I noticed that everybody at the event was approachable. No pretense, no aloofness, the default setting of all Brooklynites.
“Fitting,” I thought.
When I was growing up in Sarasota, a mall was one of the few spaces available for young people to hang out without parental supervision. But this meeting was a far cry from the aimless wandering and clumsy flirting of my youth. Instead, this was billed as a gathering for the up-and-coming, ambitious 21-to-40-somethings of the Sarasota-Bradenton area where, according to the event description, “You’re guaranteed to make new friends, secure new clients, and learn more about what Sarasota has to offer.”
What’s more, it was at the upscale Brio Tuscan Grille, the large Italian restaurant at the new mall, and it served constantly replenished bowls of shrimp cocktails and fresh fruit. Most importantly, you could order alcohol. Back in the day, it was Jamba Juice and Auntie Anne’s twisted butter sticks that masqueraded as pretzels.
So far, I’ve spent my adult years trying to get away from Sarasota. I’m 27 now, and my home base is Brooklyn, where I’ve been trying to carve out a life as a writer. My latest project is a book about spending six months last year traveling to different countries to play pick-up basketball, and I thought finding a cheaper—and quieter—place (like Sarasota) to live while I work on it might be good. But wherever I live, I’d like to connect with other young writers and creative spirits. Maybe the YPG could help me make some of those connections. I headed out the door, determined to answer a question I’ve been wondering about for the last 10 years: Can young people stay in Sarasota and find good jobs and a satisfying social life? Or more specifically, can a young person like me?
He insisted that he was never leaving Sarasota. “It’s trending; young people are coming here.”
I pulled into the mall’s parking lot and walked into the western entrance of Dillard’s. Passing through its well-lit aisles I spotted the cologne kiosks and their free samples. I located the most sophisticated-looking bottle, a glossy, black $80 flask of Hugo Boss Boss Bottled Night, and gave myself a little spritz. Liquid confidence.
At the entrance to the outdoor area, I was given a nametag sticker where I was to write my name and company. I wrote: Isaac Eger, TBD. The place was packed with some 60 attendees and the waiters had to politely tap everyone on the shoulders to make way. The median age of the group was much younger than I expected—around 25. But they were well dressed: pale, starched shirts, polished dress shoes, chic dresses. Everyone looked effortlessly tidy, like they were attending the birthday party of a wealthy relative. I was the obvious interloper. I am thickly bearded with a head beset by an unruly mess of curls. I wore a checkered, short-sleeve shirt, blue jeans and beat-up red Vans. Without a doubt, the most underdressed. I wondered if the cologne was for naught. In the midst of this fashion faux pas I made a B-line to the bar and ordered a beer. Very professional, Isaac.
I quickly met Lee Dickson, 26, the regional account executive for LexJet, a national printing service with an office on Main Street. We spoke briefly about his company, but I was more interested in why people my age were living in Sarasota. When I found out Dickson was born and raised in the area, I asked, “Didn’t you ever try and escape?”
“I drank the Kool-Aid early,” Dickson said. “Plus, Sarasota is beautiful.”
I can’t argue with that. Sarasota is beautiful, filled with greens and blues and fiery sunsets. New York, especially in March, is an oppressively hard gray.
Dickson has traveled a bit. “I went to USF, backpacked through Europe and the Grand Canyon,” he said. Now he’s settled here. He was just married last October. Still, he agrees that there isn’t much to do and that the older residents are inclined to slap noise ordinances on youth night life. But he also points out there are burgeoning breweries like JDub’s in the area, and St. Pete and Tampa are a quick drive north.
I noticed that everybody at the event was approachable. No pretense, no aloofness, the default setting of all Brooklynites. As soon as my conversation with Dickson ended, another began, with Brandon Johnson, a 33-year-old industrial programmer. I asked him the same question.
“Why leave Florida?” Johnson asked. He insisted that he was never leaving Sarasota. “It’s trending; young people are coming here.”
After driving around Sarasota among all the Cadillacs filled with gray-haired drivers and sitting in restaurants where everyone looked like my grandparents, I hadn’t reached that conclusion; but I decided I’d take his word for it.
Johnson said he was at the YPG because he was bored and single. “When I’m in a relationship, I’ve got stuff to do, places to be,” he said. Johnson overheard another patron who was introducing himself as a chef specializing in Japanese and French cuisine, and his attention waned.
“Dude,” Johnson said, “Do you know The Iron Chef? I watched that show all the time in college.”
“Yeah, that’s a good show,” Shane Noro, 34, responded.
A quick bond formed in front of me. I had to angle myself between them so that I could be included in the conversation.
It was Noro’s first YPG. He is opening a restaurant, Kiyoshi’s, in town later this year. He was also born and raised in the area, but left and lived in places like New York City, Los Angeles and Toronto.
“As soon as you leave, you see how clean and carefully thought out Sarasota is,” Noro said. He didn’t like how cities like Los Angeles were so spread out. “You can’t survive without a car,” he said. Ultimately, family brought him back. I couldn’t fault him for that—it’s the same reason I find myself here every year for a month or so—that, and to escape the cold, which turned out to be a common refrain among the group.
Marissa Rossnagle, 26, was delighted to be here rather than in her hometown in Connecticut. “What’s happening back in Connecticut is nothing new and exciting. All my friends back home do the same things. Plus, they’re all bundled up in the cold,” she said.
Stephanie Turconi, 27, and Salvatore de Tommaso, 25, moved to Sarasota from Italy this past September. They both work for Your Trainers Group, a training program that offers a “course in experiential personal growth.”
They have locations in Milan, Lugano, Barcelona, and now, Sarasota. I asked de Tommaso what he thought of Sarasota so far.
“Love it,” he said, as he held two thumbs up.
“What about all the old people?” I asked.
“Yes, the people are older,” de Tommaso responded. “But they are so filled with life. They want to learn, they want to participate. This is not like in Italy. Here, they are full of party.”
“What about Italy?”
“Yes, I will miss my friends and family. But your country is where you feel at home.” De Tommaso smiled. “I feel at home here.”
People were making plans with each other for the coming days. Chelsea Hall, 24, a marketing director from Lansing, Mich., had a beach date with the Italians.
They were all so happy to be here. But when I return to Sarasota I feel like a baby bird that won’t leave the nest when there’s a great big world out there to explore. Then it hit me. For the Italians and others I met, Sarasota is the place they left their nest to explore. They’re following their dreams here.
But that didn’t convince me that Sarasota is a place for young artists or restless bohemians. Most of the YPGers I met were married, rooted and knew where they were headed and how they planned to get there. I’m impatient, skeptical and still figuring it out. I’m not ready to shave my beard, put on uncomfortable shoes and give up my wanderlust. I guess I do belong in Brooklyn, at least for now.
After I left the meeting, I wandered through the mall. I found the requisite Auntie Anne’s and bought a pretzel and whispered to myself, for old time’s sake. ■