The Topic At Hand: Seconds

My former housemate’s baked chicken was notoriously bad. I still suspect, though I have now moved and it is unlikely I will ever get confirmation, that I was not the only resident of the house who had spent measurable time resenting the chicken’s dryness, its lack of seasoning, its tendency to stick to the baking pan.

He certainly was not the only one of us who, on occasion, might have phoned in his or her responsibility to cook for the house. I once made fried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It wasn’t even particularly irksome that the stuff he cooked was always bad. Other housemates, in a large and dynamic house that boasted something like 15 different residents during the two and a half years I lived there, had managed to be bad cooks in a surprising variety of ways. Whether the quality of the food, however, suffered from lack of creativity, habitual dependence on heavily processed ingredients, stubborn vegan blandness, temporary poverty, or simple indifference, I was generally unperturbed by house meals that were less than extraordinary.


Mt. Pleasant race riots, 1991

That was partially because the food was, often enough, delicious. But it was also because most of those housemates, like me, were busy in one way or another. They were people who, like me, had moved to Washington D.C. in order to get something specific done. They were people for whom—like for me—the big, messy, drafty old house offered a convenient location at rent well below the going rates for comparable space in the neighborhood. They were grad students, activists, job-seekers, journalists, bright-eyed recent graduates of good East Coast schools trying to navigate the quicksand of unpaid internships at thinktanks and PACs that are the first step towards landing an unpaid internship in a congressional office. They were people who, while generally crunchy and left-leaning by DC standards, had not come to the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood in search of an intentional community. They were people who, like me, were used to leaving the house uncertain of where they might find their morning coffee, let alone where they would be for dinner. And they were people for whom¬—like for me—the obligation to participate in the house cooking schedule was, depending on the day (and who was cooking), an amusing idiosyncrasy leftover from an era when many of the neighborhood’s rotting mansions had been sites for utopian experiments in communal living, a surmountable inconvenience, or a pleasant fringe benefit to the good rent in the form of homemade food waiting on the stove to be reheated after arriving home late from a seminar, or the office, or a bar.

The housemate responsible for the terrible chicken, however, was not young, had not arrived recently in Washington DC, and was not particularly busy. He had lived in the house for more than 30 years, and the longevity and continuity of his tenure there explained the remarkably low rent, the general disrepair of the building, and the cooking schedule. “This is a community,” begins the document that was emailed to me in advance of my appointment to interview for the open room. “We choose to share food, cooking, and work, and spend time with one another. It is not a boarding house, or a rooming house.” This sentiment was repeated to me that night, almost word for word, by a thin, heavily bearded man in his late 50s who peered searchingly at me through thick glasses, apparently trying to gauge my reaction to his assertion. The other housemates who formed the screening committee, by contrast, seemed eager not to catch my eye. It was snowing outside, and I had less than a week before I had to leave the sublet where I had been staying for the past several months. The new semester had started already, and the evening should have been spent reading. I was starting to become more creative with my budget arithmetic in recent days, in order to convince myself that I could afford to pay $800/mo without taking out additional loans, and then in order to convince myself that if I took out additional loans, I would someday be able to pay them back. The rent for a big room in this house was just over $400, and I am generally crunchy and left-leaning by DC standards. “That’s what I’m looking for,” I lied. “I want to make sure that I have real relationships with the people who share my living space. That’s important to me. That’s more important to me than the price of the room.” After a long ten seconds of subtle, inscrutable nodding, the man signaled his approval with a pointed question. “What do you like to cook?” The other housemates studied their hands.


