For those living off the grid, the world is full of free stuff — and freedom
Joshua does not feel guilty about the thousands of dollars he's stolen.
"Taking money from the government — is that stealing? Is that wrong? I don't think so," he says. "I don't think we should have to work hard, making other people money, just to have food and a roof over our head. Some people work for themselves, and that's different. But the kinds of jobs that a college degree gets you — I don't see the value in that."
off the grid
Despite having a master's in mathematics from the University of Colorado at Boulder — a degree that can net the recipient a job that pays $90,000 a year — Joshua lives on only a few hundred dollars a month and gets most of his meals out of a dumpster. He lives in a community warehouse space he founded with a few friends in Denver's Art District on Santa Fe, a place where they live and host music shows and art openings. (Joshua requested that neither the address of the space nor his last name be published.)
Joshua is sitting in that space now, sipping a cup of tea, his dreadlocks pulled back in giant pigtails, while he explains his relatively newfound philosophy on life, a worldview that stands in stark contrast to the one he held a few years ago. A section in the corner of the warehouse marked "Free Store" is filled with clothing, books, electronics and bicycle parts. Gallons of beer are brewing around the corner, dozens of bicycles are locked outside, and behind him sits a refrigerator filled with food discarded by various businesses around Denver or found in dumpsters. "You can dumpster any kind of produce," says Joshua. "Furniture, clothes, beer, bike parts, lumber — anything, really. If the food smells bad, don't eat it — but people who dumpster typically have stronger stomachs than most people."
Stronger stomachs, and stronger wills. "When I say 'radical community,' I'm talking about people who are enjoying their lives, people who are only doing what they want with their time," he explains. "Mainstream society hooks people with the belief that you're not successful unless you own a house and a car, supporting a family on your own. People are encouraged to not live as a community. It's selfish. And it's weird that not being selfish is a radical idea.... 'Weird' people are drawn to this community because they're free to be who they want to be."
As Joshua describes the culture he's now submersed in, young people wearing patched jeans and homemade tattoos file in and out of the space, carrying boxes of food, music equipment and large paintings. A pay-what-you-can show will be starting in a few hours, when a few touring bands will hopefully collect enough gas money to get to the next city, and Joshua's venue will glean a few bucks from serving food to help pay the rent and keep the lights on. He has an informal lease agreement with the landlord, which keeps Joshua's name out of any database where he could be tracked down by creditors.
"I grew up watching my parents struggle, being miserable," Joshua recalls. "My dad was a manager in a warehouse, and also worked with computers for ten years. He hated it. But he had bills. He had his mortgage, car insurance, cable bill. He had the idea that you need all these things for a happy family and to feel successful. He's been unemployed for four years, and it seems like he was less happy when he had a job, just being exhausted all the time, not wanting to go to work. He never went to college — so I went to college thinking I could avoid all that."
Growing up in the Seattle area in the late '70s and '80s, Joshua displayed a strong interest in mathematics at a young age. "I saw math as puzzles or games, and I really enjoyed it," he says. "I loved the process, figuring out little tricks for arithmetic. I could just do it faster and easier than most people around me. I've also always been ADD, and math was one of the only things I could really focus on." Impressing his teachers from elementary through high school with his adeptness with numbers, Joshua was encouraged to pursue higher education in the field of math.
Coming from several generations of laborers, Joshua would not only be the first in his family to attend college, but he would do so in a field at the top of the academic ladder. After watching his father's constant struggles with unexpected layoffs from low-wage jobs he hated, Joshua assumed a college degree would lead to a career filled with respect, security and creative fulfillment. So before he graduated from Evergreen State College in Washington, he took the GRE math test — scoring in the 89th percentile globally — and then enrolled in CU-Boulder's graduate program in mathematics. He was at the head of his class, and his professors had high hopes for a student with so much passion and ability.
But for Joshua, the numbers were no longer adding up. While in grad school, he was paid to teach math to undergraduate students, but he couldn't live on the wage. "In Boulder at the time, it wasn't enough," he says. "Grad school was where I started to take out the bulk of my loans." Grants had covered his tuition at Evergreen, but Joshua soon accumulated $25,000 in student-loan debt at CU. He was living off credit cards, and the sense of playfulness and pleasure he'd originally gotten from math was becoming lost in the machinery of academia.
