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Lifetsyles of the poor and obscure


Off-the-Grid Urban Living Part I


by the Corporate Mofo Web Staff



In his infamous 1971 opus, Steal This Book, Abbie Hoffman presented his own design for urban living outside (and off of) the system. The "Me Generation" having wreaked its Yuppie havoc on our notions of an acceptable standard of life, we're obviously going to have to modify our definitions a bit. What with the astronomical cost of everything these days, Abbie's dumpster-diving just ain't going to cut it. Face it: Scruffy hippie crash pads are out; Playstations are in. It's no longer a question of surviving, it's surviving in style.

"Off-the-grid urban living" seems a contradiction in terms: "Urban living" has, since ancient Mesopotamia, meant dependence on other people and the government, while "off the grid" refers to those folks who want to live independently from Korporate Amerika, specifically off the municipal power grid. They tend to go in for things like solar panels, composting systems, outhouses, and vegetable gardens. Many do it out of a commitment to living in an ecologically correct manner; others do it because they're afraid the Zionist Occupation government is going to put microchips in their foreheads. (It's pretty safe to make fun of the second group: While they're usually heavily armed, they also don't read the World Wide Web.)

Yet, many of us who don't want to wipe our asses with twigs and leaves are getting roundly sick of the world of pre-packaged culture. Whether you really want to drop off the face of the earth, or whether you're just sick of paying through the nose for over-hyped crap, it's still possible to live in a major metropolitan area—say, New York or San Francisco—and not have to deal with the Establishment on a day-to-day basis. In fact, in some ways it's even easier to get lost in the urban jungle than it is in the backwoods—it just takes a little know-how. Just remember that when you either want to, or are forced to consume something, the choices we make in who we buy it from are as important as what we buy. Sure, you may feel good drinking that all-organic iced tea, but if you just put your hard-earned $5 into the pocket of some multinational that ass-rapes Burmese tea-farmers, who's coming out ahead?

So, without further ado, here are our suggestions for revolutionary living. For more phun and philosophy, check out Slow Food/Slow Cities and Simple Living, where they'll sell you books telling you advice we're giving out for free. You can also write in your own urban-living tips to, and we'll print them here.



Hint: It's green, and it makes the world go round. No, not ganja, dumbass: It's filthy lucre, and if you want to live, you're going to need some.

If you really want to live off the grid, your best bet is to find some off-the-books work. This can be anything from delivering pot (available only to clean-cut white kids) to working for cash at one of those funky stores that proliferate in places like the East Village. The up side is that if you're tattooing or selling goth clothing or bondage gear, you're basically immersed in the subculture of your choice 24/7. On the downside, being the pot pizza boy or corset-lacer doesn't have health insurance, and this ain't Canada, kids. Gone are the days that you could give a fake name and social security number at the emergency room, get a shot of penicillin, and sneak out the back. These days, they fucking want a retinal scan before they'll take the icepick out of your eye. HMOs are the Devil, and ripping them off is your duty as a citizen.

If, on the other hand, you want to go legit and pay taxes, not-for-profits are the way to go. At least this way, you can work for a good cause even as you sweat for your hard-earned dollar. Summer finds college kids canvassing for NYPIRG and Greenpeace all over New York. If you have a degree, they might even have a desk job for you. Of course, NFPs pay shit, and they usually have no room for advancement, since they're usually administrated by the trophy wives of rich industrialist bastards. Ironic, ain't it?

Waiting tables is also always an option, and is probably the oldest profession after prostitution. If you find the right sort of alternative eatery, heck, they may even pay you to be surly to the customers. Plus, most restaurants usually give you free food (or, at least, you can eat leftovers). Just don't work at McDonald's or where the fat cats eat lunch, unless you're gonna jerk off into their clam chowda.

If you're really desperate, and have any talent at anything at all, consider busking. The cops don't bother buskers too much, at least in New York City, and you can always relocate quickly. Besides, who knows—you might get discovered. A few hours with an acoustic guitar can yield oodles of cash, especially if you choose a good spot and have a good feel for what to play. Johnny Cash tends to pay well; so do subway covers of cheesy '80s songs (the Bangle's "Maniac Monday," anyone?). If you can't play an instrument (or don't want to carry your piano into the subway), there are lots of other things you can do—Shakespearian monologues, balloon sculpture, whatever. Just don't mime. Nobody likes mimes.

As the old saying goes, those who can, do, those who can't, teach. Regardless of the veracity of that statement, you can only get the official licence if you have a certain number of education credits, but many places are so strapped for warm bodies they'll take you on and pay for your degree. New York City is one example. This is a steady paycheck, health insurance, and the opportunity to indoctrinate the next generation with your anti-corporate viewpoint.