The Paris Commune, 1871

The cooking schedule worked like this: Attached to the side of the refrigerator was a calendar. On the days that we planned to cook, we wrote our initials in the corresponding box. Each of us was to cook four times every month in exchange for a full share in house meals. For each meal less than four that we cooked in a given month, we were charged an additional $15 when house expenses were collected, and that amount was subtracted from the combined total owed by those who had fulfilled their cooking responsibilities. This seemed reasonable enough to me, when I moved into the house. If I was too busy to cook, I could still eat the food when I chose to without feeling guilty. Even figuring for an additional $60 each month, the room was a great deal. As it turned out, I probably cooked slightly less than the average housemate, coming in somewhere around two times per month. I paid the penalty each month without complaining, taking additional solace in the fact that, for the same reasons I was seldom able to have meals ready at a reasonable dinner time, I had almost always already eaten before coming home, so I also consumed less than a full share. The only one of us, in fact, who consistently cooked all four of his meals, was the long-time resident. And he (almost, to be fair) always made chicken. His room was a maze of metal shelves full of salvaged computer equipment with a dirty sleeping bag and a worn-out mattress stuck in one corner, and he would sometimes go through closed bags of trash in search of overlooked recyclables which he would then leave on the dining table as a silent admonishment to the responsible party. He received mail under at least three aliases. The consistent badness of his chicken seemed somehow related to all of this – a principled act of asceticism meant as a rejoinder to the immoderate consumption going on constantly even here, in the old house full of people who had agreed to be part of a community. After all, it takes effort to screw up baked chicken, of all things, four times a month, for years on end. I privately referred to him as The Unabomber.


Theodore Kaczynski, The Unabomber

On the night that I took a second helping of chicken, to be clear, the chicken itself was no better than usual. The only thing extraordinary about that night’s meal was that four of the six people who lived in the house at the time, including me, showed up for dinner. We ate together in relatively good humor. Someone produced a bottle of wine. As the meal winded down, it occurred to me that I was still hungry. Observing that there were still several pieces of chicken left, I did a quick mental calculation. Factors that I considered included the number of pieces of chicken still left on the table (3), the number of meat-eaters at the table who had yet to eat a piece of chicken (0), the number of housemates who might yet come home looking for food (2), the number of those same absent housemates who ate meat (1), the amount of pleasure and satisfaction I might get from eating another piece of bad chicken (moderate) relative to the amount of displeasure I risked causing to other housemates for whom a piece of bad chicken that might otherwise be available upon returning home might not be available after all (very little), and the frequency with which, when this particular housemate cooked chicken, there were leftovers once everyone interested had taken a share (always). Confident that I was working well within the acceptable code of manners for even a formal dinner party, I helped myself to one more charred leg-thigh combo, and ate it as we made idle chitchat and finished the wine.

It is significant, I think, that—although the cook was sitting to my immediate left, and could have tapped me on the shoulder, or whispered into my ear as I began to reach for the serving dish—I was allowed to eat that second piece down to the bone before I was confronted about it. “Randall, I’d like to speak with you in the kitchen for a second.” I was surprised, but unconcerned, even a little bit curious about what I interpreted as his conspiratorial tone. We got up and went into the kitchen, which was only a few feet from the table and through an open door. He kept his voice low, but no lower than his normal speaking volume, which, consistent with his general persona and the winter temperature in the house, was moderated to preserve energy. It had no problem, nonetheless, carrying into the dining room.

“I think that it was inconsiderate of you to eat that second piece of chicken, when there are others who haven’t had a chance to eat yet,” he said. I said nothing. “That’s it,” he said.

“OK,” I said. “Thanks for your input.”

We stood there for a second, watching each other, and then I turned back to the dining room to collect my dishes. He returned to the table. I washed and rinsed in silence, and then walked past the dining room and up the stairs to my room, closed my door, and sat down at my desk. In spite of the wine, I had work to do. What had been a simple writing task that I had even been vaguely excited about only an hour earlier, however, now seemed far away and almost imperceptible through a thick red fog. My heart was beating audibly. I stood up, opened my door, and went back downstairs, where the scene had not perceptibly changed. I noticed the other two housemates in my peripheral vision, and briefly considered the fact that I was about to cause a scene, and that these were the spectators. The words were already, however, in the process of being formed.

“You don’t get to call me into the kitchen,” I said. “If you want to say something to me about how much food I eat, you can do it in the dining room.”

“I wanted to save you the embarrassment.”

“I am not embarrassed that I had two pieces of chicken,” I said. “I’m embarrassed that I haven’t said this earlier: Don’t go through my goddamn trash.” This is not what I had come downstairs to say. “Or better yet, if you want to spend your time going through my trash, you can do whatever you want with what you find, but don’t bring it back inside the place that I live. That’s why I put it in the trash.”

The calmness, the apparent emptiness, of his reaction made me seethe. My voice got louder as I searched for something to say that would penetrate the practiced disaffectation of a man who made failure to understand or empathize with the irrational behaviors of other human beings into an act of principled defiance. “You and I have a purely economic relationship,” I said. “We are equal parties to a financial agreement.” I glared at him meaningfully. “This is not a community. And you are the reason for it.” He flinched. I stood on the balls of my feet, chest out, and breathed loudly through my nose.

