The Post-Ownership Society

Five and a half years ago, when I first moved to Washington, D.C., for a magazine job, I rented a basement apartment in a neighborhood called Bloomingdale. The area was full of Victorian-era homes that had once been occupied by mostly middle-class black families, right on the border where the Northwest quadrant of the city becomes the Northeast. But throughout the 2000s, affordable D.C. neighborhoods with trendy-sounding names like Bloomingdale drew gentrifiers who needed low rents—journalists, creative types, entry-level do-gooders, and shift-working bartenders and baristas who occasionally had Mom and Dad’s help—and so the neighborhoods changed.

Some days, I worked from home instead of going into the office, and I’d head down the block to the Big Bear Café, a hipster outpost where you could find everyone from the neighborhood, the old and the new, together in one place. There, we’d all spend more than $2 on a cup of over-roasted French press coffee or $5 on a breakfast bagel with ham, egg, and cheese sourced straight from farms within a 500-mile radius of the city. I was as likely to see a Generation X professional working on his or her new laptop as I was to overhear lithe young men and women in a conversation about reinventing yoga. Sitting among this particular slice of the tattooed elite—the people who are outside the center of power but at a good distance for judging it—typing away on my own computer, I could feel like I’d made it. Somewhere, anyway.

Last summer, I was laid off when my magazine dramatically and suddenly shrank to half its size. It was the first time I’d been unemployed in my adult life, though I’d watched waves of layoffs hit coworkers in nearly every job I’d had. I had an army of friends, many slightly younger Millennials who’d graduated in the height of the Great Recession, who showed me the unemployment ropes. Deciding to save money on rent, which had grown in five years from $995 a month to $1,275, I sublet my apartment. I stayed for a few weeks off U Street at a friend’s group house. There was an unoccupied spare bedroom that had been used as a crash pad for unemployed friends many times before, and they hosted a huge dinner party nearly every Sunday at which I had already been a regular, so it felt like home.

Through the summer, my friends and I, all in our late twenties to mid-thirties, would go out at night for $10 Negronis or bourbons, or went to places where we had cultivated friendships with bartenders so we got some drinks for free. We’d have $8 drip coffee in the mornings with a rosemary or lavender scone, or something else ridiculously fancy, rubbing shoulders with the people our age and older who actually made money. Some of us would go off to work while the rest of us navigated our new self-employment, since the freelance life was the only one available.

I saved up enough money over the summer to afford my rent again, for awhile, and I moved back into my apartment and continued piecing together work as a freelancer. I felt like I hadn’t missed a beat. Most important, I was doing the work I wanted to do, as were my friends—we were doing good work, in the fields we’d intended to enter. We were making a difference, not just clocking in somewhere during the day and having extended-adolescence fun at night. We felt we were building toward something, an actual career and a life.

and a half years ago, when I first moved to Washington, D.C., for a magazine job, I rented a basement apartment in a neighborhood called Bloomingdale. The area was full of Victorian-era homes that had once been occupied by mostly middle-class black families, right on the border where the Northwest quadrant of the city becomes the Northeast. But throughout the 2000s, affordable D.C. neighborhoods with trendy-sounding names like Bloomingdale drew gentrifiers who needed low rents—journalists, creative types, entry-level do-gooders, and shift-working bartenders and baristas who occasionally had Mom and Dad’s help—and so the neighborhoods changed.

Some days, I worked from home instead of going into the office, and I’d head down the block to the Big Bear Café, a hipster outpost where you could find everyone from the neighborhood, the old and the new, together in one place. There, we’d all spend more than $2 on a cup of over-roasted French press coffee or $5 on a breakfast bagel with ham, egg, and cheese sourced straight from farms within a 500-mile radius of the city. I was as likely to see a Generation X professional working on his or her new laptop as I was to overhear lithe young men and women in a conversation about reinventing yoga. Sitting among this particular slice of the tattooed elite—the people who are outside the center of power but at a good distance for judging it—typing away on my own computer, I could feel like I’d made it. Somewhere, anyway.

Last summer, I was laid off when my magazine dramatically and suddenly shrank to half its size. It was the first time I’d been unemployed in my adult life, though I’d watched waves of layoffs hit coworkers in nearly every job I’d had. I had an army of friends, many slightly younger Millennials who’d graduated in the height of the Great Recession, who showed me the unemployment ropes. Deciding to save money on rent, which had grown in five years from $995 a month to $1,275, I sublet my apartment. I stayed for a few weeks off U Street at a friend’s group house. There was an unoccupied spare bedroom that had been used as a crash pad for unemployed friends many times before, and they hosted a huge dinner party nearly every Sunday at which I had already been a regular, so it felt like home.

Through the summer, my friends and I, all in our late twenties to mid-thirties, would go out at night for $10 Negronis or bourbons, or went to places where we had cultivated friendships with bartenders so we got some drinks for free. We’d have $8 drip coffee in the mornings with a rosemary or lavender scone, or something else ridiculously fancy, rubbing shoulders with the people our age and older who actually made money. Some of us would go off to work while the rest of us navigated our new self-employment, since the freelance life was the only one available.

I saved up enough money over the summer to afford my rent again, for awhile, and I moved back into my apartment and continued piecing together work as a freelancer. I felt like I hadn’t missed a beat. Most important, I was doing the work I wanted to do, as were my friends—we were doing good work, in the fields we’d intended to enter. We were making a difference, not just clocking in somewhere during the day and having extended-adolescence fun at night. We felt we were building toward something, an actual career and a life.

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