This is where you stand the first time the dueling stenches of death and hair spray commingle in your nostrils and spike your otherwise easygoin’ brain: the produce section of a grocery store in a seemingly normal Silver Spring strip mall. There you are, fondling a plump little clementine with your healthy young hands, when the Darkness gooses you with his rusty scythe and lets you know your reservations are in order.

The reality of the situation is nasty enough—hell, there might as well be a vulture squawking atop the cantaloupes—but the timing is the real killer: We all gotta go sometime—you admit that—but did you really need to be reminded of your flimsy mortality now?

All thoughts of escape are useless: In the fruits-and-vegetables section of a clean, well-lighted Giant, the Darkness, ol’ Mr. Bones himself, has bumped into you like an errant shopping cart and hissed in your ear: You are going to die, my friend, and the way that realization cha-chas its way down your spine, you might just keel over this instant, face-first into the Granny Smiths.

The morbid beckonings spring from proximity, an immersion among those who know the Darkness on much more intimate terms. (Sure, over the years you’ve spent plenty of holiday time at Grandpa’s musty home, but Mom or Dad always made sure to have a well-planned alibi once dinner and dessert were through and that eerie dusk was settling outside.) Walking into this grocery store was like a solemn march for Communion at a church only the aged and infirm attend: small, slow steps—some accompanied by a peculiar metallic thunk—heads bent down, respectful silence. Fifty-year-old fedoras and flower-print scarves have overtaken baseball caps as the headgear of choice. You are the tallest, most upright person in the store. You are the only person not moving in slow motion. You are the only person with hair the same color it was during high school. You are the only person who doesn’t get a discount at the movies. In this Giant, where everything seems normal, one thing most certainly is not: You are young; everyone else is old.

Between the creaky smiles and ever-present gloom, you finally spot a young girl with long black hair and snug riding pants leaving the store, newspaper in hand. You follow her, maybe looking for a little soothing eye contact—you know, just between you young folk—in the midst of all this weirdness. She pauses on the curb, waiting for a sleek blue Sedan De Ville the size of a nuclear submarine to cruise by. Inside the car is an elderly woman tugging on the wheel with all she’s got to make the boat heel through a narrow row of cars. You sidle up next to your friend in the riding pants, prepared with an inappropriate quip about the cemeterial parking lot. But then she turns to you and smiles. You can only stare. Despite a recent jaunt to the islands or an ill-advised visit to a local tanning salon, the woman still can’t bronze over the fact that she’s pushing 60. She steps off the curb, still baring her yellow smirk, leaving you alone on the sidewalk. Just you and the Darkness, that is.

Behind the shopping center, Leisure World rolls out like a boring bedspread. Snidely renamed “Seizure World” by disgruntled neighbors, this geriatric paradise is one of the nation’s largest private retirement communities. You peer over the tall iron fence and stare at the sprawling landscape, today deadly silent. There is a golf course in the distance, but under such dreary skies the links look too much like the hilly cemetery just up the road. One half of you wants to hop the obstruction and stroll the grounds. But you can’t; you are the unwanted, and the bevy of security guards manning the perimeter—24 hours a day, seven days a week—will make you stay that way. So you can only stand there, astounded by this vast refuge within a vast suburb, unable to enter. The other half of you, the part that remembers all too clearly the grinning mug of the Darkness, is delighted by this restriction.

Traveling northward on Georgia Avenue is like going through a meat-grinder. If the commerce and construction crumbling into the thoroughfare don’t shatter your nerves, then your fellow drivers, who find it all but impossible to stay in their lanes, certainly will. But as the buzz of the District falls farther behind—15, 20, 25 minutes—and the fast-food joints disappear from your rearview mirror, a rolling calm sets in. You soon cruise into the mouth of a valley lined by tall trees, today skeletal in the freezing wind. Right about the time you settle down, Leisure World’s infamous globe—the mammoth rust-colored landmark that suggests an EPCOT Center for the aged—looms over you like a ridiculous prop in a B movie.

Opened in 1966, Leisure World has expanded over 600-plus heavily guarded acres to house 7,800-plus residents in 4,500-plus apartments, single-family homes, duplexes, midrises, and high-rises. To call the place a “community” is a wild understatement: Leisure World is a goddamn wrinkled metropolis.

