Monday, November 21, 2011

Hippy Dippy or: My Trip to the Communal Boiler

The idea of communal living was always something that interested me until I saw it first hand. Coming out of high school, I found myself accepted into a Dramatic Writing conservatory at SUNY Purchase, one of the more left-leaning campuses in the SUNY system. It was there that I came face-to-face with communal living, radical politics (on both ends, oddly enough), and an invigorating culture of craftsman (some of whom eventually became NYC handymen friends of mine) and artists who believed steadfast in the do-it-yourself approach. For most, money was tight, used mainly for booze, gas, and a monthly trip into the city, but materials were plentiful and there was a spirit of invention that still attracts me to this day.

This was not the same sort of spirit I encountered when I found myself giving a ride to a NYC plumber friend early this year while her truck was in the shop.  A call had come in from a house all the way out in Bay Ridge, an area I remembered largely as a community of firemen, police officers, construction workers and other various day laborers. I had lived in an adjacent neighborhood, Sunset Park, for a few years after college and was shocked to find that there was a large house (12 bedrooms!) that served as a sort of commune for a pack of Brooklyn college graduates in the middle of the Ridge.

What was not so much of a surprise was that none of them knew anything about boilers and what exactly they do, though, to be perfectly frank, neither did I until a different NYC plumber friend of mine gave me a shot-in-the-arm tutorial about the whole shindig. We arrived at the house and my friend immediately followed the ringleader of the outfit to the basement, where their gas boiler was clearly malfunctioning. The house itself was freezing and at every corner of the house, I could see a blanket or a quilt being used as a heating alternative, either being wrapped around some being or being pinned up to cover a window. In fact, there was a young woman wrapped in a quilt, working on knitting another quilt.

My friend came up and informed me that it was a simple blown fuse and that we would be done within the hour. Seeing as it was frigid outside, I graciously took up an offer to hang out with other members of the household as my friend did her work. It turns out that most boiler problems go back to tripped circuit breakers, blown fuses, an unlit pilot light or, in rarer cases, a problem with the thermostat. A blown fuse is, in fact, something that should be left to a professional. The others are easy enough to learn, but are hugely dependent on brands and models, thus why I must sadly decline a quick tutorial.

Anyway, as I was saying, my memories of living with metal and wood workers at SUNY Purchase was not exactly matched by the group of people (most of them were about three years my junior) I came into contact with at this house. There was a silence to the house that not even the seemingly on-loop recordings of Bob Dylan and Fleet Foxes that echoed through the rooms seemed to help. I attribute this to the fact that many artists, especially writers and graphic artists, do their work online and it is not my intention to say that this band of communal believers aren’t as ambitious and unique as the people I knew, who are now, as I said, NYC handymen, plumbers, stagehands, furniture makers or old-fashioned artists. I guess I miss the sound of activity, which has been replaced with the tapping of keyboards, for better or worse. (If I’m being totally honest, it’s probably for the better.)

Soon enough, me and my friend left and I dropped her back off at her shop in Dumbo. I told my girlfriend at the time about the house and similar ideas as the ones I have expressed here and she, perhaps rightly, figured me as an “old fuddy duddy.” It’s not as if I’m expecting everyone to go out there and learn how to perfectly maintain a boiler or hot water heaters or anything else of the sort, though I hardly see the harm in that being an ambition. My business, and others, might suffer but I can hardly contain a grin when my younger cousin tells me that he learned how to relight a pilot light or reset a thermostat on his own.