Being a professional dominatrix is ideal work if you are female and want to get out your pent up aggression against the Establishment and its white male corporate executives. Beat them for a living! It pays very well. You can set your own hours, and you'll save thousands of dollars in therapy. The initial capital investment to set up your dungeon/lair can be prohibitively high, but you can rent space in an established location or set up shop with another dom who'll go halvsies on the equipment. Advertising is cheap—use the back of the free weeklies to get started, then let word-of-mouth take over. You can be a generalist or you might consider specializing in, say water sports or medical implements, although the environmentally-responsible dom will avoid proclivities that involve using lots of disposable items. The market for this service is huge and surprisingly recession-proof. You already have an Internet account, which probably comes with some free web space, right? Set up a page for your business. Just be discreet and don't tell your ISP.

If you're reading this, you probably own a computer. Invest in a webcam. Camwhores make money. On the minus side, you have to lose your self-respect.

Finally, at rock-bottom, you might have to take a corporate job. This usually comes with both health insurance and unemployment benefits, which are fun, because then you can work on your novel for six months and get back all the unemployment they hacked off your paycheck.



It's getting harder and harder to find free or low-cost housing these days. Heck, even the infamous East Village squats around Tompkins Square Park are going co-op. Still, cheap rooms can be had at places besides the Y. You just have to know where to look.

If in desperate straits, mooch. If you have a friend who's going away to Europe for a month, volunteer to house-sit their apartment/feed their cat/do whatever it takes for a roof over your head. Old chums will often let you crash on the couch "until you get back on your feet." Usually, these are temporary solutions, but they're better than staying at the Y. Be sure to be polite and don't steal the silverware or run up the long-distance bill. During college in Buffalo, my roommates found some Mormon guy I didn't know to take my room for the summer. To pay the rent, he stole all my books and sold them to the used book store, thus necessitating my buying them back. If he hadn't fled to D.C., I would have stuck my foot so far up his ass he could have trimmed my toenails with his molars.

Eventually, you're going to need a place of your own, and that's going to require some capital (see "work," above). If you really want to be off the data grid, sublet from a friend (or find a stranger online or in a free weekly). Another option is to look for roommates, preferably of the same political stripe as yourself. Communes are terribly outdated, and they just don't work amongst people who've been raised in our "be yourself" society. Thai villagers, yes; suburban white kids, no. Just watch "The Real World." Better yet don't watch "The Real World" and thow out your TV. The networks' sole purpose for being is to advertise crap you don't need.

Less-desirable neighborhoods may smell bad, be dangerous, and require a long commute, but they're inexpensive. If someone asks you where you live, just say "Brooklyn," not "Canarsie." Other times, you might find an ad in an alternative weekly where someone will be willing to trade free or reduced rent for your services as a handyman (check, the Village Voice, or another free newspaper). Some female-type people of our acquaintance have even taken up sex-for-rent arrangements (this may also work if you're a young gay guy and look like Anston Kutcher). It's sleazy, but it also shows you how much of a hole we're in for affordable housing in this country.

Also, avoid brokers if at all possible. It may not be possible, but try. Brokers are basically the lampreys of the housing market. In New York City, they tend to be Israeli, and you know how the Israelis are about real estate.

If you're going to move to a city, wait until some natural or unnatural disaster hits it. It sounds cynical, but we found an apartment for hundreds below market value just a couple of months after 9/11. When California finally sinks into the Pacific Ocean, the next week hundreds of Corporate Motherfuckers will be moving into Silicon Valley to take advantage of the newly lowered real estate prices.

The best time to move is in January. NOBODY moves in January, and landlords will often lower rates on a vacant apartment to lure in prospective renters. After all, every month that thing is vacant, they lose money. Convesely, DON'T move in August, September, May or June.

Your apartment may be small, but you can double your space by putting in a loft—or an entire second floor. This works well for converted industrial space. Just be careful the scaffolding doesn't give way at a critical moment, like when you're balling on the bottom floor.

Of course, the ultimate form of off-the-grid living is a houseboat moored in the Hudson River (or Lake Michigan, or San Francisco Bay, or what have you). The waterways are still pretty unregulated, thank God, but you still have to pay docking fees and keep the chemical toilet filled.



If your goals are to simplify your life, live in a more environmentally responsible manner and reduce the amount of dosh you fork over to corporate behemoths, but you don't want to move to the Unabomber's old cabin in Montana, you've got your work cut out for you. The steps you take depend on what you are willing to live without and your preferences. We wouldn't own a microwave if our lives depended on it. Mistress Rowena's mother finds that she wastes less food and saves money by relying on one. Just the sight of one would make our lives hell; it makes her life simpler and cheaper.

Utilities are some of the most evil of all corporations. They spend your electric bill on lobbying Congress to let them belch more smoke into the atmosphere and uglify the countryside with more powerlines. Every penny you don't give them should make you feel good.

It is not very feasible to get off the local power grid if you live in a city apartment. But you can try not paying your electric bill for a really long time and see what happens. You can also use candles. Urbanites tend to be nocturnal; anti-establishment types even more vampiric. But the real way to thwart the system is to adopt the farmer's schedule of rising with the sun and going to bed with it (not literally). The amount of electricity you will save is enormous and your circadian rhythm will thank you. And, finally and most obviously, turn off the fucking lights when you don't need them. It is possible to pee in the dark. If you are the female half of a het couple, just make sure the standing pisser is well-trained to put the seat down so you don't take any unexpected midnight dips.