Little else was said and, feeling immediately ashamed for having lost my temper, I went back upstairs and got little done. Some emails containing equivocal apologies were exchanged over the next few days, and I found reasons to make sure that I wasn’t home at dinner time. A couple of weeks later, I left town for several months and subletted my room. When I returned, two rooms had unfamiliar occupants and, though there was awkward tension in the house as always, the senior roommate and I remained coolly civil to one another. For the five months that I lived in the house before leaving for good, I ate at home rarely. When I did, I was careful not to eat more than my share.

I recall this incident sometimes when friends are drinking and swapping roommate stories—a genre of oral history the ubiquity of which I only recognized in the moment that I self-consciously changed my standard contribution from the one about my freshman dormmate who was always getting stoned in our tiny room with his obnoxious friends to the one about taking a second helping of chicken. In the first story (although this was not true) I am studious and yet hyperconsiderate, anxious about prudishly interfering with my more freewheeling roommate’s lifestyle, and must ultimately come to terms with a choice between forcing confrontation or finding dignity, somehow, in toleration. Ultimately, I do confront him. I do it cruelly, blindsiding him with the pent up force of my resentment and (this part is true) make an enemy for life. That story, like this one, is generally well received and, as is the convention on such occasions, my unambiguous role as the long-suffering hero goes unquestioned.


The Symposium of Plato

These exchanges have, however, grown more nuanced as I have gotten older, and as my companions and I find ourselves less surprised, in general, by the depths of other people’s idiosyncrasy. Youthful indignation and incredulity seems to have given over, as we have grown serious about our own convictions and wary of our own peevishness, to wistfulness and condescension. Life, for most of us, has become less about being right, and more about knowing which compromises to make in order to get along with people. The brutish stoner freshman in my old story had always, in fact, been low hanging fruit, at least ever since I was a sophomore and could roll my eyes in embarrassed recollection of what it had been like to live in the dormitories, and I believe that what little power that narrative managed to retain into my late twenties came from an almost generous sense of recognition. “Remember,” the story asked while collapsing dopish villain and self-rightous hero into a composite caricature, “what it was like to be young?”

Similarly, I believe that the cathartic power of my chicken story derives from the moment of rupture in which I, heretofore the wry narrator, lose my temper at accumulated small injustices or at the insult rendered by sanctimonious collectivist sentiment to my own bruised idealism, and reveal the pathos of the odd similarity between myself and my antagonist.

I had been driven to graduate school, at least partially, out of frustration at the scolding incoherence of the political convictions among most of the people I encountered in the vaguely lefty and vaguely creative circles in which I traveled. Having suffered a crisis of faith simultaneously in my career choice and in my country (I took the invasion of Iraq as a personal betrayal) and fighting off depression, I had set out to learn the history and political geography that had not been part of my art school curriculum. I earned a master’s degree in International Relations with a thesis about the bankruptcy of the human rights discourse in international law, and moved across the country to earn my PhD. Teaching for pennies and living off of loans, I spent my days running between seminars and teaching responsibilities, or alone in my room, desperately treading water to keep up with reading in political economy, psychoanalytic theory, and literary criticism. It was exactly what I wanted to be doing at that point, but I was profoundly lonely. Not only was I overworked and stressed about money, but I was finding myself increasingly alienated from friends and family by the almost Kabbalistic obscurity of my studies. Eager not to become an ignorant scold, I had become a pedantic one.


The Author, at the time of the Chicken Incident

What was at stake for my housemate, in the argument about the chicken, had something to do with an ossified idealism, a rigid insistence on the most technical aspects of communalism at the cost of being present to the nuanced humanity of the people with whom he lived. While I sat in the room adjacent to his, surrounded by piles of books and freshman term papers, brewing coffee in order to work late into the night on grandiose theoretical prose about politics and culture, I alternately pitied his loneliness and resented his stridency. But I also molded him into a symbol. In his narcissism; in his oblivion to the discomfort he bred among those around him; in the confusion of his mourning for his own youth, on one hand, and for a real moment of utopian possibility on the other; and in his rigidity—he came to stand in for the failure of the American Left. And our half-hearted cooking plan became a symbol of all the residue from an era in which well-intended people had, en masse, mistaken lifestyle experiments for the kind of structured, organized political action that might bring real change to a fucked up world. After he confronted me about taking seconds I had—utterly failing to see the hypocrisy—gilded my anger, in the brief moment of reflection upstairs, with the idea that I was confronting my housemate by way of addressing these more abstract concerns, and in the name of the public good. Yet as I said the meanest thing I could think of to this strange, lonely man, it occurred to me that to the other people present, the community for which I imagined I was fighting, I probably looked as crazy as he did, and cruel as well.

