Excerpts: Prologue | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 14 | Appendix

Excerpted from


A Place In the Sun

My destination is Sun City Grand, the newest and, yes, the grandest Sun City in the chain of three that presses yet farther west out of Phoenix. If you chose to make a documentary about the evolution of the late-twentieth-century retirement lifestyle, this string of Sun Cities would be a terrific location. Title it Amenitize Me! The three communities meld into one another the way the passage of time and changing styles do. With each new installment the houses grow bigger, the amenities posher and more varied. The smallest house in the new community is about the size of the largest in the previous one. These Sun Cities are a living museum: you start with an authentic display of the Depression Generation's take on the Good Life, move on to the Postwar affluence collection, and finish by admiring the countertops and pocket doors in the Aging Yuppie wing.

I tell myself that my trip to Sun City is a game of pretend, a foretaste of what's to come, at least for some people. If relocation to a spanking-new, high-quality active adult community is what the Number is for, then this is how it might feel to you when you actually do it. Imagine yourself a young and active sixty-two. You're coming out here from Cleveland, with a good career behind you. You've made your Number-let's say you have $3 million socked away, including the proceeds from your former home, plus Social Security and a small pension. You're moving to Sun City Grand because of that push-pull dynamic. Cold, old Cleveland is pushing; golf, bridge, and volunteering are pulling. You fly in on a night when there's no moon over the desert, then set out along ramshackle Route 60 toward the towns of Peoria, Youngtown, and Surprise. You drive in total silence past mile after mile of dance joints and nudie bars, Taco Bells and KFCs, auto body and paint shops, used car lots, late-night bodegas locked down behind iron window grates, tattered strip malls, abandoned except for a fluorescent-lighted nail salon or barbershop, all closed for the night. So far nothing is neat and clean, happy and new. The outskirts of Phoenix have nothing over the sadder parts of Cleveland. So far this is indisputably not what the Number is for.

After twenty miles of wondering why the hell you did this, you come to a train of slatted livestock cars sitting gray and ghostly on a siding. In the dim light you can make out that these ancient cars are remnants of the old Santa Fe and Union Pacific lines. By now you're totally freaked out, an adolescent again feeling at once like a lost, frightened kid and an impatient grown-up, longing to get settled for the night with a good stiff Black Russian. You still see no stars in the sky, no people on the streets, only an occasional pickup that passes with a low growl, its driver a silhouette behind the steering wheel, faintly glowing cigarette in hand.

After what seems an eternity, sparkles of life appear way far out in the desert but getting closer, an oasis in the middle of nowhere bathed in pure white light. In minutes, you've driven right into this blaze of illumination. It's as if someone has thrown a giant electrical switch. There are lights everywhere, bursts of colored signs. There's a gargantuan Lowe's, glowing blue and white, and just down the road its equally immense orange-clad archrival, Home Depot. Then there's an Applebee's, a Bed Bath and Beyond, the Chicago Title Company, a three-story U Haul facility with rows of self-storage lockers and a fleet of rental trucks outside. Opposite is a Starbucks, the first you've seen, so this must be a dream-it's either the American Dream you're looking for or you've made a wrong turn and driven smack into death's anteroom. But it's too late to go back. You turn off the highway into the silent, entirely deserted streets of Sun City Grand and search for your casita, which in this part of the development looks like every other. Finally you spot the right one and enter. Four things catch your attention right away, each of which partly explains why you decided on this version of the Dream according to Del Webb:

  • 1. Fun. Management has been thoughtful enough to provide a little green E Z-Go golf cart, which sits there in the otherwise completely empty garage, looking even lonelier than you.
  • 2. Security. When you go to turn on the light you notice a panic button on the wall. In the event of an emergency, you flip the switch and you'll automatically signal your location to the Sun City security patrol.
  • 3. Orderliness. There's a copy of the Sun City Grand magazine on the breakfast counter. You open it to a feature devoted to reminding residents, gently, of the rules. This issue covers the keep-your-garage-door-closed-at-all-times rule. An open garage door, the article warns, is an invitation to troublemakers and, no less important, unsightly in the extreme.
  • 4. Neatness and cleanliness. The spotless refrigerator is empty, aside from a small box of Arm & Hammer Baking Soda left thoughtfully in the door to guard against any intrusive odor. These are what the Number is for, right?

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