In an America enamored of celebrity and the obscene amounts of money that goes with it, there is still present out here in the dark fields of the Republic a profession of talented but paltry-paid entrepreneurs: freelance writers. Dependable hacks, who, unlike their academic and pulpmill counterparts, actually know how to write.
For the last decade I have survived on roughly $8,000 per year, sometimes less sometimes more, and far below the official U.S. poverty level for a single person ($9,000). I don’t take welfare, food stamps, or any other kind of public assistance. A much beloved sister in New York does my income taxes for me annually, and every year she poses the same question: “How do you do it?” While a freelancer has many deductions related to the profession (I may be the only freelance contributor to the conservative press who qualifies for the Earned Income Tax Credit), the short answer to her question is: I live in Wyoming.
The Cowboy State’s lower standard of living is conducive to anybody on the financial skids. And while the Bush-Cheney tenure promises an economically-jolting energy boom, many Wyomingites work two service jobs (a spouse with a third also helps) to get by. Given the choice of being “working poor”(a concept anathema to supply-side conservatives — such as Rush Limbaugh — who have never set foot in Wyoming) and “entrepreneurially poor,” I have chosen the latter despite sometimes unpleasant consequences. Nevertheless, I live in paradise, a Rocky Mountain Bohemia of want and destitution with million dollar views from the backyard.
American cities of yore (pre-World War II New York comes to mind) were historically magnets for creative people looking to live on the cheap. But as authors such as David Brooks have shown us, people of the coastal cities now have to be rich to even play at a bohemian life. Rural America offers up a true contemporary bohemia — albeit provincial — nothing like the phony glitzy urban kind or telegenically-driven Hollywood kind.
To begin with, rents are affordable (true bohemians aren’t homeowners). I live in a spacious apartment — half a duplex in Cody, Wyoming, that rents for $375. This single monthly charge also includes the “City bill,” that is: electric service, gas heat, water, trash pickup, and the “raw” water made available every summer for irrigation and sprinkler systems. My landlord and his wife own a motel across the street and my cable TV bill is included with the motel’s. I’ve never seen one. I am responsible for my phone bill and monthly Internet service charge. My landlord mows the grass (I have a big backyard) and plows the snow. When I moved in, the apartment was already furnished (including a TV, ex-motel furniture, kitchen utensils and dishes in the cabinets, etc.), and I had to store some of my own furnishings in my landlord’s barn in the backyard, for which he doesn’t charge me a storage fee. My situation is not an anomaly. Except for elitist Jackson (Jacksonites always know when Dick Cheney is at his “undisclosed location,” because those damn F-16s keep buzzing the valley), mine is typical of the Wyoming real estate rental market.
I haven’t had a car in the last couple of years (one of those unpleasant consequences), and so by necessity live near downtown to be close to stores, the post office, the public library, etc. A bicycle suffices in warm weather; in winter I walk. I’ve often thought that if my politics were more politically correct I would be eligible for some sort of lucrative MacArthur-type genius award for being kind to the planet. Or maybe a plum job with Al Gore’s 2004 campaign.
Eating is always interesting. Besides clipping coupons and watching for sales at the grocery store, it’s always smart to shop at certain times of day when the deli counter puts out free samples of finger foods. While waiting for an order to be sliced and packaged, you have time to stuff your face with free chicken wings and fried mozzarella cheese sticks. Likewise, the bars and restaurants of summertime tourist season Cody. For instance, the bar of the Irma Hotel puts out a daily 5-6PM Happy Hour spread that means that for the price of a beer the bohemian freelancer can scrape together the elements of a decent ersatz dinner of, yes, chicken wings, but also some rather nice Mexican tacos. This is reminiscent of those nickel-beer free-lunch saloons of the Depression-era that my late father as a young printer’s apprentice used to frequent on Eighth Avenue in New York. And in the end, there is the tried-and-true method of showing up at friends’ homes at dinnertime, usually on Sunday.
Freelancers know that the best things in life are free, and the public library is the primary example of this writ large. Not only for borrowing books, but as a place where you can read free newspapers and magazines on a daily basis, thus avoiding rising newsstand and subscription rates. Just like that little old lady in New Hampshire’s view of politicians during primary season; don’t buy newspapers, it only encourages them.
As for shopping, I avoid Cody’s upscale retail outlets Wal-Mart and K-Mart, and stick to the Senior Citizens Center Thrift Store and the “Bargain Box” at the Episcopal Church. Why pay $15-20 for a shirt or pair of jeans, when you can get those same items — slightly used — for, say, a dollar apiece? The Senior Thrift Store even has a Men’s Department, where little old ladies fawn over me when I’m looking for the right $5 sports jacket to wear to the Montana writers seminars I’m occasionally invited to, where I rub elbow patches with some of the literary West’s most prominent luminaries and intellectuals. Who needs Brooks Brothers? Who needs The Gap? I’ve noticed that certain wealthy urban pseudo-bohemians dress in a trashy way, and it costs a lot of money to do it. It strikes me that I am better attired even after visiting the Bargain Box for pennies on the dollar.
One good way for the bohemian freelancer in Wyoming to have occasional use of a car is by housesitting for traveling friends. Some of my friends live miles out of town, and have horses and dogs and cats. I feed the critters and mind the premises, and in return my friends toss me the keys to the extra SUV, the one with the six-figure odometer and cracked windshield.
Living in the Northern Rockies, this makes for a multitude of joyriding-ops. There’s just something I love about aimlessly cruising through God’s Country with a thermos of coffee on the seat next to me, and Lyle Lovett or Alison Krause in the tape player. I look out over the snow-gashed peaks of the Absarokas, and the cottonwood-crowded bottoms of the North Fork of the Shoshone River, and I say to myself: “My God! I must be a great writer! Look at where I live! These are definitely Hemingway views!”
In the meantime I save my old shoelaces. And as I glance at the imitation Rolex that I picked up at Wal-Mart, I see that it’s almost time for the Irma Happy Hour. I’m hungry.