Recently I made the remark that living on a boat had taught me to appreciate two things: Hot showers and large kitchens. But as I reflect on my current condition, I realize that there is a greater lesson to my present living arrangement; a lesson that goes beyond taking baths in a sink or concocting culinary cuisine from canned meats and vegetables. It’s a lesson about how hard we struggle against the American Dream and how much we invest in one solitary (albeit important) aspect of our life: that of shelter.
My decision to buy a boat for the sole purpose of shelter was one part utilitarian and one part romantic idealism, topped with a dash of desperation. I had just moved to Juneau, and was completely broke. I was a starving graduate student, sleeping on a friends couch as I waited on word about an internship. I had tossed myself, and what belongings I could cram into two large duffel bags, into a position that hinged my entire graduate degree on securing this one job.
I gambled, and I won.
Once the position was secured, I began the stressful task of finding housing in Juneau, Alaska. Having lived there once before, I was well aware of the associated costs of living. Juneau is an expensive town, and I knew I could expect to spend upwards of a thousand dollars (living alone) or a bit less (dealing with all of the excitement that roommates bring). I also knew that this internship would have me traveling a lot – after only three days on the job I was “on the road” for two straight weeks – and I couldn’t rationalize spending half to a third of my monthly income on a place I would seldom see. There was also a third alternative rolling around in the back of my head, one that I nearly pursued the first time I lived here: the option of buying a “liveaboard” boat.
Liveaboards are generally cheap in southeast Alaska and relatively easy to come by. They are the southeast Alaska equivalent to Interior Alaska’s “dry cabin” housing solution (and involve about the same degree of dedication).
The thing about living on a boat in the harbor isn’t just that it’s cheap rent; it’s also a dedicated lifestyle. When the Taku winds howl and the waves dig deep into the harbor, my boat has a tendency to rock and bounce the night away. When the endless days of rain pour on Douglas Island, all of the little holes and leaks begin to feel like Niagara’s fury.
It’s easy to get discouraged. It’s a feeling I’ve struggled with many times in just a few short months. But then I get that monthly moorage charge and I see how small it is compared to the usual rent in Juneau or I get my bank statement and see how much I am saving just in the short run. Then I do the math and realize that I have about five grand tied up in the purchase and upkeep for six months worth of rent (I’m just starting my sixth month of the liveaboard life) and suddenly it doesn’t seem so bad.
Those are the moments when I scratch my head and wonder “why do so many people even bother to rent or buy an expensive home?”
I’ve not just been a renter or a liveaboard owner; I was a homeowner once too. I bought my first house at the young age of 23. At the time that decision also made financial sense. I had a steady and good paying job. I was a student nearing the end of my academic career. I had been a responsible credit card owner for many years and had an impeccable credit rating. I had also been living with a friend, renting his spare room, but that arrangement had been temporary in nature and was drawing to its rightful conclusion. This left me with the dilemma of where to live.
I believed myself to be responsible and economically stable enough to pursue home ownership. I was living in Mississippi, where rent isn’t incredibly high, but it’s high enough relative to the cost of living/earnable wage rate that I felt like buying a home was a better investment of my money.
I got lucky right away, and was able to find a house for 35,000 dollars. It was a one bedroom, 600 sq ft cottage on an acre of land. It was located 12 miles from town, two miles of which were dirt road. It was country, complete with a front porch and old wooden rocking chair. It was mine and I knew it the moment I laid eyes on it.
But there is a major long term commitment that comes with buying a house. A 30 year commitment to be precise. A lot can happen in 30 months; a hell a lot can happen in 30 years!
For me, it all changed in less than two years. After my first year of mortgage payments, my mortgage suddenly jumped by 50 percent. I wasn’t a victim of the dreaded variable interest rate scam that later hit America. I was simply the victim of my own ignorance and lack of foresight. My escrow account had overdrawn because of back owed taxes and higher than expected insurance premiums. The bank adjusted for the difference by doubling my escrow, raising my monthly payments by about $130/month. At that same time my financial and academic status completely changed. I had burned out on school, leaving my campus job of three years and by the end of the Fall semester I was on academic suspension for repeatedly bad grades.