Likewise, it is probably not practical for an urbanite to opt out of the municipal water system. There aren't even any alleys in NYC where you could stick your outhouse, although, judging from a morning's rush hour commute on the subway, there are plenty of folks who consider bathing a waste of water. Again, the key here is to minimize usage. Turn off the fucking tap when you are brushing your teeth. (This makes Mistress Rowena homicidal.) Forget that things like dishwashers were ever invented. You are the dishwasher and you control the amount of water you use, not Whirlpool or Sunbeam. Shower in cold water so you'll be inclined to get out quickly. We know this one is hard for those that like their sex wet and standing up. Like we said, you pick and choose.

How many phones do you have? Do you have to call your machine at home from your mobile to see if the person you are expecting to call left a message there instead of on your mobile's voice mail? You know what to do here. Is your Internet connection dependant on having a land line? Stop giving out the number and get all the bells and whistles you are paying for—call waiting, etc., taken off.

Putting a brick in your toilet tank (thanks, Thomas!) reduces the water used, and thus, your bill.

One of the biggest off-the-grid issues for the homeowner is heating. As an apartment-dwelling urbanite, this is one area we can gloss over for now. You've probably got a super who waits too long in the fall to turn the heat on and shuts it off before the last frosty nights of spring. All we can say is, put on a sweater and be grateful you aren't spending all your time trying to reduce your heating bill. Conversely, whatever you do, DON'T USE AN AIR CONDITIONER. Learn to enjoy summer weather. With global warming, you're going to be enjoying it in December real soon. The best way to cool off in the summer is to have more sex. Really. Ice cubes and sorbet, as well as role-playing that you are an Amazon princess and your lover a fan-wielding slave, work wonders. At the very least, you won't be thinking about the heat for awhile.



"Ikea" is Swedish for "crap." We favor a decorative style called "construction site industrial." This is where you steal material like cinder blocks for bookcases and those big wire spools for tables from construction sites and garbage piles. If you're not up for the five-fingered discount, Home Despot (or better yet, your local family-owned hardware store) sells much the same stuff as you can find on construction sites for much cheaper than any prefab crap. Look at it this way: You can pay $160 for the authentic birch-veneer-over-plywood dresser that comes with its own first name, or you can pay $3 for six cinder blocks and three planks. We know that the "Björn" bookcase promised to be your new best friend, but trust me, them cinder blocks have more character.

If you're handy with tools, pick up some broken home or office furniture off the street and fix it yourself. You can find all sorts of great crap on New York City streets after about 10 PM, or in any student-residential area in any city September and May. This goes double if you live in Boston, where the streets basically become paved with pine every time the students move in or out. Don't wait for the ten thousand "antique" stores to pick the shit up and sell it back to you for far more than it's worth: When I was in grad school, I picked up half the stuff I needed for absolutely free.

Even if you're not handy, hang out in a place where a whole lot of dotcoms have gone bust. Our sources tell us Seattle is particularly good for this (thanks, Meat). There's an awful lot of perfectly good office furniture sitting on the street for no discernable reason. Your ass ain't sat until it's sat in an Aereon.

Remember, any odd assortment of home furnishings can be spruced up with your uncle's old lava lamp (even if doesn't work), a broken bong, and a tie-dyed tapestry. Then you can call it "retro-sixties," and all your friends will praise your sense of decorative irony.

Remember the 3 Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Even if your reasons for off-the-grid urban living are not environmental ones, following these three mandates will lessen both your expenditures and your interaction with evil corporations. Before you buy anything, ask yourself: do I really need it? How would the quality of my life suffer if I had to live without it? Do you really need a liner for your shower curtain? A fuzzy cover for your toilet seat? An electric toothbrush? Allow us to answer for you: no. Don't buy on impulse.

It goes without saying that you should not use credit cards: If you can't pay for it now, you can't buy it. That is the primary tenet of any anti-corporate manifesto. The corporate house of cards is built on easy credit. Don't buy into it. But beyond that, wait until the next day and go back to the store if you still want the item. 9 times out of 10, you won't be able to remember why you felt you had to have it. Clutter=stress. The less stuff you have, the more relaxed you'll be.

If you have exhausted the opportunities for free furniture (mom, dad, garbage-picking, roommates moving to Nepal), buy what you need from local craftsman. Better karma, less off-gassing from formaldehyde. Yeah, it's more expensive than IKEA, but you're helping someone make an honest living outside of the corporate meatgrinder. Buy fewer, higher quality, longer lasting items. If you pay more, you'll think more carefully about what you purchase. And you'll be able to pass them on at some point, instead of tossing them in a landfill when the particleboard gives way.

Corporations are notorious for thinking short-term. So are politicians. Corporate execs cannot see past the next quarterly earnings report; for pols, the next election cycle. You, however, have the luxury, nay, the duty, to think long-term. Buy those
compact florescent bulbs. Yes, they cost more now but they DO save a lot of money in the long run.

Next week: Food and Volvos!


Got tips that would make Martha puke? Send us e-mail at

Posted September 28, 2002 4:28 PM






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