Claire Rabkin

Making a Life or Making a Livelihood


Illustration by Tom Tian

A snapshot of what I call home in a foreign city: a Chicago-style boxcar apartment with a long hallway whose only adornments are closed doors on either side. We hung up my huge painting of the pipes and ceiling trusses, but there are only three feet of space to step back and admire the work. The bathroom is broken down into two halves—toilet with old Vice Magazines on the floor in one closet, shower and sink in another. Five bikes bottleneck in front of the kitchen where we have our only true piece of solid furniture, a long wooden table that we found on the street and carried up the hill one night after a Pizza Club meeting. My room is in the back, behind the kitchen where we would have hung up our skis and keep the garden tools if it weren’t for us turning it into the fifth bedroom in this three-bedroom apartment. There is a door out to the backyard in there, and it is very cold.

With rent as high as it is in San Francisco, my apartment is quite literally the only thing I can afford as my own, and even that is shared among five people and a dog that is big enough to eat off the table.

We don’t own it of course, but this apartment is our only resource, and to make the most of what we have my roommate and I have been making small attempts to start a home business. Recently a friend outlined the business model on a paper towel at our kitchen table. I was anxious about the conversation but I also desperately wanted the artifact she was making. I carried the folded paper towel in my pocket for a week, but still haven’t looked at it. I already see how flawed it is, how unprepared and under-qualified I am to think of starting a casual business of selling homemade products out of my house or of teaching skills I myself am still only a novice at, especially in a place where start-up businesses are famous for amounting to names like Google and Craigslist and where “California-grown” is enough of a brand to sell almost any natural product. The crumpled paper towel in my pocket has somehow come to represent and hold in its folds the fact that San Francisco is cold, expensive, and a large part of my idealism has been leveled over by a culture of tech startups and unattainable job listings on

My roommate and I decided to build a business because we had nothing else. No work space, no family nearby, making friends from scratch, a destructive pet, a bare minimum personal income from unfulfilling jobs—we are nothing but two recent college graduates going through withdrawal from the bank of resources that have up to this point always been provided by our parents, our university, and a convenient pool of friends and peers. I can’t help but have a busted gut feeling of having taken for granted the privilege of studying interdisciplinary humanities in college when now my whole future is bullying me into specification. I believe in building the skills required to make a home as literally as possible: designing and constructing a house, creating an atmosphere within it, making the food, furniture, friends, and order to meet my own needs. People are paid to be architects, designers, cooks, farmers, and personal assistants; if only I could live off of my capacity to do all those things for myself! Instead, in order to keep up a home and meet new people in San Francisco, I’ve had to commit to learning the alienating skills of service jobs and online dating.

Moving to San Francisco in order to start from scratch was a challenge and a privilege in itself. It is the same socioeconomic privilege that sent me to college, allowed me to live comfortably in Chicago for many years, travel, and accept jobs for their educational and, above all, personal value. I don’t forget this when I feel myself struggling to justify my move here, and I also constantly catch glimpses of the middle-class guilt that permeates the quintessential California lifestyle. Because San Francisco is such an expensive city, much of its character has been built around the natural luxuries of the weather and the landscape, and the cultivated luxuries of the education system and technology. Local and organic food production, artisanal handicrafts and homesteaded household items, and design and digital industries make up a large portion of what entrepreneurship means in San Francisco. People spend money on social good, like sustainability projects, but they also make big money off of it.

So when we sat on the kitchen floor of our new San Francisco home before we had any furniture, friends, or in my case a job, the things we had to consider were: what were our skills? Who would possibly be our market? Where could we sell whatever it was we were selling? It came down to the fact that our only resources were the very few things we had right in front of us. We had the apartment we were lucky to find at all, our crumbling kitchen, and our free time. We promoted our Weeknight Pizza Club to as many people as we could reasonably tell, and relied a whole lot on word of mouth. There is market for specialty foods with local ingredients, and because I learned how to make pizzas from my dad, it seemed like our best bet. I pretty much made it up as I went along. I spent the day of our first Pizza Club meeting shopping at the Mexican groceries on Mission Street, driving out to the industrial worksite by the Bay to get wood for a bonfire, prepping roasted corn, frying plantains, and blending the salsa verde in very small batches (while almost electrocuting) myself in the coffee grinder. By the time my roommates got home, I had been in the kitchen for seven hours kneading dough and preheating the ceramic tiles we use as pizza stones in the oven to 500 degrees. I was sweating and smiling because we had invited over the few friends-of-friends we knew in the area, and we were going to ask them to eat pizza on our floor and pay us for it! Sometimes we just barely break even on our pizza and beer expenses but it’s always a rush to go through the assembly and sale of a thing over the course of a single day, and then by the next, all that’s left are a few bucks and big pile of recycling. I love seeing each part of it come together, and all in my own home. I love it, and it also exhausts me.