"Math is a way to keep otherwise dangerous minds occupied," Joshua explains. "A lot of it has little application in life. Most of the people I was teaching would go on to work for the National Security Agency or Monsanto, things that I didn't want to be a part of." Anxiety attacks were becoming part of his daily routine, and while he wanted to drop out, the mounting debt and pressure from peers drove him to complete his master's and then move on to the Ph.D. program, which at least was paid for.
"I wasn't enjoying my life," he remembers. "Grad school beat the love of math out of me. CU is a degree factory; they're not trying to educate people, they're about making money. They were taking students who weren't ready, and so people were at wildly different levels. I was teaching to the middle 50 percent while losing the top and bottom 25. And in the math Ph.D. program, you're forced to write a theorem that's never been proven. It was emotionally painful. Half of the people that I know that got their Ph.D. felt like they wasted five years of their life."
While falling out of love with math, Joshua began to kindle a relationship with Boulder's radical community, which promoted a world of pleasure and instinct. These barefoot dropouts had abandoned the pursuit of cars, homes and other commercial goods, and were living communally off the waste of the city's middle and upper classes. Joshua joined a collective of twelve people who moved into a house on the south side of Boulder — an illegal number of residents for a dwelling. "Most of the people living there were just passing through town," he says. "Though Boulder sucks for radical living. The city doesn't like it."
Halfway through his Ph.D. program, Joshua finally decided not only to drop out of school, but to drop out of society. Before he did, though, he ran up thousands of dollars of credit-card debt (today he wishes it were more), then disappeared into a bureaucracy-free world of bicycles and boxcars. He has no intention of paying back any of the money he borrowed.
And he remains off the grid to this day — not only to enjoy a life free of Social Security numbers and credit checks, but to avoid any attempt to collect those debts. "I think in our lifetime we are going to see a reimplementation of debtors' prisons," he says. "I'll never have a bank account again, or a mainstream job where they could garnish my wages. This isn't my legal address. I don't want anyone knowing where I live, because if I were to get a court summons for the debt and didn't show up, I could have a warrant out for my arrest."
A third of the states in this country, including Colorado, allow people to be jailed for missing payments on loans. In June 2011, Kelly Wiedemer of Westminster was jailed for missing payments on an $1,800 fine and restitution debt stemming from a car accident. Joshua now estimates his debt, with late fees and interest, to be well over $30,000.
But that's just a drop in the ocean of why Joshua decided to reject capitalism in favor of the communal anarchist life.
"I knew that in this community I will always have food in my belly and a roof over my head, which doesn't happen in a capitalistic society," he says. "The American Dream is dead; there is no climbing up the ladder. Here there's emotional support, which is huge. I'm still working hard, but putting work into things I love, like building this space, playing music, tutoring math. I'm not putting work into making other people money and paying taxes. I'm working toward being happy and helping other people be happy. And I don't think that can be done in the normal American path."
Disbelief in magic can force a poor soul into believing in government or business. — Tom Robbins
The pursuit of small, socialistic, egalitarian societies is nothing new.
In seventeenth-century England, various groups of Protestants began forming communes that rejected the notion of currency and private property. Known to history as Diggers, they took their philosophy from the same passage of the book of Acts often cited by Christian anarchists today: "All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions were their own, but they shared everything they had."
Despite founding societies based on charity and pacifism, these groups were seen as a threat to the monarchy and were regularly subjected to beatings, arson, jail sentences and eventual eviction from the land they had collectively farmed.
More than 300 years later, a group of San Francisco dropouts adopted the Diggers name and created a more bohemian version of the anarchist utopia. Against the backdrop of black riots in the '60s and a massive influx of young runaways to the Haight-Ashbury district, the twentieth-century Diggers began serving free meals in Golden Gate Park every afternoon, regularly feeding more than 200 hungry bodies. They also established their own dormitories for temporary living, a medical clinic and a general store offering various essentials — all free of charge.
