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Greensboro resident not keeping up with the Joneses

by Sue Edelberg

There aren’t many fuel meters in Greensboro that were reclaimed by Piedmont Natural Gas for lack of use. There aren’t many roosters named Ben or cats named Kitty or hens that were eaten by hawks in the last couple weeks.

And there aren’t too many people like Jake Midnight.

But all of these realities improbably converge in a strange little space near downtown Greensboro.

Alternative living in the modern age can be difficult, but especially living in a city where land is minimal and the technological modern times are in your face 24/7. However, at least one Greensboro resident has pulled off a lifestyle close to the earth in a town brimming with SUVs, construction and big business.

At the moment he’s choosing to go by “Jake Midnight”, a stage name for his impromptu house band Jake Midnight & the New Moonbeams (new moons don’t have moonlight, get it?). He claims to have JDD – “Job Deficit Disorder” – and says he hasn’t owned a TV in ten years.

With the youthful glow from 46-year-old Jake Midnight’s face and agile body, as well as the signature high-pitched chuckle you’ll hear at the end of many of his sentences, one can look at Midnight and instantly know that he’s held onto the better qualities of childhood.

Midnight will give it to you straight: “Jobs suck. They steal all your time for a handful of dimes.” To suit his idea of work, Midnight works for himself as a freelance lumberjack, cutting down trees for people.

“I usually do it just three hours in the morning. I like it because it’s different every time.” To heat his domicile, he uses the free wood by-product from tree-cutting in a wood stove in his living room. And at night he does it the old-fashioned way: He wraps a hot brick in a blanket and puts it in his bed.

“Stays warm for seven hours, I shit you not,” says Midnight. “The whole operation I got goin’ on saves me two thousand dollars a year.”

Jake Midnight likes to beat the system. Though Midnight does use money, he’s into trading and simply giving things just to give. “I’m into giving, you know – I like to give homemade honey and vegetables to old people, pretty girls, whoever I want,” he says.

While Midnight started growing vegetables when he was 26, he says he would never grow food to sell ever again. “It was a major learning experience. When I grew for money, I would pick fast without much care, and the fun went right the fuck out. When I’m harvesting for myself, I’ll pick slow. It’s kinda like a prayer,” says Midnight.

When I visit him, he immediately starts up a pot of miso soup upon welcoming me to his home. (FYI: Miso is a highly nutritious fermented paste made from barley, rice, soybeans or a combiination of the two.) But it’s not just miso in this pot of soup – a cup of Midnight’s soup wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the garden to harvest some fresh greens to put in it.

As he leads me through his cabin-like home, I feel the comforting feeling of being somewhere good, wholesome and happy, with lots of positive energy. In the middle of his sunroom sits a seven-foot tree stump, a beautiful shade of gray, and smooth to the touch. All around are enormous aloe vera plants, cacti, instruments, clay statues, books and an old school Guerciotti road bike he rides when he’s not making a long haul in his 1972 Ford pickup truck.

Midnight leads us out the back door and into the most well-used yard in the city of Greensboro. Almost every inch has a purpose. The majority of the lot is filled with his newly birthed winter garden, with all types of greens flourishing within a border of granite stone: collards, Chinese cabbage, mustard greens, chard, parsley, artichoke, clover, arugala, carrot tops, peppers and more. Midnight’s garden readily supplies him with the majority of his produce for meals and herbs for his teas. What he doesn’t grow here he stocks up on at the local farmers market, where he knows many of the farmers. He also trades goods with friends and acquaintances, as is the case with his recent pride and joy, a lump of granite dust from a well that a friend helped to dig. And in case you were wondering what he could possibly do with granite dust, he plans to add this mineral into a new mixture of soil he’s brewing up.

He points to a raised bed of straw in the middle of his garden and explains that it had been an eggplant bed earlier in the year. He recently dug it up and prepared it to rest over the winter so it could be used again in the spring. He identifies the components with a pitchfork: alfalfa meal, compost (that he makes himself) and lots of lively, red earthworms.

“That’s what miso is – live culture,” says Midnight, referring to the rich ecosystem in the soil. “[The soil] wants to be nice and happy here with lots of stuff going on like in your body.”

At the edge of his garden stands a bamboo tepee, a structure two of his friends and roommates built in order to dry plants. And next to it lies his most recent project, a shed-sized sauna he and some friends built for his backyard. As soon as the sauna is finished it will be open to guests. When asked if he would let just anyone take a nude bask in his steam room, Midnight warned, “Oh, we definitely discriminate around here – no assholes.”

At the moment three of his friends share his home and a similar lifestyle with varying degrees of extremity. Midnight likes to keep youthful energy around, so he doesn’t discriminate the ages of his roommates, nor does he do so with his friends.