I have tried, in the last couple of years, to make some subtle adjustments, in order to prioritize building a life that I like in the world as it is over improving my list of all the ways it could be better. I still study the same things, and retain many of the same convictions, but this subtle shift in attitude has led to some drastic changes. I slowed down a bit in my drive to finish the PhD, took summers off to do construction and work on creative projects, and chased a woman to Europe (and then to Minnesota). I also find myself hanging out with friends and drinking more often, swapping roommate stories, and I have had a chance to reflect on how the chicken narrative operates. For me, anyway, the story has become wistful and cautionary. “Remember,” it asks, while collapsing dopish villain with self-righteous hero into a composite caricature, “what it was like to be young?”


Paris Commune image from International Pamphlets No. 12, via The Paris Commune Told In Pictures.

Symposium painting by Anselm Feuerbach, ‘Das Gastmahl des Plato’ (1869).

Race riots image via secorlew.

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6 responses to “Second Thoughts on 2nd Helpings”

  1. TH says:

    Wow, you really captured the tension that existed! I was clueless at first but eventually I figured it out, although in more practical terms. In my mind, “intentional community” fails when it leaves people with winter wind blowing through window cracks and hopelessly mildewed/ruined shower stalls. I'm sorry, but the term slumlord comes to mind when the houses all around are fixed up and one is not. (not that we ever met the owner)
    Thanks for putting this all down, I am interested to share your views with a few key people. You are right on the money!
    Hope you don't feel TOO haunted by the memories. Every once in a while, if we're lucky, we perpetrate a major f*** up that helps keep us humble for a few years. And you'll be nicer to other people because you know the price of meanness is rather high. And if you're REALLY lucky, you will know (how) to never do this to someone you love.

  2. Liznwyrk says:

    I like the chicken leg crushing your head in the photo, nice touch.

  3. sara says:

    This took me back – so perfectly and vividly – to a very specific time in my own life. I love that line – leaving the house without knowing where we'd get our coffee. It's quite a journey, this piece.

  4. It seems that the much-older landlord/housemate who manages a “community” of desperate younger people, sleeps on a mattress, and brings garbage back into the house is almost a modern archetype. I have personally dealt with three of them, all in completely different circumstances; two in New York, and one in Seattle. I often wonder about the curious combination of traits, and why they so ofter occur together.

    I had a landlord in LA who, after effectively evicting me, took me on a tour of other abandoned apartments that he controlled, and encouraged me to take things (such as functional computers) that had been left behind. Maybe after collecting so much residue from old tenants over time, they finally decide that there's no need to wait until the tenant actually vacates before scavenging their stuff.

  5. Amy Meckler says:

    i think cooking for others is quite intimate. that kind of community, cooking for each other, then eating together–it seems like it's trying to replicate family, like many communal living environments try to do. my family of origin doesn't understand me because i'm liberal/an artist/gay/etc. so we'll be a family. families also fight from a sort of imposed intimacy, well represented by tense meals together. the cliche of thanksgiving dinner with family you can't talk to but must eat with.
    i do not cook for anyone i don't love (or hope to love). it's very near to being naked, i feel.

  6. As structured as the aims of that house were, the functionally unanimous understanding that this character was the impediment to the community he so desired adds a gloss to the retelling. His charms were present if limited, and his intentions were always obscured by his desire to, literally, keep himself in the dark. Such a shady figure can never be a part of a community, lip service be damned.

    Sometimes a caricature looks more like the real thing than a photograph.

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The Author

Randall K. Cohn

Randall K. Cohn is no longer a graduate student. In addition to Revolving Floor, his writing has been published in Reviews in Cultural Theory and Die Gazette, and he co-wrote a chapter for the recently published anthology Renewing Cultural Studies. He lives with his fiance in Minneapolis, where he is an outreach worker and shelter advocate for homeless adults. View all of Randall's Revolving Floor contributions.

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