Signs of Change

Signs of Change
Illustration by Karl Schulschenk

God, my feet hurt. It’s not just the half-mile walk to this hippie pavilion, or the fact that I’m technically obese, according to my doctor, who based this medical pronouncement on a bogus formula dreamed up by some fucking mathematician from Belgium. No, the real reason my feet hurt is because I’ve got nothing but an ancient pair of sandals to walk around in. My last honest pair of tennis shoes I gave to some kid who, from the looks of his bare and busted feet would’ve paid his last dollar for even my crummy sandals. I didn’t need the shoes then—only left the house to peer into the empty mailbox twice a day. Now I wish I had them.

A couple months ago, my doctor told me I should start exercising regularly. Actually, she’s been saying this for years, but with the recent shortage of blood pressure medication, her good-natured urging has reached the level of an imperial command.

“Rich, if you lose access to your medication, which seems more probable with each passing week, your blood pressure will quickly revert to dangerously high levels.” She blinks behind her glasses, absently inspects the faint coffee stain on the arm of her white lab coat before meeting my eyes again.

“And since your high blood pressure doesn’t seem to be genetically inherited, there’s every reason to think that regular, aerobic exercise will help keep it at a level that’s comparable to the effect of the medication.” She pauses, but doesn’t look away this time.

“I will renew your prescription for thirty days, but I want you to schedule a follow up so we can revisit this topic soon.”

Halfway through my thirty days, another shipping lane disruption holds up the latest batch of medications, bicycles, ultra 4K televisions, refrigerators, ballpoint pens, etc. Self-preservation overrides my resistance to exercise, and I start looking for a gym. I have not owned any exercise equipment since my one impulsive late-night purchase of a full-body workout machine that inspired a few weeks of intensive early morning sessions before the novelty wore off and an extra hour of sleep suddenly seemed critical.

One thing I learned from that experience was that going it alone made exercise even more difficult and unpleasant. But just joining a gym wouldn’t solve that problem; lining up a bunch of treadmills doesn’t exactly create a community. Joining a class seemed the way to go if I wanted to be able to stick with it.

The problem, of course, is money. Long-haul drivers have little work in this era of mineral shortages and high fuel prices. The carbon tax has made running a fleet of trucks on gas prohibitive, but the dwindling lodes of lithium and graphite mean that the vaunted electric fleets of the future are unlikely to supply an adequate alternative for long-distance national shipping.

So, I continued to collect my paltry payment protection checks while looking for an affordable gym with an aerobics class I could do in sandals.

Last week, on my afternoon trip to the mailbox, I found a flyer tucked behind the metal flag. It advertised a free community exercise class and “battery charging party” at a church less than a mile from where I live. JOIN US, SATURDAYS @ 9AM, NO EQUIPMENT REQUIRED, the flyer read. If I had any mystical or religious leanings at all, I might have seen this as a sign.

I’m here for the second week in a row, having gotten up just early enough to eat a bowl of cereal and make the thirty minute trek to the pavilion. A minute or so before the class starts, I climb onto an old exercise bike that someone has donated, gray paint flaking off the frame. Attached to the frame is a small box with a tiny wheel sticking out of one side. This wheel is pressed against the front rim of my exercise bike, and it spins as I begin pedaling. Coming out the other side of the box is a wire that runs away from my bike and connects to a large battery in the center of the pavilion. A rough rectangle of other people perched on similar but not identical bikes, all with wires connecting to the battery in the center, fills out the pavilion.

The leader of the class, a young enthusiast with too much hair and not enough makeup, pedals her own bike atop the battery, shouting encouragement and occasionally status updates about how much energy we’ve produced. After thirty minutes, the fifteen or so of us have juiced up the 1500-watt battery to nearly full capacity.

Feet aching, I hobble to what passes for a bathroom here. The inside looks pretty normal—a toilet and roll of paper, stack of gardening magazines in one corner. But when you lift the toilet lid, instead of a porcelain bowl you are staring down into a giant bin filled with straw. Next to the magazines is a five-gallon bucket filled with fresh straw. Taped to the outside of the bucket is a sign that reads, DON’T FORGET TO “FLUSH”!

As I’m leaving I pass a wooden box the size of a small filing cabinet stuck on top of a post about chest-high. On the front is a small door; inside are books. A painted sign stuck in the ground nearby says, LITTLE FREE LIBRARY. I peer into the box, head tilted as I scan the titles. There are children’s books, novels, field guides, a few magazines, some religious titles. A man approaches from behind, a few books under his arm. I step back as he deposits the books in the little library and see him select one of the magazines. After he leaves, I browse again for a few more minutes, unsure whether to take a book without leaving one. I make a note of one or two interesting titles, though I haven’t read a book in years, and make a plan to bring some books next week to donate.

The following Saturday morning I show up a few minutes before the class starts. I’ve brought a few books in a plastic grocery bag, and I head straight to the little free library. The dewy grass wets my sore feet. I slide my books in with the others and walk over to the pavilion.

Just outside the pavilion stand three small satellite dishes. At least, that’s what they look like: concave discs tilted toward the sky. But there’s no wiring. They don’t appear to connect to anything. A small banner tied to two lengths of rebar billows in the morning breeze, but its message is facing away from me and the class is about to start, so I don’t have time to investigate.

I climb onto my bike, the same one I’ve been using since my first week. Even though the class is free and open to all, I have subconsciously begun to claim ownership of this old gray rust-spotted exercise bike. And although I probably wouldn’t make a fuss if I discovered one week that someone else had claimed the bike first, I know that a small voice of protest would rise up in me, an indignant child demanding to have his bike, and I would sulkily choose from those that remained.

