As requested, I arrived just before dinner. A tall, Hollywood-beautiful blonde woman vacuumed the room that would soon be swimming in hippies. Except they weren't stereotypical hippies; the people who would soon become my house- and community-mates were an eclectic blend of professionals, students, and everyday folks who'd answered a Craigslist ad for a unique job/housing opportunity in New York City.
I'd been in New York only a few weeks, and as my spot on my college buddy's Bed-Stuy floor drove a wedge between our friendship, another friend sent word about this modern-day commune, or "intentional community," where I'd be able to work in exchange for a room in a house, daily meals, and toiletries. I was expecting a tense, panel interview, but instead I had several conversations about random topics with genuinely interested strangers who would appear like award show seat-fillers when another would get up to presumably grab more food. Having grown up in various group homes and shelters as a foster kid, the mix of people and conversations was familiar, intoxicating. I was thrilled to get the call the next day that my request to join had been approved.
It was mid-summer 2002, and I was starting a teaching gig that fall. I was grateful for the ability to spend my days cleaning a few of the public spaces of the community's 10 homes instead of paying cash for my place there. It was easy work, and I encountered an interesting sample of the community's 100 or so members along the way.
Sometime during my first week, while straightening pillows on a funky couch in the entertainment room of one house, I bumped into Adam, a Beck doppelganger who boycotted personal hygiene in protest of forced social standards. A few of the members who were home during the day as I worked struck me as clearly unable to function outside of the community's protective social walls. They rarely left their houses, even to walk a block over to the dining room for dinner, opting instead to make meals at home (the fridge and cabinets were stocked daily by the community).
I eventually learned that some people live in these communities could easily afford to live well on their own, but, for any number of reasons, made this as an intentional choice. I couldn't get a clear read on Adam, typing a seemingly intense email. He was disheveled, wild-eyed, smelly, and playing hooky from his own community job that day. After introducing myself and continuing to clean, Adam seemed to be preparing to say something to me. His taps on the keyboard grew less urgent.
He reminded me of some of the group home boys who'd brag about their acid trips after weekend furloughs, and get red-faced pissed when I played BDP's "Dope Beat" because it ripped off an AC/DC song they'd inevitably play in a vain attempt to prove hip-hop's insurmountable inferiority. Because of my lived experience with the behavior of people with questionable mental health statuses, and decidedly maladaptive coping skills, I was only semi-stunned when Adam suddenly asked, "Can I call you a fucking nigger?"
I'd only heard the word once before from white lips in actual life, when a roommate at my last group home before college demanded to know why the black kids sat together at our suburban Connecticut school. Dissatisfied with my "probably the same reason the white kids do" reply, she said, "Well I think you're a fucking nigger." My reaction to her was far less reasoned than my "Say what now?" to Adam.
"I used to be around these black guys, and they were always,” he began, gesticulating foolishly as white people do when attempting to perform blackness. "Yo, nigger, you're my nigger, we're fucking niggers". I watched him punctuate the display in a b-boy stance, disbelieving that this shit was really happening.
"So, I figured you'd think it was okay to be called a fucking nigger."
I nodded, I think, slowly filing away the first of far-too-many "white American liberals are still white fucking Americans" moments.
"I prefer Red," I told him. He said okay, and, as I hand-vacuumed crumbs from a recliner, told me how the women he liked chose not to wear protection during their menses.
While that exchange was easily the most bat-shit of my early interactions at the commune, I soon found myself on the receiving end of more puzzling introductions. First from Spack, a tall, handsome-ish dude also from New England, who my housemates would later claim had such a bad case of herpes that people in his polyamorous "pod" made him wear two condoms.
"So, I'm one of the founders here," he said while sitting barefoot and crosslegged in the seat beside me in the dining room. At the time, and even now if I'm being honest, I went out of my way to be agreeable with those I believed held power over whether I had a roof at night or not. When he said he wanted to get to know me in a later conversation, I assumed it was part of an extended interview process, as I'd been advised there would always be people who were watching, listening, reporting. His query about my relationship status seemed fair, too. Upon hearing I was single, he asked how I felt about "sexual friendships." I shrugged, and said something like "to each their own, right?"
Later, Lane would pose the same exact question, also after telling me that the whole place was his idea. He'd knocked on my open door and was lying on his elbow on my twin bed awaiting my reply about sexual friendships when Kana, a housemate who'd previously barely acknowledged me, suddenly appeared in my doorway. She glared at Lane and, with barely-controlled rage, pointed to the door and said "Out." Lane jumped up, welcomed me to the community, and though a solid foot taller than Kana, shrank to nothing as he exited beside her. Or perhaps, in my eyes, she grew. It was the first time in my life anyone had protected me from a sleazy dude. I instantly and forever loved her.
Kana was a Wiccan, feminist attorney, and I was clearly the first black person she knew. Over the three plus years we spent as housemates, we battled often, our mutual defenses and stereotypes clashing, but our respect and friendship became stronger. She had zero problem speaking truth to power, and took pride in her ability to solve problems.
"You know that's why you're always fighting, right?" I told her once as she stirred her coffee in our kitchen. "Because you feel useless if you aren't a savior, so you create shit to fix." It wasn't the equivalent of her swooping in to rescue me from, and later school me about, known community predators, but she confessed it made her think about her reputation around the houses as something of a troublemaker.
