Friday, March 2, 2012


After the Crash we started renting out the little house in Ephemerata Gardens as a bedroom. Our roommate--a School of Business grad student working on alternative and private currencies--chipped in to leak-proof the roof and get the house rewired with help from an electrician and carpenter through the Austin Time Exchange Network (ATEN). No gas or running water, so we share the kitchen and bathroom in the house propper. Three neighbors on our block have similar relationships with informal renters, including a simple pitched tent. At first Susan jokes it feels like permanent camping. Within a month we'd all adapted. In the winter she sleeps with a few of the stray cats as auxilary heaters. In the summer we all lounge in the Cool Room, the only one with A/C, to keep the power bill down.

We had been using the little house for Museum of Ephemerata exhibitions since the "House" show in 2012. Next came "Plantae Kingdom," then "Islands" and "Screens," and finally, "Money!" which is how we met Susan. She laughed off our "Ephemerons," a fanciful local currency that doubled as our guidebook (printed in 3 point font legible with a magnifying glass). Boutique bills--of course they never caught on like Ithaca Hours or Linden Dollars. They are a survival circus currency for moments of crisis when time is not money, but life itself. You could only buy Ephemerons with Austin Hours.

The Crash of '17 stimulated hundreds of cities to try similar micro-currency schemes. Countless books published before and after the fact explained in gory macroeconomic detail the convergence of three factors that led us into depression and the reemergence of "script" economies. First, Bank of America finally went under, dragged down by its response to the mortgage crisis a decade earlier, and the Feds couldn't bail them out. Then oil prices spiked insanely overnight, affecting everything from food to gas prices (they had to tack up cardboard 1's to advertise double digit prices at the pump). And the hurricane that ploughed across the east coast topped it all off. China's huge relief package in strong Yen, alongside people's informal economic responses across the US, saved perhaps millions of lives and pulled dozens of cities out of bankruptcy.

Against expecation, no zombie hordes emerged to riotously burn and loot. Various Occupy organizations, meshed with community gardens and food security banks, had laid down DIY disaster response to provision cities to some degree during the worst weeks of food scarcity. Power and water shortages were scarier. FEMA functioned as more of a hub to coordinate hundreds of little organizations. Homeless youth became key organizers in triage response, working through the night with volunteer architects and doctors, tirelessly biking loads across town. For a whole year, it seemed like nobody had a paying job, but everyone was swamped with all kinds of volunteer work: community gardening, constructing and fixing houses with carefully salvaged materials from demolition, teaching and learning.

"The homeless" became a fuzzy category. Motorhomes were everywhere, the far side of Wal Mart parking lots like neighborhoods on wheels. The trucker Rusty Davis became famous overnight for his biodiesel rig with a built-in bedroom at the back, moving free food and medical supplies up the coast even before the waves stopped crashing. Austin and other cities turned a blind eye to the squatter zones of tents and less temporary junkitecture that cropped up in brownfields and along the tracks. While these had started forming well before the Crash, they swelled and aglomerated afterwards, not without bad stories of violence from within or poor-bashers that terrorized the camps at night. Police usually sided with the camps, or ignored these incidents. Again, youth self-organized as gaurdians and dispute arbitrators while also taking on the role of ambassadors to the code inspectors and reporters who came nosing around.*

Sometimes they meet in Ephemerata Gardens. Susan has been inviting teens from Austin "Freetown" to get them in the Austin Hours/ATEN loop. They can use skills like electronics repair or sheer labor power to earn different kinds of money to purchase camp supplies. Her idea is to push a local/macro currency mix through city services, especially Waste Management. This takes some of the pecuniary pressure off the strapped city budget while giving unskilled workers access to a little macro-money to buy things like sewing machine needles or new rechargable batteries that aren't for sale in the local currency market. 

We harvest most of the salad lettuce and stir fry snow peas and brocolli leaves and crowns for a meeting. Pass around the dry figs. Someone brings strong homebrew cider made from dumpster dived bad apples. Free food is everywhere these days, as if it alone was out of the austerity loop. 


*See Linda Stewart's Fast Crash: Youth, post-monetary services, and urban unplanning (Duke University Press: Durham, 2019).

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