Four Stationary Walls
Four Stationary Walls
I’ve nailed down my worst fear in the last few years. It’s being that lady pushing the shopping cart with all of her stuff.
Let’s face it, it’s difficult to live out east, but it didn’t used to be this difficult for year-rounders in The Hamptons, not only having to find places we can afford to live, but to find places at all. It turns out there aren’t any.
In my late forties a shopping bag lady started haunting me. Life hadn’t worked out for me the way I thought it had for others. My solution in 2010 was to go big — run off to Europe in search of an affordable and artistic life. I was in a financial crisis, but also a soul-crisis only wandering could relieve.
One day in Berlin I saw my specter on the street, slim with long silver hair, ghostly silent, pushing a small red grocery cart. She wasn’t much older than I was, which was chilling, and really scaled down from the New York bag ladies, probably a risk-taker like me who hadn’t managed some sharp turns. “There but for the grace of God…” I crossed the street because her eyes were dead.
She wandered to Georgia with me, where I recognized her in church soup lines. I hadn’t been able to find real employment in almost a year until a friend offered me work in New York, packing, painting, organizing her move into a new apartment. One day she found a shopping cart and brought it up in the elevator. I stared at it — an omen. Would I mind taking loose ends to her new apartment, only four or five trips, five or six blocks?
Down on the sidewalk I discovered its frozen wheel. In my mind I was quadruply conspicuous, especially at curbs. I stopped on a bench for a meltdown on my first try. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t tell my friend — how would she ever understand being a minute away from the reality of this? I couldn’t push her stuff in a shopping cart because I felt so close to my specter, and I couldn’t tempt fate by impersonating her!
By 2012 I was back in the Hamptons, and she was right behind every move I made, a fifty-four year old living in rented rooms, haunted by student loans, posessions in storage, all because of the risks I had taken — I was falling through the cracks.
It’s only now that I understand, with all my education and nerve I am not middle class like my parents were. I am surviving. They were able to thrive. It was my fault, but also the amped-up, hyper-capitalist system I was attempting to live in.
I’d spent twenty-three years without a raise! Twenty-five dollars an hour is hard to come by in The Hamptons today, but I made that in 1994 — imagine the juggling, the things that fall by the wayside, like health and dental care, housing, food, self esteem.
It’s not just me who is barely above water. Ooodles of new nomads, specifically women, are living on the South Fork without earning partners, saddled with education debt, struggling with our careers and housing, keeping up a false front, falling $100,000 dollars short of our “middle-class” peers. It’s truly exhausting.
The women I know feel shame for falling through the cracks, and want to remain anonymous. The first fellow nomad I spoke with sidestepped her fears by embracing them. An adorable and vivacious blonde in her late 30s, with three degrees, an infectious laugh, and a fierce determination to stay out of the cracks; she and I share a love of swimming in the bays, although I haven’t tried swimming naked under a full moon yet.
I pay her a visit in her 1992 Gulfstream camper, Homer, that she bought in an Ebay bidding war. He’s parked clandestinely in the driveway of her winter housesitting gig until he’s mobile. Her road-cat meows from its luxury spread in the alcove above the driver’s seat when we open the door. She explains her shower/aquaponics experiment, solar panels and human-ure composting toilet that will allow her to park off the grid. Behind her bedroom door is her rack of high heels. “Just because you’re living Tiny doesn’t mean you can’t live fabulous!” she declares.
As a military kid she grew up moving. She’s only recently realized she needs to stay put to get the things she wants. Ironically her way of staying in The Hamptons is through mobility. “I don’t mind living in four stationary walls, but I really have no other choice!” It’s impossible not to join her thunderous laugh.
“People are scared to death of the East Hampton Town code. I don’t know whether they cut your arms off, or lock you in jail, or tattoo ‘sinner’ on your forehead…I don’t know what they do to you if you violate it, but it’s serious.” If she reveals her identity and location, everybody will want a cool spot for their campers. “Everybody…” she whispers, “everybody would want it.”
When the ice sets in and work dries up she’ll take Homer down South, an ingenious solution for surviving a Hamptons winter. “This is the new American dream — everybody’s doing it! I’m living the dream! I’m 39 and I’m Snowbirding!” Her joy is exhilerating, surprising — she isn’t falling through the cracks in the way I expected.
She reminds me “One false move though, and I will slide right down! I have one foot on each side of the crack!”
Another lovely, smart, and funny woman opens up when I finally get her to talk. Last summer she slept on an air mattress in her living room to accomodate her landlady and save some money, but after fifteen years years of renting out here, a friend and broker just told her, “There’s no year-round housing in your budget out here — period.”
“I just want to set up a house! I will live in a thirty-by-twelve-foot box! I just want to be able to paint the walls and know that I’m not going to be displaced, that my landlord can’t come and raise the rent a thousand dollars a month!”
She laughs. “Poor little girl, whining in The Hamptons!” She’s embarrassed to complain, as we all are, because she knows immigrants are having an even harder time. “I have a friend who hasn’t seen his family in ten years. I really don’t want to be whining. I’ve made the choice to be here, and there are sacrifices.”
In this multi-layered narrative most are ambivalent, even those in the real estate business. Every bit of property has been bought up as an investment, and we can’t go any further east or we’ll be in the ocean. She reminds me this is an old lament. “This is what the local fishermen’s children said twenty years ago. Now it’s my turn to be displaced. I will probably have to leave and go displace farmer’s children on the North Fork!”
The most surprising woman I met out here, an artist and clothing designer, is probably in her early 60s. The first time we sat down she talked vivaciously about her life’s twists and turns with a lovely, clear detachment. She also confessed that she had taken a cleaning job, and lived in her car out here in order to be near her grandson.
I had finally met somebody who was living my worst fear. What she said was astonishing and blew a fresh wind through me. Living in her car was the greatest freedom she’s ever experienced — not owing anyone anything, or putting up with anyone, suddenly not involved in human transactions.
When her name came up for apartments at the local church she was terrified — how would she manage again within four stationary walls? By never really moving in, having no real furniture and sleeping on a mat under the window so that she can be close to the sky, the air, and the rain. That way she doesn’t have to hear the low mumur of all the TVs that surround her. That’s the thing she finds most absolutely terrifying.
Nothing ever seems to turn out the way you imagined, not poverty, being a writer, ageing, or being a breath close to homelessness. We are so defined by our worst fears, often without even knowing it.
I no longer live in a rented room, or act out my age-old pattern of not having somewhere to be. Necessity is the mother of change. I might never have moved forward unless I stayed put and turned to face myself. I might have ended up that ghost pushing the shopping cart.