My transition into the working world was rocky. Employment prospects in Mississippi were few and far between to begin with. I had no college degree and was either over qualified for most low paying jobs or under qualified for a real career job. I finally had to settle for a job working on a survey crew, earning just $8/hour and barely working a full work week.
Bills had already piled up and I could no longer keep up with the cost of living. I remember trying to go weeks at a time on a $20 grocery budget. By midsummer I was late on many of my bills and the bank was looking for mortgage payments.
It’s easy to look back now and think about things I could or should have done to stop the downward spiral, but at the time I was so paralyzed by stress and fear and daily panic that I couldn’t even begin to make sense of the mess I was in.
I eventually abandoned my life in Mississippi, moving to Alaska to begin anew. A few weeks later the bank foreclosed on the house and my credit rating took a five year jump off of a cliff. Fortunately Alaska is the kind of place where one can often find the opportunity to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” if you’re willing to do some pretty hard labor, endure wet summers and dark cold winters, and take some calculated risks along the way. I’ve managed to rebuild over the last 6 years, even to the point of going back to college and moving on to an advanced degree, but it’s not been an easy path.
I reflect back on all of this as I sit in my 34 foot boat, listening to drops of rain patter on the wooden roof. As difficult as the going has been, I consider myself incredibly fortunate. I only have to take care of myself. This has allowed me to be far bolder in the moves I’ve made along the way.
But I can’t help but think of those who live with different circumstances than I, and the lengths they go to in order to provide decent housing to their families. Even worse are those who have also found themselves in dire straits and lack the skills and resources to “pull themselves up”. As romanticized as the “self made man” notion is, my own experience says that it’s a crock of shit.
Sure, I’ve worked hard for everything I’ve accomplished, but I’ve had plenty of help along the way. Whether it was a small “loan” from my parents so that I could pay bills and eat, or the generosity of an employer offering me a job “sight unseen” as I sat over a thousand miles away and interviewed for an opening, or all of the people who have consistently gone to bat for me when I needed good references.
Take away any one of those things and I could have easily ended up a homeless drifter stuck in a poverty trap in Mississippi.
My personal struggle against the American Dream has been easier because of all of the advantages I have at my fingertips, but it has still been a struggle, leaving me to wonder how much more of a struggle it is for those with fewer options at their disposal. Americans work so hard to achieve that national dream. To have the safe and happy family, plenty of food on the table, a nice house in a nice neighborhood with a big yard, a nice car or truck to drive around in. It’s not a cheap dream however, and it’s certainly not getting any cheaper. Add the economic uncertainty that comes from the monopolization of lending by a handful of banks, and the Russian roulette they recently played with the housing markets and our national economy. It’s a wonder anyone invests in the Dream at all, and it’s certainly been a deterrent for me.
I chose a different dream, at least for the time being.
My dream is of a somewhat solitary life, snuggled up in an old wooden boat on a small and sparsely frequented dock in the rustic community of Douglas, Alaska. It’s cooking dinner on a propane cook top and taking hot “baths” in a kitchen sink. It’s about pursuing an evolving career path working with people who also want to live a simple life that they love with rewards that go far beyond monetary gain.
That dream is a very unique and different dream from the “Mayberry” dream of yesteryear. It’s one that has been chosen based on personal reflection and a stark reality; that in this day and age the American Dream is not just hard to achieve, it’s expensive to maintain. It’s a dream that, for many people in America, perches on a razor’s edge. Unemployment, economic collapse, and financial corruption can tip the dream at any moment, and recovery is often a long hard road.
People can choose to gamble on the American Dream, or they can search for more rational solutions.
My boat isn’t much. It’s a pretty rustic lifestyle that presents plenty of challenges. I often get strange stares from people when I tell them about it. But at the end of the day, it is shelter; it keeps me (mostly) dry and warm (enough) and it does so without breaking the bank or stretching beyond personal means. It’s wholly and completely mine.
So just remember, if you should ever find yourself on one of Alaska’s many inhabited docks, chances are you will encounter one of its scraggily looking residents. When you do, try not to judge the mussed up hair and disheveled appearance. Instead, try to admire the sacrifices they have made to achieve their own version of the American Dream. And whatever you do, don’t peek too closely into their dimly lit floating lairs; you never know when you might catch someone in the shower!