Let's say you manage a McDonald's across the street from the bus station, on the rough side of town. You show up one morning to learn that the CEO of the company -- that's right, the whole international corporation -- is coming to visit your McDonald's in just a few days. On a "fact-finding" tour, it says.
"Fact-finding my eye," you think.
You know the real reason the big boss is dropping in for a visit. It's because, somehow, you, General Manager #5308429, and the leader of this iconic company had a hot, torrid romance a few years back. Yes, it's true. It was doomed to end, obviously, and it did. Badly. And that's why your boss' boss' boss' boss is coming to see your store. To wallow in your embarrassment. In your obvious lack of achievement.
You look around at the smears on the windows. Some of them must be ketchup, but you can't be sure. There's Dwayne, the homeless guy, over in the corner with his newspapers and his already empty small coffee. There's Sheila, the fry cook. She's high on some kind of solvent, and the hairnet has fallen off her beard, again. You sigh. The franchise you manage is definitely a hole. But what can you expect? It's out on the edge of an already edgy town. Your main customers are the Greyhound bus passengers and the ladies from the dialysis clinic. This ain't no Chipotle. What are you going to do?
This is almost exactly the situation Grigorii Potemkin found himself in in 1787, except the company he worked for was called Russia, the CEO was named Catherine the Great, and the particular shithole he was in charge of was called the Crimean peninsula. When he got the memo that Catherine, empress of Russia and his ex-girlfriend, would be stopping by, he took extreme measures to fancy up his franchise. He drafted the thousands of peasants sitting around with their newspapers and empty cups and forced them to build elaborate, false building fronts. The facades were painted pastel green and blue, and had cute little wooden curlicues decorating the windows and doors. Passing by, peering from a carriage window, you'd never be able to tell they weren't real houses inhabited by content residents. At least that's what Potemkin hoped. At night, while Catherine and her retinue slept, Potemkin’s
army of peasants dismantled the fake villages and moved them to a spot
further up the empress’ planned route.
Whether or not Catherine noticed
that all of the gleaming villages looked suspiciously alike – indeed,
whether or not any of this actually happened or is just malicious
anti-Potemkin gossip – is up for debate. What is true, however, is that "Potemkin village" is still an expression used today to describe an
elaborate, carefully planned whitewash. A beautiful mask covering an
ugly face; an artifice, a fraud.
I've always found this story compelling because America, where I live, is a country that is committed to pretending that our difficult, often shabby reality is something other than what it is. We venture out of subdivisions named to evoke exclusive English hunting clubs to restaurants built to look like Spanish missions, where we consume microwaved entrees that the menu assures us are house-made and authentic. We vacation on purpose in places that are built specifically to look like somewhere else, like Disney World, or Las Vegas. And we choose media that show us what we want to believe about ourselves and others, instead of the more confounding, more convicting reality. We are heavily invested in euphemism in America, particularly if the topic is something -- like ageing, or illness, or dying -- that we don't want to think about. And so I was extremely excited when I stumbled on one little corner of America that is taking a stand against all of this obfuscation and admitting, straight up, that it's lying about everything it's pretending to be.
Or maybe, I thought as I handed my four-year-old her sippy cup and told her to go watch My Little Pony, maybe Potemkin Senior Village is not an actual retirement community at all, but instead is an art installation put together by some rogue gerontologist who has decided to construct an impossibly, over-the-topply cheery version of ageing which will, thanks to its highly competent staff, engaged community volunteers, and incessant parades, shame us all into reevaluating our treatment of the elderly. Wouldn't that be awesome?
But then, I reasoned as I stood in the grocery store, staring at the avocado display, it's way more likely that Potemkin Senior Village is some kind of terrible mistake made by someone who started out as a realtor, or something, and found herself in charge of marketing because she was married to the owner's cousin and knew how to use Photoshop. Yes, yes, that makes much more sense. I could picture her, hunched over a glossy, tri-fold brochure, an empty space at the top where the name should go.
"What should we call it?" she'd think. "How about Madison Ponds? Or Bridlebrooke Manor?"
And then she'd half-remember a phrase she'd heard once -- where did she hear it? Oh well, it doesn't matter. What matters is that it has the word "village" already in it, see, and also sounds vaguely European. And everyone knows that Europe is both classy and also comforting in an old-world, return-to-your-roots kind of way. And so:
"Potemkin Senior Village it is!"
Eventually, the speculation became too much for me. "Call us for a tour!" begged their website, so I did. Twice. I left a message both times, practicing beforehand so I'd sound normal when I said the name of their community. But both times, my message was ignored, as was the email I sent. Finally there was nothing to do but go down there, so I strapped my two-year-old in the car, cranked up the AC, and lit out in the direction of Macon.
Warner-Robins is a terrible town, way more terrible than most. The treeless, 6-lane main drag is chock full of Linens and Thingses and Toys R Usses and Red Lobsters, and even the older side of town, which at least usually has more interesting sineage, looks cookie-cutter and pre-assembled, like they're phoning it in. I drove around for a few minutes and immediately became hopelessly lost. Eventually, I pulled into the parking lot of the public library, which shares its space with the campus of South-Central-Western-Middle-Georgia University. The doors were flanked by two cop cars, their window tinting so dark that it was impossible to tell whether they were occupied, or just put there to dissuade potential readers.
"That's OK," I told my two-year-old, "We'll just go in here for a minute and use their computers to look up the address."
But the sign on the door told me it was not to be. "Due to recent criminal activity, internet has been suspended," it said.
