dirty dishes (Nov 6 c)

I made a peanut gallery proposal once.  On the one hand it didn’t get voted down.  On the other hand, it didn’t get voted on at all.

You see, the working groups are all run by the original organizers because they were the only ones around when the working groups were formed.  I came on the scene on the third day, if I properly understand the group history, and by then the only working group that had been added was legal.  I infer this by the fact that “legal” is written on our agenda white board — we use the same skeletal outline every meeting — at the end of the list, in a different handwriting and a different color ink.  I’m guessing, in other words.

As I understand, the original planning did not extend beyond the first day’s rally, march, and overnight encampment.  Sonny, for example, stayed in camp that first night, and since has left her tent for others to use.  It’s a nice tent.  Another effect, besides the occasional semi-claimed tent space, has been that the event planning group, which set up the camp, has been ambiguously responsible for running camp, along with logistics.  But neither group is equipped for this, and since there is confusion about whose responsibility it is, it has required some untangling.

Setting up tents and organizing the supply tent, and such tasks, all can be handled on a case-by-case basis.  What can’t be is food.  The food is a major draw for prospects, in part because it gives people an excuse to hang around doing nothing much while waiting for someone to strike up conversation with them.  People are shy.

We need good fresh food every day on time.  Like most things in camp, this has been handled by whomever was around: clearing the rubble from the prior night and putting out new food, if there was any.  But because it was case-by-case, it was always chaotic.  At first it wasn’t clear what we had the authority to put on the table and take off.  That sounds odd, but every item on the food table was put there by someone who thought it was a good idea.  Taking it off is undoing that decision, and you don’t know who did it or why.

But because everyone had a different idea of what would be nice on the food table, the food table tended toward chaos very quickly.  Also it’s easy to squeeze your own good idea in where there’s free space.  The end result was always so confused that you simply had to clear it off entirely and start fresh.  This fell to whoever was up early with free time, and in practice this meant me.  I can’t think of a day this first week it didn’t.

The other related problems were dish-washing and water.  Are.  We’re working toward solutions.  It was decided early on to avoid paper plates, as being bad for the environment by way of garbage production, and to wash dishes.  But this decision was made by the leaders — called “point people” because ideologically the movement lacks leaders, although in reality of course it has them — who mostly work for the interests of the group through white-collar work and spend less than an hour a day in camp.

Therefore we find here the converse of the “people should” problem.  Here we have an ideological solution for a practical problem, without considering the practical requirements of doing it that way.

Generally, I do not mind washing dishes.  It’s not my favorite task.  However, when in application this means squatting down on the ground to big plastic tubs which must be filled with water near freezing, outside on a winter morning before the sun has risen, and the task is demanded for ideological reasons I do not especially subscribe to, by people who do white-collar work exclusively, which they claim as a reason for not spending more time in camp, when moreover they beg for people to volunteer to help them with their crushing load of white-collar work but then decline my offer when I do volunteer, and decline out of hand, I find myself thinking in the same way the group non-leaders seem to:  Wash dishes? — There are better ways to spend my time.

Wednesday or Thursday, one of these non-leaders took me over to show me the rubber tubs, which one of them had purchased and even labeled in black marker — “wash,” “sanitizer,” and “rinse.”  I told her I had not volunteered to wash dishes.  She said, “No, but look at it,” and stood there in silence. “I volunteered to cook, not to wash dishes,” I told her, and walked away.  She was among the white-collar workers who had refused to allow me to do meaningful work, after asking for volunteers.  Presumably an example of non-leadership.

The supply of water is itself a problem.  The only two possibilities are to pipe water in, for example by running a hose from somewhere, or to carry water bottles in, which would be filled in various public restrooms and poured into a large central cannister about the size of a garbage pail.  This is called a water buffalo, and we have one.  Water would then presumably be heated on our big propane cooker, which is old and the operation of which does not inspire confidence, but alarm.

No one has a plan for getting rid of waste water.  No one has any ideas, as far as I know, except that we must not pour it out onto the ground, because the streets drain into the river.  The waste water would have soap.

I don’t think our white-collar decision-makers fully understand what happens when water in a plastic pail freezes overnight.  They’re indoor people.  Water left out in winter like that freezes and cracks the plastic of the container, due to the expanding action of the ice.  Presumably the water buffalo, holding a larger volume of water, will be somewhat resistant to freezing:  but it will be equally resistant to thawing, and this is Maine.  It gets cold.

Because of the overwhelming quantity of work, Valerie in her capacity as the head of logistics proposed to the general assembly the creating of a new working group, food.  This was passed unanimously.  She then asked for a volunteer to run it.  Because it seemed like a great deal of work, and especially because I was uncertain how to operate the camp stoves, I hesitated to volunteer.  No one else volunteered either, which was not surprising as most of them do double-duty on more than one working group.

