Gimme shelter 

One woman’s odyssey in Missoula

They administered career tests in school, and my results were always the same: Molly, you're a withdrawn, intuitive feeler. You're not suited for any job. They said I should do arts and crafts—which, okay, I may have been a child, but I knew that wasn't a real job. I’ve known people who strive to find their purposes, who settle on dentistry or accounting because they’re fine trades. Barring a brief period in kindergarten where I waffled between rock star and dinosaur bone digger, I always knew I'd be a teacher and a writer.

It's winter semester 2012 and I’m teaching a freshman composition course at a community college in the suburbs of Detroit, where I grew up. The last time I spent any time on this campus was 10 years before, when I was made to scrub gum off the bottoms of desks as a condition of my probation for underage drinking. Now I’m standing in front of a white board showing a bunch of 18-year-olds where the commas go. It’s my dream come true. But did you know that most dreams are actually unpleasant? You’re always being chased, or you’ve lost an important key or you’ve said a dumb thing to a room full of strangers and they’re all laughing at you.

The semester is almost over. We’re starting the last big research paper, and I’m projecting as much enthusiasm as I can muster. “You can write about anything you want,” I tell them. “Anything at all that interests you.”

I tell them that school writing is the same as any kind of writing, that it’s about engaging the reader with a good story. Twenty smooth faces stare back at me. They don’t read books. They’ve never heard of David Foster Wallace or Joy Williams. They’ve never even seen Pulp Fiction. They’re having a hard time picking a research project because these kids aren’t interested in anything. They want to know if spelling counts. They’re interested in pointing at the word “tense” that I wrote in red ink on the margins of their paper and asking how much they’ll be marked down for it.

After an hour, most of the class has nailed down a topic: Coral reefs, FoxConn, a paleolithic diet, video game violence, diet pills. But there’s one girl in the back of the class whose name I can never remember because she never speaks, who can’t think of anything to write about.

“Can you think of some topics you’ve been learning about in your other classes that might interest you?” I ask her.

“Not really,” she says.

“What do you plan on majoring in?”

“Human resources,” she says.

I literally don’t know what that is.

“I don’t know what that is. Come on. There must be something. What do you like to do outside of school for fun?”

“Sleep?” she says.

I know it’s illegal to shake a baby, definitely, but what about a young adult?

Eventually, she reveals an interest in reality television and we settle on something to do with a changing media or whatever. The experience rattles me. It starts to seem like their skulls are filled with fireflies, that the next generation is a sleepwalking army of gamers and TV babies. I don’t care about where they put their damn commas. I just want them to want to know things.

These kids come to community college straight out of high school because everybody tells them they’ll never get a job without a college degree. It’s a four- to five-year plan so scary you’d think Stephen King wrote it. Spend $40,000 and the prize at the end of the line is a job, maybe?

Higher education feels like a lie.

Teachers make expensive promises the world can’t deliver because we’ve got student loans of our own to pay. As an adjunct instructor teaching two sections of composition for a semester, I make about $3,500. After the money spent on gas to commute to campus, food, clothes and movies to make the pain go away, by the end of April I have about $1,500. Take into account my student loans, in a perpetual state of deferral, slowly accruing interest like an abominable snowman rolling down the mountain to crush me, and I’m worth negative many thousands of dollars.

But that’s okay. I’m not interested in money. I just want to go to the woods and live deliberately. I want to stand in a field of rye and catch children. Barring all that, all I can think is, how can I get back out West, to Montana? And once I’m there, how long can I get away without working?

“I’ve had it,” I tell my mother. “The day after the semester ends I’m going back to Missoula for the summer, and then who knows!”

She doesn’t understand. She wants to know where I’ll live. My car is on its last legs, she reminds me. How will I get around? What will I do for money?

“I don’t know, but I have friends with couches,” I tell her. “I’ll watch people’s dogs when they’re away. I’ll read tarot on the street. I’ll get a bike and ride the bus.” As for money, there’s the savings, but savings get spent. “The money part is a little iffy,” I admit.