Today, though, “my” bike is free. I slip my feet into the stirrups and cinch the straps. It’s like wearing two pairs of sandals. I enjoy this moment of relief for my tired feet, and a weight settles on me as the instructor mounts her bike. Next to me is a young woman who has been here each time I’ve come. Last week, as we pedaled in unison, she explained to me about the battery.

“It powers the irrigation system for the garden.” Her face was flushed, but she didn’t seem winded. She dabbed sweat from the back of her neck with a hand towel.

“It’s a form of mutual aid,” she added. “What’s that?” “It’s where people come together to meet each other’s needs without interference from government or some other institution.” “Isn’t this a church?” I gestured toward the bell tower that loomed over the busy street behind us. My thigh muscles were beginning to feel wobbly. “Yes, but this class doesn’t ‘belong’ to the church. It’s not some charity program the church has devised to ‘serve’ the community. A few folks who attend the church—like me—had an idea: the church gardens rely on electricity for irrigation, and since the grid has become intermittently functional at best, we need an independent source of power. So, we bought a battery. Of course, the battery needs to be recharged regularly, but just plugging it in means it’s still dependent on the grid. One of our members read a magazine article about retrofitting stationary bikes as power generators, so we began collecting bikes–from friends, thrift stores, even a few from the dump. We cleaned them up and added the little power boxes on the front wheels. Voila! The gardens get on-site power generation, and the community gets a free weekly exercise class. Mutual aid. No charity or taxes required.”

“What if not enough people show up to charge the battery one week?”

“That happens sometimes. Fortunately, the grid has not yet completely failed, so we use it when we have to. Also, there are solar panels on the pavilion roof. But they’re old and don’t produce much electricity, especially on cloudy days.” She shrugged and then added, “If all else fails, there’s always rain and hand watering.” She thumbed toward the black plastic barrels stationed beneath each corner of the pavilion’s roof, a downspout aimed into the center of the barrel’s wire mesh opening.

As we finish this week’s class, the same young woman, whose name is Rose, asks me if I plan to stay for brunch. We are standing just outside the pavilion. The mid-morning sun feels warm on my arms and neck. I don’t usually stay long after the class ends. I get away as quickly as I can, mainly so I can get home and put my feet up. Plus, I don’t see anything set up to prepare food.

To stall for time, I ask Rose, “What’s on the menu?” “Omelets,” she says. “Does the church have a kitchen?” “Sure, but we don’t need it.” One corner of her mouth tilts up as she watches me look around again for evidence of cooking. “There.” She points to the mysterious little satellite dishes I had seen before the class started. We are standing in front of the banner that I had earlier only seen from behind. It reads, 4TH SATURDAY OMELET BRUNCH / EGGS FROM OUR HENS, HEAT FROM OUR SUN.

Near the center of each “satellite dish” is a small platform, held up from below by a metal bar. On each little perch sits a small cast iron skillet. The surface of each dish is a shiny, reflective metal. Rose explains that, when angled toward the sun, these dishes—called solar cookers—will concentrate and direct enough sunlight to the skillet to cook the eggs, or to boil water in a pot.

I watch as someone wheels a large cooler from the shade of the pavilion roof and begins lifting out cartons of eggs, passing them to people who seem to be working the cookers. Rose has slipped away for a moment to help set up card tables near each cooker so those making the eggs will have a work surface. She then pulls a knife and a small wad of wax paper from the cooler and makes a second pass by each cooker, cutting a chunk of whatever is in the paper (butter, I assume) and dropping it in the skillets, which begin to sizzle furiously.

“Food should be ready in about fifteen minutes,” Rose says as she rejoins me. “Plenty of time to visit the free store.”

“The what?”

In response, she points to a pair of double doors that lead into the ground floor of the church. A small hand-lettered sandwich board sign in front of the doors proclaims, GREEN TEAM FREE STORE / OPEN SATURDAYS 10 – 12.

“Free store…isn’t that kind of a contradiction in terms? Stores are where you buy things. Bookstore. Pet store. Grocery store. Even thrift stores aren’t free.”

“What would you call it?” Rose asks, the corner of her mouth sliding up again. I shrug, and we walk inside. The “store” is actually an assortment of round-top tables piled with items that more or less belong together. Small signs stick up from the middle of each pile: Books, Children’s Clothes, Baby Items, Shoes, Kitchen Items, Tools, Feminine Hygiene. It’s a large room without much light. I can’t make out the signs at the very back.

“The store has only been operating for a few weeks,” Rose says. “The church still uses this room for events sometimes, so everything has to be put up after the store closes. They are considering making the store permanent, though, which would really help with organizing.”

“Who runs the store,” I ask. “I assume they are volunteers. Not a very profitable business model.”

Rose ignores my quip. “Yes, it’s run by volunteers, although they prefer to just call themselves community members. They say the term volunteer only makes sense in a profit-driven society where unpaid work has a special designation. In a society that prioritizes the well-being of people and the community, most or all of the important work is non-monetary, so ‘volunteering’ becomes the norm and ‘wage-earning’ the exception.”

We are meandering among the tables, not looking closely at anything. I find Rose’s enthusiasm catching, her ideas intriguing, if a bit quixotic.

“I’m going to head back outside,” she says. “The omelets are best right out of the skillet.”

I nod and say I’ll be out right out. Something at one of the tables has caught my eye. I walk over to the shoe table and find myself looking down at the same pair of gray tennis shoes I had given away several months before. They are a bit more scuffed than when I’d last seen them, but they’ve been cleaned and are still intact. I imagine the relief my feet would feel riding on those thick soles, hugged by taut laces, soothed by firm but gentle arches.

I look around the store, trying out of habit to locate someone I can pay for the shoes before realizing my mistake. I reach out and carefully lift the familiar shoes from the table. Tucking them under one arm, I go out to find Rose and an omelet fresh from the skillet.