More than 260 employees keep things orderly, but don’t be fooled: The residents, whose average age is 74, run the ranch. Thirty to 40 percent of the residents still work in some capacity, and those who don’t are kept busy by hundreds of diversions: pool, bowling (lawn and duckpin), exercise, worship, and going to movies and concerts. Children (children, of course, being anyone under 55) can visit Grandma and Grandpa at Leisure World, but they can’t live there. No, no, no. And while you should feel free to fall in love and marry any of the residents—women outnumber men here by about four to one—if you’re under the stated age, don’t plan on shacking up with your beloved.

Your ticket to living in paradise comes only after you’ve completed a grueling 55-year marathon, and then only if you have enough dough left to move in. Purchase prices for dwellings range from $28,000 to $320,000, with an average of about $140,000. In the next five or six years, another 1,200-1,300 units will be raised on the property, and a total of close to 10,000 senior citizens will call Leisure World home.

If all that sounds like idyllic accommodations for a retiree sick of everyday hassles, you should be aware that the accommodating point of entry is matched by a similarly slippery slope toward the exit. Leisure World is not an assisted-living community; nor is it a nursing home. Basically, if you get too sick to be considered independent, you will soon find yourself getting wheeled past the globe for the last time.

If you can’t bear the thought of stepping behind the ball to see Leisure World for yourself, you can get a pretty good idea of what’s in store at the Mandarin Gourmet, one of the 20 or so businesses making up Leisure World Plaza. As you sit alone in a corner booth, wolfing down cashew chicken to settle your stomach, you can’t avoid eavesdropping on a large circular table bedecked with numerous dishes of barely touched fare and seven gray-haired cuties—ranging, let’s say, from early 70s to late 80s. When it comes to stimulating repartee, this isn’t exactly the Algonquin Round Table, but the conversation—actually several simultaneous conversations—is a squawking ball of wisecracks and fun. It plays out like a scene from a senescent Diner. Here, the Darkness recedes, replaced by a long, soothing glide into a slower place that still offers its share of yuks:

“You really don’t care that Clinton is a liar and

a cheat?”

“Have you seen the waiter? I want more sauce.”

“All I’m saying is that I’m waiting for the facts. Innocent until guilty, right?”

“Remember that place we ordered from in Aspen Hill? And that soup? Do you remember that soup?”

“This little girl Lewinsky really worries me.”

“Dontcha just love this sauce?”

“She’s a slut.”

“You know, I’m thinking of getting a hamster.”

“She’s a little tramp, if you ask me. A lit-tel tramp.”

“The soup was sooo spicy. I could barely eat it. Barely touch it.”

“A hamster! But all those babies!”

“So spicy I took one bite and was done. That was it. Done.”

“Is that our waiter? Is that him? I’m not eating until I get more sauce.”

“My daughter got her grandkids a cockatiel.”

“Do guinea pigs have tails?”

“On the phone, he’s always ‘wee, wee, wee.’ Always that from the bird.”

“This broccoli is very dry. I think something’s wrong with it.”

“No, not a guinea pig. A hamster.”

“Just push it to the side of your plate. The rest looks fine.”

“Because I don’t know about you, but I don’t like tails.”

The waiter slides you the check and a fortune cookie. In his other hand is a petite dish of steaming brown goo; you don’t have to ask where that’s going. You slide a few bills under the cup of untouched tea and crack open dessert. The message flutters out, presenting itself for your perusal: “Stop searching forever, happiness is just next to you.”

There’s a sweetness to the sweethearts of the Mandarin Gourmet that rubs some of the cruel sting off the endless headlines about the “graying of America.” They seemed fearless, having come to settle comfortably in their pact with the Darkness. But will you find a place to stand when you need a walker to do so? Threats are thrown at you all the time: When you’re older, there will be no such thing as Social Security to sustain you. You will starve, you will live in a cardboard box, you will dine on Purina Cat Chow.

The demographics and statistics are scary regardless of whether you buy into the stories they produce. According to various polls and census reports, the number of U.S. citizens 65 or older is expected to double by the year 2030. Currently, one in eight Americans is 65 or older. In fact, as we approach the millennium—considering those aging baby boomers and the significant strides in treating heart disease and stroke—that number will increase to something like one in five. The fastest-growing age group in the country right now is people over 85—a tasty statistic for the salespeople at Leisure World.

