I’m sipping a stevia-sweetened carbonated beverage and chatting at a low-key social event in art-loving, tech-focused San Francisco. The walls bear geometric LED panels that blink the rainbow at the rhythm of the ambient dubstep. One-in-three of these techies have brightly colored hair; four-in-five have tweeted about the election results with alternating waves of devastation and hopefulness. This event’s Facebook listing has shown me the names, faces, and mutual friends of all the attendees, even those I’ve never met.
I catch the eye of one of these known-unknowns and take a stab at their first and last names. Whether or not I’m right, I get points for audacity.
Then they ask me, “Where do you live?”
First-degree friends in earshot will stir with excitement to witness the reception to my stock answer: “I don’t keep a room anywhere. I’m nomadic.”
For the last year, I’ve roamed almost entirely within the San Francisco Bay Area. I’m unemployed and eating off of odd gigs and a chunk of change left from my divorce settlement. I get around on a bicycle and carry my belongings in a backpack. The way I use the word “nomadic” is not about hopping cities, it’s about living light and inhabiting new spaces.
While they parse a follow-up question, I clarify: “I stay with partners. I am very ‘polyamorous.’”
Unlike the couchsurfers I meet, I normally sleep in the bed of my host.
These scheduled “dates” typically begin in the evening and consist of introspective conversation and physical affection, to some degree both platonic and erotic. I meet my social, sleep and hygienic needs through lining up dates every night of the week.
I refer to the people I stay with regularly as “partners.” Each relationship shifts between emergent rituals and refreshing changes of pace, fading out and popping back in focus with the tides of personal growth and calendar alignment. Many of these people are habituated to more traditional relationship paradigms and find relief in my offer of easy intimacy.
This approach to relationships has been described as “relationship anarchy,” though my interactions with partners are structured around my propensity for sleepovers.
“Don’t you have a place you keep your stuff?”
“You see that bag over there? The grey small-ish one? That’s it.”
While technically true, this answer feels disingenuous. I’ve made two major adaptations to minimize my possessions:
- I designed and sewed a set of clothes to fit in a light backpack and last a week without laundry services.
- I set up a “clothing library” in a communal living space for the residents and associates to borrow clothes from, expanding the variety of clothes available for occasional use.
My frequent partners have offered space for me to store a personal cache of objects, but there is nothing that I don’t use on a daily basis that feels uniquely mine to keep safe from others. I preserve my independence by minimizing and diversifying the sources of my dependence.
“What do you spend the rest of your time doing?”
“I’ve been reading and writing a lot.”
When I have a moment of pause, I read viral articles to stay informed of the narratives my friends are reading. When I have a few hours to commit, I will typically spend it writing about my lifestyle or researching the different supply chains that flow beneath the surface of urban abundance. I regularly meet with friends to chat about the future of technology.
My immediate goal is to present my lifestyle as an alternative in dialogues about community structure and quality of living standards. Institutions like marriage, legal guardianship, and home ownership feel obsolete when I’m swimming in a reliable, decentralized community network.
My extended goal is to usurp competitive markets with collaborative labor organized through the social network graph. It’s an enormous project on the whole, but my adventures have yielded a bounty of intermediate steps.
“Don’t you feel uncomfortable waking up in a different place every night?”
“Yes. That’s what I like about it.”
The erratic nature of my transience forces me to form new frameworks of perception, a process that frequently thrusts me into intoxicating and alienating feelings. This strange emotional mindset is where I feel most fundamentally “at home.”
“Why did you decide to do this in the first place?”
“My ex-husband asked me to move out, so I packed a couple of bags, got on my bicycle, and stayed with my partners.”
That’s the abridged version.
Two years ago, I lived in a house with my husband. Our relationship was stable and passionless, our communication was pleasant and contained. When we confessed to having crushes on other people, we confidently “opened up” our relationship.
At the first opportunity, I found a new lover and drowned myself in maddening lust. I fantasized about starting a new life with my lover while he recoiled at my urge to push his boundaries. After mounting waves of arguments, he stirred dissent within my ego and exposed my approach to relationships as a disguise for my self-loathing. My lover then abandoned me and my loyal husband became distrustful. I broke down.
The ensuing anguish was excruciating and exquisite. I lamented my own naïveté while rediscovering the depth of emotions I had repressed in my subconscious. In the search for a new purpose, I spiraled from sublime mania to profound desolation. The bleakness was only disrupted by a faint, yet growing, glimmer of non-attached agency.
I surfaced, shivering. My personality had been gutted of behavioral restraints that were ubiquitous through even my earliest childhood memories. No comfort was desirable, no discomfort was menacing. All I could feel were disassociated feelings of grotesque beauty and a vague inclination to construct a lifestyle to preserve this fragile mindset.
I settled on an approach that I later described as “crowd-sourcing sanity.” For the following year, I continued to live with my husband while we accrued other partners. I became intimately acquainted with many different styles of mental compartmentalization, absorbing new ways of thinking without feeling the need to comply to their preferences. I was proving that non-attachment was working for me while continuing to tide my husband’s desire for me to be a consistent presence in his life.
In early September 2015, I discovered an interest in embarking on a form of homelessness. A couple of weeks after sharing this interest to my husband, we filed for a divorce and he asked me to move out. That afternoon, I packed a couple of bags, rigged my bicycle with a rack and basket, and biked to a partner’s place for a sleepover.
“Are you planning to settle down?”
In the short term, I have dates planned for most evenings of the upcoming week.
In the long term, I have budgeted to continue this lifestyle for another year without requiring any form of employment. If I use this time to develop tools to expand my resources and simplify my routines, I will be able to continue this lifestyle indefinitely whilst enabling other people to live similarly.
After all, my present goal is to demonstrate alternative lifestyles enabled by modern technology.
My new Facebook friend takes a swig from their plastic cup, pauses, then proclaims, “It seems like it’s working for you, but I could never do that. I need stability.”
“‘Never’ is a big word.”
I didn’t always live like this.
I used to live in a big Victorian in West Oakland. My husband and I shared a room with large south-facing windows and billowing white and beige curtains. Above my drafting table loomed shelves of earthen and wood vessels, accumulated over years of participating in our families’ gift-giving traditions. We shared a queen bed with a map of the world at the head and a wicker chest at the foot.
I hadn’t planned to get divorced and reduce my possessions to what I can carry on my back. I didn’t believe that profound happiness could be found off the path of a long term relationship and a career.
I simply had no idea of what else was possible.
This morning I woke up next to a person I love. Today I read articles about the expansion of the sharing economy. Right now I’m having a delightful, probing conversation in one of San Francisco’s techie communal spaces. Tonight I’ll carry my backpack, ride my bicycle through a strange and beautiful city, and fall asleep cuddling another person I love. The details are fuzzy and that’s fine by me.
I know what you’re thinking. It’s okay to say it; I won’t be offended.
“Oh my god that’s SO San Francisco.”
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Since writing this story, I have launched the app, Leela Maps, a platform for sharing map notes about yourself and your environment, privately or publicly.