By this point, I’ve had a series of other jobs in the city, but I appreciate how much of the work of Pizza Club and other homesteading and design projects can happen out of my apartment. The work has personal value because it is so joined to my personal life. But at the end of the work day, I have no place to go home to. Our kitchen has furniture now, but I still often feel like I am sitting on the floor brainstorming ways for my life here to make sense.

We are amateurs at all our ventures; neither of us have studied business, and the beer, jam, and pickles we’ve made as holiday gifts and test runs of our products were the first beer, jam, and pickles we’ve ever made. Longer-term plans have us buying property to use as a farm and residency program for learning art and craft skills. Sometimes I find it hard to distinguish what I think of as part of the business plan, and just what I want to make and learn for my own home. It’s unsettling to conflate these two things so much; to attempt to make a life, and a livelihood, as concurrent ventures.

People who have the confidence to really call themselves entrepreneurs are the people whose home businesses and startup companies aren’t really about their own homes; and even if they are indeed housed in home offices, their five-year plan usually doesn’t keep them there. The desire to work for oneself typically turns into specializing in remote niche markets and I’ve seen people become experts on electric car plug-ins and coupon deals. Those businesses can frequently be exceptionally innovative, but it’s never been my goal to so far displace my ambition. The specificity of the home itself as a niche means that it requires the space of my own home and the small life I am able to sustain in this city. Sustainability doesn’t just pertain to homesteading, gardening or energy—all industries for which the term sustainable is already becoming as ubiquitous and vague as natural has for food products. Rather, I want to be able to create a lifestyle that sustains me through a period of necessary thrift, uncertainty, and improvisation. It’s a scary notion to a generation of young, educated people who’ve only recently left the comforts of their parents’ or their university’s resources, to remain in this flux as a requisite learning period. But finding a way to just get by on a hodgepodge of jobs and informal business ventures, may hopefully show me what the work is that I find most rewarding and imperative.

The chef at the restaurant where I hostess asked me once if I hang out around hippies when I tried to impress him by telling him about the home-brews. I asked him why he didn’t just think I was a hippie myself; he said I didn’t smell like one. It figures that I can’t even commit myself to an image enough to look (and smell) the part. Brandon, the chef, hates hippies; he lives in West Oakland, bikes up mountains, and has tattooed sleeves of food on both arms. I told him there was no way he could smell me over the wafting truffle oil that drowns every dish we serve.

Where is there a line between who we are and what we do?

Because, what I do is hostess at a restaurant in a hip neighborhood in SF, make coffee at a name brand cafe in the Financial District, intern at an art gallery’s education program, do freelance design for a theater company of geezers in the East Bay, do art advising for a Chicago-based print journal, and sell pizza out of my house. Am I more than the sum of these parts? Brandon at the hip restaurant loves to sharpen his knives and gets a kick out of telling the Honduran dishwasher he’s made caldo de oso. The Honduran dishwasher’s only words in English are “chicken fucker.” I get to see these people at their jobs; and as I get to know them better, I can see through their work personas and can realize how far apart they are from what they think of as their real lives—their lives on the outside. A restaurant is the perfect place to witness how this dilemma transcends socioeconomics. More than half the people I work with there are immigrants to California who came to improve their lives; some have spent years working up to their positions as line cooks and are intimately familiar with the American dream. The truth is that everyone there, myself included, is grateful for the work, but none of us ever forgets that it is a job and not the real expression of our lives.

Where to, or whether one should, draw the line between work and home is an age-old conflict for people who spend 40+ hours in the office whose co-workers are their social peers: like the dad who spends all day at the office and is too tired to play with his kids when he gets home. How can I more evenly divide my energy between a work life and a home life? But this question is taking on new meanings when asked by recent college graduates, alternative sous-chefs, artists or craftsmen, or anyone who just wants to do good work, and take goodness into their own hands. The question becomes: how can a life be made into a livelihood? How can all of my energy go to both my work and my home? It takes a lot of confidence in what you do and who you are to think that your life in itself is worth earning the money it takes to sustain it. It’s the confidence to know both that you’re good at, and to believe in the value of your unique skills or knowledge—cooking, marketing, teaching, making art, and just being liked. This is the confidence that everyone who lives between two lives wants to find. The luxuries of home are not privileges, but rights. All Americans deserve the right to physical, emotional, and financial support and stability. And I want my home to be the haven of all three of those things.

1) I’ve hung up the pots and pans on the kitchen wall, changed light bulbs for more natural light, put in rugs, pictures, space heaters, and piles of blankets. It is a roof over my head, a comfort to return to, even if it’s not as beautiful as I want it to be, or a hub of productivity.

2) It’s hard to feel respite in a city without money to pass time in shops or cafes, or without the proper hiking gear to escape it. The closest I’ve come to finding a space to feel really emotionally secure is at a park nearby at the top of a steep bike ride where there are some boulders big enough to climb yet still small enough to be my first attempt at climbing. Once I trail-blazed the side of the canyon there by pulling myself up with dead vines and roots, only to come to a winding road at the top where cars could easily find me. But it’s a good enough place that I’ve cried there more than once.