A few more facts: If you make it to the middle of the next century—and current stats show that a lot of us have a damn good chance—there could be close to 30 million people 85 or older ambling about the States, not to mention nearly a million who have managed to tip the scales of time at 100. With a current average income of approximately $30,000, a figure that will grow larger as the nation grows older, these senior citizens—by then, we senior citizens—should have plenty of money for a one-way ticket into a retirement community.

Because of the growing demand, fraternities like Leisure World are no longer sprouting up solely in warmer climates like those of Florida, California, and Arizona. The Washington metro area now boasts four residential retirement projects other than Leisure World—not to mention the whispers of more, smaller developments—for those 55 and up: Heritage Hunt, Greenspring Village, Leisure World of Virginia (no legal relation), and the former Great Oaks center. Leisure World is the future—maybe your future.

“You’ll never guess what I was doing this morning.”xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

You are sitting in the shadowy corner of an I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt—which neighbors the ominous Community Radiology shop in the Leisure World Plaza Office Building—when a soothing, weathered voice catches you off guard. With most of a monstrous apple fritter stuffed into your head, you sneak a guilty peak at the store’s small crowd and respond with a mouth gagged by dough:

“Marmph?”

“Washing the front of my house,” the voice responds.

In the booth directly across from you, dressed in the natty fashion of Jay Gatsby, is 78-year-old Rocco Panetta. A navy blue wool overcoat, brushed so carefully that not a mite of lint offends its purity, hangs over an equally dashing navy suit. His wide tie is dark red, with just the right number of paisley paramecia floating throughout. His black leather loafers are spit-shiny and fresh as they sway out into the walkway. But the clincher, the accessory that makes you examine your doughnut-crumbed chamois in disgust, is the spotless white silk scarf draped so casually around his neck. Rocco may be getting on, but you’re the one who looks like hell.

After a polite one-sided introduction, Panetta smiles and taps his well-manicured fingers on his empty table, waiting for you to finish cramming the fritter into your pie hole. He even buys you a little extra time: “Do you know what Panetta means in Italian? ‘Loaf of bread.’”

Finally, after a tight, lumpy swallow, you try to hold up your end, albeit poorly: “With all this weather, you still wash house?”

“Oh yes,” Panetta says very seriously. “You’d never believe how dirty cement can get after a rainfall.”

Panetta has lived in Leisure World for 11 years. He shares his home with his sister Elizabeth, who has been his living partner for as long as he can remember.

“Elizabeth is two years older than me, but you’d never know it,” Panetta says proudly. “She looks 60. And she hates birthdays. Never talk about her birthday. And whatever you do, never mention her age. Do that, and she’ll hit you with a hammer. But no, she really is a wonderful person.” Then Panetta leans toward you, as if about to reveal the secret of the ages, and whispers: “I’d hate to be stuck living with an old biddy.”

You ask him about Leisure World, intimating that he seems a little on the animated side to settle for life inside a high-priced ghetto for the aged. Panetta, however, will have none of it: “Oh no, Leisure World is a wonderful place. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. They have everything: bowling alleys, two Olympic-size pools, lots of activities. And it’s free. It’s all free. No, you couldn’t get me to move from there if you tried.”

Keeping an eye out for his ride, he begins to reminisce, unprompted, about his Italian immigrant father, who “up until the day he died, spoke broken English” but still managed a successful tile and marble business here. His father enjoyed only limited schooling, Panetta recalls, but he taught himself how to read sprawling, complicated blueprints in only a short time.

Rapt, you forget about the blueberry cake doughnut you have yet to eat, and urge him to continue.

“My mother, she was from Chicago,” he says, looking out the window. “She was a beautiful woman and a fine mother. She met my father—”

But the romance and consummation will have to wait. Panetta’s lunch date bursts through the store’s entrance, compliments his older friend on his attire, and helps the elderly man to his feet.

Panetta turns to you and says, “Good luck with everything. It was truly a pleasure.”

