My kid the… squatter?

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine by Jake Halpern, The Freegan Establishment fascinated me from a parenting perspective.

It is about several people, who seem at first glance as lost souls, who have squatted in homes and worked to create an alternative approach to living—eschewing money, yet working diligently to fix up a crumbling and abandoned mansion while dumpster diving to secure food.

The squatters open the house to residents who contribute, and to drifters who are welcome for a day or two, but who must apply to be accepted (based on bottom line contributions they can make via work) if they wish to stay longer.

Several things intrigued me about this social experiment:  the history of a Brit who fell upon hard times in the 17th century and formed a short-lived utopia free of money which he later wrote extensively about, which in turn inspired the “digger” movement in 1960s San Francisco, which all relates to Thoreau, Marxism, materialism, communism and a host of great social, political and psychological questions.

Amongst points made in the article include increasing awareness about how much food Americans waste, and the irony that if America became less wasteful this “Freegan” lifestyle would become impossible.  It seems that this is not a sustainable ecology, but rather a niche in which more carefully used food and composted waste would leave the fringe dwellers with nothing to dive for.

Like all visions of utopia, these houses quickly digressed into drunken messes when the “parent figures” went away on holiday.

Thus this article intrigued me as it outlines middle-class educated parents who saw their child decide to embark on “Freeganism” as his chosen life approach; yet these parents end up proud of their kid for transforming a home and, eventually, coming into legitimate possession of that home and assuming economic responsibilities for it.  The mad dash away from the rat race (or the community, however you frame it) seemed to lead back smack dab into the middle of the group.

It’s sort of heartwarming, the notion of rebel kids being essentially kind and hard working, impressing even a housing courts judge with politeness above all else, and prevailing (not just in owning a home, but in ending up in ink in the New York Times—raising the awareness of such middle-class home-owners on the other side of the country as myself, and provoking me to think about the state of our society and about how we might re-think how much we waste).

For example, even with composting, bringing market bags everywhere and recycling, I am still horrified by how much trash our household produces, particularly packaging materials.  These squatters build a PC from thrown away computers (try that strategy next time your kids wants a new lap top) even tapping into a wireless network from a nearby college via an antennae made of cans.

Yet as an individual non-joining human, and former rebel with an allowance until my family fell upon hard times and reality made me into a responsible, arguably conforming, stakeholder-citizen, I must acknowledge that I was never drawn to anything remotely communal.  Talk about the crowds and porta-potties that make concert-going a challenge… houses where dumpster-diving is the cornucopia, where one dines on salmonella and mold at an endless last supper of impaired hygiene is certainly my idea of a respectable parenting nightmare.

In the winter, the article said, they had to drill through ice in the toilet with an auger.  Meanwhile, I’ve personally known young adults who died squatting—in a fire.

I blog about this because it forces me into a collision between the individual and the collective, between my distrust of conformity and my wariness of non-conformity (as if I am comfortable with certain levels of rebellion while fearing others as too unhealthy and dangerous).  Yet there is a sort of affirming conclusion here in which many people mentioned in the article seemed to benefit from the collective hospitality and joined purpose, and then moved on toward more conventional and yet productive lives.

Individuation seems to demand that we go away from the group, but then it also calls for a return, a recognition that we are the group.  While I’m not inclined toward social policy (I have too much respect for the complexity of systems and humility before the vastness of the collective) I am inclined toward questions and consciousness.

Houses are like the Self, and it make sense that fixing one, or building one (be it the Amish house building scene in Witness, to scenes of renewal and redemption in post-Katrina New Orleans to independent-minded young people squatting productively, there is something archetypally powerful about a group making a dwelling for a group).

Sandwiches in a dumpster are a bit gross for my taste, but still-in-the-store with a still not yet expired date on them does not gross me out.  By contemplating the space between unwanted and trashed, we have the perfect place to consider change at all sorts of levels.

I remember a Hollywood producer who was very proud of never wearing a pair of jeans twice.  He died young.

Maybe Leonardo and other taste-makers will decide to take up wearing things for awhile, letting go of new and in-fashion as a sort of new cool of not caring so much about appearance and trending toward depth (or maybe some of us regular folks will pioneer it and it will become a fad—a virtual inverse gold rush toward common sense and calmer lives).  One of the tragic things about our culture is how much empty hoarding there is, and how much shamed deprivation results.

I even suspect that if our culture wasn’t so misguided and empty, kids would feel less need to rebel by living in squalor and eating trash as a perceive improvement on materialistic imprisonment within hollow comfort.

