Alexander the Grate on Life as an NFA (Ep. 127)

Why none of us can escape shelter insecurity.

Alexander the Grate has spent 40 years — more than half of his life — living on the streets (and heating grates) of Washington, DC. He prefers the label NFA (No Fixed Address) rather than “homeless,” since in his view we’re all a little bit homeless: even millionaires are just one catastrophe away from losing their mansions. It’s a life that certainly comes with many challenges, but that hasn’t stopped him from enjoying the immense cultural riches of the capital: he and his friends have probably attended more lectures, foreign films, concerts, talks, and tours at local museums than many of its wealthiest denizens. The result is a perspective as unique as the city itself.

Alexander joined Tyler to discuss the little-recognized issue of “toilet insecurity,” how COVID-19 affected his lifestyle, the hierarchy of local shelters, the origins of the cootie game, the difference between being NFA in DC versus other cities, how networking helped him navigate life as a new NFA, how the Capitol Hill Freebie Finders Fellowship got started, why he loves school field trip season, his most memorable freebie food experience, the reason he isn’t enthusiastic about a Universal Basic Income, the economic sword of Damocles he sees hanging over America, how local development is changing DC, his design for a better community shelter, and more.

Special thanks to James Deutsch for helping to arrange this interview. Read his profile of Alexander the Grate here.

Listen to the full conversation

Read the full transcript

TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today I’m here outside in southwest Washington, DC, with Alexander the Grate. Alexander, welcome.

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Yeah, this is the pleasant sounds of the urban center we’re getting here.

So, my first name is enough syllables for first and last. First time I tell I’m Alexander, and more often than not, because it’s not the most — now it’s common, and it’s on the top of I don’t know how many lists — but in my generation, it was not a common name. So, the only Alexander people are familiar with is the Great. So, I’m turning that towards a, “Yeah, but I spell it differently because of my living situation.”

On living with no fixed address

COWEN: You’ll have plenty of time to ask me questions, but if I start with the basic — if I were to live outside, homeless, as you’ve done for over 40 years, in the first week —

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: More than half my life.

COWEN: More than half your life.

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: That’s correct.

COWEN: What is the most important thing I would learn?

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: [laughs] The lesson of Hidden Figures, who had to go a half-mile round-trip to have a restroom, especially now, when all McDonald’s and everything else . . . the metabolic necessities.

COWEN: That’s harder than I would think? Easier than I would think?

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: So, one thing about food insecurity — everybody talks about that, but nobody mentions toilet insecurity. What comes in has got to go out, and that’s not readily . . . Before the Eisenhower Memorial, with a free restroom here — that’s back up by the resources by the way — the closest one to the area was at the Washington Monument, a mile away, basically.

So you have to get resourceful and creative and get back to your reptilian brain roots. All these things come naturally, however we program them. So, the question was —

COWEN: What’s the most important thing I would learn? But I would learn about the restrooms, is what you’re saying.

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Well it depends on how you start. There’s a stratigraphy to the so-called homeless population. I rather refer to myself as an NFA: no fixed address. I’ll get to my rant in a bit.

I knew it was coming. I left some of my stuff at my aunt’s house. In those days there were a couple of rescue missions downtown, and I heard of those. You ever heard of the radio programs, dramatized versions of this, out of Chicago, called Unshackled? They gave life stories of redemption of the Skid Row population and stuff.

So I learned about the mission life from there. I knew there was a gospel mission. That was the Hilton of the missions downtown, which is still there. It’s a program for women or something there now. For $2 a night you get a double bunk, two sheets, a pillow, and a pillowcase on a 6-inch mattress. The Hilton of the missions, yeah. That’s for two bucks. I took about two or three nights with that.

Then I found out about the free Central Union Mission, which was right here on Pennsylvania Avenue back then, before they moved on. They’re free, but you only get four nights a month. No sheets, a pillow, half the thickness of the mattress.

So, you finish your time there, and then you discover the city’s shelters, which are mostly converted elementary schools they don’t need anymore. The Baltic and Mediterranean, I called them. So, you get a plain four-inch foam mattress with a FEMA disaster blanket — that’s what they called it.

COWEN: From FEMA?