The last you ever see of Rocco Panetta is his white silk scarf catching a tug of breeze as it slips through the crack of the closing door.

You reach for the blueberry doughnut and easily wedge it into your mouth. Of course, that’s when another voice calls out for you. The store is empty, but a small middle-aged woman is leaning over the counter, dish rag clutched in her red, worn-out hands.

“You know the man you were just talking to?” she says with a heavy foreign accent. “He was awarded a Purple Heart in World War II.”

The doughnut refuses to yield: “Marmph?”

“And Mr. Rocco, he still works. He massages. Very good, strong hands. But he says he doesn’t like to massage women because they’re funny about where they like to be touched.” She laughs and wipes confectioners’ sugar from her workspace. “And didn’t he look so spiffy today?”

And that’s when you decide it’s time. Enough hemming and hawing. Screw the Darkness. Rocco says Leisure World is heaven on earth. Who wouldn’t step inside?

Does not your heart yearn for peace, happiness, and prosperity? Surely it does. But is it just a dream, or fantasy, to believe these conditions will ever exist on earth?—from a pamphlet handed out in the Leisure World area by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania.

Leisure World is a residential community of adults [who] must be 55 years or older. These individuals must be capable of living independently in the serene and tranquil setting that comprises Leisure World….For those participating in sports, Leisure World includes two swimming pools, a full 18-hole golf course, tennis courts, a bowling alley and exercise facilities.—from a pamphlet handed out by the sales office at Leisure World.

As you drive toward the main security gate off Georgia Avenue and peer once again at that ominous, unsettling globe, an annoying DJ on some equally annoying radio station informs you that today is former President Ronald Reagan’s 87th birthday. A slow procession of Lincoln Continentals and yet more Sedan De Villes rolls through the “residents only” passage. You, on the other hand, must wait with four other visitors for guest clearance. You idle nervously, waiting for your turn. Unnerved by the two-person security detail flanking arrivals on both sides, you actually find yourself practicing your lines: “Hello there! I’m here for an appointment with assistant general manager Kevin Flannery.” Yeah, like that doesn’t sound shady.

Finally, it’s your turn for inspection. You turn down the radio—currently hollering Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way?”—and crank the window. Such a big cheesy grin on such an innocent young face. You deliver your lines, immediately fumbling your own name. There’s a pause—a pause? Why is she pausing? Then a soft inquiry about your place of business, but soon the guard is giving directions to the administration building, and, feeling somewhat delinquent, you creep through the gates. You fumble with the radio and replace Lenny with the Stylistics’ “Betcha By Golly, Wow.” You leave it alone—best not to fuck with the soft hits on this ride.

Leisure World is connected by the inventively named Leisure World Boulevard, a 3-mile stretch of wide, winding road that offers up a suburban-inflected trip through time. Single-level aluminum-sided houses (complete with Florida rooms, of course) give way to concrete apartment monoliths, which leave just enough room for newer developments like Turnberry Courts, glass and brick condos that wouldn’t cause a stir if they were suddenly plopped down in the heart of Columbia, another unnatural planned community. Venture off the boulevard into some of the separate neighborhoods, and you’re liable to get lost on Elkridge Way or Beaverbrook Court. It doesn’t take long to realize that Leisure World is a haven without time or landmarks, and that a trail of bread crumbs would only be eaten by the flock of geese that runs rampant over the grounds.

The roads this morning are basically abandoned, and for a short, sweet time this is a welcome relief after the gauntlet that is Georgia Avenue. The ghost-town vibe makes sense, too: The weather has been so lousy, and about 25 percent of the residents have found a warmer place to sleep. During spring and summer, the roads and sidewalks are abuzz with golf carts driven by fit, aging Stepford wives. There are no children, no yuppies, no Jeeps with rotten punks looking to raise some hell. You’re beginning to swing with this whole planned community deal.

Leisure World’s main spots of interest are deserted as well. The Inter-Faith Chapel, a “House of Prayer for All People” (well, as long as you’re 55 or older…or just visiting), is filled with nothing but faint echoes and unanswered prayers. A Lean Cuisine spinning unwatched in the chapel kitchenette’s microwave leads you to believe someone must be lurking in the holy house.

