autumn the earth destroys itself with hurricanes. Conquistadors called it la florida—the Flowery One—but as their other victims in Tenochtitlan knew, the flowering exuberance of nature is a symbol for the violent death of men. Hernando de Soto, one of the first Europeans to set foot here, recalled: “In all the country are neither wolf, fox, bear, lion, nor tiger, but there be certain snakes as big as a man’s thigh or bigger. . . . From town to town, the way is made by stubbing up the underwood; and if it be left but one year undone, the wood groweth so much that the way cannot be seen.” Early in his expedition, his men stripped off their clothes to wade across a lake: “There came many mosquitoes, upon whose biting there arose a wheal that smarted very much; they struck them with their hands, and with the blow which they gave they killed so many that the blood did run down the arms and bodies of the men.”

In 1907, Henry James described Florida as “a void furnished at the most with velvet air.” Since then, we’ve scrubbed out that velvet air. We have air conditioning now, refrigeration and insecticides: three weapons to beat the Flowery One into submission, and make it a place fit for seniors to golf in. Still, victory is only partial. You still know you should not be living here, not in your air-conditioned vinyl home, not shopping at Publix, not driving your golf cart to the Ayn Rand reading group. Sometimes an alligator will heave himself into your swimming pool. He’ll sit there, hungry and motionless, waiting for his reign to resume.

Or there’s another explanation. In The Villages, there really is a shadowy institution, murkily slipping between government and corporation, that produces your world like a show while it controls every aspect of your life.

I asked Jason to drop me off at Lake Sumter Landing, which is another of the town squares. This one had been themed to look like a New England fishing village. Fake clapboard houses containing Panera Bread and AT&t. Iron ruts in the cobblestones, the remnants of a trolley line that had never existed. In the town square, loudspeakers played W.V.L.G., The Villages’ inescapable radio station. The Rolling Stones, and then ads. One for a new show home in the south. “This could be the start of the new life you’ve always dreamed of—come check it out today!” If you live in The Villages and you’re still not happy, just buy a different place. Then one for medication. “Make 2023 the year you say goodbye to joint pain and start living your best life!” This was followed by the day’s headlines, courtesy of Fox News. The sky was clouding over and there was nobody on the street; I started to wonder what on earth I was doing here. A few cormorants stood on the soggy shores of the lake, these black silhouettes of birds, gulping, Jurassic. A sign on the boardwalk broke the ersatz Northeastern vibe a little: “PLEASE DO NOT FEED THE GATORS. Feeding alligators is strictly prohibited under Florida Statutes §372.667.”

I decided to feed myself on the gators instead. I had my lunch at R.J. Gator’s Florida Sea Grill & Bar, a warehouse-sized restaurant serving pallet-sized meals. I had the deep-fried gator tail—“Taste like chicken? You decide!”—and the lobster mac and cheese, along with enough sweet tea to fill up an S.U.V. The restaurant was packed. Astoundingly fat people sprawled over their booths. In one corner, there was karaoke; another astoundingly fat person belting out a lustily atonal rendition of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s nine-minute epic “Free Bird.” There wasn’t a green vegetable in the house.

My meal left me feeling incredibly claggy. I’d eaten the entire thing, long past the point when every bite was causing me a small dull jab of pain as my abdomen refused what my mouth kept giving it. I thought it might be a good idea to walk back up to Spanish Springs, work out some of the grease. My phone said the walk would take an hour, which was fine; I’ll happily walk that far in London or New York. But after about ten minutes trudging along the grassy fringes of Morse Boulevard, two things happened in very quick succession. First, those four or five gallons of sweet tea suddenly started putting an insistent demand on my bladder. Second, it started to rain. Big hot globs of rain, thick enough to swim through. Within a minute, the grass I walked on had reverted to swamp, and I was soaked through. I tried to shelter under a tree, which somehow managed to funnel the raindrops into a steady tap-leak dribbling onto the top of my head. I tried to smoke a cigarette, which kept sizzling out. Eventually, resigned to it all, I abandoned my shelter and trooped on. Cars and golf carts sped past on the road. I wondered what the drivers must have thought of me, this stranger trying to walk through a rainstorm in ex-urban Florida. They must have thought I was some kind of transient, some escaped maniac. What was I doing here? Maybe the sheriffs had already been dispatched to run me out of town.

In the end, I was rescued. My rescuer pulled up in his rickety golf cart next to me. “Just couldn’t stand to see you walking like that,” he said. “Get on in.” His name was Robert, and he was a frighteningly skinny eighty-two-year-old man. He had one eye, and he’d had three strokes. As he piloted the golf cart, Robert ate Chips Ahoy out of the packet with trembling fingers. He’d just given blood. Robert insisted on taking me back to his home to warm up. He said he didn’t get out much these days except to give blood, because of his house arrest. He mentioned his house arrest a few more times before explaining what he meant. The house arrest was self-imposed: Robert knew that any encounter with covid might swiftly finish him off, and a lot of people in The Villages had refused to get the vaccine. So for nearly three years, he’d lived in his house, in its sea of other identical houses, in the heat and the rain, alone.

Robert was amazed that more people didn’t give blood. It’s such a small, simple thing, but it can save someone’s life. I’ve never given blood.

