Retiring to Florida

It finally happened, I admit it. I thought about retiring to Florida.


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It used to be that people from my ethnicity (Jewish) and my geography (the Northeast) retired to Florida when they reached the age of 65. Sometimes, if they could afford it, they retired at 60 and gave themselves a few extra years in the sun. The East Coast of Florida, whose informal capital is Boca Raton, was the mecca for those who wanted to take it easy after years of hard labor. Most retirees were small merchants and entrepreneurs who’d risen early every morning and come home late every night in order to buy the split level in the suburbs and send their kids to college. Now, they could reap the rewards and lead the good life.

For their children — of which I count myself one — it was hard to understand. Florida seemed so unlike what we thought of as the center of the world: New York City. In fact, Florida was pretty much the anti-New York City. But that, for our parents, was the point. They grew up in New York and had had enough of it. They wanted peace and quiet, sunshine and poolside, canasta and golf. Florida was leisurely, pastel-colored, and sun-drenched, not fast, grubby, and overcast. New York was exciting, but they’d had enough of exciting.

Lately, however, I’ve begun to understand where that generation was coming from. Just the other day, I was trying to get somewhere in New York City. The wind was whipping fiercely, a light but chill rain was falling, and no cab would pick me up — armies of them, passing me by, all with their not in service lights on. The subway was two avenues and three blocks away; it was rush hour; I had packages, uncomfortable shoes, and a jacket that wouldn’t button. That’s when I thought the unthinkable: “Wouldn’t it be nice to be in Florida?”

Never did I imagine such a thought would enter my head. But there it was, an epiphany: I could understand the allure of Florida. The weather is warm — OK, it’s hot — but what’s wrong with hot if you have a pool nearby and an air-conditioned condo? And unlike New York City, where you have to mortgage your soul to have a car, Florida is supremely car friendly. There’s lots of parking, so you can drive around, admittedly very slowly (given that some of the drivers keep under 30 mph), and always get a spot when you pull into one of those strip malls with shops full of things like T-shirts with Swarovski crystals. And there’s palm trees, making for a tropical feel but without the downside (i.e. malaria and jungles).

I admit that my New York City loyalties rebel at the car and mall culture of the Florida landscape (not to mention the esthetic of Swarovski crystals on T-shirts), but there’s something to be said for cruising along in balmy weather under non-malaria-inducing palm trees and turning into this or that strip mall to look over the latest batch of lime green espadrilles and pink tartan tennis skirts. It’s nice to have a perky young man at the Publix Supermarket carry your grocery bags to your car .

Food, by the way, is very good and very cheap in East Florida, especially if you go in for the Early Bird Special — despite the long wait at the Cheesecake Factory, even at 4:30 p.m. You can eat al fresco, which can make you think, if you close your eyes, that you’re in Florence or, if you happen to be near one of those drainage canals, Venice.

It’s true that many of the people living in this area of Florida are old, but is that bad? Old people, I’ve come to feel, are often very interesting people — a fact that becomes increasingly evident as I grow old myself.

Also, since people are old, doctors are plentiful. This again is nice to know if you happen to be sick — or expect to be sick some day.

My only problem with Florida now is the idea of retirement that goes with it. I mean when I do retire I have things I’d like to do. For example: take up mountain climbing or train for a half-marathon. Or maybe learn Mandarin and spend a year teaching in China. I might work for Habitat for Humanity or go somewhere in the real tropics and help out Doctors without Borders. None of these pursuits can be done easily in Florida.

But that’s the thing. When you’re not ready to retire, you think of retirement in pretty exciting terms. Once you’re ready, you probably don’t want that much excitement. That’s when Florida, with its parking lots, Early Bird Specials, mock-Venetian waterways, and non-malaria-inducing tropical scenery, starts to look pretty damn good. I imagine that’s also when you start liking T-shirts with Swarovksi crystals.

I feel constrained to add yet another turn on my Florida retirement musing. Florida is fine for what I would call Stage One retirement. This is when the retiree, though old and tired and with a medley of aches and pains, is still active and alert. Stage Two retirement occurs when said retiree becomes really sick or very old, and activity and alertness diminish considerably. This may happen, of course, at any time — people get very old at different ages and really sick at any age. The thing about Florida is that at some point you’re likely to not be able to drive anymore, which means that you won’t need all those parking spots. You’ll also have bought every blessed thing in the strip malls, so you won’t care so much about the shopping. Your appetite will diminish, which means the good, cheap food won’t be as appealing. Golf and mahjong will also lose their allure, especially if you can’t walk or see straight. During this stage of retirement, from what I gather (I get this, mind you, second-hand through my in-laws), there begins an exodus back to the Northeast to be with children and relatives who care for (or at least have to care for) you.

Given that Stage Two retirement may mean returning to where you came from, I figure it makes sense to stay put and learn Mandarin. 27 March 2013


Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English and Dean of the Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is the author of 12 books, including six scholarly/nonfiction works on literature and film, and six novels, some spin-offs on Jane Austen and Shakespeare, and a thriller involving the James family and Jack the Ripper. She is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The Yale Review, and The American Scholar, a co-editor of jml: Journal of Modern Literature, and the host of the nationally distributed television interview show, The Civil Discourse (formerly The Drexel InterView). Her book, Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation will be published by Princeton UP in February.