You creep through the church’s meeting rooms and dark, empty halls and eventually find the chapel. Vacant: no sermons being delivered, no bosoms being crossed. The main aisle, awash in thin, blood-red carpeting, is extremely wide. The soft, cushy pews, some adorned with hearing aids, are lined with a matching red. A plain iron cross hangs sentry above the altar, without an uncomfortable Jesus adorned in thorns and loin cloth. You imagine what this place must be like on a Sunday, hymns straining the rafters, hope finding a few. And you think back to the Giant, and that slow, solemn shuffle.

Just outside the chapel is a table littered with dozens upon dozens of gloomy tracts: “Finding God in Pain or Illness,” “Growing Older Without Fear,” “Taking Care of Yourself While Grieving,” “Taking the Time You Need to Grieve Your Loss,” “Finding Your Way After the Death of a Spouse.” (Sample text from “Coping When Someone You Love Is Dying”: “Don’t waste time trying to protect one another from the reality that your loved one has a limited life expectancy—you will miss the intimacy and meaningful conversations that can make this time so precious.”) You wend your way back through the church and still find no one. The Lean Cuisine continues its revolutions as the chapel door closes behind you.

The main hubs of activity at Leisure World—though they’re not really cooking today—are the two clubhouses and the impressive 18-hole golf course that snakes through the community and attracts a majority of the residents during the season. The longest hole on the course is a very unelderly 400 yards, but the par 4 10th hole (287 yards from the blue tees), which sits just next to Clubhouse I, looks tough enough. A slight dogleg left, the hole is loaded with hazards: bug-eyed sand traps directly in front of the tight green, a rocky stream bed about 100 yards out, a tight fairway flanked by trees on both sides, and emerald gooseshit that seems to be under your feet wherever you step. Nice to know golf doesn’t get any easier the older you get.

You trudge off the soggy course and weave through the well-kept grounds—pool, patios, grass bowling court—of Clubhouse I. You pass a couple languidly making their way inside. You nod hello, feeling very much like an outcast, and keep walking. The couple barely take notice. While taking a minute to appreciate the fine shuffleboard accommodations—and overcome by a bizarre urge to play—you can hear the couple working their way to the door.

“Come on, dear,” the man, wearing a brown fedora and a spotty duster, says, keeping a firm grip on his wife’s thin arm. “I know it’s hard; I know. But come on, keep walking.”

“The pain is not good today,” she replies, stopping to catch her breath. “Not good. All this rain.”

“I know, I know,” the man sighs. “But look: You just have a few more steps, and then we’ll be inside.”

But a few more steps might be a while. You turn away, briskly, and pull at your coat collar to battle the ill wind.

If you had access to the astounding Clubhouse II, you wouldn’t leave your community, either. Indoors there is a massive pool area—lap pool, wading pool, hot tub—and plenty of surrounding inside/outside deck space. A young lifeguard talking to a friend on the phone has her back turned to a few bathing-capped residents paddling about. You wander through the maze of halls and doors: duckpin bowling alley, meeting rooms, and a high-school auditorium-size hall that in just a few short days will host the Platters (who could undoubtedly qualify to live in Leisure World themselves). In a workout room, a large, sweating woman gives it her all on an exercise bike. Her tremendous flanks jiggle over the side of the seat as her peddling becomes more and more labored. You make a mental note to cut down on apple fritters.

Notices for activities are plastered everywhere: “Going It Alone Club” (for single residents), “Leisure World Association for African Culture” (for residents who happen to be black—though, while no official tally on race is kept, this number seems on the small side), “Lapidary Club” (for residents obsessed with carving their own gravestones), and “Tai Chi” (for residents interested in learning how to properly kick other residents’ asses).

There are also stacks of fliers scattered about Clubhouse II by the Maryland State Police. This reading material is concerned with driving and road safety tips (“Aggressive Driving Kills,” “The End of the Road for Aggressive Drivers,” and, point blank, “No Excuses”).

