“I’m starting to really hate the cold,” my wife said, and not for the first time. The sort of thing Midwesterners say after spring dangles a couple of delightful days in our field of vision — 60, 65, even 70 degrees — then rudely slaps us across the face with a wet sock of miserable, damp, penetratingly cold days. It was 21 degrees Sunday morning.
“Me too,” I mumbled.
COVID-19 seems to have unmoored everyone, in more ways than one. Time expands and contracts like clocks in a Dali painting. Civility crumbles. Reason becomes a bruising dash through our neighbors’ gantlet of speculation, conspiracy theory and outright hallucination.
We’re battered, tired, viewing the latest news through latticed fingers. We’ve also become unrooted, many of us. Americans are on the move, fleeing the frost, looking for some warm rock to hide under. A United States Census Bureau report released last week shows nine of the top 10 fastest-growing U.S. counties are in Arizona, Texas and Florida, where four of the top 10 fastest-growing metro areas are located.
Yet, like everything else, it’s a blurred picture. Cities in all climates are losing people — Los Angeles County topped the list of dwindling metro areas in raw numbers, with a 184,465 resident drop from July 2020 to July 2021. (The population of New York County fell by an astounding 6.9% in one year.) The Chicago metro area is down 106,897 people; the Census Bureau describes the metro area as “Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI” (and readers give me grief for living in Northbrook; from a demographic perspective, I’m practically sharing a $10-a-month apartment on Wabansia with Nelson Algren).
Though if you are looking for something positive, Cook County remains the second-largest U.S. county, with 5.1 million residents, behind only Los Angeles County. (Both benefit from a historical quirk — the five boroughs of New York City are five separate counties).
Population is dwindling everywhere — nearly three-quarters of U.S. counties, 73%, are in decline. “Natural decrease occurs when there are more deaths than births in a population over a given time period,” the Census Bureau points out. “In 2021, fewer births, and aging population and increased mortality — intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic — contributed to a rise in natural decrease.”
While waiting for that mortality to arrive, if you can work from anywhere, why not someplace warm? A couple down the block relocated to Florida in November. He’s a lawyer. Nobody cares whether his brief is filed from Northbrook or North Miami.
For the first time, I squinted and tried to imagine what retirement to Florida might be like. Not one of those sprawling senior golf-and-cocktails utopias — The Villages, Latitude Margaritaville. I don’t golf, don’t drink, and didn’t like frat parties when I was in college. I don’t intend to go live in one.
No, it would have to be some coastal spot, maybe Longboat Key. The setting sun a blazing red rivet over the Gulf of Mexico. Head down, hands jammed in pockets, sloshing along the debris-strewn surf in my raggy cargo shorts, stealing a glance at Bob Greene off in the distance, sweeping his metal detector over the wet sand …
Never. I haven’t even visited Florida in … over a dozen years. A former colleague told me last week she’s moving there — went down for a wedding, the heat seemed better for her various ailments, and now she’s gung-ho for the salubrious Southland.
“You know the place is filled with Floridians,” I cautioned, thinking of the Florida Man trope. You know, the internet meme where a Sunshine State Everyman is immortalized after meeting some downmarket doom: crushed by a bulldozer while using a port-a-potty, or dying when his car collides with an 11-foot-long alligator, or after competing in a roach-eating contest.
We can’t move to Florida. I planted a dozen trees in my yard last fall. I’m emotionally invested in seeing those trees grow. We also just put in a new bathroom. Almost. The contractor inches toward completion in classic Zeno’s Paradox fashion, where every day halves the distance to the never-quite-attained finish line. Plus, I have this column-writing habit I haven’t managed to quit, and my boss would not be happy with too many Longboat Key datelines.
Besides, warm weather is coming to Chicago. It is it is it is. It will be here, soon. I promise. By mid-April, surely. OK, May, at the very latest. Mid-May, anyway. I am almost certain of that.