Perhaps it was her consideration of this possibility that kept her mostly silent the one day I needed her to challenge authority most. It started because I'd baked a cake to bring to dinner one night, sliced it, then ventured to the bathroom before heading across the street to the dining room. When I exited the bathroom, Tina—a community vet who was new to our particular house—was at the stove cooking, and half the cake was gone. I knew no one could have eaten it that quickly (she had!), so I laughed and asked, "Ok, who hid half the cake?" Tina's face instantly matched her box-red hair as she took the plate the cake was on, dumped it in the trash, and stormed out, yelling that she was about to get my ass kicked out.
The community had few official rules, but no violence or "non-negotiable negativity” were tolerated. People could be as loopy as they wanted, but if called on something that infringed on someone else's comfort, they had to be open to discussing and resolving it. These concepts neatly underscored another community must: commitment to non-judgment. I saw this concept beautifully mastered and modeled by a few in the core group (the 20 or so members who committed to share their finances, and were responsible for planning the day-to-day running of the community). They really were able to separate an act from a person's value, something I'd never witnessed or experienced. It was the example that helped me navigate through the many times an otherwise decent person made a spectacularly stupid or racist comment. It was difficult for me to suspend personal judgment when I felt someone was so clearly fucking wrong, but being the recipient of the unconditional positive regard some of them showed me was profoundly moving, and it remains a gift I strive to give in all my relationships. On this day, it was Tina's behavior that was least in line with the rules, so I was hardly worried when our exchange became the subject of a community session to discuss and resolve the cake-trashing incident.
The meeting was presided over by Tato, a Napoleanic core member who remains, to this day, the most arrogant, condescending asshole I've ever met in my life. He was married to the blonde who, on this night, sat on the floor at his dangling feet, a comfy chair shrouding him like a throne. Tato’s tiny, paw-like hand stroked her head in a way that both mesmerized and repulsed me. A couple dozen community folks showed up, minus the more level-headed core group members I considered my friends, who were out of the country.
Tato had the cocky smirk of a man who'd always hated sharing leadership with others, and practically salivated at this chance to call shots unchallenged. Instead of the usual style of letting each party speak, and others chiming in helpfully to point out flawed thinking or to offer new perspectives, Tato asked every person in the room to share a negative experience they'd had with or witnessed from me. No compliments were allowed, nor comments about Tina's notoriously nutty ass (the reason she was moved to another house), as Tato said I needed to know how I'd made her feel when I baked a cake while she was avoiding carbs. I exhaled through a wave of panic as every person—some I knew and others I didn't—made their mandatory criticism of my existence.
I was mostly okay, though, because I knew Kana was about to shut the whole abusive operation down. But instead of plucking Tato's head off and feasting on his bloated ego, she said she didn't like it when she came downstairs for coffee and I wasn't singing in my room, because it usually meant I was in a shitty mood. This complaint had actually become a running theme for me there, just as in other environments I shared with whites: a non-smiling Negro was a thing to be feared, and if we could be kept singing or otherwise performing, all was good. Badu-less mornings didn't mean I was sleeping in, busy, or just not in the mood for music, it meant I was plotting a black revolt, and people would poke at my "dude, I'm fine" until I was the one red-faced and frustrated. White community members, of course, were allowed the full range of human emotions without ever being accused of having attitudes or being "negative."
It happened enough that I always feared I was about to be asked to leave, though it would be dishonest to say that fear didn't exist long before I lived there. It was the other members' doing the non-judgment thing that first gave me the idea that I could be flawed as fuck and still be a desired, even necessary part of a home. But this session, with Tato saying he would have to think about whether I could stay, meant that all that was false, I was indeed too flawed to love, and a fucking chocolate cake I made to share with the community is what did me in. Kana's participation in Tato's irresponsibly abusive process sealed my expulsion, I believed. I sat there stifling a scream or torrent of tears, either of which would confirm Tato's premise that I couldn't handle negative feedback, and thus should have to leave.
Months earlier, another housemate, in response to my telling her about a relative who'd been killed, said, "But you're, like, used to that, right?" It would be years before science revealed that white people really believed blacks were immune to pain, and endowed with superhuman powers, but I experienced that belief repeatedly while there, though never more than that night, as I was expected to sit quietly while friends and strangers were encouraged to break me down. Ultimately, it was just a mindfuck, as Tato lacked the authority to make such a call, and I simply hadn't broken any rules. But I was no less traumatized, awaking the next morning in a pool of urine, just as I did daily before being removed from my abusive family. I soon moved out, unable to handle the constant fear that I might "attitude" or bake my way to homelessness.
However, that was not my last experience living "in a community." Years later, I found myself pregnant with a baby I was told I'd never be able to have, and the ensuing complications sent me from teaching Life Skills to living in a homeless shelter. Like most adult former foster kids, there was no familial safety net to protect me once a medical emergency prevented me from working. No mama's basements or (safe and healthy) family couches to turn to once I was in financial straits; I had to apply for welfare. The shame of having fallen so far was debilitating, and I had no reason to believe I could overcome my statistically assured dismal future twice.
But I researched and eventually found another community in the south; far from perfect, nowhere near as organized, disproportionately full of Adams and Tinas, but certainly not the nasty homeless shelter my son came home to from the hospital. Buoyed by the support I got there (and, ok, the desire to get the fuck back north), I was back on my feet far sooner than if I'd had no community of strangers who were willing to see us as family. Though I haven't yet found one that's a perfect fit, I strongly believe in, and yearn for, chosen community. I will never stop trying to find something that feels like home.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]