The busiest parking lot this morning—nearly full of monster cars—is the one outside Leisure World’s state-of-the-art medical center, an art deco structure just ’round the boulevard bend from Clubhouse II. You peek inside and see the busy pharmacy and occupied patient care rooms and nurses in near-jog. The waiting area is making a stab at perky, but, alas, the medical center will always be a destination of misery. One woman, her face adorned with the crevices of time, rubs her swollen neck and sobs into a tissue, while a man, who can barely stand upright, hobbles through, muttering to himself and waiting impatiently for his name to be called. Best hope they glue the wheels back on here, because if you fall down and you can’t get up, bye-bye duckpin bowling, hello nursing-home Jell-O.

Somehow, a glossy foreign magazine has found its way onto a waiting room table. Pictured on the cover is an extremely arousing shot of a half-naked Neve Campbell. But as you gawk at Neve’s bare features—forgetting for an instant about where you are and why you’re here—you are quickly punished: That now-familiar confluence of death and hair spray has once again found its way straight up your nose, the smell of encroaching Darkness.

Kevin Flannery, the 40-year-old assistant general manager of Leisure World, is a pleasant, straightforward man with an obvious admiration for the people who inhabit his workplace. As he fields your line of rather harmless questions, however, you can’t help noticing the defensive tone that often creeps into his responses and the number of times he utters the word “misconception.” He sees nothing wrong with wanting to live in a place like Leisure World, but there is something in his tone that says he knows there are naysayers.

“There’s gonna be different motivations for moving into a facility like this,” Flannery explains, leaning back in his chair and motioning out the window to the grounds. “Some people might be driven by the amenities, but I think the common thread consistent amongst most is the security aspect and the ability to walk out of your unit at 8:30 at night and take a walk in the summer without having to worry. If you come into this community at 7 o’clock in the morning when there’s good weather, you’ll see people jogging, walking. And it’s the same at night.”

Flannery understands the stereotype of Leisure World residents being a bevy of drooling, doddering old bats but says the community here is anything but a sanctuary for the walking dead. “Some people have a misconception that everybody here has a walker and a cane, but it’s an extremely active community,” he explains, with extra emphasis on the “active.” “That’s the one thing that people are surprised the most by. Psychologically, the people of this age-population need the opportunity to become involved. You don’t want ’em to be just wallflowers.”

He leans forward and drops his voice to his conversational mode: “To be honest with you, you drive up Georgia Avenue, and you look, and there’s this globe, and there’s this gate, and you’re thinking, I wonder what goes on on the other side of that fence….But as a learning experience, it’s given me a much better appreciation of senior citizens. One of the great benefits of my job is to be able to be exposed to these senior citizens, many of whom can really educate you. There are some pretty amazing people that live here. It’s an interesting place to be employed.”

And when it comes to discussing the hardest part of his job—dealing with the daily infiltration of that black-hearted Darkness—he maintains his corporate bearings, although the words arrive slower. So Kevin, how does someone end up at the exit door of Leisure World?

“The natural way is that one realizes that our level of service isn’t appropriate for their needs,” he explains, as pictures of his own family look down on him from a shelf behind his desk. “It’s not my job to tell somebody it’s time to move. Worst-case scenario is someone unfortunately evolves to the point where mentally they don’t rationalize things out. Our normal approach to situations like that is you try to bring a family member into it, if there is one available, and get the person pointed in the right direction.”

The right direction? Doesn’t that sound a bit cold?

Flannery doesn’t flinch: “Depending on the severity of the situation, it requires different approaches. Ultimately, our worst-case scenario is you have a situation where someone is becoming an endangerment to themselves or maybe neighbors.”

Finally, after all the corporate rigmarole, Flannery folds his cards: “You get to know people, which makes it doubly hard. You watch them slowly digress, and that’s a tough one to deal with. There are a lot of people I can remember who were very influential in the way I developed this job, and they’re not around anymore, and that gets to you. There’s a lot of people that I have known over the years that aren’t here, and there are some currently who are not in good shape. It’s part of being around an environment like this.”

He snaps out of it as quickly as he fell in: “But being around this population sends a message that old isn’t bad. Old can be a lot of fun. So take care of yourself now so that you will live to be old.”

