Living alone can be wonderful. No one’s moods to deal with, no one making conversation in the morning when the only company you need is a hot cup of coffee. But getting sick alone sucks.
Woke up from a nap one day and all over — pain. Back aching, throat a knife every time I swallowed, hobbling around groaning like a wounded buffalo. After watching seven hours of The Golden Girls, all I wanted is someone to talk to.
That’s when the dream of communal living came on strong. I was getting more and more tired of living alone. I wanted to live in a big house with a long oak table and cups of tea and jazz on the stereo and people talking and arguing about things.
Luckily, a combination of big old houses that few can afford to live in alone and a preponderance of twentysomething activists who think living together will save the planet means that for someone wanting to explore communal living, Berkeley is the perfect testing ground. So I went on Craigslist.
Some of the ads sounded downright idyllic. One of them advertised a sunny master bedroom in a varied and cheerful household — a gracious Victorian house, with a rose garden and two well-behaved cats. The catch: everyone was over fifty. I wanted to live with kids a bit closer to my age, that way we could talk about debt, sex, and debt (instead of sex and death).
Another one advertised a room in a sunny, friendly house with a great backyard. This ad even said, “We love chatting over a cup of tea.” And the people were grad students in their twenties and thirties. Fantastic! Sadly, when I e-mailed them they told me they kept a strictly vegetarian kitchen. I am as moved by frightened cows being butchered as much as the next, but I like my Quarter Pounder too much.
One house banned overnight guests. Another said the residents were allergic to all scents: so no scented soap, perfume, or laundry soap was permissible. No sex, no perfume, and out of the house by nine? Yikes.
I was put off by the neurotic, controlling quality of these ads, and realized there was a possibility I’d never find the right fit. But I was also curious: why did people, in this day and age, still choose to band together to form communities?
I went to check out an “Ecovillage” — according to Craigslist, a big old house in West Oakland where inhabitants are committed to the environment and “have a healthy sense of the absurd.” That last part sounded fun. The location: not ideal, next to the roaring 980 freeway. It was an open house, meaning I could just pop by. Open heart, open mind was the motto for this journey.
When I arrived (late), I looked up and saw a group gathered on the roof of one of the buildings. I’d missed the beginning of the tour. I was greeted by a forty-ish man with a lined face and a hat like a tea cozy, and six or so cowed-looking individuals who looked at me suspiciously. Tea cozy was named Dan. He was sitting with the group of potential roommates: two shaved-headed hipster guys, a girl with short hair, socks, and Birks.
The house, it seemed, was going through a time of transition. Many people were moving out. “An interpersonal reality needed to be addressed,” Dan explained. “There were some people here who were coming from a reactive place.” Anyone who wanted to move in, he said, would have to read a chapter from the book Creating a Life Together, a communal living classic by Diana Leafe Christian.
The group laughed. I let myself out and skipped back to BART. Maybe I was being reactive, but Dan gave me the creeps.
Several weeks later, I found myself standing in a West Berkeley kitchen one morning next to Asa, a tall blond with twisted dreadlocks. Asa was frying eggplant and chicken legs, preparing food for Sunday breakfast at the Permaculture Army’s headquarters. In the next room, a few boys played guitar. The Permaculture Army was a group of boys living in a house/farm in Berkeley, who grew a lot of their own food, killed their own chickens, and tried to follow a routine involving a variety of unpleasant activities, including getting up at 7 a.m. and doing vigorous yoga and jogging to the marina.
I already knew I couldn’t live there. It was very dirty. The “bedrooms” were wooden bunks with sleeping bags (no mattresses) on top, and they smelled like unwashed boy. The boys themselves were sweet and forlorn; Lost Boys who needed a Wendy. But the last time I moved into a house and said the words: “It’s OK, I’ll do all the cleaning,” it didn’t end well. As I made my exit, a chicken waddled into the kitchen and laid an egg. Asa picked it up. “Breakfast!” he said triumphantly.
I’d just about given up when I met Marisa, Elena, Ryan, and Eli at an open house one night. The two girls were chatting in the kitchen. Marisa, a beautiful bald girl that reminded me of Sinead O’Connor, was cutting vegetables and making salad dressing. Elena, her pink-haired roommate, was drinking wine. Marisa, an architect who recently moved here from St. Louis, wanted to live someplace where she could feel like part of a family. David, the third roommate, came into the kitchen with bags from Trader Joe’s. He dropped them and hugged Elena.
“What’s up, roommate?” he said.
Elena turned and smiled. “We are a very huggy house.”
Later, they moved into the living room and started to interview potential roommates. The house members were relaxed and funny and cracked jokes to put them at ease. Ryan showed off his newly built yogurt incubator. They did a little routine where they went around the room and introduced each other.
David on Marisa: “She has an incredibly infectious laugh.”
Elena on Ryan: “Total environmentalist. He has hooked us up with some major critical thinking about lightbulbs and dryers.”
It was a love fest. I wanted to be part of it.
Then, a demure Italian girl with long shiny hair arrived. The boys both jumped up and offered to show her around. David won. Ten minutes later, we heard the door close.
David came back in.
“It wasn’t her scene,” he said. “It’s too dirty for her.”
She was right. Underneath all the love was a grubby carpet, a fairly committed film that had become dirt, and more importantly, people who liked it that way.
I couldn’t live with any these people. The ones that were not insane were too casual about tidiness. I liked shiny surfaces and spot-free mirrors and the heavy chemical smell of non-biodegradable house cleaner. Also, all this hanging out in other people’s houses was making me fall in love with my old pad again.
I get why people do it: for the company, to save money, because living alone is probably unnatural and symptomatic of a slightly controlling and antisocial personality. But I loved getting up and having nothing to greet me. No chickens. No tea cozy. Just me and my Peet’s coffee and my newspaper and the radio.
Until the next flu strikes.