House, Room, Home
on the virtues of shared habitation
Oh, standard American house—you're too big for me!
You're bigger than most humans have ever known.
You're a castle! When did private castles become routine?
Perhaps I was forever ruined by Casa Zimbabwe, the student cooperative where I spent three years of college, housing 125 students in a steady state of functional-harmonic disaster. Double rooms were standard, triples not uncommon, and single rooms immeasurable luxuries. We “czars” shared a massive kitchen outfitted with blast-furnace ovens, volcanic burner ranges, R2D2-sized bread mixers, endless tubs of flour-sugar-rice-quinoa-lentils, and enough spices to put a 15th-century maritime trader to shame. Student groups prepared dinner for the whole house five nights a week, serving steaming piles of stir-fry or pasta or experimental eclectic salads in massive deep-bottomed dishes purchased second-hand from the US Navy. Walk-in fridges overflowed with crates of red bell peppers and satsuma mandarins alongside plastic bins of smooshed leftovers, a veritable garden of eden.
The co-op slogan was "we own it, we run it." Which meant filthy halls and atrocious parties and never-ending house meetings, but also, if I wanted to bake 100 oatmeal raisin cookies at 11pm, I waltzed right in to that kitchen and baked 100 goddamn cookies. In terms of square feet of private space, I'd never been poorer in my life, but in terms of culture, community, adventure, and engagement, I'd never been richer.
A century ago we still had boarding houses—the predecessor of the co-op—where young people and single people and broke newlyweds and entire families could rent rooms by the week/month/year and share bathrooms, kitchen, laundry, and daily meals. Designated as unfit for long-term habitation by proper mid-20th century society, we zoned such places out of existence. Think of all the young-poor-ambitious souls who might thrive in the San Franciscos and Austins and New York Cities of the world, were we to allow modern iterations of the boarding house to blossom!
No, I don’t want to live forever in a boarding house or dorm or hostel. What I do want is a room to call my own, a door I can lock, and some nice company on tap.
Yes, your own house can be magic. I had one for a few summers: a 550 square foot Lake Tahoe cabin with a tiny bedroom, tiny kitchen, and tiny living-dining-everything room. I hosted guests as frequently as I could: couchsurfers slept in a pitched tent in the backyard, friends crashed on a mattress in the loft above the kitchen. Some nights the entire staff of Deer Crossing Camp showed up, inflatable sleeping pads strewn across every inch of carpet.
Think of all the unused space in our western world of private castles a-plenty. What’s the point of each having so much space with so few guests? All those empty rooms, deserted for most of the day! All those isolated nuclear families and lonely retirees and divorcees! Why not choose a real human over a blaring television? I wholeheartedly grant you, dear homeowner, the right to do what you will with your fiefdom. But why not open it to the world, at least every now and then? You can have it all: security with community, home equity without isolated domesticity. I know because I’ve been your renter and houseguest. I’ve formed alliances with you despite our differing priorities. We've shared warm conversations, meals, backyard drinks. We’re better together.
“What about families? Families need houses!" Sure—but must we isolate? Must we physically manifest the historically recent and highly questionable idea of the free-floating nuclear family that solves all its own problems? Can we raise family in deliberate community, in close proximity to others? That whole it takes a village thing, but for real?
"If you're living with a romantic partner, don't you want privacy?” To what, make love on the kitchen table every night? Privacy cuts both ways, facilitating both sweet moments and icy silence, blissful lovemaking and ugly outbursts. Until quite recently, most couples lived communally among family members before striking out on their own. Like an ocean breeze, a good housemate can regulate the temperature of a troubled partnership, quietly reminding you that your mountains may be molehills.
Tiny homes, vanlife? Sure, cool. But let’s face it, always temporary. Every tiny home owner or vandweller meets the same fate, sooner or later: parking their freedom-mobile in a friend's driveway or backyard—because they like real kitchens, real showers, real toilets, real heating, and real internet.
A house? A room? A home?
Give me a bit of safety and comfort,
a place to nurture relationships,
a place to cook and eat,
a place to sleep,
a place to work,
that is all.
📚 Big news! My new zine-style book, Do What You Love and Die Trying, is coming soon. Click here to preview the Kickstarter campaign and sign up to get notified on launch day. (This piece, and the original illustration, appear in the book.)