Trying to focus on the task at hand and not get derailed by wondering just what kind of criminal activity at the library had led to the disabling of the internet, I approached the front desk, where two librarians stood. They were both staring raptly at a large monitor, which showed various shots of the library taken by security cameras. I stared at it, too, watching as a grainy 5-year-old pulled a book from a shelf and dropped it on the floor.
"Hello," I said, finally. "I'm trying to find (I looked around and lowered my voice, embarrassed) Potemkin Senior Village."
Neither librarian flinched. Dismayed, I said again, louder this time, "Did you hear what I said? I said I'm trying to find Potemkin Senior Village. POTEMKIN (senior) VILLAGE!"
"We heard you," said one of them, looking bored. She kindly printed a map out for me, and I pointed my car down the streets she'd highlighted.
A few minutes later, I passed by the Omi QuickMart #3, the Instant Money You Keep Your Title store, and a giant pile of mattresses resting in front of a dumpster, and pulled up at the large iron fence surrounding the community. Beyond the automatic gate, the buildings gleamed. In front of the tidy bungalows, which were painted a sophisticated taupe color, mounds of pink impatiens and coleus bloomed in planters. The streets were clean and wide, no crushed possums or fast-food cups in evidence at all.
"Man, these people are good," I said, punching the "office" button and asking to be let in. Inside the combination sales office/community center, a few comfortable couches sat empty in front of a large television screen, which was showing Judge Judy. I could see the sales office and the person in it out of the corner of my eye, over to the left, but I pretended to be confused and wandered around the lobby instead, looking for evidence. The pink marble floor was shining like a mirror under the dust-free chandelier. The fresh coffee was steaming on the burner over at the hospitality station. The peace lily in the brass pot next to the window was real, its leaves green and glossy. There was no dirt anywhere, and the air was free of the typical smells (disinfectant, hopelessness) I associate with old folks' homes. Now actually confused, I walked over to the office, where Letitia smiled at me from behind a Louis IV reproduction desk.
My toddler chewed on the camera I'd brought with me while we talked. Letitia, the sales manager, told me all kinds of stuff, like how there's a one-year waiting list to get in, because people like it here so much that they don't leave unless they're dead, and how the residents get together to exercise and watch TV and do crafts on a regular basis, and how the people who live here are not all white folks, oh no, there's a bunch of different people here, all kinds of colors and from all kinds of places, probably because of the military base.
It was time to get down to brass tacks. "Well, Letitia," I said, prying the camera from my toddler's mouth and fixing her with a penetrating gaze. "That certainly all sounds far too good to actually be true. I have to be honest with you. I'm really here because I'm interested in the name. 'Potemkin Village.' It sounds kind of, uh...foreign to me. Do you know anything about it?"
"Oh, I know all about it," snapped Letitia, rolling her eyes and leaning back in her chair. "It is foreign. It's Russian. It was this guy, Potemkin. When Queen Elizabeth came to visit he installed all these fancy houses, but behind them, everything was just ugly. Dirty. They called it a Potemkin village."
"Ah, ubb," I stammered, surprised. "So, uh, what must you think every day, then, coming to work here, at Potemkin Senior Village?"
She laughed and shook her head. "I think, 'I better keep the insides of these buildings really clean.'"
"Uh huh," I laughed, too. "And how do you know all this?"
She shrugged. "I looked it up on the internet."
"Because people kept asking me about it."
"The residents, the family members. Everybody. I got curious and looked it up."
"So, you mean, the people who live here know what a Potemkin village is, and they know they're living in one?"
"Yep," nodded Letitia.
"And they don't even care?"
"Nope," said Letitia. "They don't mind. They know it's nice here. I mean, it really is nice."
"Huh," I said, deflated. "Well, who named it? Where'd it come from?"
"It was the owner," said Letitia. "He's the one who picked the name."
"Ah. So he's the one who doesn't know what it means."
"No, he knows."
"You mean, he knows because you told him. After he named it."
"Naw. He knew beforehand."
"What?" I shouted at Letitia. "You mean the owner knew that he was naming his complex after something that pretends to be nice but is actually really terrible, and he went ahead and did it anyway? Why? What was he thinking?"
"I know, right? I guess he just liked how it sounded. I guess he doesn't care what it means. But you know, the next I see him, I'm going to ask him." she nodded decisively. "Yeah, I'm just going to ask him about it."
"Well, you should," I said. "Somebody should."
I said goodbye to Letitia and walked back to my car through the quiet, well-maintained entry garden. I'd thought about asking Letitia if I could have the name of the owner so I could ask him myself, or requesting to speak to some of the residents, but in the end, I decided not to bother. Because really, what would would they say? 'Yes, we know all about Grigorii Potemkin and his fake houses. We may be old, and stuck here in Warner-Robins, Georgia in between the Omi QuickMart #3 and a bunch of trashed mattresses, but that doesn't mean we're stupid. Where would you rather we live? Incontinence Acres? Loneliness Town? Now please quit pestering us so we can live out our final days in some kind of peace."
And they would be right if they said all this, I realized. The joke was on me, not them.
At the curb, I got out of my car and snapped a few pictures of the sign. A disheveled-looking man digging through the dumpster eyed me curiously, wondering what around here was worth photographing. The cheery houses of the community that was named after a fraud grew smaller in my rearview mirror and I turned onto the main road again, into the sea of fast-food restaurants and chain-store logos that is real life in America.