Sunday, February 22, 2009

An Outsider Goes In


Former housemate Brooks is going places.

You could have called us losers. While pouring beans out of a can into a pot once, he asked me, “What’s your favorite bean?”

“Black. But when I get tired of that, I change it up with some pintos.”

After his first year of living with me and attending business school, he spent the summer doing internships in San Francisco and D.C. When he was due to return for his second year of school, he asked if, instead of moving back into his old room, he could rent the crumbling shed behind our house for a measly $10.00 a month. He would take showers and use the bathroom indoors, but sleep out there.

I knew he would do it too. Over the summer he had emailed me descriptions of sitting on the floors of subway stations of San Francisco, his back against the tile wall, reading about African population and disease statistics. Once a bum had come and sat next to him and talked gibberish, then tilted over and fallen asleep on his leg. Brooks just kept reading.

At the end of that internship, he delivered a presentation about how that foundation’s disease prevention efforts were not as effective as they could be, and he recommended some new approaches.

“No,” I said, “You may not live in the crumbling shack. If you live on the premises, you man-up and carry your weight -- $250.00 per month share for rent plus utilities like the rest of us pay.” I mean, it’s not like I was asking him to live according to middle class values or anything. We are not air conditioned; a family of birds nests in our chimney every summer. Anyway, I knew that, if he were to move into the shed, I’d be out there on the cold nights insisting that he come indoors.

Instead, for that fall, he found a long-term housesitting gig in town. For his final semester the following spring, he doubled up on schoolwork by beginning a public health program in Baltimore and dividing his time between here and there. Then he enrolled in a PhD program for agricultural engineering in Baltimore, and used his grad school stipend not to live on, but to start a non-profit company that experiments with growing meat as tissue culture. The plan is to one day replace factory farms with incubators that grow only muscle, not entire animals.

Now he speaks at international conferences dealing with food production. His ex-girlfriend from here told me that his research compelled him to compile a list of the greatest risks our country faces. I don’t know what they are, but guess what -- it’s not Iran’s 3.49% concentrated uranium. He submitted this list to some pentagon official, and was invited in for some conference there.

When he lived with me, I had lost a job and was sleeping late most days, and applying to graduate schools in creative writing. We all know what happened with that. I eventually found my way back into the field I had worked in previously. But now that field is slackening off, what with the economy and all. I’m sleeping late a lot of days. And taking naps. I wake up not knowing whether it’s time for breakfast or dinner; the room is dark either way.

Usually I don’t know what to do upon waking, so I check email. And one evening, while doing this, still groggy, the phone vibrated. It was an investigator calling to ask about Brooks.

When did I know him, and in what capacity?

Housemates, I said. How much would this guy want to know?

I did not say that I had met Brooks when he called one August Friday morning when I was in the final days of that job I lost. He wanted to see the house that day and have us make the decision right then on whether he could move in. I said that usually we take a few days after the interview to check references. He offered to give me the references so I could check them during that day, from work, before we met. Then, if I liked him and had found the references favorable, I could then make the decision right there.

I was feeling a little pushed into this, but I said I’d check the references. They were two or three guys spread all around the country, and all had those non-violent vegetarian tenor voices like you hear on This American Life. They said that Brooks was great -- that he would “invent something for us, like a better way to dry clothes on the line,” that he would refinish the floors.

Brooks showed up and liked the downstairs room, somewhat separate from the rest of the rooms upstairs. He said all he would have would be a sleeping bag and a bicycle. His dad was with him and sat out on the front walkway while Brooks and I talked. I liked him and said he could move in. His dad wrote the first check. Two weeks later Brooks came back with his stuff.

A bicycle, sleeping bag, backpacks and books. The smell of musty camping gear emanated from his room and filled the stairwell to the upstairs hall. He had nothing to sleep on besides his sleeping bag. I insisted that he add the guest mattress to his accouterments. It had been our guest accommodations for years. We would get it out from the attic and slide down the stairs on it, crashing into the hall closet door on the first floor. We slid it down for the last time for Brooks, and on it he slept and studied that whole year, reading by the stark light of the single bare lightbulb in the ceiling six feet above his head, his back against the plaster wall.

He rode that old beat-up three-speed bike to class and back. He said he didn’t even want a 10-speed, because he could fix the 3-speed himself. And he never wanted to drive a car because he never wanted to kill anyone on the highway.

He was a student at one of the most prestigious business schools in the country.

The investigator said that it was customary for students at this school to do a lot of their work online and cut classes. He asked if Brooks did this. I admitted that he had. (I didn’t say that he had even skipped one class so much that that professor put his picture from the class roster on the overhead projector and asked the class who he was. Near the end of the semester, Brooks needed to attend that class to take a test. His classmates warned him that the professor had recognized his absence. So Brooks went in disguise. He wore Groucho Marx glasses and moustache, and a baseball cap.)

What was he doing when cutting class?

Mostly he studied for other things, I said. (He sat in on extra ethics classes that he was not officially enrolled in, because he felt he needed an antidote to business school. He stated that he wanted to date a “vegan ethicist,” and another housemate found him one. Her favorite word was “aricea,” Greek for knowing what is the right thing to do and not doing it.)

One night at the semester’s end I found Brooks at the dining room table with books and printouts spread all out. I asked what he was studying for, and he told me he was boning up on certain writings on Utilitarianism, which had been a focus of his undergraduate studies. I said that didn’t sound like a business school class. He said it wasn’t -- he was having a date with that girlfriend the next day, and she had said she wanted to ask him some questions about this branch of philosophy.

So he was studying for his date. During the semester’s end exam period. I figured there was no way I could describe all this to the investigator. But I did say that Brooks was the most ascetic person I know -- the person who most lives according to his values. He’s not just talking the talk.

Did he have any hobbies?

Not really. (Unless you want to talk about “The Big Lebowski,” which we watched over and over again in 10 minute intervals while eating oatmeal in the morning, Raman noodles in the afternoon, beans and rice in the evening. When we would reach the end, we would start it over. This went on for months. Our conversations came to consist mostly of quotes from that movie. “It’s a nice drive to Winston-Salem . . . well, parts at least.”)

Would I trust him with national secrets?

I would trust him as much as anyone I know with such secrets. He takes things very seriously.

Has he ever been a part of subversive or terrorist organizations?

No. (But he would take vegetables out of the compost bin behind the food coop and bring them home and cook them. I went with him one night. We stepped over a chain barring the alley, took the lid off the compost garbage cans, and right there was some only slightly un-fresh broccoli. We took it home and steamed it up with some lemon juice.)

Funny, I was thinking. Once upon a time, the word “terrorist” would have been instead “communist.” I should have said, “No sir. But there were these communists . . . ”

I wrote to Brooks and asked him what he was going to be doing. He said it would be working to forestall the attack by killer robots. Had I seen the Sarah Connor Chronicles? Scary, Dude.

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