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Right, or made by prison inmates. Now they’re FEMA, but I don’t know who produced them then. And you can provide your own pillow.

And that ain’t the end of it, when they fill up — that was 6th and I Northeast — then they send you to 15th and Maryland Northeast. That’s the backup, that’s Mediterranean Avenue on the Monopoly board.

COWEN: You don’t wish you were back in these places, right? You prefer —

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Well, hold on, you tell me. People ask me, “Why don’t you go to a shelter?” “Oh, really, you’re an aficionado of shelters? Which one do you go to?”

COWEN: No, I’m not saying. I’m asking.

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: That’s a common question, of course.

COWEN: So there’s more freedom in your current lifestyle? People treat you better?

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Oh yeah, it’s shelter anecdote time. So, from the foam mattresses and blankets and stuff, we get to an army cot. So that’s usually the progression, downward progression. So that’s where you start. When you’re in a shelter, you have bathroom access eventually, but when you’re independent outside, especially with the shutdown now, what people were taking for granted with restrooms at McDonald’s, Holiday Inn, and all that — it’s a lot more problematic.

That gray disaster blanket — if you see your blanket move by itself before you get under it, you know you’re in trouble that night. That’s the biggest revelation you get.

COWEN: What will happen?

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: As children, they’re playing in the yard. They had the cootie game. “Oh, you got . . .” This came out of a generation that saw World War I and World War II. “Oh, she got cooties. Throw the cooties.” They had plush toys that looked like cooties.

You know what that is? That is human body lice — pediculus humanus corporis. That’s the plague of the street. So, maybe the blanket isn’t moving before you get under it, but you feel like it’s moving once you are under it. That’s one of the plagues of Egypt, all right?

COWEN: That’s a problem with shelters, not with living outside?

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Unfortunately, they start at the shelters, but living outside, we tend to gravitate to the same quiet spots, bathrooms, day centers, stuff like that, so you can’t get away from it. It’s always something that you have to deal with, contend with, and fight against.

COWEN: Of the institutions you’re interacting with, which are nicest or most sympathetic to the plight of the homeless? Is it McDonald’s? Is it the Smithsonian? Is it the homeless shelter? Who is it?

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: As I said in the Smithsonian interview, actually, the mayor sets the tone, and because DC is in the eyes of the world, every time in winter somebody is found dead of hypothermia, there’s an outcry. It’s worldwide news. Capital of, presumably, the richest nation on Earth — people are dying from the cold in the streets.

They are, I think, an exception among the cities of America, being solicitous and taking care of their homeless. Housing’s a big issue for the current mayor, and she’s doing a good job. They’re very tolerant because they have a vested interest in public image, and then compassion, one would think.

But multiply, New York City — I don’t know how sympathetic they are. They have about ten times DC’s population. About ten times that in easy rider country — Florida, California. That’s where the sun bums go, and it’s a problem. You increase the number of interlopers and ne’er-do-wells enough and, like they say, “A liberal is somebody with a positive attitude toward his neighbor until he gets mugged.” [laughs] And your charity gets over, so it’s a problem.

That’s why immigration is such a problem. That’s one of the reasons that the previous president got . . . because people on the actual border, whose yards get trespassed through — I’ve heard horror stories like that — people banging on doors wanting water and demanding it, basically, because it’s a human need. In Africa, they say that they don’t deny you water. That’s not withheld, but here, so you get overwhelmed.

The municipalities of the sunbelts are overwhelmed, and the mindset is — what do they say? Warm hands, cold hearts. Whereas in Boston, the empathy level is higher in New England, let’s say — cold hands, warm hearts.

COWEN: If you tried to move down to Miami, and you moved into an area with other people living without fixed address, they would be more hostile to you? Or they wouldn’t want you? How would that work, socially?

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: No, you’d fit in.

COWEN: You’d fit in?

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: It’s just a personality thing at that point. No, the municipalities, the police. I haven’t, but they get a hard way to go because they’re too, “We’d rather not have you here.” There’s no good Indian but a dead Indian. We are the interlopers and the hostile conquerors of America, and we’re trying to exterminate those that we’re usurping their reality from them.

