The Commune


In a big, beautiful brownstone in Fort Greene live seven people who used to be strangers. They call it a cooperative house.

On the day I moved in, I mistakenly called it a “commune.” I was all sweaty from the move and my new housemate had just handed me a mason jar of water and I said, “Dude, we live in a commune.”

This was not met with approval. My housemate seemed disappointed in me. “We call it a cooperative house,” he said.

And so I never called it a “commune” out loud again. Clearly, this was considered derogatory. And maybe outdated. It was like calling a flight attendant a stewardess, I think.

But I wouldn’t know, not really, because I never asked. I never asked because I was afraid of getting stuck in one of those never-ending kitchen conversations I spent two years of my life trying to avoid. I’d eat a date, waiting for someone to finish their point. Then I’d eat some peanuts. Then I’d eat all the nuts and fruits we had foraged from the Park Slope Food Coop, and the person would still be talking.

The kitchen was the hottest gathering spot in the house, and the giant wooden table, painted a Crayola forest green, was the center of the flame. Always on this table was an ongoing game of chess, with a “YOUR TURN” sign that moved from side to side; the New York Times crossword, with answers filled in by different people over the course of the day; crumbs and probably a glob of tahini because nothing was ever clean, and a heavy wrought iron cow bell with an authentically rough finish that could injure you if you picked it up wrong. This was our dinner bell. Seven people, seven nights. Each of us was responsible for cooking dinner on one of them. When your food was ready, you would stand at the foot of the lowest staircase and ring the bell and shout DINNERRRRRR! up to the highest ceiling.

The commune is worth well over a million dollars. Real estate agents and random people walking by would leave notes on the stoop: Are you interested in selling? We placed these on the kitchen table with pride.

It was four floors, seven rooms, three bathrooms, and a large living room with a built-in mirror that answered back in warped, blurry reflections. The owner bought the house for much less than a million dollars back when Fort Greene was a gunfire ghetto. He was “a genuine environmentalist,” many of the housemates would say, and this was true. He was also into the idea of community living, so he let a bunch of twenty-something wayward kids move into his house. It was supposed to be a democracy, but it wasn’t. He was the father, which made us the children.

What was expected of us: we had to become members of the Park Slope Food Coop. Once every seven weeks, we would shop for the house. We had to do chores, and we had to attend house meetings. House meetings were mandatory. Oh, and we had to cook dinner and lay it out on the kitchen table and ring the bell.

The kitchen table was not only a place to eat our curry and granola. When our friends came over to eat with us (always in the beginning of the week, before we’d run out of food), it became a think tank. And during the day, it was an office. A flourishing workspace of self-invented professionals. Many of us were CEOs. We gave our companies kitsch names that sounded like eateries in Williamsburg and collected our corporate mail at the house.

Only two of us had regular jobs. The rest of us were doing the “etcetera” section on Craigslist, and we were always broke, which made the commune perfect because it was so cheap. We were artists, mostly, and we were activists, of course, and I think, for some of us, there was something kind of pastoral about staying a little broke and a little dirty. It gave our struggle substance. It eased our white liberal guilt. Under a layer of grit, our secondhand sweaters sent just the right message, which was a passive version of “Fuck the man.”

We fucked the man by avoiding consumerism whenever possible. Before we bought anything, we first asked the question: can we make this ourselves? Before we threw anything away (which almost never happened), we asked: can this be repurposed? Almost always, the answer to these questions was a resounding yes. Which was why the “planter” in our backyard looked so much like an old toilet.

We had other, nobler ways of fucking the man. We occupied Wall Street. We walked for cancer once. We raised awareness about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on social media. We taught kids art, which, fine, we got paid for, but it still counted as altruism. A few of us were involved in a company formed on the theme of bartering. Instead of using currency, why not trade services? As in, let’s go back in time to when we hadn’t invented money yet. It was very Utopia.

And then, since most of us were artists, we fucked the man through art. A provocative performance piece with a violently swinging arm, for example, would provoke people into questioning—I don’t know what, but it was important. Then there was also the tableau upstairs, of a hairball glued to a canvas. This, I’m sure, was meant to be provoking in the exact same way as the swinging arm, but for women. But I wouldn’t know because I never asked.

