“I’ll never move to a Florida retirement community.”
If, like Erica Manfred, you’ve sworn not to repeat your parents’ version of “the golden years” as you age, you should read this insightful and witty book. Manfred’s irreverent essays show that you can be a rebel no matter how old you are — even if you do live in a Florida retirement community.
I’m Old, So Why Aren’t I Wise is the mostly true story of how a hip native New Yorker gets stuck in artsy Woodstock, a place she should have loved but actually hates, and in her 70s reinvents her life in a place she should have hated but winds up loving — the cultural and architectural wasteland of South Florida. Manfred proves that it’s possible to flourish in Florida without playing canasta or bridge or mahjong, or even Scrabble. A veteran essayist and journalist who’s contributed to The New York Times, Village Voice, Salon and Cosmopolitan among others, Manfred is now happily ensconced deep in the enemy territory of her parents’ old retirement community, Century Village. Part memoir, part cultural observation, “I’m Old, So Why Aren’t I Wise” will make you rethink aging in the Sunshine State.
ADVANCE REVIEWS AND PRAISE
Erica Manfred’s new book is sharp-witted, well written, and refreshingly outspoken. Manfred is a deliciously good writer who takes no prisoners and speaks her mind. It is a lot of fun to read.
—–Abigail Thomas, NY Times bestselling author, Three Dog Life and What Comes Next and How to Like it
“In a punk yet kind approach to the always complicated issue of aging, Manfred gets to a lot of the knotty problems of growing old when you still feel young. Heartfelt and problematic in the best way”
—–Julie Powell, NY Times bestselling author, Julie and Julia
Erica draws us into her Florida adventures with such keen attention to the details of aging in the sunlight that we can take her lessons anywhere we happen to be. . Her irreverent sense of humor carries the day!”
—Linda Gravenson editor: In the fullness of Time, 32 Women on Life after 50
Erica Manfred is a snarky senior banished to Florida from hippie dippy small town Woodstock. Long winters and bad memories push her to burn bridges. She tosses things into her car and drives south in a snowstorm to restart her life in sunny Florida. Erica is a very funny writer, tussling with pool police and fighting parking space wars. My favorite essays discussed a red diaper baby returning to her roots and surviving among Trump voters. If you are planning a move to Florida, I’m Old So Why Aren’t I Wise is a must read.
—Kate Walter, author Looking for a Kiss: A Chronicle of Downtown Heartbreak and Healing
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Erica Manfred is a Florida-based freelance journalist, humorous essayist and author. Her articles and essays have appeared in Atlantic.com, Salon.com, Seniorplanet.org, Healthline.com, the New York Times Magazine, Village Voice, Woman’s Day, SELF, Cosmpolitan, Ladies Home Journal and many other off- and online publications. Erica is the author of He’s History You’re Not; Surviving Divorce After 40, GPP Life, 2011. She has also co-authored a memoir, Demon of Brownsville Road Berkley, 2014 and published a humorous novel, Interview with a Jewish Vampire, 2009.
Regrets, I’ve had a Few
Did you swear you’d never end up like your parents but you did anyway? And not only that—you discovered you actually liked it?
This is the mostly true story of how I—a cool, hip native New Yorker—married the wrong man, got stuck upstate in artsy Woodstock, a place I should have loved but hated, and wound up reinventing my life in a place I should have hated but wound up loving: the cultural wasteland of South Florida—despite my determination never to suffer that fate.
It’s 2006 and I’m sitting on a tiny plastic folding chair that doesn’t support my entire rear end, shivering in the October night air under a huge tent at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation’s High Holy Days services. I’m there alone, having recently gone through a nasty divorce. Everyone is wearing white, which is what you’re supposed to wear on Yom Kippur. I’m wearing a peasant dress with a loud pattern. Why the hell couldn’t I have worn white, or at least beige?
Mentally, I survey my closet and remember some white garments I overlooked. I’m upset about my sartorial faux pas. In fact, I’m so upset that, instead of focusing on atoning for my sins to others, which is what the ten introspective days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are supposed to be about, I am yet again indulging in a litany of regret—giving myself a hard time for what I’ve done to myself.
How unspiritual can you get?