Harassed by police and overwhelmed by the volume of hippies in the San Francisco area, the Diggers eventually split up, forming various communes throughout the American West. For the most part, these were more rural communities of drug enthusiasts and/or religious seekers waiting for the end of the world. The emphasis was on farming and self-sustainability, trying to get as far away from mainstream society as possible.
During the punk-rock movement of the '70s and '80s, communal structures began popping up in urban areas, communities that lived off discarded food and squatted in abandoned buildings in major cities like New York, Paris and London. While many of these groups were linked by travelers who would hop trains, hitchhike or work on ships crossing the Atlantic, the information exchange really took off with the Internet. Using the web, freegan travelers could find a free meal, a free bed and free bicycle repair while on the road. Organizations like Food Not Bombs and websites like Freegan.info became resources that joined these otherwise isolated communities, while never linking them financially or through any other type of authority or regulation.
But the authorities found them anyway.
To live outside the law, you must be honest.
— Bob Dylan
On a sultry afternoon in July, Magee Headley is digging through random boxes of food that have been delivered to her front porch. A handful of volunteers arrive on bicycles to help assess the day's take, finding large bags of lentils, boxes of sunflower seeds, lemons, chocolate soy milk and dozens of pre-packaged sandwiches, salads and desserts.
While Headley is one of the main organizers of Denver's branch of Food Not Bombs, hosting the food drop-offs and preparations at her house, the anarchist collective is mostly free of rules. Very different from a soup kitchen or a food bank, Food Not Bombs flies under the radar of food regulation and civic ordinances; since no money is given or received, no taxes are paid and no food inspectors make visits. But there is some structure: The free meals are served at 4 p.m. every Saturday in Sunken Gardens Park, and at 4 p.m. every Wednesday in Civic Center Park.
Taking the donations inside, Headley and other volunteers come up with a menu. "There are some guidelines for how we do things," Headley explains. "We try to keep the meals vegan or vegetarian — though if all you get for donations is pepperoni pizza, you end up serving pepperoni pizza."
That won't be the case today. Headley is grateful that a serendipitous mix of good food (rescued from local grocers, who set the food aside instead of throwing it in their dumpsters) and knowledgeable volunteers have come together to make a meal she is proud to serve. The lentils are cooked and formed into patties with a sunflower-seed crust for burgers, plantains are fried into croutons dipped in a red miso soup. A stranger with face tattoos knows how to make ice cream from the chocolate soy milk; another makes melon water with a food processor to mix with a lemon green tea. "You don't always get this good of volunteers and donations," she says. "One time I served a soup made from a can of pizza sauce, some rice, garlic and frozen broccoli. It was terrible."
Once the meal is cooked and the remaining food boxed up for another round of donations, it's off to the park to feed the hungry. On the drive over, Headley explains how baffling it is that all of this food was headed for a dumpster. "I could understand throwing away rotten food that would make someone sick, but all of this is nowhere near being expired," she says. "It's several days before the sell-by date, and it's not even bad then. They could be making money off of this food, but we're going to give it away for free."
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, roughly 30 to 40 percent of all food grown or imported in the U.S. is thrown into dumpsters (becoming the single largest type of waste entering landfills), and stopping that waste was one of the reasons that Food Not Bombs (foodnotbombs.net) was formed in 1980. Today it's grown to 400 worldwide chapters that regularly collect and serve food on a volunteer-based, free-of-charge system. The group is also heavily involved in anti-war protests and had a significant presence in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and has definitely come to the attention of authorities. In 2006, an FBI official making a presentation in Austin, Texas, referred to FNB as a "terrorist watch" group. Several chapters have been given cease-and-desist orders for distributing food without a license. And in 2011, Orlando FNB volunteers were arrested for disobeying a feeding ban, leading members of the group to hack into the Orlando Chamber of Commerce and Universal Studios websites and shut them down in protest.
Unlike the local nonprofit We Don't Waste — which was formed in 2009 and similarly rescues otherwise abandoned food and distributes it to the hungry — the members of Food Not Bombs aren't interested in going through bureaucratic channels for permits, oversight and approval.
