A dream has come true. For years, even prior to Occupy, I had a dream of serving tea on Wall St, and another of being featured in the New York Times. Upon arriving in New York City, I realized the first dream was an impossibility due to lack of parking on Wall St. The second dream, however, just came true.
So many people had warned me that NYC might be a little hostile. From people who knew the city, as well as people who only knew the stereotypes, we heard about the culture of money, the lack of eye contact, the fast-paced lifestyle – all things that seemed to oppose many of the foundational ideas behind the free tea bus. Friends and acquaintances were warning us about police, how graffiti artists would see Edna Lu the teabus as a canvas, and how difficult it would be to find places to sleep.
Ally, Edna Lu the teabus, and I arrived in NYC without knowing where we’d stay, or what our week in the city would hold. On Halloween evening, hoping to find decent parking near the end of the Halloween parade, we arrived in the Big Apple. Our late arrival, however, left us in bumper-to-bumper traffic though the streets of Manhattan for two hours, until we finally found a spot in SoHo near the parade. Somewhat exhausted from the traffic, and not knowing what to expect, we opened the door to serve tea.
Our reception from NYC was fantastic. That first night there in SoHo we had programmers, some ladies from Egypt, a stockbroker, a couple from England, and many, many more people – most of them in costume. The stockbroker played devil’s advocate, as his job is to move money, and despite the disagreements on money and sharing, he ended up offering a place to shower and stay. Two programmers decided to be friends. Free donuts were shared. The depth of the conversations, the willingness for New Yorkers to come aboard the bus, and the wide variety of people who came aboard, really made this tea party special, and set the mood for our entire stay in NYC.
Our daily activities were searching out our resources, as it is when we get to any new place. In places we have visited often, we know where those resources will come from. In NYC we had to figure out where to get water (a rec center ended up letting us fill up a couple times), where to empty grey water, where we can shower, where we can park and feel comfortable, who our community is, where we can get food, etc. Most of these things are fulfilled through non-monetary means – but through relationships instead, so it takes time to figure these things out. This is part of the reason that the tea bus travels so slowly – because relationships, both with people and with the objects we use and consume, take time.
I was also very fortunate that so many folks I went to college with live in Brooklyn, so many of my days included visits from, and meals with old friends. It was fun to share the tea bus with so many folks who had only heard about it, but never experienced it.
I also spent a bit of time working on my solar upgrade (blog entry soon), rebuilding some cabinet doors to fit my new charge controller, and more. One of the reasons I also came to NYC was to finish up some filming for a documentary about the tea bus that a Brooklyn filmmaker (Jackie Snow) began filming in Austin earlier this year. She was able to capture more footage of some of the hands on aspects of my lifestyle for the film.
One evening when leaving my friend’s art studio, as Ally, my friend Nick, and I all rounded a corner to the street where Edna was parked, I said, “How much do you want to bet someone is tagging Edna.” And sure enough, half-a-block up, there was a fellow with a paint marker doing graffiti on the side of Edna while his buddy watched. I ran full speed, yelling profanities about how they were messing with my home. I think the word “home” was one of the things that made the fellow apologetic — I mean apologetic enough to help clean it off, but not apologetic to let down his machismo and admit he had done something wrong. It was actually a very interesting experience.
One weeknight we were there, our dear friends Elephant Revival were playing a show in the Bowery at The Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan. We parked right out front, right by the entrance to the subway, and opened our doors to the wide variety of folks that pass by, and who were headed into the show. And again, the willingness of people to participate, and shove off the NYC stereotype was incredible. At one point, the head of security at the Ballroom stopped Ally and said, “There’s people on your bus who shouldn’t be there – known drug-addicts and robbers. If you feel uncomfortable at any point, scratch your nose, and I’ll take care of the rest.” We felt well taken care of, but of course knew that all people are welcome on the bus, and in fact misled people are some of my favorite people to engage and to actually re-engage in genuine human interactions. It is my firm belief that people become addicted to drugs partially due to lack of genuine human interactions (see this study), and people become robbers because our society teaches us to act out of self-interest (see Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations). Most people actively attempt to not interact with these kinds of people. For me it’s the opposite. Regardless, the night went on without a hitch. Old friends showed up, new ones came aboard, and many cups of tea were had until 2 am.
The next day in Brooklyn, Ally and I were looking for a place to relax in Edna. We stumbled upon a nice park and set ourselves up to chill. Looking down the block we saw a bunch of books lined up. What’s that? A FREE STORE! No way! Despite being exhausted from serving tea the night before, we pulled up next to the Brooklyn Free Store and started serving tea. The Brooklyn Free Store has been happening once a week for 10 years. Similar to the tea bus, the Free Store offers a completely non-monetary exchange, with people sharing simply because they want to build resilience into their community. Just as stoked as I was, the people around the Free Store were stoked for the tea bus. We shared in much tea, people played music out front, and the conversations were spot on.
The next day I got an email from Colin Moynihan, a writer for the New York Times, who was interested in doing a piece about the tea bus. Wow! I asked him to come the next day for our last planned tea party in NYC at McCarren Park in Brooklyn. He sat with me asking a few questions, observed all the folks coming for tea (and it attracted quite a few), sat down and totally busted out an 800-word article in about 45 minutes. Holy moly! The tea party went fabulously, so it was easy to be excited about the article.
Here’s the New York Times article:
A Vagabond Teahouse Pours Camaraderie, One Free Cup at a Time
I think the main reason why the tea bus was so well received in NYC was precisely the same reason that people thought it wouldn’t be. Because part of the mainstream culture of NYC is money focused, because there is a lack of slowing down – these things make the need for the tea bus even more apparent. When people actually find something that doesn’t revolve around making a buck, when they find something that’s closer to that sharing aspect of human nature, they want to experience it. It feels right. And I think that’s also why I experienced more eye contact walking down the street in Brooklyn than I expected, and I experienced things like the Free Store, but there still is a heavy, dominant culture that is based on profit maximization and self interest, and this is why we had so much success in the city that never steeps.
A big ol’ thanks to Nick Gehling for helping us get our bearings and resources; Colin Snapp for sharing some space; Jackie Snow for making a movie and lending an address; Kelly Britton for reconnecting and a nice shower; the rec center in McCarren Park for letting us fill water; All of Elephant Revival; Dexter at The Bowery Ballroom; Abbey and Camillo for being our van dwelling community; Colin and Alexandra for sharing food, friendship and a shower; Calvin; Julia and Bruce for organizing a brunch and feeding many of us; Thadeaus and all the folks from The Brooklyn Free Store; and so so so many more. Thank you, New York City!