December 4, 2010
Murder in Utopia
Celebration, Florida 2005
Reading the accounts of the recent crime wave in Celebration, Florida, I was reminded of my long dormant unfinished novel, Murder in Utopia, which takes place in a town called Happiness:
“There’s no such thing as innocence,” says Bob the Architect, as he pokes his index finger into the tranquil pale yellow waters of his third or fourth mug of beer. I guess he’s testing the temperature, or maybe gauging the level of sudsyness. I don’t know. “No such thing,” he repeats, this time looking at me, crinkling the lines around his eyes a bit, raising his eyebrows a centimeter and smiling just slightly, the facial equivalent of a whisper.
I think of this as Bob’s client-face, the way he looked when he was seducing some magnate into believing that only he and Bob truly understood life’s mysteries.
Of course, by the time I met Bob, he no longer had clients.
“What do you mean? What about children? Aren’t they innocent?” I took a sip of what had been a frozen margarita and was now just flavorless slush.
“Lucy,” he said, his smile more pronounced, his teeth showing. “When I was a child, I wasn’t innocent….”
“When you were five years old?”
He fiddled for a moment with his severe, thick framed glasses, that were now held together on one side by a gold paper clip.
“When I was five years old, I’d bring my crayon drawings home from kindergarten to show my parents and I knew, even then I knew, that I should show them the better picture second, or even third, so that by the time they got to it they’d be surprised and delighted, pleased with themselves for uncovering my true talents.”
“Okay, how about when you were two?”
He didn’t answer.
Bob is the architect of Happiness. That is to say, he built this place. He designed the eight prototype houses, each representing a regional American house circa 1910. He designed Happiness’s signature white picket fence with it’s slightly asymmetrical point, a detail that concerned no one aside from Bob’s fellow architects. He designed the city hall which, I believe was copied from the courthouse in To Kill a Mockingbird. Except, because Happiness is a division of a corporation, rather than a real town, there’s nothing in the city hall except an office that dispenses visitor parking permits (residents get theirs in the mail) and a Starbucks. And he drew up plans for Main Street which is a sweetened version of Morristown, New Jersey, where Bob grew up.
Bob designed this place, stayed for most of the construction process, until he was satisfied that every sprinkler head was properly placed and that every front gate was built so that a small child could swing on it and that the soda fountain looked just like Walters, where he used to get his chocolate ice cream sodas every Saturday. And then he went home to New York City, back to his practice building office towers and 20,000 square foot beach cottages for hedge fund managers.
About three weeks after his return to New York, midway through a presentation to some cellular phone mogul regarding a new skyscraper that would look, Bob swore, identical to the RCA building, Bob stopped. He just stopped. He had never in his entire life been at a loss for words, but he just stared at his client, a weasel in Ferragamos, and couldn’t remember why he was talking to the man or what he was talking about.
Naturally, the client assumed that he was experiencing a dramatic pause. After all, Bob the Architect had a reputation as a showman. His presentations were theater. He was just allowing anticipation to build between the mullions and the crenellations.
But after three long, exceptionally tense minutes Bob, who had suddenly abandoned his entire non-verbal repertoire — the eye-contact deployed like a weapon, the four different highly practiced types of smile, the hands that were as expressive as a hula dancers — stood up stiffly, and said, “I have to go home now.”
He packed an overnight bag with nothing more than some beach gear, a tooth brush and the copy of Moby Dick that he had been 16 pages into for nearly a decade, and returned to Happiness. He moved into an apartment on Main Street in a building that was identical to the one his father owned, that Bob grew up in, but for the fact that the ground floor business was not plumbing supplies. Instead it was a store that sold rainbow colored kites and scented soaps.
Bob was home. He stopped practicing architecture. He spent his days painting water colors, reading Melville; by the time we became friends, he’d moved on to Typee. And meeting me for Happiness Hour at the bar. We became drinking buddies. But there was more to it than that. Specifically we met so Bob could tell me how badly I was doing my job. He wanted me to be his enforcer.
See, I’m the Style Cop. I patrol the sunny streets of Happiness, Florida, citing violators of the homeowners’ covenant. I keep a lookout for siding painted anything besides the four approved shades of white. I check gardens for unauthorized flowers. That’s my kind of police work. That’s what I do. But sometimes, I think homeowners let blue hydrangea grow where pink flowers are specified in the plans because they just don’t know.
“I don’t think they mean to screw up your plans,” I’m telling Bob. “I think they just make innocent mistakes.”
“Lucy,” he says, “There’s no such thing as innocence.”
I wrote at some length about Happiness, having never been to Celebration until I went there on a New Urbanism roadtrip for Travel + Leisure magazine in late 2005. The town itself was a disappointment, surely not Disney’s most convincing bit of magic. Not long before my arrival, Disney had sold the entire downtown –the Teddy Bear shop, the Denny’s disguised as a small town diner, etc. — to a firm called Lexin Capital. Basically, if you can sell the entire business district as a unit, it can’t be a real town.
As for the recent events in Celebration, Bob the Architect knows whereof he speaks.