"There are no laws that prohibit giving away food that is considered safe," says Meghan Hughes, spokeswoman for the Denver Department of Environmental Health. "That said, if the food was being discarded, it's typically because it was no longer considered safe because it's spoiled, of questionable quality, or discarded for other reasons.... Due to bacteria, lack of refrigeration and other environmental conditions that make it unsafe to eat from a dumpster, anyone pulling food with an unknown source puts themselves at a higher risk of getting sick."
While not all of Food Not Bombs' inventory is pulled from dumpsters, this doesn't change the fact that FNB is not in compliance with state regulations regarding the acceptance of donations and the proper methods of food preparation and distribution.
But Headley wasn't thinking about that when she got involved with Food Not Bombs. After she relocated to Denver in 2009 and expressed an interest in feeding the homeless, a tradition that was common in the religious communities where she'd grown up, a boyfriend suggested she look into FNB. This group was different, and she liked it. "In other feeding programs I've worked with, it's like, 'I'm going to cook you food, and you go sit over there, and I'm going to stay over here,'" Headley says, serving lentil burgers and soy ice cream to the dozens of people waiting in line for a meal.
"But Food Not Bombs is like a picnic in the park with homeless people," she continues. "It has been very humanizing of the homeless population. Instead of being like, 'Oh, man, this guy's on drugs and wearing sixteen coats — don't talk to him,' there's space for me to talk to him, and see him again the next week. Now it's been three years, and I see those people regularly. Some of them now have apartments, and six coats has turned into a nice shirt, but they still come to Food Not Bombs for meals and conversations. I grew up in a poor family in a poor neighborhood, but my parents always made a big deal about the act of serving other people."
Headley grew up in a military family with six kids, and they were never in one place for long. But wherever they lived, making themselves available for friends and neighbors was a high priority. "I remember my Dad waking me up at 7 a.m. on Saturdays, saying, 'It's time to perform an act of service,' and we'd help a family move or something. It's a necessity for humans to take care of each other."
Seeing the needs of the communities they lived in, the family tried to avoid waste. Headley's dad would often pull bicycles out of the dumpster, fixing them up for neighbor kids, and leftovers from the Thanksgiving turkey would be stretched out into December. But even though they pinched pennies, Headley has always been aware of the options for economic advancement available to her. "Being a white woman, I could get a scholarship, go to school, get a high-paying job, a cool apartment, and go out to eat all the time," she says. "But I don't necessarily want that. Growing up, going out to eat meant McDonald's, and that was a really big deal. I think if I made a lot of money now, it would feel weird. That social structure would feel uncomfortable. I prefer having dinner with these people and talking about politics and music rather than having cocktails in LoDo. But I'll acknowledge that is a choice I made, and not everyone has the luxury of choosing to live in poverty."
And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.
— John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
When describing Bike Pit in one word, a soft-spoken volunteer named Sam offers simply this: "access."
"Anyone, no matter what kind of resources they have, can come in here any day that we're open and work on their bike and get any parts they need for their bike," he explains. "Also, we provide a service, but that service is knowledge rather than us doing something for other people."
Like Joshua, Sam has requested that his last name not be used. In these communities, there is often a strong suspicion of both the government and media. A common joke goes like this: "How many anarchists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Take the battery out of your cell phone and I'll tell you."
The paranoia isn't entirely groundless. The Bike Pit collective (facebook.com/411bikepit), which offers free-of-charge bike repair, education and even the opportunity to build a bike of your own, was once known as Derailer and was forced out of its home at 1065 Lipan Street after three years, having been handed a cease-and-desist order for "operating a non-profit bicycle shop" in violation of zoning regulations. Derailer was also the subject of investigations by the FBI and the Denver Police Department.
The organization eventually relocated to a warehouse space at 411 Lipan Street that's in compliance with city ordinances. After a brief sabbatical, it reopened in May 2012 with a new name and a fresh crew of volunteers.
As with Food Not Bombs, volunteers at the bike collective come and go. No one really owns the operation, and rarely is anyone obligated to perform tasks. Sam just took up with Bike Pit six months ago, having discovered the Denver DIY community while on a bicycle trip from Philadelphia to L.A. Returning to Colorado once the weather became more palatable, he fit easily into the collective, having volunteered at similar organizations across the country. But Bike Pit isn't just a pit stop for dropout freegans. It also provides a community service for Denver's homeless and other economically disenfranchised residents.