Robert’s house was on the exact same plan as the one Jason had shown me earlier, although that was where the resemblance ended. The unsold house had been blank and mercilessly empty, but Robert’s was dark, crammed, heavy with the faint fungal air of damp fabrics. Chintzy furniture piled over itself: overstuffed sofas, lacquered side tables, paintings of flowers, tasseled lamps. A constant Irish folk medley played over the ragged electronic screech of an aux cable that hadn’t been pushed in all the way. Every surface bore its thick layer of detritus. A general substratum of unopened letters and empty pill boxes, dotted in places by mounds of wadded-up tissue paper. A few empty beer bottles and empty photo frames had come to rest in the crevices of this chaos. Robert fussed around, fetching blankets to drape over my shoulders. I protested that I was fine. I didn’t like the idea of someone as infirm as Robert trying to take care of me. But he wanted, very badly, to drape a blanket over my shoulders. He’d never had kids.

“You’re an Englishman, then,” Robert said. I admitted that I was. Robert had spent some time in England: London, Liverpool, all over. His wife was from Ireland; he’d lived over there for a while. Robert had never wanted to marry; he’d never even had any serious relationships before. Too many of his friends had got an expedited admission to what he called the “alimony club.” But he’d met an Irish girl at a bar in New York City, and that was it; everything suddenly fell into place. His wife’s family had been suspicious at first: if he was thirty-four and he wasn’t already married, there must be something wrong with him. They warmed to him eventually, once they saw how utterly dedicated he was to this woman who’d changed his life. She died, well short of her fiftieth birthday, in 1998.

Robert had moved to The Villages because of the golf carts. He couldn’t drive, not with his one eye and his trembling hands, but the golf carts gave him a measure of freedom. Before The Villages, he’d lived in another retirement community on the east coast of Florida. He liked it there because it was right by the sea. The Atlantic: the same ocean that washes the shores of Ireland, where his wife’s bones still nestle under the green and growing sod. He had no desire to remarry. His marriage had lasted for twenty-four years; before and after then he had been alone his entire life.

The rain had died down now, but Robert still insisted on driving me back to Spanish Springs. The town square steamed with petrichor, and Robert surprised me by pointing out a bar he knew and suggesting we head in. His self-imposed house arrest seemed to crumble as soon as he had someone to go out with. But Robert did not have an easy time at the bar. There was a basketball game playing loudly on the big screens, and loud country-rock over the speakers, and a table of loudly obese middle-aged women in skimpy outfits roaring just to our left. Robert sucked dejectedly at his Guinness. “I can’t be rushing about like this,” he said. He kept hobbling out of his seat to wander around and look for a guy he knew. This guy was a friend of his, and before Robert had gone into house arrest his friend was reliably in this bar at this time, every single day. But today he wasn’t there. “He’ll be along later,” Robert said. But he must have known, as I did, that his friend was almost certainly dead.

Robert might be the best and kindest person I’ve ever met. I haven’t changed his name.

The previous night, Jim and his wife had told me another story. Their home in The Villages, the seventh they’d owned, had previously belonged to three sisters. All three sisters were wheelchair-bound and almost totally blind. None of them had married. When Jim and his wife bought the house, it was in a state of almost total collapse. The sisters had left deep wheelchair gashes in the carpets. They’d tried to keep the place tidy, but there’s only so much you can do when you’re almost totally blind. It had taken Jim months to make that bungalow livable again, to get rid of the layers upon layers of laminated filth. Two of the sisters had died, one after the other in quick succession. Some distant family members had found out how they’d been living, and managed to convince the third sister to move into an assisted living facility. I wondered how many other people were living lives like that in The Villages. For every spry old couple dancing to rock music in Spanish Springs, how many were blind and incapable, trapped in their damp homes, thousands of miles away from whatever family they had, in this sunny wonderland they’d chosen to wither away in, unknown?

The message of The Villages is this: that the true purpose of human life is to have fun, to drink and play golf, and you can only really experience the true purpose of human life once you’ve retired: when you’ve nothing left to do but exist. You are not old, because age is just a number. You do not need to be looked after. What you need is to start living your best life. When they were young, the Baby Boomers broke apart the multi-generational community: untempered youth, wild youth leading itself towards its own ends. Now, they’re doing it again. They have absconded from their duty as old people, which is to be the link between the future and the past—because the world doesn’t have a past anymore, and precious little future either. You are suspended in an infinite present. You still wear blue jeans. You will never die.

There are no cemeteries in The Villages. The ambulances are unmarked; so are the hearses. Nobody talks about the fact that every few weeks, a vaguely familiar face vanishes from the pickleball court. The most depressing thing I read about The Villages came from someone who’d worked in one of its hospices. By the time the Villagers die, many of them are broke. They’ve spent their pensions on margaritas and golf carts. Hospice care is expensive, so their homes are sold while they’re still dying, and someone like Jason will move some other retiree right in, another lonely person eager to start having fun. Most of the people who die in The Villages end up being cremated. This pleasure-machine, built to delight you with cheap drinks and dancing every night, also systematically burns stacks upon stacks of dead bodies. People who will have no graves to visit. People whose names are not written on any stone.

I returned to London very depressed. When I got back, my girlfriend found something new on my head. There it was: the future that had always been waiting for me. A thin, pale, fragile thing. My first gray hair.