COWEN: What’s social stratification like amongst people in Washington, DC, people without fixed addresses? Do they hang out by age or by race or —

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Or independence.

COWEN: By independence. Paint that picture for me, please.

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: I think it’s time for a rant, here.

COWEN: Give us the rant, please.

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Yeah, so hold that question. I say NFA euphemistically, but homelessness or those experiencing homelessness . . . May I inform the world that everybody is chronically experiencing homeless because you are just as homeless as you are naked. Your essential condition — as naked as you were born. Otherwise, why would you be wearing clothing? Desmond Morris, Naked Ape. Apes have a built-in covering.

If someone says, “Are you homeless?” I say, “Well, aren’t you?” I don’t see a turtle shell or a conch shell on your back. That’s your essential nature. If you had your own shelter built in, you wouldn’t need an external shelter. Everybody’s homeless because any of you here, including myself, have some degree of shelter insecurity.

That’s my new narrative for the relative states of shelter insecurity because none of you knows — the turkey in the apartment or the house next door was smoking in bed and burned his house down, and it spreads through the whole block. Your apartment building might be ashes at this point — or home or whatever. The plane out of the sky — that happens. You see that in the news…

That’s the irony, or the paradox at least, especially in California after the wildfires. Tens of thousands of people with million-dollar homes — they were essentially, personally shelterless at that point, but they had a low level of shelter insecurity because they had back-up resources. It amazes me. They say you can’t understand until you walk a mile. Empathy grows with experience in the situation, but they haven’t learned. They’re still choleric about this smelly, grungy infestation of their nice, manicured, water-guzzling green spaces and stuff.

It’s not just the shelter or the home as long as you can replace it. I have a high degree of shelter insecurity. I don’t say shelter security. Everybody’s shelter-insecure because ultimately, our most basic shelter — the body we’re in — we’re going to lose that, too. So everybody is ultimately shelter-insecure to some degree. You can have the most Bezos style mansions in this world, but everybody loses their . . . if you subscribe to the personhood-in-a-separate-soul notions, and this is a temporary dwelling that you’re in in the flesh, everybody loses it.

Everybody’s shelter-insecure because ultimately, our most basic shelter — the body we’re in — we’re going to lose that, too. So everybody is ultimately shelter-insecure to some degree. You can have the most Bezos style mansions in this world, but everybody loses their . . . if you subscribe to the personhood-in-a-separate-soul notions, and this is a temporary dwelling that you’re in in the flesh, everybody loses it.

Now, you’re lucky if the soul is just an emergent phenomenon, and after the body dies, that’s kaput. That’s wishful thinking. I wish that were true, but I’ve been exposed to too much theology and Christian aspect and stuff. Anyway, I’m hedging my bets, and taking what they say literally just in case because it sounds pretty convincing. You’ve had 2,000 years of people maintaining this point of view.

On stratification amongst the homeless

COWEN: Tell me about stratification amongst the homeless. There’s higher-class, lower-class homeless? Who thinks who is not good enough for whom? How does that all work?

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Alright. Has it sunk in that you’re ultimately shelter-insecure?

COWEN: Absolutely, I’ve read Heidegger, I completely agree with you.

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Alright. That’s cumbersome to say, so I’ll tolerate homelessness or whatever. NFA is easier.

COWEN: I also have no fixed address, by the way. I travel, pre-COVID at least, maybe a third of the year or more. I’m in hotels a lot. That’s another version of no fixed address.

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: But that’s high shelter security, or low shelter insecurity.

COWEN: Sure.

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: You don’t have to worry about where you’re going to stay the night.

COWEN: Who looks down on whom?

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: You’re making a presumption here.

COWEN: Well, tell me. If it’s egalitarian, tell me, I’m curious.

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Even though, there is some of that, what we need is a good favela, a barrio circling the inner city. If it weren’t for more need for heat, you could make your own tin-roof shanty there, or hut or something, until somebody gets burned. The police clear you out and burn everything down.

Some of them work their way out and become domestics or something like that, and as soon as they get a little better means become poor as opposed to destitute. I say, you can quote me: poverty is the pipe dream of the destitute.