I watch the crowd of more than a thousand people singing, swaying and praying in what resembles a Jewish tent revival. Rabbi Jonathan, a youthful, folk-singing cross between Pete Seeger and the Baal Shem Tov, the mystical Rabbi who invented Hassidism, leads us in singing rounds. I cry during Avinu Malkeynu, an ancient, haunting melody.
When it’s over, I cross the aisle and greet my ex-husband and his new wife, the woman he left me for when I was sixty, after eighteen years of marriage. They are sitting with my daughter, who lives with them, and my ex-mother-in-law. I wish them a Happy New Year, and they look stunned, as if I’d caught them in an embarrassing indiscretion. His wife —homely and pudgy-faced, though much younger than I am— turns reluctantly toward me, her mouth twisted in a smile facsimile; my ex-mother-in-law glares at me with blatant hostility; he is polite and returns my greeting. I actually feel good that I managed to be the one to put animosity aside for this one day. But I know that, for the rest of the year, I’ll be wrestling with regrets about marrying him in the first place.
I used to think that surely by now, I would be radiating spiritual beneficence, would have laid to rest the ghosts of my past and be enjoying the wisdom I had attained in my life. It never occurred to me that, at this late date, I would be struggling with regrets like: Why did I marry Mr. Wrong? Why wasn’t I a better mother? And why haven’t I morphed into the wise, compassionate, spiritually evolved elder I aspired to be?
Yom Kippur is about atoning for your sins to others, but what if you’ve screwed up your own life? How do you atone for that?
We Americans believe you can always start over, no matter what you’ve been through. I can’t count the times I’ve heard, “It’s never too late” when I complain about being lonely. Everyone knows someone who found true love on their deathbed.
Bullshit. Some losses are permanent, emotional damage runs deep, opportunity is finite and some people never bounce back. Doors keep slamming shut as we get closer to death. But in our relentlessly upbeat Facebook culture, we’re expected to have no regrets.
The traditional wisdom is that regret is a waste of time. “Life is too short, time is too precious, and the stakes are too high to dwell on what might have been,” Hillary Clinton advises. I bet she’s re-thinking that about now.
As for me, I’m a Jew. I dwell.
Maybe I couldn’t start over, but I could, and did, eventually move on. The way I chose to escape from the morass of regret created by my disastrous marriage was to follow the path trod by so many old Jews before me—no, not to Jerusalem but 1500 miles south to the other promised land: South Florida, the very place that, to me, exemplified the worst of American crassness and excess, except it had an ocean and no one cared what I wore on Yom Kippur, or even if I observed it at all. A place where no one knew me and where I could stop being the sad sack I was in Woodstock, New York, where I’d lived since my marriage broke up.
Blame it on my mom, now long gone, who moved to Century Village in Deerfield Beach, Florida, in the 1970s. I used to visit regularly. When I got out of the Fort Lauderdale terminal, I would take a deep breath of the humid tropical air and revel in the sweet ocean breezes. But I swore I would NEVER move there. Century Village looked like man’s first settlement on the moon, stark white buildings stretching as far as the eye could see. I was much too cool, too New York hip, and Florida was the epitome of everything ugly, crass, uncultured and materialistic in America.
But Florida was secretly doing its work on me even then. My mom died in the late ’90s, and I missed my trips to Florida to visit her. I especially missed the heat and the ocean. And I missed hanging out with her and the “goils,” a group of her friends who met every night for dinner and spent their days visiting the beach, the museum or mall. It was not an exciting life, but it was sweet, with a reliance on friendship that I came to long for as I grew older. With my old friends scattered around the country or, worse, dead, that meant everything to me.
Despite the fact that I hate gated communities—especially places with pretentious names such as Villages of Oriole or Huntington Chase or Lakes of Lorraine or Portofino or Colonial Club and, most of all, Century Village, I wound up first in a Colonial Club and then in a Century Village.