3) And money is the most complicated kind of comfort because we are conditioned to find no end to desire. Am I financially stable if I can pay my rent and eat off of food stamps? Not if I want to also pay for the home decorations, the heating bills, the hiking boots, and the occasional meal out or drink at a bar—the things that should make me feel at home also force me to alienate myself by getting jobs that serve other people more than they serve me.

And thus, there is a huge demographic of people—young people just out of college; older people just out of a job, and everyone whose economic expectations have been affected by recession—who are looking to join efforts, to consolidate these needs and to make a livelihood out of the desire for a home, for self-confidence, and for comfort.

* * *

There are of course the people that are making their houses the business of American political change. Occupy San Francisco was camped outside at the Ferry Building right at the Bay from mid-October until it was raided by police on December 7. The movement hasn’t taken off in the city like its famous neighbor in Oakland, just across the water. Due to my limited involvement in the movement, I really can’t say why that’s been. My only access to the city’s Occupy movement was attending one or two marches and seeing camps of dirty buskers and homeless whose stories of lost jobs and houses never quite evolved into a vocabulary for productive change. While, like most cities by this point, San Francisco’s General Assembly has changed over to a spoke system of working groups, I wonder if there is something lost in not having a campsite as home base. The occupation of public space as a metaphor for home is central to the effectiveness of the movement. Home has distinct connotations for everyone, but Occupy Wall Street has done a great deal to re-appropriate those personal connotations to a collective protest. It seems most appropriate that the home, no matter how improvisational or temporary, be the launch site for social change, because this occupation, in my understanding, revolves around having a place to live, to feel purpose, and to convene and share with others.

So, while the camp has been dismantled in San Francisco, there continue to be efforts based around the idea of home. The national movement to “Occupy our Homes” launched on December 6 seems to be the natural progression of the movement from public spaces back into what were once private houses. Foreclosed houses in Bayview, West Oakland, and the Mission district of San Francisco have been re-occupied by the former homeowners and protesters. Without heat or furniture, they are shells of what they used to represent to individual families—the concept of home has transformed into an active occupation by protesters who have made it their business to send a message to the US government and big banks that while they may be displaced, they are still fighting for their livelihood, to remain Americans and to build a new society and economy that values the business of making everyone feel at home.

The reality of homelessness in America deals in much graver terms than my feelings of alienation and non-gratifying work. The Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) is one of the organizations at the forefront of housing advocacy in the Bay Area and for Occupy. They report that in Oakland in 2011, there were 4,341 homeless persons and 2,224 foreclosed and vacant homes. Writing from my furnished apartment on a sunny street in San Francisco lined with palm trees, these numbers may seem to depict an entirely distinct problem from mine. I may be underemployed and frustrated, but I have enough cultural capital to think of OWS in terms of domestic fantasies and self-expression, as opposed to those who are struggling to even find safe shelter. Somehow though, these are still two sides of the same American Dream of living off the strength of your labor, which for me has come to mean taking ownership of my work and using my home as a resource. The self-confidence of ownership is fundamental to the pursuit of home. For some, ownership means homeownership, while for others it means autonomy in their lives and work.

Artist Bloc—a zine produced by the SF Artists of the 99%—prints writing about the corporate alienation of artists. One article, by a “Mary Christmas,” brings up the complaints of an organization called W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy): that the work of an artist is not static enough to amount to an hourly wage, meaning the product of artistic work is variable and non-industrial and thus not really marketable. Many are severely underpaid for their work because there doesn’t exist a standard for art as labor, and the cultural institutions that should be paying artists’ wages are themselves typically underfunded by communities and patrons. The same can be said for other cultural and social forms of labor, including organizers and participants of Occupy. Yet while these are some of the most gratifying forms of work, satisfying the physical and psychological standards of self-assurance, they still fall short of financial security. Artists and social organizers actively transform physical spaces into meaningful communities, and their productive work provides the psychological validation to motivate their work. But the fundamental problem remains that 99% of the population is in some way or another financially insecure, and thus Americans—from artists to entrepreneurs, homeless to homemakers—may feel unsettled in their homes, or shelters and camps, as it may be.

I am not anti-capitalist; I am clearly preoccupied by a number of material desires, and my work is motivated much more by the anxiety to earn a living wage than by a creative momentum. I find myself wondering, if by the cultural capital of my liberal arts education I am able to satisfy the physical and psychological comforts of what home means to me, how I can confidently gain real financial capital. My pizzas or my paintings aren’t marketable as artifacts of establishing a home that validates and supports me. Creative practices alone are not sustainable commodities because there doesn’t yet exist a market to fund backstories in America. But, maybe America is moving toward investing time in personal stories. My story of home in San Francisco consists of the pizza dinners I serve in my backyard. Many others’ stories are of losing their jobs and houses, and then fighting to occupy some other sense of home in the campsites across the country and in the reoccupation of foreclosed houses. In either scenario, home is a shared space and a communal validation of hard work. By sharing in ownership of these spaces, productivity itself is the goal. I can’t expect to profit financially off my personal investments, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t my most valuable assets.

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