We were educated and mostly white, and this meant it was our job to help. Great power comes with great responsibility. We were young and smart and hopeful, and we just wanted to do the right thing. Or we wanted to discuss what the right thing was, which was the first right thing you could do. Doing this from our hub at the kitchen table felt luxurious to us, and it was. Imagine us in our mismatched socks and our falling-off Smurf beanies, sitting at that green table, our steaming cups of organic matcha between our cold hands because we wanted to save on heat, each of our faces lit up by our Mac computer screens and then also flickering because that one light bulb was a dud. Just the mere fact of this scene counted as doing the right thing. It was like going back to the time before we had invented offices. Like the bartering system, we were recreating some bygone era, and so it felt pure to us, and unencumbered, and just better.

The past was an obvious thing to cling to. Other things we clung to were less obvious. The mismatched socks thing—I knew we were doing that on purpose, but I didn’t know why. It was like everyone had signed a pact, or read the same issue of Vogue that I had missed. At first I thought it was a fluke, a laundry mishap, but no. It was every day and it was intentional. Sometimes, I thought we might have been trying a little too hard to pretend we didn’t care about the man.

If I had asked, “When I say ‘commune,’ why do you look at me like I just called you ‘fatty?’,” I know what would have happened. Someone would have pointed out that the word “cooperative” comes from the word “cooperation.” Someone else would have said that in order to function as a house, we all had to cooperate. And then this would have quickly devolved into a conversation about (a) farming, (b) politics, or (c) why Cooper Union sucks now because you have to pay for it yourself. Which would have then inevitably ended up where it always did, at our ultimate favorite kitchen conversation, entitled What Our Country Needs To Do In Order To Work.

Park Slope Food Coop

Our house, we believed, was a microcosm of that country. Every month, we’d gather at the kitchen table for our house meeting, where we, like politicians, unveiled our big plans for change. We outlined methods for how, as a cooperative group, we could achieve success. In order to do this, it was important to make our plans as complex as possible. Because success was not measured in the traditional way of making a box and checking it off. The ability to actually complete a task was almost secondary. What mattered more was your ability to present the task you planned to complete to the group.

If someone had left the front door open (which—how?—happened all the time), the answer was not “Shut the door.” There were many answers, and many opinions. Maybe we could punish the person who did it! The guilty party could do an extra shifts at the Coop! Or maybe we could make our door into a weighted door, so it would shut by itself! How? Cinder blocks and a rope!

Don’t even get me started on our rope collection; we had so much rope. And twine. In different colors and sizes. Like, Costco amounts of rope. For what reason? Emergencies like fixing the door, obviously.

One night, someone brought up the state of the hammock. The hammock was in what I would call a GAME OVER state. There was a giant gaping hole in the middle of it.

This was a long one. We spent half an hour trying to solve this riddle. Someone pointed out that the cost of a new hammock in the US was $40. But someone else was going to Puerto Rico soon and maybe they could buy one down there for $5? Unless it was too big to fit in their bag, in which case they’d need another bag, which meant a $25 bag fee. So, we could get a $30 Puerto Rican hammock or a $40 hammock from here. We couldn’t decide. The Puerto Rican hammock idea was an unknown variable. And so we would table the issue until next month, when someone would present their Google research on actual prices and weights. (Although they wouldn’t, because no one ever remembered to do their Google homework.)

And wait. We’re not even done yet. Because there was still the current hammock to deal with. What would we do with it?

I’ll tell you what we did with it. We, being the owner, whose genuine environmentalist spirit meant that he had trouble throwing anything (anything) away—note Richard Nixon’s face on a 1970s magazine cover we kept on top of the Tupperware fridge, which was a whole fridge we used just for storing Tupperware, sat on the kitchen floor for several hours, untying each individual knot of that hammock.

His argument for this?

We needed more rope.

The most impressive part about the hammock repurposing was that it actually got done. This was an anomaly. It was also an example of a new action item on our list. Most of the time, our list was just our undone plans carried over from the previous month. And for this reason, every house meeting was the same.

“Should we get rid of the landline?”/“We still don’t know.”

“Someone is still leaving their hair clumps in the fourth floor bathroom. I emailed you all a picture of it.”/“You sent another picture of that?”

“Who keeps taking the scissors out of the kitchen?”/(No response.) (Ever.)

Even the rat problem eluded us at group level. Some people (me) thought: kill them! Other people thought that surely, there must be a more humane way. Could we build a box to catch them? One person actually said, “Rats are our friends.”

We talked a lot about how the world was falling apart, but no one seemed to notice that our house was going to fall apart first.

Pieces of the banisters fell out when you walked up the stairs. I’d open the door to my room, and the door knob would end up in my hand 30% of the time. The house was over a hundred years old, and it had never been renovated. This meant that there were tons of beautiful, ornate details. It also meant that the infrastructure of our house was old. Our beams were old beams. One housemate was actually afraid that his room would give out. Just—boom–and he’d crash to the lowest level with zero notice.