Now that I’m in the trenches of aging, I have discovered that if, like me, you refuse to play Canasta or Scrabble or mahjong or bridge because you hate to follow rules, you are not going to enjoy tremendous popularity at the pool or clubhouse. You’ll have to come up with other ways to spend your time. In my case, this does not involve Zumba, pickle ball, sitting in lecture halls, going on cruises or to doo-wop concerts with pretend Motown groups. It certainly doesn’t mean getting Botoxed or going under the knife to acquire what I call “the Boca face.” (You know: a mask that doesn’t move.) For me, it involves drinking two-for-one margaritas at happy hours and going to horror and sci-fi meet-ups and creature-feature parties where they play Cards Against Humanity—an irreverent, politically incorrect party game popular with Millenials— which doesn’t involve skill but does involve obscenity and adult beverages.
I found my first place in Florida through Gail, a realtor I’d met online before I left Woodstock. Gail was the kind of woman I’d always envied—beautiful, charming, slim, fashionable with that self-confidence good-looking women exude, and that I’ve always lacked. Originally from New York, she’d lived in Florida for twenty years, was in her mid-fifties and, like so many Floridians had been through many husbands and many lives. She’d lived in France and spoke perfect French, had worked as an interior designer, sommelier, gourmet cook. She got invited to such elegant events as Le Diner en Blanc, an invitation-only event at which guests dress in white and gather at a secret location, bearing elegant picnic dinners for themselves and friends. And, like so many Floridians without a degree in something that made her employable, she was in sales, hustling real estate or whatever else came her way, and hoping for a big break.
Gail lived at Colonial Club, a pretty condo complex on the Intracoastal Waterway in Boynton Beach, where there happened to be an available apartment. I was so besotted with the idea of living on the water and swimming in a pool with a view of boats sailing by that I agreed to pay more rent than I could afford. This was not Gail’s fault. She did show me cheaper places—even one at King’s Point, a community so hideous and barren of foliage that it looked like a medium-security prison.
I didn’t realize I was living across the street from the place where the 9/11 bombers stayed when they were training to fly those planes into the World Trade Center. Why am I not surprised they trained in Florida? And why am I surprised my car was robbed in front of my condo? Probably by one of the folks staying at that same welfare hotel.
I kept forgetting to lock the car because I’d spent so much time in upstate New York, where you can get away with leaving your car and house unlocked. I never forgot to lock the car when I parked in New York City. In New York City, if you leave anything that looks tempting, thugs will break the windows and rummage through the car to take valuable items. Here, they look for unlocked cars and take everything. When it came to my car, I mean “everything,” including sticky pads on the dashboard, my GPS, tissues, paper towels, trail mix, an open package of cookies, bottles of soda, an old ripped hanging organizer, whisk broom, wrist brace for carpal tunnel, dollar store sunglasses, prescription glasses, car chargers, pink polka dot plastic beach tote with towels, stuff I can’t remember I had because it was garbage that’s now missing. Like a magnet, my car attracts debris. If this thief had a vacuum I could have paid him to clean the car.
The thief also took my spare car keys and remote, which I hid in the car in case I locked myself out. This was the most expensive item to replace. I still wonder why he took the key, but not the car. I suspect even the dumbest of thieves knew a 2007 Ford Focus wasn’t worth shit.
They don’t call it “Flori-duh” for nothing.
My relationship with Colonial Club—and Gail—ended badly. I eventually decided to move thanks to a number of factors, including the high rent and crowded pool. She set up an appointment to show me another apartment I’d seen online, but before the appointment arrived, I cheated on her with another realtor who showed it to me first. This realtor was an older, plump, brassy Jewish babe from Queens who treated me like a landsman. I fell for her and the apartment. Gail unfriended me on Facebook.
. I realized I may have envied Gail her good looks, but I didn’t envy her chosen profession. There may be more realtors per square foot in Florida than iguanas. Like iguanas, however, they’re an invasive species. In a perennial boom or bust state, real estate is the refuge of the down on their luck. Competition is cutthroat. Betraying your realtor is probably worse than cheating on your boyfriend. I still feel guilty about it.
How the Jews Wound up in a Swamp
Where I come from, the Northeast, specifically New York, Jews grabbed some of the best real estate—especially on Long Island and New Jersey. In South Florida—where the priciest real estate is east, on the ocean—they ended up with the worst, all the way west, in the swamp.