I’m not at the bottom of the barrel, but under the barrel. That’s what I call the underclass, you know. When they become poor, at least they have potential for saving and getting a better life. I’ve heard stories — they look down on the people that they left down in the barrio, the rest of it.

I stick to my own little pattern, even since high school. I had a few close friends or intimates that I socialized with at lunch hour and stuff like that, but I wasn’t the athletic, most popular on-campus kind of person that live for their coterie, and these days, with their social networks and all that, local social networks. So I had a couple friends during lunch hour and maybe after hours. So I reprised that on the street.

 When I found this soup kitchen on Capitol Hill, which lasted about 30 years — they’ve been gone about five years. They’re off-line now. Church of the Brethren — it’s an Anabaptist peace church basically. I even went to their peace lectureships and stuff. If you’re a peace activist, you’re an activist in other areas that are prescribed in the Beatitudes and stuff.

It’s there, doors open at 11:30. You get classical soup kitchen, whatever else gets donated, bowl of soup and whatever sides. So that became my mainstay. After a couple of years, I discovered this place. I sat at a table and there was a guy there. We’re talking about ’83 or something like that. It started then.

I talked with a couple of people I knew at the shelter, and I knew their names because you have a name tag on your bag. They take your shoes, by the way, so you don’t run off [laughs] in the middle of the night. You bag everything, and in the morning, they call your name to recover your bag, so you can’t keep your name a secret. The couple of people I met there — we went to that soup kitchen.

Another guy at a table — I heard him — he had discovered the free pages in the City Paper and the Weekend section in The Post. And I contributed, “Did you know about this community calendar in the Local Living section for DC?” He said, “No.” So I got his interest, and I was able to contribute to his knowledge of free things to do.

COWEN: This would be like concerts, movies?

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Standby. That was the beginning of the Capitol Hill Freebie Finders Fellowship, “Where it’s free, there we’ll be.” Why? Because we were all sober. We had something to do to occupy our time. If we had some substance habit to take care of, that’s where your focus is. Almost any of them — you want to get a couple of bucks to get your thunderbird for the day, or a hit of something. We had to do something to fill up the spaces of our sobriety and to satisfy our mind as well as entertainment and keep our mind alive, besides the soup stuff.

Here’s the segue. That’s the time we discovered four to five free classic international movies a week at the Mary Pickford Theater in the Library of Congress, which is three blocks from the soup kitchen, and that’s where Jim comes into this.

COWEN: We’re with James Deutsch, just to make that clear. He’s a scholar of NFAs and renowned for his work with the Smithsonian and has done other things as well. He was one of the first people to write about Alexander the Grate.

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Yeah, and with other interviews that he’s used and presentations he’s done, so I’ve worked with Jim for a while. We’d be coming down in the lobby, and we’d make some points about the movie, and I said “Jim — “

[A train noise interrupts]

Oh, five more minutes, unless it’s an Amtrak. Let’s see what it is.

COWEN: How many minutes does the Amtrak take?

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: It’s only, at most, 13 cars. Can anybody see the train?

COWEN: Can you tell from the sound if it’s an Amtrak?

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: We’ll know in a minute. It’s gone now.

COWEN: It sounds like it’s leaving.

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: It was a short train — seven to eight cars.

COWEN: Yes, great.

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: By the way, we’re on the wrong side of the tracks here. Next train, 100-car freight train coming, the trash coming down from New Jersey. No offense to New Jersey.

COWEN: [laughs] That’s where I’m from, so I understand this very well.

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: DC’s got to be there too. We’re not trashless.

COWEN: What’s your favorite movie, by the way?

On food in DC

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Good grief. One that’s free and has subtitles, if I need them. We’re getting to the litany of goodies. So, I said “Why don’t you come and join the Bums Banquet?” That’s another thing — when we’re not doing soup kitchen, or even afterwards — that’s a whole issue right there: food collection, free food. [sings to West Side Story tune] I love to be in America. The food is free in America.

If you know where the tourists are — where there’s people, there’s going to be food. The charter member with me of the Capitol Hill Triple F — his name was Lawrence. When we got settled into a routine during the summer time, we’d go down to the Mall.

