In a calamitous collision of unfortunate circumstances a few months ago, I found myself simultaneously without a job or an apartment. With no employment prospects on the horizon and about enough money to buy two iced mochas, my options were limited. I gave my mother a buzz: “Hey, Mom, this is sort of random, but do you think Poppysam would be OK with me crashing with him for a while?” Mom encouraged me to call my 87-year-old grandfather, so I did.
Before I knew it, I was driving with Chloe, my Boston terrier, down the 405 Freeway from Santa Monica toward Orange County—a place I only knew, oddly enough, as a former assistant in the writers’ office of the Fox TV series “The OC”—and toward my grandfather, a man I knew even less. At age 25, my new home would be in Laguna Woods Village, one of the largest retirement communities in North America.
For most of my life, my grandfather comfortably assumed a background role. My grandmother, bless her zealous heart, was a talker. She talked. And talked. She allowed nary a chance for my grand-father to chime in. I knew him mostly as a man who was passionate about handbags—he sold them into his 70s in the Palm Springs area. Over the years, he and I accepted our fates as family, but not friends. Then we became roomies.
I adapted quickly to retirement community living. It’s quite glorious, actually. Wake up about 10, watch “The Price Is Right” over bagels and cream cheese, then a trek to the nearest Costco. You never get too old to enjoy the free samples. When we get back, we study that week’s People magazine, then I head out on my own to grab some food at Taco Mesa, and spend the afternoon at a local coffee bar (for the free Wi-Fi). By 4, I return home and Poppysam and I visit the community pool for the afternoon.
From there, we hop into his snazzy Ford Flex en route to one of the many chain restaurants that joyously welcome our early-bird business. No matter the restaurant, my grandfather dresses as if we are ordering steaks at Morton’s—slacks, dark button-down, newsboy cap—while also assembling a paper-napkin bib to protrude from his shirt collar. And like most bachelors, we discuss sports, the weather, and the failing auto industry.
I like to go for a run after dinner. The streets are eerily quiet by 8, except for the sound of TV sets booming from the seniors’ living rooms. A few hours of TV, some reading (fittingly, I’m now perusing an Irving Thalberg biography, which I bought to keep me in tune with Poppy-sam’s Turner Classic Movies obsession) and before I know it, it’s 10:30 and bedtime. The next day we do it all over again.
The best day of the week for Poppysam is poker night. Every Thursday evening he and his merry band meet over cake and cookies, and win or lose $3.50. Since I know nothing about poker, I usually hop in my car and head down to the Spectrum to stare at pretty people. I can sometimes sit there for hours without seeing an ugly person.
Sometimes, though, Poppysam’s poker group dines out beforehand and his lucky grandson grabs an exclusive invite. One night we went to Hooters. Picture a half-dozen older gentlemen and me sitting in a booth, gawking. My grandfather summed it up well: “I don’t know. Besides the girls and the televisions, I don’t think there’s any reason to come back here.” A few minutes later one of his friends bought a Hooters hat from a salesgirl, explaining: “A friend of mine is having pancreatic surgery tomorrow and this will boost his morale.”
This kind of reality check is pretty standard in our retirement community. A lot of conversations revolve around who is sick that week, and with what. My grandfather, no stranger to the doctor, endures monthly visits and enough daily medications to tranquilize Seabiscuit. He reminds me weekly: “Never grow old, Michael.”
Even on rosy days, the mood shifts quickly when he fields a call for my grandmother. “I’m sorry, she’s not available,” he says a few times a week. “She’s passed away.”
Despite the 52-year age difference, my grandfather and I came to Orange County for similar reasons: employment. Poppysam is here because of the choices afforded him by a lifetime of work—three retirements’ worth. I, on the other hand, touched down here in my mid-20s because I couldn’t find work. I couldn’t think of a quieter place than an O.C. retirement community.
While on “The OC,” it was my responsibility to give tours of the set to VIPs. People would travel from all around the world for my guided jaunt around “Newport,” which actually was a sound stage in Manhattan Beach. The most memorable tour was for a Make-A-Wish Foundation girl. Offered the chance to experience anything in the world, the terminally ill Midwesterner wished to visit Orange County—or at least the TV version of it.
In many ways, Poppysam made the same choice. After 60 years of hard work and entrepreneurial enterprise, he chose his own version of paradise. When asked “Why Orange County?,” he says he wanted to retire where the weather was so perfect he could only complain about it when it was semiperfect. He wanted to retire near the beach, even if he never touched the sand. He wanted a community hot tub the size of a living room. He wanted to retire where Costcos were in every direction.
For a while he shared his paradise with his vagabond grandson who will never forget his time in Laguna Woods Village. For four months I got to know my grandfather and Orange County simultaneously; I am happy to report I am now friends with both. Now, as my departure looms, the only thing I’m reluctant about is leaving.
Mike Metzis an Orange Coast contributing writer.
Illustration by Megan Berkheiser and Mike Caldwell