When I moved to a condo on the Intracoastal, I had no idea what that body of water was, or even that it was spelled in-tra-coastal and not in-ter-coastal. Out-of-towners assumed it was a river. I didn’t know if it had always been there, who built it, or where it went. I knew you had to go over it to get to the ocean on the other side, which involved an annoying wait for bridges to go up and down. Googling informed me that the Intracoastal is actually an amazing engineering accomplishment: thousands of miles of inland waterways that run down the state’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts. My Intracoastal, on the Atlantic, was an impressive feat by the Army Corps of Engineers, starting in the early 1900s. It goes all the way from (I didn’t make this up) the Great Dismal Swamp Canal in North Carolina to Key West, Florida.
In fact, the Intracoastal is quite beautiful, and the fact that I lived next to it and got to watch the boats go by while I swam in the pool was a source of delight I never tired of until it was ruined by the snowbirds and their pool police.
I wondered why my condo, Colonial Club, was all Italian and why the Jews in Palm Beach County (where most of the Jewish communities are) were way out west in what was, until recently, part of the Everglades. Gail, a student of Florida history in addition to her other areas of expertise, explained some real estate ironies. Her account is apocryphal, passed down by a family member. I’ve never found any of it in written history, though it may exist somewhere.
It seems the rich always lived on the ocean, which is how Palm Beach—the richest zip code in the United States—came to be. The Intracoastal divides the rich from the rest of us. I was lucky enough to live for a time on the Intracoastal, although not on the ocean side.
Gail’s story may be apocryphal but it has poetry on its side. She insisted the bridges in a number of Palm Beach County towns, including the one separating where we lived in Boynton Beach from Ocean Ridge—a tiny very wealthy community on the ocean across from Boynton– used to be raised at night to keep out the rabble. You couldn’t cross the Intracoastal after midnight. Millionaires didn’t want poor people on what they called (and still call) “the island,” although it’s no such thing.
It seems that by the time the Jews started moving to Florida to retire in the ’70s, it was too late to grab the best real estate. They were stuck out west in the swamp—which they turned into luxurious, manicured gated communities, all of which were built on landfills with vicious mosquitoes and no ocean breezes.
Black people have more desirable real estate than Jews because they’re closer to the ocean. Probably because they got here first, as slaves on plantations in Northern Florida. When slavery ended, they were free to move south to Palm Beach County. They were there long before the land boom of the 1920s when white people started to arrive and settled along what is now known as Federal Highway. Black people live on what was once the wrong side of the tracks, literally. Actual tracks divide the white from the black parts of town in Delray, Boynton and other Palm Beach County towns. These trains run along a road named Dixie highway.
At one time, the other side of the tracks was probably deemed undesirable because it was considered far west, but as time passed and air conditioning arrived and Florida’s population exploded in the 1970s, people realized the area directly west of Dixie Highway wasn’t very west at all. It was only about a mile from the ocean. Developers tried to get access to property owned by blacks, but they refused to move, according to Gail.
To this day, huge black “ghettos,” considered bad neighborhoods, sit adjacent to gated communities of the affluent. These ghettos are some of the prettiest neighborhoods in Boynton Beach. The streets are lined with lovely little frame houses in pastel colors, often with beautiful foliage and quirky statuary. In a sea of institutional-looking gated communities, they are a charming remnant of old Florida. However, they are strictly segregated. I’ve never seen any white people on the streets in the ghetto, and the crime rate is high. Florida is still the South, however cosmopolitan it pretends to be.
Despite the excesses of Mar A Lago and similar obscene displays of wealth, Florida is not as bad as all that. In fact, it has an anarchic charm. After fifteen years in Woodstock, a pretentious ghetto of white people spouting New Age platitudes—I am enjoying the opposite: a place so outlandish, there’s a hashtag for it: Twitter’s #FloridaMan reports every weird thing that happens in the Sunshine State. Just last week, a 38-year-old Tampa man was arrested on a charge of driving under the influence, after deputies said he mistook a Bank of America drive-through for a Taco Bell. He ordered a burrito at the cashier’s window.
I once naively assumed Carl Hiassen’s novels about the insanity and greed of Florida had to be exaggerated. Not anymore. But Hiaasen still lives here and I have no plans to leave. I am now firmly embedded in enemy territory—the land of the old—which is best described by a Pogo quote: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”