"I've had an enormous amount of privilege," says Leslie Wilber, another Bike Pit volunteer. "I'm college-educated, I've had 'real jobs,' and now I'm making choices that are different than that, but it would be inaccurate to say that everybody who is organizing the space and everyone who uses the space is in that position. Some of us have the privilege to choose to live life with more freedom without a 9-to-5. But we work with people who have limited resources, or are homeless, and not by choice. Some have had issues with the criminal-justice system. And bikes are very inexpensive. Having a bike can make the difference for someone out looking for a job, or to nail down housing, or to make it to appointments around town. Public transportation isn't accessible to a lot of people because of cost; same with cars. I've worked with people who had to walk across town in the middle of the night to get to work, and having a bike changed their lives."
"And that's the same with Food Not Bombs, or free schools, or people who live in community houses," adds Sam. "Some people do choose to live outside of the system. But some have had no choice but to find a way to survive outside of the system. They've been systematically marginalized from the beginning of their lives, and these are the only choices that they have."
Beyond appealing to those who have been wedged out of society economically, Bike Pit and similar operations also draw members of the LGBT community who have been rejected by family members and employers. For this reason, Bike Pit offers a women-and-trans night every Tuesday. "Because of the sexism and patriarchy in traditional bike spaces, a lot of people have felt excluded from gaining information about how to work on their bike," says Maya, another volunteer. "Some people come in and know how to work on their bikes and just want to use the tools, but for some folks of marginalized gender identities, they haven't been given the respect and opportunity that others have."
College is so expensive, you can't go unless you join the military. Then, if you make it through alive, you get to come home and earn a degree. It's like The Hunger Games, but instead of winning fame and wealth, you end up with a shitty office job.
— Cate Gary, standup comedian
Joshua may be off the grid, but there are still those who would like to find him. His cell phone is the only method of contact that still connects him to the credit bureau, and it rings at least five times a day with calls from debt collectors wanting to know when he plans to pay back the money he owes. But this phone company still has him listed as living in Seattle, which keeps him from receiving a knock on his door for a court summons.
"I don't have to deal with it," he says defiantly. "If it comes down to it, I can always just disappear again."
Since leaving school, Joshua has rekindled his love of mathematics, which has taken the form of tutoring CU math students for cash — even if he's still very cynical about the process of higher education. "Today, half of the classes students have to take have nothing to do with their degree," he says. "Why do you need to take science classes if you want to be a writer? You don't even have to go to school to be a writer, or a mathematician, or even a biochemical engineer. Information is accessible enough today that you can learn everything you need to know without setting foot on a college campus — but you can't get a job without a degree. I'd like to see apprenticeships come back into style. There's something to be said for learning through experience, and people don't do that in college. They just sit there and take exams, which has little to do with the activities of the job they're pursuing."
Joshua cites the free universities of South America and the free schools in Denver and across the U.S. as models of what can be achieved when capitalism is removed from education. At Free School Denver, for example, a collective of independent teachers, students and organizers comes up with classes on everything from such practical subjects as gardening, soap-making and bicycle repair to more esoteric interests, including a class titled "The History of Gender, Sexuality and Imperialism."
"You can't beat the system, but you can beat the culture," he insists. "That's what I'm interested in overthrowing. We can help people free their minds, create a space where people can do their thing. We can help people see that they can live this alternative way."
Yet he emphasizes that this is not a life for the lazy and unmotivated.
"These people work long hours, more than most with full-time jobs; they put sweat and blood and tears into their projects," he says. "The people behind Bike Pit put a ton of work and countless hours into something they were never going to make money off of. They're doing it for other people, not themselves. Or the punk house up the street: You have six kids living in what some would consider squalor, but they feed the homeless twice a week. They open up their home to strangers. Or with our space: People bring us tons of food, and that's what we live on, and we let them use our space for shows. It's a symbiotic relationship.
"I would argue that we don't really need the government in its current form," he continues. "They believe that money is the solution to everything. But people don't realize how little money you can get by on when money isn't your only resource."
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