During my last month as a college student, I clipped a posting from the classifieds: “WANTED: Vegetarian Housemate for Farmhouse Collective."
I called the number, and was told the farmhouse had been in the same remote spot on State Route 208 since the 1800s, and was now full of eccentrics -- all vegetarian or vegan, who shared books on a communal shelf and enjoyed the plentiful outdoor space. There weren’t any neighbors close by, just the puffed-up turkeys on the lawn and the raccoons in the trash bins. Behind the house, apple orchards. A pond to one side, a skydiving ranch to the other. Every weekend, people in colored jumpsuits would fall from above like flung crayons.
I moved in shortly after shedding my cap and gown.
The farmhouse was fifteen minutes away from the nearest laundromat, pharmacy, or restaurant. I hoped that being cloistered away from civilization would make the farmhouse its own hippie island, inspiring those of us who lived there to form an open and meaningful community.
My room was the smallest in the house -- a glorified walk-in closet. Enough square footage to hold a mattress and box spring, a footlocker full of clothes, a pile of notebooks, and a couple of jadeite bowls holding pens and necklaces. I paid $350 a month.
In the other rooms: a man I called Rumplestiltskin -- an aging hippie with tales from the original Woodstock. Two dreadlocked undergrads who worked part-time as door-to-door fundraisers for the environment, whose rooms smelled memorably of sweat and cannabis. The zydeco musician with a glittering pink accordion who got evicted two days after moving in for pissing naked by the road. A graduate oil painter at the nearby college who scarcely appeared in the farmhouse, which was a shame, because we had a few good conversations. And our keeper, Daisy, a tattooed ex-artist and militant vegan who seemed to live entirely off the jars of almond butter she’d eat each night with a spoon.
But the most spectacular lesson in co-habitation was the number of other inhabitants who, unbeknownst to me, shared our home. A week or two after I’d moved in, I was climbing the stairs to Daisy’s second floor studio to leave the mail for her. I noticed furry faces approaching on the other side of her glass door. Lots of them, tails up in the air, forming a terrifying whiskered and yowling barricade.
I dropped her mail on the top step, not fully processing what I’d seen.
She was keeping 21 cats up there.
Three cats already lived with us downstairs -- in quarantine, you know, because they had feline HIV. Which brought us to a grand total of twenty-four cats living in the farmhouse with us. I later learned Daisy had stolen them from pet stores, saved them from dumpsters, and confiscated them from friends who she felt were ill-equipped to love them as much as they deserved.
I love cats. But 24 of them is too many. 24 of them seems unkind to human and cat alike.
Had I recognized this for the massive red crazypants flag it should have been, I wouldn’t have stayed for the better part of a year. All I saw was potential for a story, which was enough back then to convince me to do nearly anything.
There were other red flags. I later discovered that Daisy shoplifted from the grocery chain in town in order to support these furry companions. (We weren’t permitted to use the word “pet,” and I can’t even describe the wrath that would befall anyone who deigned to use the phrase “crazy cat lady.”) She used what little money she had on her own soy lattes and Dr. Bronner soaps and large items like industrial-sized sacks of cat litter that she couldn’t sneak under her clothes. When she went into town, she’d wear her long trench and carry a messenger bag. She’d return to the farmhouse with a can of cat food in every pocket.
I didn’t think what she was doing was right or ethical, but I hadn’t yet found whatever it was that drew me to the farmhouse in the first place. And so I stayed.
Month after month, I worked my way out of the transitional, post-college odd jobs –- perfume-store retail, phone book ad design -– and eventually accepted a position with a noble but tiny weekly paper. I came back to the farmhouse every night, exchanged a few words with whichever housemate happened to be out of their room, microwaved some rice noodles, retreated to my quarters and pretended there wasn’t a cat pile just above my ceiling.
In some ways I’d hoped my time at the farmhouse would be an antidote to the starched and manicured liberal arts college I’d attended just across the river. For the past four years, I’d felt isolated by the apparent normalcy of my fellow students, who for the most part enjoyed shopping at the mall and binge drinking and other rote college activities that didn’t appeal to me. I didn’t mind it -- standing out had its advantages -- but I’d always wondered what it would be like to not feel like the odd one.
But in any case, it wasn’t something I found at the farmhouse. My fellow residents, when they were home, existed behind closed bedroom doors. Only occasionally would we cross paths: late at night when brushing our teeth, or at meal times, or when the cat-related noises upstairs grew too distressing to ignore. I enjoyed good hygiene and bad refined sugars and wouldn’t give up 35mm photography because film is made with gelatin, and those things made me different, slick, disappointing to my housemates and Daisy most of all; she threw me dirty looks when I left for work in a jacket or heels. Most of the housemates chose to be as combatively offbeat toward each other as they could manage, as though the farmhouse were some strange contest: The weirdest of the weird got a prize.
When I moved in, I was looking for Greenwich Village circa 1975. Paris circa 1926. Some space where people were artistic and self-actualized and held, I don’t know, impromptu literary salons on the dusty steps of the brownstones they shared. I was looking for stories to witness and delicious soul-searching conversations about philosophy, artistic intention, ontology. Collaborators. Co-conspirators. Renegade creatives.
I’ll be the first to admit that there may be communes, or collectives, or co-ops that align exactly with what I was looking for. I haven’t come across them -- but then, after living at the farmhouse, I also didn’t go looking. For me, it was enough to recognize that if I were to find the creative hive I had dreamed of as a teenager, it wouldn’t come in a pre-fab state. The social groupings I wanted to participate in were more like the Ikea furniture I would purchase two years later: Some assembly required.
One day I found Daisy searching my room because she thought she saw me bring a leather bag inside the house. It was one of the few times I openly confronted her, because violating the privacy of her tenants without cause was unacceptable. There was no mandate on what items could or couldn’t come in the house, only that no meat entered the kitchen. And certainly other housemates brought items of questionable legality into their rooms without being searched. She stole half the things she brought home.
She argued that her thieving was politically motivated and was perfectly in line with her rigorous code of ethics. My leather purse, not so much.
I don’t remember if the bag in question was real leather or not, thrifted or new, but I didn’t stay long after that. I already know that I wouldn’t find the things I came to the farmhouse looking for. And I’d already gotten notice that I was approved to teach English overseas later that summer, and intended to travel and see friends and family before heading across the ocean.
More than the lingering scent of cat urine, what stayed with me from the farmhouse experience is this: Feeling like an outsider doesn’t change, even when surrounded by other outsiders. Living in that veggie farmhouse commune and cat compound was perhaps more isolating than other living spaces I’d encountered, and certainly less relaxed because of Daisy’s unpredictability. In the end, it was up to me to assemble the group of humans I sought as confidantes, collaborators, and inspirations.
And maybe a cat or two for good measure.