A Way outta no way: take the under the table route to work

by Robbin Will’s Alms

I had the germ of the idea to write this while walking back home on Genoa St. in Oakland. Lost in a dream I was brought back to the world as I spied an American melodrama taking place a few feet from my path. What looked to be a father and son stood on their sunny suburban yard with dormant gardening equipment standing idle. There seemed to be an unspoken tension between the two. I imagined the dad interrupted the kid’s play time with the mundanity of grooming the yard. As I passed them my mind drifted to my own adolescent days that were filled with productive activities and chores designed by my parents. Often the motivating factor was to give me a taste of the adult world, and get me a little bit of spending money. I played back this 5 second window into someone else’s reality and how it measured to my own experience until I struck dirt on a modern phenomenon. What I witnessed is the indoctrination of exchanging labor for money. I dreamed of writing zines, or songs or movies that would expose this ritual. To unveil the person to person practice of learning collective suicide. People weaning people onto capitalism.

But as I later played back this scene in my head and tried to mustard some workable metaphor for later generations I realized a vital factor missing in the critique of capitalism; the role of government in getting a cut of the fruit of one’s labor. For the lesson of father and son engaging in the labor exchange for money to be complete, they needed me, a complete stranger. I should have been given a cut of the boy’s bread. For some reason people have grown used to seeing the money leave their hands as soon as they get it and never question who handles it and what foul purposes come of it. Witnessing the last ten years where the government uses our resources to expand war culture and police abuse accounts for the dubious ends of paying taxes. To top it with banks scamming people out of their homes, crashing and getting bailed out reveals the entrenched economic divide we live under. Rejection of this reality was a major factor that drove me to the counter culture and free spaces.

I was walking through the same neighborhood with friends to a coffee shop when we were given the moves by 3 kids – barely 5 years old it seemed. The boy asked us if we wanted to buy anything in the box that they were holding. Someone in our party busted up laughing and pointed out that their box still had “Free” written on it. It made me laugh for quite a few days. But my own laughter was over shadowed by the worries of raising money to give to some stranger at the end of the month.

These past few years as the United States pretends to rise out of the recession, all around me I’ve seen the human ingenuity to make money. The most impressive to me are the ways people figure out a way to raise money under the table. The number of garage sales have spiked everywhere. Some of them, such as those in the Mission District of San Francisco, don’t even have garages behind the merchandise. The sidewalks have sprouted with an outdoor permit-less market. One can even find a impromptu market of Chinese elders selling their food bank goods. None of it looks pretty appetizing. Even the large number of lemonade stands gives me pause, “Everyone must be trying to squeeze a fuckin’ dollar.”

But the most common route these days of making an independent living is in using technology, and it has appeared to hit a wall. In the past two years ride shares & AirB&Bs blew up in this country and across the planet. It is a way that people can offer up their existing resources like a room in their house or a seat in their car. It does seem like an inventive way to link two people in need. This internet fad replaces people actually sharing these resources without charge – inverting the radical act of making everything for free. With this cyber-capitalist worldview everything is available to be sold. And with each exchange someone you don’t know gets a piece. The internet site acts as the middle man who gets a sizable cut. But that cut isn’t deep enough. Lawmakers have followed the money and are enacting regulations and fees to cut off the growth. The other routes of raising revenue on the internet – eBay, for example, has started requiring people to pay taxes on their sales. I interpret these developments as the commons closing up once again.

But as the landscape we inhabit continues to transform into a corporate prison, each sign that rules are being broken revitalizes the air between us. Witness bold teenagers dancing for $ on the local subway trains. A small boom box and several amazing dance moves fill the space between stops. An injection of life comes to the other riders and their money is well placed. There doesn’t seem to be many people who dislike these little shows. And the presence of performance art in public means more now, given how many cities world wide are enacting restrictions and fines for busking musicians and performers.

Sometimes a panhandler will work the subway cars. I once heard a train’s driver scold a woman for doing so over the intercom. I really desired to call the driver back on their speaker with a “Fuck You”. But my demeanor is tainted from the Bay Area’s long history of sympathizing with homeless people. The hypocrisy of judging and limiting how people make money while doing nothing to help them attain vital resources irks me. I have seen conservative newspapers demonize people who recycle cans and bottles. They had the audacity to call it stealing.

People who think that work is accessible to everyone is wrong. Elderly people or people with disabilities can’t get work. People are discriminated from getting hired based on race. There are people who have pride in what they do and can’t lower themselves to do the shit work that is available. And people out of prison especially have limited job opportunities while at the same time being stigmatized for not “fitting in.” Often announcements of declining unemployement rates fail to mention that people who stop looking for work are not counted as ‘unemployed.’

For about a year I tried collecting cans and saw it was populated by people I just listed who are denied jobs. I found it paid poorly. I mostly was rewarded by being able to see the lives of the people who push around large shopping carts under all kinds of conditions. Their spirit and intelligence impresses me.

My most lucrative experience in the underground economy was in selling trinkets outside of big events. Distributing beads, flashing lights and political buttons gave me the most to be excited about making money under the table. Often I would be on the fringes of large gatherings and the people- watching offered its own rewards. I also came to see how much people want to throw away money once they have it.

It was while doing unpermitted vending all day for an ethnic holiday that I saw my coworker talk shop with a food vendor who was working the corner with me. I would’ve have thought the guy selling hot snacks was totally legitimate and it blew my mind that he was surviving on a reserve of audacity. As the two old timers went down a list of celebrations to come that had promising crowds that I start to see more closely how savvy people learned to live free within the system.

I am reminded to not write a piece that ponders on mere survival under this stupid social and political order. Imagine a restructuring of what it means to live in the modern world. To somehow get humans to rethink what labor is and what is worth having and doing in this world. That strip malls are better off being deconstructed and turned into open space – or if you’d prefer, food production. Both are probably needed. Both ways of reordering our reality think of the child in the future someday becoming intimate with the land once again. Knowing the names and uses of plants, animals, creeks, hills and ecosystems. It seems government has accomplished one thing pretty well: getting the populace dependent on having a middle-man provide our survival needs. Housing, food, community and life in general will be better off in the hands the people who use it.

I got my first taste of an underground economy by selling zines or other things we make at punk rock shows. Often it was encouraged to charge just above the price it took to make them. The tradition of having “merch tables” gave me a window into independent ways of exchanging resources as a teenager. It was here I got my start in living the fantasy of not having a job and making it work. The underground spoiled me for later years, as I had ultimately to negotiate with the real world. But in some ways the underground economy is the prehistoric world peeking out in this age. And somehow more people need to start seeing that the way we live now isn’t always the way it’s been or going to be.

Fifty years ago when everywhere seemed be in an explosive meltdown mode there existed a weekly paper called the Berkeley Barb. It did a lot to create the many radical things the town is known for (hippies, radical politics, multicultural, perversion). Part of the machine of the Barb one can observe was how it recruited hard up people to sell the paper on the street and reap meager profits. The Slingshot is like a diminished and shoddy shadow of what the Barb was like during the height of it’s powers. Lately I see a guy on Telegraph Ave selling Slingshot newspapers to the throngs of people flowing up and down the Ave. Our paper is free, and I’m not sure what other people in the collective feel about this but it has a ironic charm to me. People finding a way out of no way.