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Big Love on Staten Island

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From left: George, 51, is one of Ganas’s founders and still part of the “core group,” the dozen or so people charged with running the place. His considerable wealth is tied up in the commune’s holdings; Mildred, 83, the commune’s guiding light and co-founder, recently retired and moved to Brighton Beach with her fifth husband, Dave, 38. She met Dave several years ago, when he became close friends with her then-husband, Bruno; Ashley, 34, performs in the political theater group Circus Amok and is living at Ganas for the five-month summer circus season: “It’s a starving-artist kind of thing,” she says. “I can’t afford anywhere else in the city.”  

“Tell us what would happen if you moved out,” one woman demands with a bluntness characteristic of these meetings.

“Well, I don’t know. We might move into her house . . . or something else,” he hedges.

“Haven’t you talked about it?” a man with a beard asks incredulously. Ian’s leg is bobbing nervously, and he can’t come up with an answer. He wants something more than Ganas can give him, but wanting it is ripping him up.

With Ian mute, talk shifts to another topic. A couple of people are wondering if they should intervene in a situation where someone’s drinking problem has gotten out of control again. Then, with the same gravity, they discuss who has the communal truck today because some furniture needs moving.

Two hours go by. The morning is a mishmash of consciousness-raising, graduate seminar, and staff meeting—with a flagrant lack of closure thrown in for good measure. What is Ian going to do? Will there be an intervention for the alcoholic guy? Who has the goddamned truck?


Turns out Tom’s got the truck. A soft-spoken guy with a hint of Texas in his voice, he’s belted into the tattered driver’s seat and heading to Jetro, a grocery wholesaler in Brooklyn. There he’ll buy the week’s food supply for the community. This is his regular job, and it takes him all day to find the bargains that will keep the total cost under the budgeted $20 per person per week. As he looks for cheap cheese in the refrigerated section, he recalls his early days: “When I first started living at communes, my parents were seriously considering doing a cult-deprogramming thing—you know, kidnapping me and the whole bit. But my brother persuaded my parents not to do it until he’d visited the place and checked it out.”

He picks up some fresh mozzarella, checks the price, and puts it down again. “Anyway, he came and he liked it. He told me the problem was that everybody was so nice that he couldn’t find any problems.” Tom shrugs and laughs.

With the cargo hold loaded up with this week’s haul, Tom drives back across the Verrazano bridge. He gets to Ganas at dinnertime. As he pulls up to several houses half-hidden by trees, someone inside spots him and yells out, “Food chain!” Thirty or forty people abandon their empanadas and salads to spread out into a loose queue that stretches from Tom’s truck, up three flights of steep front steps, and into a converted rec room that serves as the community’s multiroom pantry and walk-in refrigerator.

Tom hands out a big box of oranges, and the next person in the line grabs it from him. She hands it off to somebody at the bottom of the first flight of steps, who walks up to the top, and so on through another two flights of steps and a long walkway, each punctuated by a long ellipsis of humans working. For about fifteen minutes, all anyone does is grunt and issue short communiqués like “Oof, this one’s heavy” or “Be careful: eggs.”

The food chain follows a flight of stairs whose structure has been subtly modified—blocks of wood are nailed to the edge of each step, creating a narrow pathway of mini-steps. The half-steps continue past the pantry and terminate at the door of a freshly painted house.

“Did you see the dwarf steps outside?” George asks sardonically. “Those are so I can get in here with these legs.” He makes a dramatic gesture that emphasizes his stature—a bit over four feet. A retired money manager, George is one of the architects of Ganas’s peculiar capitalist-communist economic system. “I wanted to create my own pirate island,” George recalls. “But we live in a country where there is no model other than private property. So we had to buy the island.”

George and the other lifers run their island’s communist engines on the pure fuel of capitalism. Room and board costs only $710 per month, and many residents work off their bill at Every Thing Goes, Ganas’s three Staten Island thrift shops that sell used books, secondhand furniture, and vintage clothes. The community is set up in two pieces: The residences are a nonprofit organization, and the businesses are a for-profit corporation.

Any shortfall is covered by the dozen or so in the “core group”—members like George and Ian who pool all their money, putting it at the community’s disposal. A quorum must approve any purchase over $50. “I have very few possessions,” says George. “I like sharing my house with people.”

But George has no illusions about collective ownership. “Our cars are a perfect example of socialism,” George says. “Nobody owns them, so we treat them like shit.”


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