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I lost my wallet in a movie theater at the beginning of the summer. If not for my passport, I would barely exist. Here’s what it’s like to live in America with no car, no driver’s license, no home address and no job: It’s uncomfortable. It’s better to just have all of those things.
In a gift economy, we work for the sake of work and we gain status the more we’re able to give away. I use Facebook to take the gift economy out for a spin. My status updates become a list of demands. I try to couch them in charming rhetoric, but I’m just a beggar: I need a yoga mat. I need a bike. I need a ride to and from the drop-off point to go tubing. I need a ride to the movies to see a terrible movie so I can write a review for the paper.
People are happy to help when they can, and I begin to think of myself as a good person for affording my friends the opportunity to be so generous. I have nothing to offer in return but my company. I can workshop your poem? I can write you a news article? I can wait here with the tubes while the car you put gas into powers you back to the drop-off point?
The buses of Missoula are good, clean machines that don’t run past 7 p.m. or at all on Sunday. It’s easy to become smug about your carbon footprint when you’re too broke to keep a car. By midsummer, my blisters have callused and my feet are made of leather. I’m Irish-German and I’ve got a weird tan. Street kids seem to take on a dusky look from top to bottom. I think I’m starting to look like them.
I’ve got blonde hair and black roots and the people of Missoula are falling over themselves to give me bicycles. A guy on Facebook is eager to loan me the bike he flipped over and broke both his legs on. His cursed bicycle is the best I’ve ever ridden. We’re both very tall, and it’s a gift to fall into a road bike with a milk-crate basket and custom-built BMX handlebars.
But then his legs heal and he wants his bike back. My friends and I make a lot of jokes about breaking his legs again, ha ha. I return the bike with two new tires, but I busted up the helmet and burned out the headlight. I think it’s an equitable trade-off, but he’s sore. The gift economy is not always precise.
Another friend of mine volunteers at Free Cycles, where in exchange for labor you can build your own bike out of recycled parts. I meet my friend in the warehouse after hours. We renovate a black bicycle with gold rims. He makes me turn my own wrench. For a few brief moments, I’m doing actual work. We change out the pedals and the tires and save the brakes for another day. The men are happy to get me into a bike. All they want in exchange is me.
Life would be easier with a partner, but I’ve found that I’m not capable of maintaining intimate relationships. I don’t like men who build me bicycles, and it’s a shame, because I’m starving for love. I wish I could pay for everything in kisses, but I have impossible tastes. Like cats who always sniff out the one cat-hating person in the room, I only want to crawl into laps that won’t have me.
There’s a woman who lives at the punk house, and she’s sweeping the porch and crying. “I just feel like some of the people here are more interested in cheap rent than actually living in an anarchist collective,” she says.
I assume she’s talking about me, since this describes my position exactly. Later we have a house meeting, and it turns out hers are just ordinary roommate concerns having to do with keeping the house clean. In a house that eschews money and patriarchy, figuring out whose turn it is to clean the bathroom or buy toilet paper presents challenges.
The girl with the septum piercing throws up her hands and says, “Why are we having this meeting? People should just clean whenever they feel like it.”
It’s made clear that while I live at the house and pay rent, I’m not actually one of them. In normal company, my tattoos scare old people, but among these kids, having arms full of cute birds, baby animals and pink flowers makes me feel spoiled and ridiculous. They’re all totally metal, and here I am shut up in my room in a flowing skirt playing a droll rendition of “Hungry Like the Wolf” on my acoustic guitar over and over.
I’m not sure what it means to be a practicing anarchist in 2012. If anarchy is about rejecting capitalism, religion, popular media and other profit-driven institutions that enslave us, I’m on board. But there’s a belligerent subversiveness that I’m not as sure about. I’m not willing to walk into a restaurant whose business practices I disagree with and shit in their sink, for example.
The kids I live with are not like ordinary people. They don’t spend money on anything if they don’t have to. They’re scavengers. They’ll circle around and around a grocery story sampling the free coffee until their caffeine needs are met. There seems to be an unspoken ban on politeness that I find enormously refreshing. You know where you stand. Most people act out of social obligation and then build up resentments. At the punk house, a stranger will give you his last cigarette like it’s nothing. My roommates go to bed whenever they feel like it, and then they get up with the sun and read books.
The animals, the strangers coming in and out, the loud music, the beer cans everywhere, a bottle of ketchup spilled on the counter and tipped on its side—I find it comforting. It reminds me of my childhood.