This is about spring time actually, when every school group in the area is coming to DC for their nation’s capital tour. School buses loaded with kids carrying bag lunches and excited on the trip, eating maybe one of their Oreos and a bite out of their sandwich. What happens to the rest of their lunch? [sings to Porgy and Bess tune] Summer time and the living is easy, folks are lunching and the food is piled high. I mean overflowing, every can.

This is fresh stuff. “Oh, it’s disgusting. Who’d eat that?” It was mother’s love, in her kitchen that morning, fresh, clean stuff. Trash liner is ordinarily changed too — that’s antiseptic right there. If you’re hungry enough, and you see what looks like edible food, your hand will go out and hit your mouth before your brain knows what it’s doing. We haven’t seen real famine, not in this generation anyway.

We’d spend the afternoon there and come back with what Lawrence used to call “two hands heavy.” That means three plastic grocery bags in each hand. We had enough food to feed a dozen people.

You’ve partaken with us there. Of course, the less acclimatized to this lifestyle, but no, you fit right in, you’re a homeless immigrant basically, food-wise. I’m not even a digital immigrant. I’m an alien altogether, but he fits in well. He’s adopted well. He’s an honorary homeless, I call him [James Deutsch].

COWEN: What’s the best food you end up with? Where is it from? What’s an A+ for a food day?

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: You want my classification system?

COWEN: Let’s hear it, absolutely. I’m a foodie, too.

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Okay, you’re jumping around, too.

COWEN: Yes, this is the point of the podcast. This is the jump-around podcast.

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Yeah, but let’s consummate one thought at a time. There’s some cool stuff here, fun stuff. Alright, that’s the beginning of the Bums Banquet. For those that are not fully acclimatized, we had a classification system. This is a class A. It hasn’t even been taken out of its wrapper. Class B, maybe there’s one bite — TYO, trim your own. We found some of it still in its wrapper. Double A would be from the hand of the person donating to us. Triple A would still be hot.

COWEN: What’s a D? C–?

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Only the rats know that. A lot of forks here, but we’ll keep it to the general stuff first. Anyway, after hours, at the picnic tables of the [Library of Congress] Madison Building, that’s where this happened. Eight-foot diameter tables, so we could fit 10 people around there. That was a continuation of the Freebie Finders and the Bums Banquet and all that.

But one more thing about the lunches. We’re an overfed population — the affluent society. Are you really hungry three times a day? It’s a luxury to have that many. When people have to hesitate, “What am I going to eat now?” Truth to tell, I don’t really need it, but it’s become a tradition, a tradition of the affluent. We don’t need to eat as much as we do. It’s more habit than anything.

But the kids, the junior-high kids throwing their lunch away — they didn’t know that at the bottom of the bag, their mamma left a napkin with a stick figure on it, saying, “Hi, hope you’re having a good time in DC. Love, Mom.” Mother’s love comes along with a peanut butter sandwich. But under the napkin is up to $2 in change or bills for drink money, [laughs] so there’s cash left behind there, too.

Alright, let’s back up a few tangents here. Man, you have a lot of things out on the floor here.

COWEN: A lot of things going, balls being juggled.

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Yeah.

COWEN: But you’re juggling them, not me, right?

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Yeah, I hope you’re keeping track in case I lose a ball. Most favorite? That’s quickie eating stuff we’re talking about around here — food trucks, hot stuff, direct donations.

José Andres, World Central Kitchen. Those with marginal means and the street people and stuff — how are they going to eat? They took care of us. They’ve been distributing . . . I haven’t seen much around now, but for most of the year, they were distributing hot lunches and dinners to whoever they could find, as well as to schools and shelters and stuff like that. This is real food.

The most memorable time I’ve had in the past years — a guy that worked a late shift at Popeye’s — at two o’clock in the morning, he said, “I can’t let all this stuff go to waste. I’m going to see if I can find somebody downtown.” For a couple of weeks anyway, he and another guy — well, that was mentioned [in the Smithsonian article] — the guy under the bridge we called him.

He stopped there first, and then I went to see what was happening and said, “Put me in on this distribution.” Vegetarian stuff. The other guy got the box. I’m going to mention you at some point. You’re the ultimate [laughs] disposition resource here. Jim’s partaken in this, too.