It’s not true that I don’t want to work. Or, it depends on your definition of work. I want to make my living as a writer, which is an audacious notion at any time, but particularly now, with book sales down and print journalism gasping. I just want to finish my novel and write articles and get an agent and a dog. When you’re a kid, they say you can be anything you want to be. It’s not a lie per se, but then again, we can’t all be astronauts. If everyone were a ballerina, they wouldn’t be special, either. They’d litter the streets like crows in dirty tutus, begging for change. At some point, you’re supposed to give up and get a real job—but when? And what?

There’s the work of building and moving things with your hands. My father started doing maintenance for a rich school district in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., when he was 19, before my parents were married. He put in his 30 years and retired at age 50. He worked with machines because he could leave his job at the door, freeing up the rest of the week to party. These days, he loves smoking weed and traveling the country in a VW bus with my stepmother. He plays bass in a cover band called Ruff Edgez.

My mother started out as a secretary and worked her way up to an important job in intellectual property law. She works long hours in a beautiful building surrounded by woods, on a street called Corporate Drive. When I’m living at home, I’m like a dog. At night I hear the garage door open and I brace myself for her slow, sad trudge through the breezeway. Always it is this way: She sets her parcels on the table and sighs. The sigh is terrible, not just for its content but its bleak predictability. Every night it’s a shank in my belly, a voice that whispers: “Here’s what life looks like when you make all the wrong choices.”

I don’t want to be a patent paralegal or a custodian—although I did work a few summers in my dad’s school district on the summer cleaning crew. How’s this for a humble brag: Remember Cranbrook, the school where Mitt Romney held a kid down, cut his hair off and never once felt bad about it? In the summer of 1998, I applied hot wax to Cranbrook’s gymnasium.

In 2008, I went on the market with a bachelor’s degree in English and Psychology. The Detroit Lions lost every game that year. GM went under. The banks failed. It took me six months to find a job, writing ad copy for an online sporting goods retailer. “You’ll love these skis!” I’d write. “These skis will make you so fast and good.” I made $9 an hour, and by the end I started to unravel. I remember a description for a $200 child’s ski jacket. I wrote: “You should probably buy your kid this ski jacket, or else something really bad is going to happen.” It only took a year of office work for me to arrive at a fundamental truth. Working hard in order to make a living doing what you love isn’t just important: It’s the most important thing.

A voice inside me says I should go to the REI in Troy, Mich., and spend all $500 of the birthday money my mom gave me on backpacking equipment. “How much for a hiking backpack, a sleeping bag and a tent?” I ask.

The floor salesman tells me he can get me into a pack, gladly. The people at REI are always trying to get you into a pack. Also, goose down sleeping bags.

“What’s the vegan position on goose down?” I ask. “Oh, they’re against it,” he says, so I go with synthetic.

There are all these questions:

“What kind of a trip are you planning on taking?”

“I don’t know.”

“How long will you be out?”

“I don’t know.”

“For your tent, are you looking to sleep one or two people?”

I tell him I’m planning for a moment in my future that I’ve seen in my dreams, when I won’t have a home. Luckily, he thinks I’m kidding and we’re spared the heaviness.

The night before I set out to leave Michigan forever, I have a breakdown. I have a few couches in Missoula to sleep on, but the housing situation is tentative at best. There’s the money I saved. Still, it will never be enough. I got blonde highlights in April, but who will love me in June when my roots start showing? Every morning I spit blood in the sink from my gums. It’s troubling. What if I fall off a mountain or get my foot caught in a trap?

My mother’s been crying nonstop in the weeks leading up to my departure. We were born 30 years apart, in April. She just turned 60. A week later, on my 30th birthday, we look at the photo album of my home birth and weep. I am my mother’s third and youngest child. In the photos she looks happy and beautiful. My father hovers over her with a thin mustache and curly hair, poised to cut the cord. I cry for my mother’s red hair and everything that came after. I’m leaving her alone with three cats and that job. Fold the moment in half and in another 30 years I could be standing where she is.

