Monday, February 23, 2009

"I feel like confessing that I threw a Styrofoam cup away once."

A couple of weeks ago, I visited Jay Shafer at his home in Sebastopol. The line above comes from the interview I did with him and absolutely cracks me up. What follows is a bit of writing I did about the trip and includes several quotes from my interview with Jay.

Driving into Sebastapol, it’s hard to believe that THIS is in Sonoma County, home to the liberal elite, where the wine flows like water. Eccentric, funky, ramshackle shops line the highway driving in: The Sensuality Shoppe, Horses and Things, Midgley’s Country Flea Market. As I turn off the main road, the little yellow arrow on the GPS is confused by the address and seems to be having trouble figuring out how to direct me to a little house on wheels in the middle of an orchard. Eventually I turn down a road that seems like it might lead somewhere and see the little chapel-type window peeking out between the cluttered country houses.

I pull over behind the recognizable Vardo, Jay’s gypsy wagon. Next to it is a beat-up pickup truck with what appear to be orange barnacles lining its sides. A fairly large house (at least by comparison) is a distance away on the left and a matching gray cottage is beside it, just beyond the gypsy wagon and truck. Off to the right is Jay’s little wooden house, crutches leaning against the wall of the tiny two-feet-deep porch. I seem to be in a junkyard…of houses. The ground is wet as we walk up to the house, and as we take off our shoes on the porch, Jay opens the door.

Very early on, I was living in the cab of a truck in the backyard of my parents’ place. Just because we were building a house and my room hadn’t been build yet, so I would sleep in the truck. So that was my first tiny house…What came next was my trip to Tokyo. And that was a very brief experience where I stayed maybe five days in Tokyo itself. And lived in, well, I went out there with just $250 or less, and these Iranians show up at the airport and are like “here’s a room for just $40 a night.” And I thought that was great, so I spent a lot of time in my room just being inspired by the 4-foot by 4-foot bathroom. That’s where I spent my vacation, in the bathroom, looking at the dimensions of the bathroom and how they fit a shower and bathtub and a toilet and a sink all in one little 16-square-foot room.

I soon find out that the truck outside was his home for more than a year. The orange barnacles are spray foam insulation to keep the drafts out. For almost 10 years, Jay has been living in the smallest spaces possible. He grew up in Mission Viejo and hated the large house his parents lived in.

I think I was already leaning in the direction before I went to Tokyo because I was aware that bigger spaces were a big waste of energy just because I had to clean my parents’ house when I was a kid.

I’d been in art school for a while and learned from my favorite professors… that composition in art is always about what is necessary, and eliminating everything else. If it’s not contributing to the composition, it’s weakening it. So I just figured that the same thing goes for every work of art, and every life. If it’s not contributing, it’s weakening.

Sitting here now, from my perch on the metal desk/counter that spans the length of the front room, it is clear that he succeeded. The blue flames are shivering in the little propane boat heater on the wall. Jay sits next to them in an ivory cotton IKEA chair. Beside him, his wife rests in an identical chair. Her foot is perched on his chair, and his hand rests gently on top of it. They smile sweet, quiet smiles and seem to have absorbed those small, glowing flames. There is a contentment here, a peace of two people living with what they have.

I like to say that there is no black and white and green, just a way of paraphrasing what my friend Treithan always says which is that you can’t really diss people for this or that. You know, I had a landlord once who was a pseudo-hippie and would come out and search the recycling bin and the trash can and make sure that I didn’t throw one piece of paper away. That doesn’t win over anybody, the eco-nazi thing—you just gotta show people the positives of living well.