"Left at the intersection, I'maconvictedsexoffender, and keep right at the fork."
Imagine pulling into an unfamiliar town where everything looks slightly, well, off. Maybe everyone at the gas station is grinning like maniacs or all the stray cats smell like eggy farts. Whatever the weirdness is, the town is too X-Files-y to stick around, so you pray the car starts as soon as you turn the ignition. And if you land in one of these American towns, you might not want to stop the car in the first place.
The City of Refuge (also known as Miracle Park or Miracle Village) isn't so much a city as it is a small South Florida village in the middle of nowhere. In the 1960s, the community served as barracks for U.S. Sugar's Jamaican employees, who tended the thousands of acres of sugarcane that still surround the place. Today, however, it is home to approximately 120 registered sex offenders. Yes, somewhere in Florida, there is a land of sex offenders surrounded by candy.
Because sex offenders can't live near schools, parks, bus stops, or other places that have a lot of kids around, they often have trouble finding places to live. While most of us respond to the average sex offender's housing dilemma with a sarcastic, "BOO HOO," and pluck on the world's tiniest violin, Pastor Dick Witherow and ex-coach Pat Powers wanted to create a legal housing district for those who have offended others sexually. And if you're curious -- yes, one of them was once a child molester. (Hint: It's not the one named Dick.)
Dick and Pat teamed up to create a safe haven for people who couldn't legally live anywhere else. Unfortunately, they had to evict families with children so that the sex offenders could live in their houses. At Christmas. So that sucked. Among the new residents were men convicted of looking at child pornography, young guys who had underage girlfriends, guys who exposed themselves in public, a guy who got caught urinating in public, and actual child molesters. Oh, and one woman sex offender. Just one.
So imagine getting lost in the Florida sugarcanes and wandering into a town where there are few-to-zero children and just about everyone in sight has committed a sex crime. The creepy thing is you'd have no idea why there weren't any women or children in town, because there isn't a sign welcoming you to Sex Offenderville. No one is going to offer you directions to the nearest gas station after introducing themselves as a convicted child molester -- that's a very difficult talking point to work into small talk.
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If a frat house and a Life Alert commercial had a baby, it would be The Villages (not to be confused with Miracle Village). The Villages is a retirement community larger than Manhattan, and if you're over the age of 55, probably more fun. Because the people who live there are constantly doing it.
The Villages offers its residents not only comfort and safety but the chance for a kind of rebirth -- they get to be young again. Unfortunately, this is followed by the inevitable afterbirth: STDs. The residents get plenty of action -- perhaps too much, depending on how you feel about chlamydia. There's been a 71 percent increase in cases of chlamydia and syphilis among people over 55 in that part of Florida, while the rest of the demographic suffered only a 43 percent rise. The free-lovers have gotten old, but they still know how to defy what the rest of the world expects from them -- which is awesome.
Elderly couples have been caught getting it on in golf carts. There's a black market for Viagra. The only thing residents are not allowed to have is children, except for very brief visits which are supervised and monitored with special passes notifying the horniest residents that kids are around, so stop fellating under the monkey bars. This means you, GENE and MYRTLE.
The Villages has everything a senior needs: golfing, clubs, swimming pools, rec centers, movie theaters, and a hospital. Photos of The Villages make it look like a combination of Disneyland and a whites-only swinger party. They even put the ashes of the man who founded the town inside his own statue, which is only creepier once you realize the charred remains of a visionary are forced to witness the depraved copulations of his followers -- FOREVER.
So if you really love your parents and want them to have a good time in their sunset years, tell them about The Villages ... and for the love of God, make sure they remember to bring condoms.
In the first few decades of the 20th century, San Francisco had a corpse problem. Specifically, that their previously living residents were taking up valuable real estate in the ground. So San Francisco came up with an innovative solution: They evicted their dead and sent them to a small community 10 miles to the south. That town is Colma.
For 75 years, Colma has been steadily collecting bodies, and it's getting deader all the time. As of 2009, there were 1,500 living residents and 1.5 million marked graves that take up so much space that the buildings in Colma are flanked by tombstones. Seventy-three percent of the land belongs to dead folks and future-dead folks, and the rest is occupied by people who have a great sense of humor. The town's motto is "It's Great To Be Alive In Colma."
Once you get past the initial shock of tripping over multiple gravestones in a town that sounds suspiciously like "coma," you might notice that the town also has a few living residents who have put their roots down among the dead. Which means you're walking among a population who grew up playing hide-and-seek in cemeteries and spend several hours a year waiting on funeral processions. And surprise! They all look like Wednesday Addams.
Have you ever wondered what would happen if peace-loving, enlightened people got a chance to build their own communities? Actually, scratch that, because we're all aware of what the '60s looked like. Have you ever wondered what would happen if rich, peace-loving, enlightened people actually got a chance to build their own communities? It might look something like Maharishi Vedic City, in freaking Iowa of all places. In 2001, a yogi and a real estate developer got together to create the world's first town dedicated to the principles of transcendental meditation and world peace. And if you're wondering, yes, we can hear your eye rolls from here.