First, I fly to Boston so my brother can draw a baby elephant on my shoulder. The tattoo doesn’t mean much, or it means that I love my brother and I’m proud of how good he is at putting ink on skin. I’m proud that he’s my idea of rich, because we were once poor together. He used to paint trains and everybody hated him for it. Today, my big brother owns a horse and a motorcycle.

In Boston, I go to an open-mic night at the Cantab Lounge, where I read a poem about unrequited love:

“No one ever talks about the second world, but it exists, like plate tectonics exist: It’s called Detroit. Imagine we’re standing there the moment the city splits in half. It’s not your fault, but you’re the reason. I want to know you.”

The river I left running through Missoula is exactly as I remember it. For the first month, life is a clumsy commute between living rooms. My friend Karin, from my days in the UM English department, lets me stay in her family’s basement for a week. She tells me that she was homeless too once. She has a gift for making me feel like less of a jerk. I do a few nights on Emily and Emma’s couch, then a night at Zoey’s, then Mackenzie and Carl’s, repeat. I try to space it out so they don’t get sick of me.

My friend Alice drives me from place to place in her pink Oldsmobile. For stretches of the summer she’s moving me every couple of days. We talk about our writing and our shared, singular obsession with finding a true love who we believe will make us whole. We wish we could pay for rent and breakfast with back rubs, but we can’t. I’m writing every day, and sometimes I even get paid for it, but still, I’m spending more than I’m taking in. My bank account suffers a slow drain.

Nestled in the South Hills are two women who say I can live in their house for free in July and August in exchange for watching their dog. It’s a disproportionate exchange and they seem to know it. In the interview I try very hard to be friendly and normal. The dog is part cocker spaniel, part poodle, and it’s the weirdest thing. Usually when I pet an animal, my heart bursts. When I touch their dog, I don’t feel anything. I give them a million references and they call all of them before offering me the gig, but I can’t shake the feeling that these women don’t trust me. As in just about every job opportunity I have with anyone in Missoula, the paranoid thought occurs: How much do they know? I wonder if they’ve read that essay about my enthusiastic drug use, the one that ends with me not learning any lessons. So the email they send a week later, telling me they’ve changed their mind and given the job to someone else, doesn’t come as a surprise so much as a confirmation of my fears of what grown-ups think of me.

There’s a house on Missoula’s south side filled with radicals and secrets. A beautiful, frightening girl with strong arms and a septum piercing says I can rent the laundry room for $100 a month, under the condition that I never write about the house. It stings, but I agree.

The place is a haven for punks, DIY bands on tour, anarchists and travelers. Besides the three bedrooms inside, people sleep on couches, in the garage or in a cargo net suspended from the front porch. They’ve got two cats and a rambunctious puppy. Police are not welcome. Property is bullshit. They don’t write their names on food in the refrigerator. I’m told it’s been this way for years.

I arrive at the house for the first time at night. The yard is littered with beer cans and bicycle parts. There’s a wheelchair tipped on its side, because fucking anarchy, and a naked Ken doll hangs from a noose off the porch.

Some kids have just returned from dumpster diving. I find them sifting through a pile of packaged goods, mostly loaves of bread and candy.

“Do you want some candy?” one asks me.

I’m afraid of the candy and decline.

“Is it because you’re vegan?”

I lie and say, “Yes.”

The pierced girl takes me to the basement and opens the door to the laundry room. There’s a rusted sink filled with mouse poop, but no washer or dryer. Every ounce of floor space is occupied by a single mattress. “Is this it?” I say in a meek, pitiful voice, and straight away I’d give anything to shove the comment back inside of me.

“It’s a room,” she says, shrugging. And really, what was I expecting for three dollars a night? The room is exactly what I need and nothing more. Who cares that I’m way too old to be living with a bunch of 21-year-old punks? Anything’s better than getting a job.

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.

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