Thus, perhaps we might dedicate today to looking at the ways that we waste, while also opening our minds to the notion that, as a group, we have homeless and hungry people on the one hand, and countless empty homes and wasted edible food on the other.  Maybe right thinking will lead to right action, or vice-versa… in the benefit of all our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce

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9 Responses to “My kid the… squatter?”

  1. BigLittleWolf Says:

    I love your particular brand of rebellion.

  2. Linda at Bar Mitzvahzilla Says:

    Bruce the packaging, I guess in an attempt to thwart shoplifters, has gotten out of hand. The gigantic blister packs containing a tiny jar of lotion at Costco, the fighting I have to do (as a now-50-year-old with some arthritis in her fingers) with this stuff! It’s impossible and a heavy load for the environment.

  3. Jenn Says:

    This brings to mind a book I read a few years ago called “The Mole People–Life in the tunnels beneath New York City.” A documentary by a social worker describing life lived by thousands of people in the subway tunnels and old sewer lines. Many people were/are loners, but many formed communities complete with teachers for the kids, runners-those that left the tunnels for food and supplies, and recognized leaders of the group that were looked at to make decisions for the group. It demonstrated that homelessness was a choice for some people and they had no desire to return to the ‘surface’ ever. Back to your point on waste, the ‘runners’ learned which NYC restaurants they could trust to leave out the extra food properly packaged for them.

    At an anual block party, one resident brought several dozen unopened cupcakes–the kind made by supermarkets with the very colorful, very copious amounts of frosting. He placed them on the dessert table with a note explaining that he had picked them out of the dumpster behind the store, but the dates had not expired. The note went on to detail the store practices of wasting perfectly fine food and the bigger problem of waste in general. While the adults would take the time to read the note and contemplate the issues, the children were simple lured by the colorfulness of the sugar. I remember feeling grossed out as it was a very hot summer day and the frosting looked a little piqued, but at the same time didn’t want to jump to conclusions and act all alarmist and judgemental, and I wanted to sort of show that I liked the guy’s initiative to bring the issue to the table so to speak. So….I ate one, after I scraped off the frosting :). I now often will go to the supermarket and pick up almost expired food and drive it to the shelter.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      I appreciate this comment—from the worlds we literally do not see to the issues we sometimes need to have served up with footnotes—it is through enhanced consciousness that we realize that we are the “mole people” and we are the wasters of things.

      Your comment reminded me of a previous post about certain mole-like people on the other side of the world and what we might learn from them (

      • Jenn Says:

        Wow, thanks, I had not read this post of yours. I think it is easy for us to get caught up in ‘keeping up’ with the Jones’ and forget about what is truely important–kids, health, relationships. Here’s to a higher consciousness and improved emotional intellegence!

  4. Amber Says:

    I have to tell you, we have some squatters in the downstairs apartment of the building I live in. Their reason for squatting, though, is vastly different from this community-oriented approach mentioned in that article. What my, um, squatter neighbors are doing is illegal and kind of irksome because they party all night long. In a family cul-de-sac. Not the best neighbors.

    Anyway. Back to your point.

    Waste. I hate the waste we produce. I try and limit it as much as I can while keeping my sanity in tact. We only buy what we will eat, keeping our fridge leftover free because I feel horribly guilty. Our waste, however, is still grossly out of hand.

    One thing I am proud of, is our choice to use our cars as little as possible. My husband bikes to work (about a 40 minute bike ride) and I walk to the store, the park, and swimming lessons. We are not only saving on gas, but we are leaving less of an imprint on the environment. I am lucky to live in a city where things are a convenient distance away, and our sidewalk system is excellent. I am thinking about my kids’ futures. I am also hoping that they see our example and learn from it. The Earth is not mine to live in, it is inhabited my billions of people. I hope to remember that.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Actually the article on the Freegans suggests that a lot of squatters are just there to party. I suppose I see this as emblematic of the widespread lack of selves (as the lack of the bowl of self is most often at the heart of substance abuse and dependency, which is what all that partying is really about). Sad.

      Partying all night long in a family cul-de-sac is almost like a lot of lost boys and girls crying out for help and their need for a mommy to make then brush their teeth, go to bed, heal and grow up and contribute.

      Let’s hope that the loving and conscientious example your family sets makes some difference. I tend to believe that it does.

      In the meantime (I had squatter neighbors once, insofar as they stopped paying rent, did drugs, partied all night, practiced drums at midnight until months later they were evicted… all when we had a newborn and a toddler) it can serve us to meditate on the message of the seeming “other,” not necessarily to change them, but to change our own consciousness by contemplating the other as potential Shadow: emblem of the secret wounded kid, freeloader, rebel, social activist or what have you within ourselves.


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