In the sunny village of Surprise, Ariz., a war is currently being waged between Dysart High School and the numerous golf-happy retirement communities within the town’s jurisdiction. Education funding is falling short for the school—the football team came close to folding last year, while the marching band has been playing taps for months—thanks in large part to the area’s retirees. Thirteen percent of Arizona’s citizens are over the age of 65 and not much inclined to pay hefty taxes to support other people’s children. In New York, Gov. George Pataki recently pushed through legislation that would allow state residents over 65 with household incomes of less than $60,000 to qualify for a 45-percent cut in their share of school taxes. Talk about your golden parachute.

No such generational schism exists in Leisure World’s neighborhood. Well, not yet, at least. The major gripe from neighbors locked outside the Leisure World gates concerns the driving of the retirees, and the poor examples thereof. Area residents refer to Leisure World Plaza as “the Crash ‘n’ Go.” One young resident, unwilling to give her name, claims to “see accidents happen here every day. The drivers will hit a parked car, panic, and simply drive away from the accident. Happens all the time.” Take one look at the monster cars tooling around the plaza, and it’s easy to imagine age and steel coming to a bad end.

Cpl. Paul Sterling of the Montgomery County Police has heard all this before but says it’s just one more myth of aging.

“Sometimes people who live around areas like this see the problem as worse than it is because they assume,” Sterling says. “But I don’t think we have an unusual amount of accidents here. Sure, there are probably some people out there that shouldn’t be driving, but that is the one indulgence they don’t want to give up.”

Tensions do pop up, albeit in muted form. And it isn’t just neighbors who have misgivings about Leisure World. Forty-nine-year-old Brenda Krieger, head of BKC & Co., an interior design firm in Mount Pleasant, sees privatized retirement communities as a very unhealthy trend.

“A place like Leisure World isolates senior citizens from our society,” Krieger says. “They’re no longer a part of the ongoing world. We no longer reap the benefits of our elders. Older people have so much to give to the world, but if you keep isolating these communities, it’s only going to exacerbate the [tensions with the neighboring town]….I find Leisure World very spooky myself.”

You do, too—but its charms are there as well. The desire to live among like-minded and like-interested parties is older than the college fraternity system. Why should that imperative wither with age? It’s a kick to spend time with your homies, even when they have broken hips and blue hair.

Back at Mandarin Gourmet, same table, different day, same hair, different faces:xxxxx “I can’t read the bill. Is that 1 cent or 7 cents?”

“Seven, hon. It’s 7 cents.”

“Change? You need change? I have 40 cents over here.”

“Look out the window: Gosh, feels so empty around here.”

“Let me look in my purse for change. How much do we need? Fifty cents?”

“Forty cents?”

“No, hon, we only need 7 cents.”

“I went down to Bermuda one winter and I was so miserable.”

“Oh yeah, forget Florida. You should do a cruise. They’re so much fun. Dancing and gatherings. And the food—wonderful.”

“I like Maine.”

“Maine is beautiful, but not in the winter, honey.”

“I like Australia. I’d like to visit Australia.”

“Scotland is one place I’d like to go. Or France.”

“France?”

“It’s so green over in Scotland. Wonderful.”

“France? Is she saying France?”

“France.”

“I forgot to tell you: I just bought a CD player. I can play five at one time.”

“Oh, but I miss records. They don’t make records anymore.”

“My husband likes really great New Orleans jazz records.”

“You mean like Dixieland?”

“No, I mean like really lowdown jazz. Funky stuff. It almost has a smell to it.”

“Mmm, yes. By the way, honey, I didn’t get your name?”

“Donna.”

“Donna? Are you saying Donna?”

“Donna.”

You take the turn out of Leisure World Plaza and aim toward the city. The clouds are breaking for the first time in days, and the globe begins to shrink in size from a dying planet to a dirty soccer ball, until finally you are back on Georgia Avenue, swearing silently as a cruddy Toyota pickup ahead straddles the lane, not quite sure what it wants to do.

You reach for the radio and keep low the jangle of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m Goin’ Down.” And you think of Rocco Panetta and his sister and his parents and wonder if there was never a wife in his life. You’re certainly not the corny type to gush about how much he could teach you, how much you could learn. But it still seems sad that Rocco would settle for Leisure World. Sad for him. And sadder still for you. You’d like to talk to Rocco about the Darkness, for one thing, but your day pass at Leisure World has been punched. But no worries: Your turn will come sooner than you think. In fact, the Darkness is counting on it. CP