M.F.A. Student Spends a "Free" Summer in New York City

Jesse Kreuzer
Kreuzer slept in a tree in a hammock crafted from fabric discarded by Cornell art students. photo / Jesse Kreuzer
Jesse Kreuzer
Dumpster diving involves arriving at restaurants or grocery stores right before the trash is collected, and sorting through what has been discarded. photo / Jesse Kreuzer
Kreuzer slept in a tree in a hammock crafted from fabric discarded by Cornell art students. photo / Jesse Kreuzer Dumpster diving involves arriving at restaurants or grocery stores right before the trash is collected, and sorting through what has been discarded. photo / Jesse Kreuzer
News
April 8, 2016

Jesse Kreuzer (M.F.A. '16) shares his experiences living for free in New York City. This story originally appeared in AAP News 19.

When I was an undergrad living in New York City, before I understood the extent of the safety net provided by my middle-class family, I thought a lot about what I would do after finishing my education. As an artist who wants to continue making art, I decided I wouldn't take risks. I wouldn't invest in a studio or expensive materials. I would pare down my lifestyle to necessities. I wouldn't go clothes shopping, eat at expensive restaurants, or spend money on entertainment.

During the same time period a friend introduced me to dumpster diving. Thousands of grocery stores and restaurants throw away food every day. To dumpster dive, show up after a store has closed, untie the knots on the heaviest trash bags, and look for perfectly good food. I dumpster dived during my undergraduate years, and netted enough extra food to throw dinner parties.

Last year, midway through the first year of my M.F.A., I wondered if I could expand the dumpster diving way of existing in the city to include all life essentials for an entire summer. To live off the abundance and inefficiency of the New York City machine seemed like a way to step outside of a consumer culture that makes me uncomfortable; it's impossible to participate in contemporary life without contributing to a system that has oppressed someone. Maybe the answer is simply to opt out.

I decided to try.

In June, I made a hammock from material discarded by Cornell art students. I found two trees in city parks to sleep in, mailed my credit and bank cards to my parents' house, and spent the summer living my plan — for two months, I lived "for free" in New York City. I dumpster dived for food, biked for transportation, showered in the locker room at the public pool, and slept in a tree. I lived in the city without sacrificing the things I loved about it — the vitality and culture manifest in museums and galleries, and conversations with strangers.

When I started out, this project sounded like a blueprint that anyone could follow. Over the course of the summer, it became clear that it couldn't be that. A person who is not young, male, ablebodied, educated, or white would have a vastly different experience than I did. In fact, someone coming from a less comfortable background might have no interest in this experience at all.

As a college-educated person with a supportive family, eating food out of the garbage is a choice, and therefore an extension of my education and comfort. Living in trees is an adventure. And living without money is a project. If eating out of the garbage is a necessity, it isn't action born from enlightenment, and it isn't something you want to do. Dumpster diving is something I'm proud of, because it attests to my ability to deconstruct societal norms for myself. That ability is a symptom of education, and acting on it is a symptom of my comfortable life.

After two months, I biked to my parents' house, where I slept and ate at their expense. I used my credit card to buy a bus ticket, and resumed graduate school at Cornell.

During the summer I used a video camera to document my experience. I have assembled a movie of that footage, which I hope will begin to address some of the ambiguities and the problematic nature of this project. The movie, titled A "Free" Summer, will be screened on at Cornell Cinema on May 10.

It's now cold enough outside that I'm uncomfortable walking between buildings. It took me years after leaving my parents' house to realize that the reason I don’t have to go clothes shopping is because my mother still buys my clothes.

By Jesse Kreuzer (M.F.A. '16)