As with every yoga-based town, there's good news and bad news. The good news is that Maharishi Vedic City is a progressive person's wet dream of a community. Non-organic food is banned, everyone is required to meditate twice a day, and the town's thriving organic farm distributes food through Whole Foods. There's a spa, vegetarian restaurants, schools that teach meditation along with math, and buildings that sport golden domes that totally don't look like giant nipples.
On the other hand, part of the community's plan for world peace meant importing 350 full-time meditators, or pandits, from India. You know what they say: A little extra transcendental meditation goes a long way in the fight against war, terror, and bad feelings. So, naturally, bringing real-deal Indian pandits to boost the town's aura couldn't hurt. There was just one problem. While the city's rich, white residents live and work in houses like this ...
Which translate to something like this up close:
The professional meditators live in sequestered buildings that look more like this:
The town's founders wanted to keep their pure-blood Indian yogis from getting Westernized, so they instituted an age-old solution: A fence that separates the locals from the ones with brown skin. What could go wrong?
Well, for one thing, the peace-praying pandits only make about $200 a month, and $150 of that goes back home to India. And another, they aren't allowed to mingle with people outside their 10-foot fence. Which was probably why the peaceful meditators peaced themselves into a full-scale riot. Eighty of them shook, vandalized, and threw rocks at the sheriff's truck over their isolation contract, which led to one resident to describe them as behaving "like uncivilized Third World miscreants" in a letter to the editor. It almost looks like we're as divided about outsourcing our prayer needs to India as we are with outsourcing our customer service calls to India.
Of course, it doesn't help that the city's website defers to the mayor's enlightened leadership when claiming "the city is a model of prevention-oriented, problem-free administration." Yikes. Someone doesn't know about the iot-ray.
Once again, you're lost in Florida. This time you end up a little down the way from Sarasota, in a town called Gibsonton or Gibtown, depending on whom you ask. At first you don't notice, but the little weird bits slowly start to add up. The post office has a counter especially designed for a little person. The bar has both a chair that would seat a very wide person and a chair that would seat a very tall person. Every other house has a decorative circus-themed lawn ornament, and every now and then you run into someone doing something nuts, like swallowing fire or popping their eyes out.
You've probably figured out by this point that you're in a town designed for carnival workers on a break. If you haven't figured that part out yet, WAKE UP. You've been dreaming about a place where sideshow entertainers once ruled the streets and clowns were gods. Clear your brain before the Syfy network gets a hold of what will surely be next year's hottest show.
According to old-time carny Ward Hall, Gibsonton was a campsite belonging to "The Giant" and his wife, "The Half-Woman," who ran a bakery and fire department. Conjoined twin sisters had their own fruit stand, zoning permits allowed lion-tamers to train wild animals in their yards, and the beer hall had their chairs custom-made for Fat Ladies. By the time Hall arrived in Gibsonton in the 1960s, the town was filled with thousands of carnies, including nearly a hundred "human oddities." So you might run into "Lobster Boy" or "Priscilla, The Monkey Girl," who was married to Alligator Boy. In this hypothetical scenario, everyone lays off the sex questions and we talk about the Marlins.
Gibsonton is only 12 miles from Tampa, making it the perfect place for showmen and technicians to live during the offseason. Rides could be fixed, sequins could be sewn, stunts could be perfected, and animals could be trained in the warm, comfortable climate away from the general public. These days, you won't find people with unfortunate hair growth conditions behind the 7-Eleven counter, but you will find a few tawdry tidbits from the past. Like caramel corn trucks that aren't fooling anyone with their pathetic attempt at camouflage:
Or you might find what used to be a gorilla cage in someone's front yard. It's hard to tell what we're looking at here:
All the old, rusting circus equipment in people's yards are actually status symbols, rather than signs of neglect. There are community efforts to preserve the town's history -- you'll find the Preserve Our History booth right next to the Cemetery Committee.
As much as we joke about Detroit's abandonment issues, Detroit has nothing on the town that's down to its last resident -- Monowi, Nebraska. Octogenarian Elsie Eiler is the town mayor, treasurer, librarian, bartender, shopkeeper, historian, and only living soul. She raises taxes on herself once a year and grants herself her own liquor license. You'd think there'd be some kind of checks-and-balances in place with that sort of thing, but it turns out no one cares when you live in Lonelyville.
The crazy part is that Monowi was doomed before Elsie was born, so it's hard to tell what she's fighting for. By the time she was in grade school, Monowi had already peaked at about 150 residents. Since then, the railroad left, the town burned down, the prairie ate the roads, and every decade the population left in trickles. By 1990, there were only eight people left. By 2000, that number was down to two -- Elsie and her husband, Rudy. In 2004, Monowi's population was halved when Rudy died of cancer. If there's one thing you can say about Elsie Eilers, it's that she's not a quitter.
At this point, you're thinking Monowi's only townsperson is either crazy or has a pretty sweet deal, depending on how antisocial you are. Even though she's surrounded by the decay of a place that's decades dead, Elsie keeps herself busy. She runs a tavern that serves truckers, ranchers, and tourists seven days a week. Next to the restaurant is the library, composed entirely of her dead husband's books. If you want to borrow a book, just ask. There isn't a card catalog or Monowi Public Bar 'n Library card to worry about. If you have any doubts about whether or not you should return your book, just remember that:
A) Rudy Eiler is watching you read his book from Heaven, and:
B) Elsie Eiler is probably no one to eff with.
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