To be clear: I don’t know anything about real want. If I run out of money, I can call my mother and she’ll deposit double whatever I ask for into my bank account. She still pays my cellphone bill, based on the shared lie that she needs to in order to keep in contact with me, like if I didn’t use my iPhone to call my mother I would have no need for such a device. She tells me that 30 is the new 19. She refers to this time in my life as an “adventure,” which I consider only a little condescending.
I apply for food stamps and they arrive in my post office box a week later. On the application, you can either put down a home address or just describe where you live. You’re supposed to feel bad about buying junk food with food stamps, but it’s the decadent salads and green smoothies I purchase every day at Good Food Store that rack me with guilt. Like, people on welfare don’t deserve to get a jump-start on the day? Before too long it flips and I start thinking, “Why can’t I pay my late fees at Hastings with my food stamps? This is bullshit.”
The summer is winding down. I’ve spent my days camping in the woods, in and out of coffee shops writing, studying birds and floating down the river. It feels like I’m getting away with something.
I try to use the food stamps to buy food for my friends with jobs, but it makes them uncomfortable. They don’t want my government handout. The worst thing about being broke all the time is that you have less to share with the people you love. In the gift economy, I’m sick of having nothing to give back but my wit.
The punk house landlord says he wants to sell the place and we all need to be out by September. The gutter punks are sad. A kid with a Mohawk tells me I should write something in the paper about what’s being done. I tell him that I specifically agreed to never write about the house as a term of my staying there.
“But now it’s a story,” he argues.
In their fervor, the kids talk about staging a coup of some kind. I’m having a hard time pinpointing the injustice other than the vague principle that no one should be allowed to own anything, and then I feel like a total narc for thinking that. The idea of a coup loses steam. The kids go looking for new apartments, just like anyone would.
Earlier in the summer, my friends and I were in and out of a lot of bars and somewhere along the way I lost my backpack with my laptop inside. I retraced my steps and nobody had it. Things were looking grim. I mourned for the 37,000 words of my unfinished novel trapped inside the computer.
“I didn’t like that novel anyway,” I told my friend John.
“Isn’t the computer worth more?” he asked.
Turns out my backpack was tucked behind the bar at Charlie B’s, but it’s a defining question of the summer: Which is worth more?
And what’s with this fantasy world of cheap rent and no rules? I need to get a job and an apartment already.
I spend the first half of every afternoon on Craigslist, and what a grim place that is. None of the jobs look good. I go look at a lot of apartments, but people on Craigslist are strangers and this time of year everybody wants to live near the university with other students. With my paychecks from the Independent, plus the $9 left of my savings, I figure I’ll be just short of enough money to put down a deposit on a new place.
I spent July working on an article about crows for the pure joy of the pursuit and also, for the money. For weeks, all I could talk about were birds. Floating down the river, I was the best at spotting the animals. I cut birds out of a book and put them up on the wall in the laundry room.
It’s time to take those bird pictures off the wall. The girl who signed the lease wants me out of the house now. Turns out they were more serious about “Don’t write about us” than I thought. Things have a way of stacking up: The punks want me out on Thursday because of a story I need to get to my editor by Monday morning. I’ve got two crumpled-up tens and a handful of singles. One of the tens is the old-fashioned kind and I’m superstitious about spending it. I don’t know where I’m going to sleep or put my stuff. It’s a serious situation, definitely.
My possessions have multiplied since when I first got back in May. My mother sent my guitar in the mail, along with a suitcase full of hoodies in the dead of summer for some inexplicable reason. People keep giving me books. I forgot to put the crow’s foot Mackenzie gave me in rock salt, so it will probably break apart in my backpack, but it doesn’t matter. These are just things.
I keep trying to stir myself into a panic, but I’m having too much fun. I wake up whenever I want and ride my bike across town to drink so much coffee. The romantic foibles keep coming. I love my friends, and they love me. We float down the river and talk about writing. There are so many dogs. It’s hard to worry about money as it becomes increasingly useless at giving me what I need.
I go to a poetry reading on a slab in the middle of a field behind the bike trail. There’s a poet I’ve never met, with a one-hitter and a beard. He tells me he’s been following my writing and he thinks it’s bullshit, and my first thought is, “I wonder what it would be like to kiss him.”
A kid I met on the Westside while apartment hunting says I can pitch my tent in his backyard until I find another place. Ours is a friendship built on a single conversation about Russian Literature. We’re taking a chance on one another. But anybody who really loves Gogol’s “The Nose” is probably on the level, right? His yard is filled with long, white grass. It’s been warm most nights. I’m thinking everything will be perfect, as long as September never comes.