It’s Tuesday morning. That means the water in our building is available for use.
Ever since the mainland raised the price of water from its Catskills reservoirs, most NYC public hydro is desalinated ocean water. It’s supposedly free for any citizen of New York, but— like pretty much everything governments offer for “free”— the delivery system is spotty at best. We technically have unlimited water usage on Tuesdays, Thursdays and during the weekend. When it works. Other (more expensive) sections of the city are on the more luxurious Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule, but since you’re still allowed a minimal ration to drink and cook with on restricted days, I figured I could cut back to two showers a week. The showers aren’t very fun anyway: a 10 x 10 habitat doesn’t include an individual bathroom, so multiple units share a common bathroom area— suitably equipped, but hardly private. It’s surprisingly clean, though.
I remember during my college days the mere thought of a communal bathroom seemed disgusting; when I was a kid and my family would go camping, I always found the state park bathrooms dank and mildewed, the kind of place you’d wisely shower in your flip flops without touching the walls. But not here. I suspect the reason these modern facilities are kept so clean is the mutually-assured gross-out-factor: if you expect the other users to keep things clean, you have to pitch in and do your part lest you find yourself the target of a generous helping of public scorn, and that could make life difficult. A few years ago on this floor one of the other tenants began to make a habit of plugging the drains and letting the sinks overrun, flooding the floor below. Maybe it was some kind of silent protest against being told when one could and could not use the water; there’s always someone who thinks rebellion is funny as long as it’s achieved at someone else’s expense.
A lot of privileged types immigrate to NYC expecting life here to be some kind of Bohemian wonderland, but most flee back to the mainland with their tails between their legs once they figure out their wealthy relatives and upper crust parentage don’t gain them much here in the wasteland. Not below the red line, anyway. That’s what happened to the sink vandal, once everyone figured out who was doing it. There was never any direct confrontation, or course; Security was anonymously contacted with details of his vandalism and he was forcibly evicted from the island, to be sent back to whatever fully-functioning mainland town he came from. There you go, Mr. Protester, back you go to the great outside where there are no water restrictions, and where you can shower as long as you like. Go complain about something out there to someone who cares. Problem solved.
I need to be ship shape today: I’ve got a lead on a job downtown, near the Brooklyn Bridge. That would be great… I haven’t had a regular job in a while and bartering for everything gets exhausting after a while. Some people do pretty well at straight barter, but not me. For as long as I remember I’ve always undervalued any work I did, which invariably led to me making some really terrible deals. Example— at the moment I have a deal where I spend one hour a day mopping and cleaning the communal men’s bathroom area in exchange for toilet paper and soap. That’s a lot of work for such scant reward, albeit toilet paper is most definitely a necessity; you don’t realize how important it is until you suddenly don’t have any.
Getting this downtown job would mean that I could buy my own soap again. I long for the days of full sized bars of soap and the luxurious lather of shampoo. Right now I’m stuck with the little hotel-style soap slivers that Dave (our habitat supervisor) always has in abundance. Taking care of the bathrooms, keeping the floors swept, window cleaning, and general troubleshooting are all supposed to be his job. He actually gets paid for it, but he was lucky enough to land a habitat full of mostly-unemployed barterers, so as long as he keeps importing surplus toiletries and other such sundries from the mainland, he essentially doesn’t have to do much of anything except trade soap for surrogate labor.
I guess he made the system work for him. He certainly hasn’t invented anything wonderful or solved some deep-rooted problem with the awesome insight born of his fresh new communal futuristic perspective, like we’re all supposed to do in the New New York… but he has made a way for himself in which he isn’t forced to mindlessly toil for the means to exist, and underneath all the fake altruism, I suspect that’s what most of us wanted in the first place.
I can’t fault him for it. It’s a smart way to work the system: land a job, then leverage yourself with barter so you don’t have to do the job anymore. First I need to get the job.
After a quick shower and shave, I hit the street with purpose (which is better than acrimony and cynicism which is how I normally hit the street). Who knows? If I get this job, someday I may actually hit the street with optimism… for once.
If there’s one thing here still reminiscent of the pre-annex city it’s the corporate food places. Most of the privately-owned eateries are gone. Profit margins were pretty thin for restaurant owners even before annexation, what with crazy labor costs, supply fluctuations, and a ridiculous overhead— plus a tax code that seemed intentionally-aimed at squeezing small independent business owners out of existence. But when they had to start paying tariff on food and ingredients “imported” into the city it became unsustainable. There’s enough Starbucks and McDonald’s to go around, though. Most people with corporate jobs work at one of those places. There is a wider range of jobs supporting those venues than there used to be. They now employ full time security teams to deter vandals and bounce squatters, and there are also full-time cleaning and structural maintenance crews. The wasteland of today is so filthy it makes mid-1970’s NYC look clean in comparison, garbage strikes and all. So… if a corporation wants to keep its establishments on brand (and by “on brand” I mean “not looking like a dumpster ransacked by feral cats”) you have to employ people to constantly sweep, mop, sanitize, and erase graffiti.
I refuse to eat at those places. The food is cheap and you can certainly (if greasily) live off it… but eating there tastes to me like a betrayal of the original intentions of New New York. We’re supposed to be creating a new world here, not squabbling over table scraps from the companies that drove us from the old one. So I get most of my food from a little place called Swap. It’s one of the only independent restaurants left— they have a great thing going, since they own their own building, one tall enough to get natural sunlight on its roof. That’s necessary because the street level is heavily-shaded almost all day long, even on the sunniest days. There’s a popular joke, the punchline of which is “No sunshine below the redline,” but it’s almost true. The builders keep adding to the height of the skyscrapers and extending the network of topside walkways and magnetic rails installed above the red line level.
But Swap has managed to create a small farm that grows in the sun at the top of the heap. As you can imagine, the menu is pretty limited… but they have enough space up there to raise chickens for eggs and meat, and they grow tomatoes, lettuce, and potatoes. Rumor has it they’re working on leasing the rooftop of the next building over to start growing wheat. There was a time when I was so naive I actually took something as wonderful as a loaf of bread, made from real, unbleached, non-enriched, non-processed ingredients, for granted. Something like that— once so simple, and so commonplace— is considered a delicacy by most people now. But Swap is working to change that, to bring it back for everyone, and as simple and as unassuming as it sounds, I could happily waste a whole afternoon just daydreaming about the possibility.
The whole Swap master plan is the brainchild of the owner/proprietor, Jess. Jess is beautiful. She accepts voluntary manual labor as payment for food (of course you have to do the work up front—she’s an angel, NOT a saint). But she gladly gives you full credit for the hours you work, and you can cash it in whenever you need something. There are a lot of barterers who get their food there, including me. And every single one of them is in love with her.