With no volunteers, Valerie asked for volunteers to take care of food, “until a permanent solution can be found.”  Chris, the young college student and camper, who had disagreed with me on compost, and I both raised our hands: “Since we do it anyway,” Chris said, and I agreed.  (This first week, Chris tended to get started in camp about the time I was headed out.  As a college student, he went to sleep well later than I did, and tended the fire while on his laptop.  Once he sat too close and now his laptop has a melted spot.)

Over the next two days, a local ex-hippie named Ron who I was particularly friendly with showed me how to use the camp stove.  I made some requests for equipment from Valerie, got the equipment remarkably promptly, and put it to good use.  I cooked hot breakfast for the campers and early volunteers.  One of the working group heads, Ray, of event planning, urged me to become the head for the food group, as did another core member and regular volunteer.  I found Ray’s argument, that as an official working group I would have direct discretionary access to spending on small purchases compelling for practical reasons.

Another homeless man, named Montana, had been in camp since shortly after my arrival.  Montana is a drunk.  He tends to go for long periods without showers.  People do not usually know I’m homeless until I tell them, or unless they see me with my pack, while Montana is pretty much the image of a homeless guy.  But like me, Montana is proud about his motivations for being in camp.

A few nights ago, sitting by the fire, Montana called to me in his characteristically slurred speech, “You know, I agree with all of that stuff people are saying.  Corporations, you know?  Greed.  I’m not just here because I need a place.  I have integrity.”

I stood with my arms folded by the fire.  It had gotten dark. “Yes, Montana,” I told him:  “The one thing you have is integrity.”

In theory, every morning someone shows up to haul off the camp garbage.  This person volunteered for it back at the beginning.  One day, an hour or two after daylight, we still had full garbage cans, so Montana took care of it.  He bundled up the trash bags, threw them over his shoulder, and walked off with them.  A bit later he returned without them.  The next day he did it again, and he has been doing it since.

I told a few of our group leaders about this.  They kind of laughed and shook their heads. “Because he knows the dumpsters,” one of them said, laughing.  I got this reaction twice, and stopped telling the story.  This wasn’t universal.  One of them just thought it over, nodding and shaking his head.

I sweet-talked Montana into washing the dishes, which no one else would do using our system.  (Several volunteers would take them home to wash, but this was haphazard.)  I wouldn’t do it using our system.  I talked to Valerie about getting Montana five or ten dollars a day, which would bring his income up from zero.  And since the dishes seemed to take, estimating, fifteen minutes or so, this would be well more than minimum wage.

Valerie could not say for sure, but liked the idea.  (If you’re wondering, although my income is zero, I have a family that takes care of me when I go to them.)  Valerie gave me ten dollars for him — she “took up a collection” — and Montana told me Lawrence, the head of the security committee, gave him a five the next day, also as a personal gift.

With an angle on the dish problem, with the ability to buy paper plates, and with a bit of training with the camp stove from Ron, I felt confident enough to volunteer to run food.  As Chris had not substantially done much with food, as it was set up by the time he came out mornings, and as he was needed badly and very busy with running his own working group, and moreover tending to his college coursework, and as I had gotten explicit support and encouragement from Ray, I resolved to volunteer to head food at the next meeting.

While all of this was going on, the day that I first was trained on a camp stove, something interesting happened during one of our meetings.  As I recall, this was the compost meeting.

At this time, we traditionally met around the steel fire pit in the brick-paved center of the park.  On this day, while we discussed some point probably about equal in importance to the compost question, three men entered our camp.

They walked oddly, in comparison with most people.  Normally, three men in a group walk abreast, if they have the room.  They talk.  Or if they do not talk, they communicate with body language.  They have some shared sense of their objective, and they steer each other as they go along.  They dither:  those constant little moments of uncertainty born of courtesy.  They tend to focus more on where they are headed than where they are.

These men walked single-file.  The first was a big man perhaps in his fifties.  The other two were younger.  I later guessed they were his sons.  The first man, Mack, appeared to walk as a man lost in thought, without especially considering where he was going, but only where he was in that moment.  He had his hands in his pockets.  They walked very evenly, with no dithering.  All together, it was entirely unclear whether they were walking into the park, or into our group.

They stopped and stood a little off from our circle, and after looking us over a moment walked on.  I thought they continued to the library, but a good couple minutes later Lawrence spoke to me. “Do you want to take care of your customers?” he asked, pointing behind me.

The three men were standing at the food tent, in a line, still not talking.  They had their backs to the food table and were surveying our group.


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