Midnight wakes every morning half an hour before sunrise, shifting his schedule to fit the hour of dawn, and starts his day easy.

“I’ll work in the garden, take a rest, piddle around, throw the Frisbee,” says Midnight, adding, “try to stay off the booze.” Just because he lives a peaceful lifestyle close to nature doesn’t mean he’s perfect or that he has managed to escape all of the evils of the world.

His days of freedom allow him to entertain guests throughout the day and evening as they come. His home has earned a reputation of an open welcome to all who know him. My visit was not abnormal for him, as he loves to have all sorts of guests, all ages and all types of people, and likes to share food and tea when someone drops by, especially around mealtime.

“Pretty much everyone comes over here,” says Midnight.

Music is very important to Midnight’s connection with his fellow musician friends, and as a means of expression of his anti-patriarchal and anti-capitalist beliefs. The music he plays is always acoustic, and many times a friend will join him with a voice, a piano, drums, a harmonica or with another guitar. He also likes to give free music lessons, his current students ranging from a 7-year-old girl to a 23-year-old boy.

One of his favorite original songs to play makes fun of the some of kids over at the university who he feels are spoiled and ignorant of the real world. The lyrics he composed illustrate his beliefs, bitterness and sense of humor:

“We all got nice asses/ We go to our classes/ And talk on our cell phones too/ Well our mommas and poppas buy our pajamas and we eat the cafeteria food/ And if you ask us what we think, we’ll say ‘hey, nuthin’ stinks!’/ Cause our mommas and poppas buy our pajamas/ And there’s plenty of cafeteria food/ Parents and professors with lessons and lectures/ Tell us how great it will all be/ First if we study, then comes the money/ Everything’s peaches and cream.”

Another classic Jake Midnight piece is entitled “A Duck Talks to a Plastic Flamingo,” about an old man sitting in his basement watching pornographic DVDs, and it touches on e-mail, cell phones, new shows and “dot-com morality.” Clearly, Midnight is not happy with the modern technological world, though he is doing his best to live as happily and earnestly as he can in the midst of it.

Another thing not so appealing to Midnight is the ugly and noise-pollutiing of the new apartment complex construction almost in his backyard. First he had to witness the bulldozing of the old one-story brick apartments and trees behind his home, and now he has to watch the new compact three story buildings emerge in full sight of his garden.

“It’s mentally devastating,” says Midnight. A drastic and environmentally altering change is an unwelcome travesty to Midnight, who has lived at his home for such a long time and who is already opposed to capitalistic growth at the cost of the earth.

Midnight bought this house when he was 24 years old in 1984 and has lived here ever since without interruption. He expressed his disagreement with the bank’s system for paying off a house with high interest rates that force the average homeowner on a payment plan to essentially pay for the price of two houses for the benefit of the bank, while the resident only has one house to show for all the money she has paid. Despite Midnight’s distaste, he went through this system himself in order to pay off the house, but luckily he was able to do it in just 15 years.

In the midst of our interview the garbage truck comes by to pick up his trash. Mid-sentence, Midnight rushes out of his open door and into the street to ask the man on the end of the truck if he needs a hand. He says he doesn’t, thanks him, and Midnight promptly returns inside.

He says with a chuckle: “Wal-Mart bringeth, and the trashman taketh away.”

Midnight explains that he gets a lot of his inspiration from a neo-Luddite and primitive anarchist named John Zerzan. He makes a aside when using the word “anarchy” to explain that it did not equal “chaos.” He is heavily influenced by Zerzan’s book Running on Emptiness: The Pathology of Civilization and the Failure of Symbolic Thought. But this is just one book of the many in his personal library collection. Among books on his shelf are tomes on spirituality, philosophy, politics, astrology, ecology and conservation of the earth, along with similar alternative living manifestos and a giant mythological encyclopedia that cost him over $100.

“In the end, you need to drop out of the money economy,” says Midnight. “It breaks us all apart and puts fear in us. It becomes man over man. Things used to come from Mother Earth, but now it’s all a hierarchical patriarchy and everything’s man-made. We need to go back to a matriarchal society or else someday man-made and organic will merge and we’ll be downloading our consciousness. And then there’s agriculture – the thing that got us into this whole mess. Man domesticates animals and he domesticates himself.”

Maybe we can all learn a little from Jake Midnight and his miso soup. The spiritual and physical harmony in which he lives is much like live miso culture: everything very alive and active and in a good, healthy balance. Maybe we should all drop out from the machine sometime and ride our bikes down to the farmer’s market for a little miso to add to our soup… and let the rest go from there.

To comment on this story, e-mail Sue Edelberg at suethatswho@gmail.com.

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