I walk into Swap like any other day— and like any other day, Jess is not out in the front dining area where you might expect to find a well spoken, trim, doe-eyed restaurant entrepreneur. You’d think a person who had done what practically no one else was able to do— create an independent, self-sustaining eatery that served good, simple, wholesome food you could eat with a clear conscience— would want to cast off the fetters of kitchen service occasionally and luxuriate amidst the trappings of her success, spartan though they may be. The front eating area of Swap is anything but ostentatious: decorated only sparsely, the walls are cool white, peppered with occasional small etchings and lithographs in black metal frames, and the furniture is what is commonly referred to as Danish Modern. Jess’s family came from Scandinavia and she’s in love with that style. When deciding where and how to splurge, she picked furniture others might consider heavy or imposing… yet there’s something about its simplicity and clean lines that lend the entire place a sense of calm tranquility. She maintains that general feeling as a theme throughout the whole restaurant, both in how the dining area is arranged, and in her management of the less elegant (but equally clean and serene) kitchen and farming areas.
Today she dutifully mans the sinks, washing dishes. Judging from the emptying dining room and the stacks of dishes flanking her slender frame, the morning breakfast rush must just have ended. Knots of people bustle through the kitchen and clog the stairs, so it must be a good day for wandering barterers; potentially tragic for me, since I’m one of the few barterers who comes here every day. Even though I don’t have a real job I try to keep a regular work schedule. Most of my bartering brethren, meanwhile, work only when they’re hungry, and then just long enough to pay for the food they need to not be hungry anymore. I take a different tack, trying to bank enough credit and good will with Jess to buy food for awhile, just in case. I flatter myself by thinking it ingratiates her to me. I suppose if I really wanted to make her like me, the best thing to do would be to get a job and start paying for what I eat, not in barter work and goodwill, but in much-needed cash. Although considering how many other scruffy would-be artist/writer/philosopher losers are in here today, I’m sure to stand out about as much as the atrium-white paint on the walls.
As I approach she turns and smiles at me. I would honestly work here just for that.
“And just where, exactly, have you been?” she says, with her usual air of playful condescension. I usually show up at least 15 minutes early—it helps to arrive before your shift since the jobs get handed out like orders at a deli: you come in, take a number, and she reads off various tasks that need to be done. When your number comes up, that’s your job. The best jobs are on top— watering, milking, feeding, etc. They get progressively worse the further you go down. Sometimes there are more people than there is work, but Jess does what she can to make sure everyone has something to do, tasking the last stragglers with busy work like sweeping the sidewalks, then sending them off with a hard-boiled egg and a cup of coffee. Everybody knows she takes a loss when she does that. Just another reason we all love her.
“I’m really sorry,” I tell her. “I’ve got an interview for a job today, across town. I really only have time to eat.” I don’t say it, but I’ve already missed the work rush, so it doesn’t matter anyway. All the barter work has already been claimed.
She laughs heartily, feigning hurt feelings. It’s almost insufferably cute. “Okay, I guess we’ll just have to rustle you up something to eat. But first you need to come upstairs.” She wipes her soapy hands on a wall towel then pats them dry on her skirt, turning from the sink and dishes. “I have something to show you,” she says.
I follow her (as fast as I’m able) up all 12 flights of stairs to the roof, my legs burning with the effort. The building has an elevator but Jess insists on using the stairs because she claims it keeps her in shape. Honestly, though, one look at her and it’s clear she has one of those figures that’s just genetically predisposed to looking good. The roof bustles with the usual activity: rows of people work their way through the gardens, pruning, weeding, and watering. Several workers milk the goats, while others tend the chickens. There’s a small butcher shed in the farthest corner of the roof (messy work, probably the worst job you can pull), but it only operates 3 days a week and today is not one of those days. We near the edge of the building, where I notice a ladder I’ve never seen before. Jess holds her hand out for me to take it. I stare at it for a second, unsure what’s next… I feel simultaneously hot and cold, my calves ache, and I feel a sudden flash of paranoia that I’ll starting sweating away the benefits of my recent shower. I must look like an idiot.
Jess’s merry voice breaks the silence: “Are you going to help me onto the ladder like a gentleman, or are you just going to stand there like an idiot?” — suspicion confirmed. We scramble down the 12 foot ladder onto the adjoining roof where a small band of people is working on what I must assume will be her new wheat field. A team of people are laying down a layer of rubber roofing strata; in the corner I see people cutting and connecting lengths of piping for the irrigation system; below our feet I hear a work crew, laying in a network of extra roof joists to support the added weight of seed and soil.
“How are you paying for all this?” I ask.
Jess grins proudly. “I actually got an grant from BHNC! I applied for it a few years back and it finally came through. They said promoting real ‘wasteland level entrepreneurs’ was part of their new marketing strategy.” She turns and touches my arm… her fingertips feel electric against my sun-warmed skin. “I need your help,” she says. “You’re generally pretty handy, and you seem to know a lot about everything. I need you to help me figure out how to turn all the wheat I’m about to grow into flour.”
I’ve been waiting years for a chance like this. Of course she may be overestimating my abilities a bit, but I’m not about to let her know that. I also don’t really know how I’ll be able to carve enough time out of my schedule to do the research, gather all the materials— plenty of wood, hand tools, and a giant round stone, I guess. Where am I going to get one of those..?
These are all questions for later. Of course I enthusiastically agree, we go back downstairs, and I grab a quick omelette while she finishes the dishes. She wishes me luck on the interview and suddenly I’m out the door and headed downtown.