Downsizing in the Shadow of Disaster

Ghost Ship warehouse fire memorial mural
Local artist Norman Vogue works on a mural dedicated to the victims of the deadly Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland, California. The mural includes the names of the 36 people killed in the fire. (Anda Chu / Bay Area News Group / Getty Images)

In Harper’s Magazine, Wes Enzinna writes about living in a 32-square-foot shack behind a friend’s ex-boyfriend’s house in Oakland in 2016, the year of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire. Struggling to find personal solutions they can afford amidst the country’s worst housing crisis, Enzinna and his friends try to live within their means by downsizing what they need to live and dwelling in dangerous makeshift spaces that threaten their health, well-being, and, when disaster strikes, their lives.

“It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out,” George Orwell wrote in Down and Out in Paris and London. “You have talked so often of going to the dogs—and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.”

The powerful thing about smallness, it occurred to me, isn’t actually smallness for its own sake—the point, instead, is a matter of scale. If you reduce the size of your life enough, then the smallest change can be a profound improvement. Yet the hardest thing is to recognize your smallness without being diminished by it. In my shack I was always balancing that tension—I didn’t want to become so small that I disappeared, I just wanted to hide for a little while.

Everyone was sick with sadness following the fire. I saw survivors at bars, their eyebrows singed off. I chatted with old pals at parties and realized they were talking about their girlfriends or boyfriends in the past tense, as if they were ghosts, because they were. There was talk of suicide, songs about suicide, attempts at suicide that failed and attempts that succeeded. Jenny cried every time we hung out.

In the end, I lived in the shack for eleven months. It shrank to the size of a cage. Living like an animal was no longer liberating. I grew tired of waking up in damp, soiled T-shirts. The weeds by my bed grew head-high. The skunk birthed a litter and left me. My mind a fog, I kept accidentally kicking over my pee jar. Living on so little had exacted a heavy toll.

Being down-and-out is cheap, sure, but the things you do to stand it become expensive, whether drink, drugs, or whatever other vice gets you through the night.

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