The house smelled like wet wood and turmeric at different gradations of pungency. There was curry just now, curry yesterday, and curry three days ago (it never went longer than three days), with powerful background notes of curry-in-the-walls-forever. But others did not seem to notice. Once, I said to a housemate, “Our house smells like curry all the time.” The housemate said, “It does?”

In part, our dirtiness was intentional. It said the same thing as our mismatched socks: this, compared to the state of Israel, is not important. But there is a difference between messy-dirty and nasty-dirty, and we didn’t know what it was. Our definition of “clean” was delusionally generous. Maybe we had forgotten what clean looked like. Even if we had known, though, it might not have made mattered. Because we only bought that Seventh Generation stuff, which—I’m sorry—does not work. If ants are eating your cleaning spray, then it’s not working. Have you ever seen ants crawling all over your 409? No, you have not.

There were lots of signs around the house. By the dryer, a baggie stuffed with lint, labeled “Save for campfires.” Flour was labeled “flour,” beans were labeled “beans.” The front door said, “Shut me!”

Because the first answer to any problem was: make a sign! And, of course, making a sign was just as worthy as doing the thing your sign told us to do.

I never made a sign, but if I had, it would have said PLEASE, LET’S NOT TALK RIGHT NOW. I would have hung it around my neck. Having to interact with so many people all the time stressed me out. It’s like what my mom says about the holidays: forced gaiety. But I never made that sign. Which meant the only rational thing to do, if I didn’t want to talk, was to avoid the kitchen.

By the end, I could identify each housemate’s footsteps from two flights away. I knew whose smells belonged to whom. If it was eggs at 11 a.m., I knew who that was. Beans late at night, simmering to Cat Stevens? That could only be one person. I spent many unsure minutes, still on the staircase, weighing my options. Was cereal worth a conversation right now, or was I actually not that hungry?

If you had circled the one who didn’t belong, it might have been me. My socks? Matched. My wastefully expensive Canada Goose winter coat? Murdered a coyote and I’m sorry. Curry? Not a fan. Activist cause? I’m gay. Does that count?

But in other ways, I did belong. I was an artist. I was always broke. (See: Canada Goose.) Nine to five jobs weren’t for me either. And living in the commune was awesome for many reasons. Just the fact of living in a real house in New York astonished me for months. I loved our neighborhood. Shopping for seven at the Coop was an anxiety attack waiting to happen, but I loved their food. And I loved my master bedroom, which was huge and light and clean and unbelievably cheap.

Before each house meeting, I had a routine. I’d take a bath to relax myself. I’d douse my wrists in lavender oil for the same reason. I’d bring a pen and paper to the table so I could doodle. This would relax me more. At, “Where are the scissors?,” I would inhale the lavender oil from my wrists, wishing it were a sedative.

By the end-end, I was making my dinner at four and storing it in the cool desk drawer in my room upstairs until I was ready to eat it. This meant I could avoid the kitchen at rush hour. I didn’t tell anyone about this for a long time because I knew it was bad. When I finally did, the person said, “Oooooh, that’s bad.” And I knew it was time. Time to spread my wings and fly away into a world where I would have to pay my own cable bill.

I moved into the commune because it was cheap and because it was beautiful. I still think about how cheap and beautiful it was, actually, and there are parts of it that I miss.

The first time I saw my housemates gathered so convivially around that kitchen table, I know that I imagined myself sitting there with them.

But then, that never happened. I was always in a rush. I’d breeze in for a banana and breeze out the door. Maybe I was moving too fast. Maybe I was missing something. And maybe if time had frozen for me like it had frozen for them, I would have understood what I was missing.

But then, that never happened. I kept breezing in and breezing out. I always had somewhere to be, and I was always trying to get there faster. I had stuff to do. And no, I did not want to discuss it at group level first. I just wanted to get it done. My clock was hell-bent on ticking into the future.

The people who thrived at the commune were the ones who liked the community aspect of the kitchen. (“Commune” comes from the word “community,” by the way.) It was like going back in time to college, because the commune was basically a dorm. Or it was a childhood, a little Utopia in Brooklyn where money didn’t have to be real and where, just in case you forgot, there was a sign to remind you of your next adult move: Do the dishes!

Swan Huntley is the author of a novel, We Could Be Beautiful. She earned her MFA from Columbia University. She's received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Ragdale Foundation. She lives in California and Hawaii. More from this author →