The Journal Sentinel’s Crocker Stephenson was busy around 9-11, turning out a bunch of his short “snapshot” columns on people in New York City rather than his usual beat here in Milwaukee.
There’s one on a 58 year-old Trinidadian violin player making a living by playing national anthems in Battery Park. There’s one on a homeless man who walks around St. Paul’s Chapel blowing a whistle to mourn for the dead and to keep away vandals. These “snapshots” are all respectful, charitable, even generous with their subjects, who all come from the gritty margins of our society.
However, when Stephenson wrote about Riverwest resident Ian Fritz, the results were very different (Journal Sentinel., July 26, 2002). Ian and his roommates follow an anarchic “Freegan” way of life–living off of perfectly good food and other items that are discarded daily in our city, as they are in every American city. Consuming on average 76 times more of the earth’s resources per day than a person in the third world, we Americans produce a lot of waste, much of which is simply the excess we are too full to consume and too busy or ignorant to pass on to people who need it.
Stephenson thinks differently though.
Crocker made a big deal of how weird Ian’s way of life is, describing it as a stale leftover of 1960s thought. Stephenson also implied that people like Ian are ripping off “working schleps” who labor in grocery stores and wouldn’t throw things away if those lousy Freegans bought goods like normal people. Which of course is not true–overproduction and waste are engineered into our system. This is a basic tenet of contemporary free market economics.
Probably in Stephenson’s mind, people like Ian do not deserve respect or understanding, unlike the aged bums and buskers that have appeared in his column as they dutifully man newspaper stands or play nationalistic hymns for spare change. Stephenson probably sees Ian’s way of life as “lower,” as that of the “sturdy beggar”–someone who is capable of “working for a living” but who chooses to be a “free rider” or “freeloader” instead. From reading only Stephenson’s article, you might think Ian does not work, aside from his discard-collecting activities. But the fact is that, aside from volunteering at the Riverwest Co-op, Ian is a paid employee of Corey the Bike Fixer on the East Side. And last year he established a non-profit, inner-city bike repair collective of his own (see page 14).
Sounds like a life worth a little praise and respect according to Stephenson’s apparent assumptions about what counts as “honest work.”
That said, it’s important to add that it is worth questioning Stephenson’s rather common assumption that those who can work “regular jobs” must do so to be respected as good citizens. While the long-term sustainability, even for a single person, of Ian’s way of life is certainly problematic, Ian is absolutely right about one thing. As he shared with Currents writer Jeff Johnson in the article that inspired Stephenson to write his own, caustic commentary, Ian’s activities can make “the culture at large aware of just how much wastefulness there is.”
Stephenson missed, or overlooked that point, but it’s impressive, isn’t it, that people can virtually “live for free” here, when we see headlines like these: “Rental costs continue upward spiral: Prices outstrip minimum wage, study finds.”
A lot of working schleps employed in full-time jobs have no chance to afford decent rental housing unless they can make at least $11.50/hour. It would be helpful to people in that position to adopt some Freegan habits. Some of these habits used to be prized quite highly and still are in “developing” nations. Ever hear of THRIFT? As opposed to WASTE?