Some sort of biological clock is going off in me right now. May is here. Birds are going nuts. Cherry trees are giving up their blossoms. People are manically swarming the parks, swilling Pabst and playing kickball. This always used to be the time of the year that would kill me. Continually, year after year, this was the time I would give two weeks notice at my job, stuff some gear in a bag and abandon my life for months.
I used to work in food service, doing jobs like washing dishes, prep-cooking. I’ve made pizzas. These jobs were steady and required little of me outside of bouts of extreme physical labor. They were numbing, and my understanding of them floated between the poles of suffering them as soul-crushing wage-slavery to seeing them merely a symptom of my lack of creativity. They seemed like a life-preserver, keeping me from the pits of dire poverty I could only guess at and, for a while, I was thankful. But it wasn’t long until something flared up inside of me: the knowledge that I’d been here before. Physical surroundings had changed, but the condition had stayed the same.
There is a precariousness to these low-paying jobs and they, more often than not, don’t come with sick time or health benefits. What’s the use of an eight-hour day when you get paid under the table, or your boss keeps you on shift for ten or eleven hours? People have a reflexive pride or resignation about these jobs. They treat them like soldiers treat tours of duty and live for petty disputes or tiny transgressions. There is a kind of solidarity, one where everyone knows one fundamental thing: that, on the clock, we’re all volunteering to servitude.
It hurts worse when a boss screams at you when you technically choose to be at work. Even worse is when you miss out in things that would enrich your life because you’re scheduled to be there. I would hate myself on these occasions, tear myself apart because I was so far from my desires and know that life cannot be replaced. My time, pieces of my life, were being auctioned away.
But then the feeling I was leaving would come over me like a fever! My frustrations would well up and I would have to work so hard to keep a lid on whatever threatened to boil over inside. The sun hitting the most disgusting can of cigarette butts, the sparrows picking around the dumpster, the whiffs of spring scent discernible over the smell of grease would invade my head. I would walk to the bus stop saying, “This is the last time,” and feel the power of those words wash over me; they were intoxicating. I would look at co-workers I had shared time with and resolve to tell the ones dearest to me first. And then I’d pull my boss aside and just say it: “I’m quitting.”
I’d hitch. All over. Let the continent in all its terrible glory flood my senses and experience the beautiful charity and the sometimes weird and troubling interactions happening at once. I have slept in fields of high grass behind gas stations, bullshitted with sex workers on truckstop lots, been in the back of a pickup speeding on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific. I even saved a dog on the side of the freeway once. All of this, even the sketchballs and tweakers I’ve ridden with, were my reward for insisting on the absence of a safety net, for risking my health and stability, for a better life.
It’s called “lifestyle anarchism,” a derogatory term for the travelers of the nineties and aughts who read the dropout treatises of Crimethinc, with all their bastardized Nietzsche, which drew a point from the dreariness one experiences and the carnival of liberation one could have now, in one’s life. It contravenes more traditional, left-anarchism. Murray Bookchin wrote of an “unbridgeable chasm” between the two tendencies. Lifestyle anarchists are seen as selfish, incapable of organizing, weak on theory and, as such, prone to exertions of privilege they leave unchecked. Also, it is possible to posit that they have some means to sustain their bohemianism: rich parents, a trust fund. None of these apply to me. What is true is that if dropping out meant that the sea of boredom that was my working life could be parted to move to an unpredictable, if grimy, paradise, then I have embraced it.
I don’t do this so much, anymore. I’ve been doing low-paying writing gigs to sustain myself over the last two years. It takes the risk of failure I need and wraps it into my work and, when work is hard to come by, at least I have my days. I can cook dinner, visit friends, be outside, read uninterrupted. Life rushes forth.
The traveler’s itch isn’t extinguished, either. But dropping out taught me that, while it’s possible to break free of one cage, you escape into a larger one. My freedom doesn’t truly begin until everyone’s does. I want a place to be, a place to work towards, where everyone gets to decide how their lives will proceed and we can dispense with this resignation to submission. That is what I want to build, only that. A place with gardens and workshops, a place to share meals, to meet, to mediate conflicts. I have been exposed to my limitations, but I know my capabilities well.
I know that, in the path towards freedom, we only hold ourselves back.