The box had two dozen breasts or something — chicken parts and things, but I got all the sides, every side dish: macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and gravy, spiced rice, so I was eating all night. That’s the most memorable freebie food experience I remember. [laughs]

That’s why I cut to my little clique here, the Freebie Finders. The Freebie Finders was an answer to social hierarchies.

COWEN: Correct.

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: That’s why I stick with my primary coterie, basically…

This all happened after I graduated from the elementary school shelters. I was 15 months at those places. How’d I join the grate society? Input screening is, you put all your clothes away. They give you leftover hospital gowns from Howard University surgical department. Waiting for dinner, everybody’s dressed in white surgical gowns — the homeless. I said, “Wow, what an astute party [laughs] of doctors and professionals here.”

On the National debt

COWEN: Some economists I know have promoted the idea — it’s called universal basic income, and it’s something like every person would get $10,000, including NFAs. Is this a good idea?

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Yes, Finland… Okay, save that for that because I’m going to ask you —

COWEN: You can ask me your question now, but also just indicate if you think that’s a good idea, bad idea, in between, and then you ask me yours.

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Alright, I want to ask you — just the answer. National debt — this was before the multi-trillion-dollar relief bills had been signed into law by the president.

COWEN: Correct.

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: A progressive algorithm, no doubt, but I don’t know if they’ll factor in if it’s the five-year plan for the $5 trillion and they’ll add $1 trillion automatically to this amount. But it’s pushing $30 trillion, which is, what? You can scan this quick — $84,000 for every man, woman, and child in America [Handing Tyler a sheet of paper with numbers about the national debt].

COWEN: So you’re a fiscal conservative?

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: I’m just an observer at this point. The point is, I see this number, and I see a sword of Damocles hanging over the economic head of America. I know a lot of it’s built in, but theoretically, if all this came due catastrophically overnight, do we have a plan?

COWEN: We couldn’t pay it. We have no plan. We’re all homeless, as someone I know would say, so I agree with you.

 ALEXANDER THE GRATE: What is the GDV? What is the gross domestic value beyond the product? What is everybody worth, if you tie it all up from zero to Bezos?

COWEN: Just as a guess, what, total national wealth? I would estimate $120, $130 trillion, but that’s a very rough guess. It’s hard to find market prices to value these items.

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Well, GDP is about half of that, right?

COWEN: Think of national wealth as six to eight times GDP, on average. But we have a lot of durable structures in this country. Maybe I was a little on the low side. But you can’t just grab it all to pay off the debt overnight. It’s stuff being used. That’s the problem.

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Have a fire sale to China.

COWEN: We already did that. We’re after that fire sale. Taxes will go up.

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Oh, really? Okay. I’ll have to wait for the podcast on that one.

COWEN: We’ll have to cut back our consumption, at some point in the future. We may or may not be around to see it, but there will be a serious economic problem from this debt, so I think you’re right to be concerned. I don’t think our world will fall apart tomorrow, but we have spent beyond our means.

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Do we have a plan B? At least, probably several in the works, for restructuring of the global economy, which your basic allotment is built into that. A sea change, a radical change in the world economy to make for a little more stability.

COWEN: We don’t have a plan A, B, or C.

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Really? We do it the hard way, like we did with this virus.

COWEN: As we’ve done everything else since humans have been on this earth. What was it, Mike Tyson, who said everyone has a plan until someone punches them in the face?

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: It reminds me of the Lucy episode. Remember where she’s pregnant?

COWEN: Yes.

[laughter]

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: That’s a perfect example. Ricky says, “This plan is to calm everybody. Practicing.” “Honey, I think it really is time.” They go into a Cuban frenzy, after, I don’t want to be…

COWEN: My daughter’s pregnant. There’s even some chance she’s having her baby today. I don’t think so, but look, it could be any time, so I understand this logic.

What else do you want to ask me?

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: That was the main thing. Would it be easier to rework the global . . . You’ve got to get consensus, of course. We can play with our economy all we want, I suppose. Is there a scenario for a global system of equilibrium that everybody can tie into? What’s in the works?

COWEN: These governments don’t agree on much of anything. Only the most trivial points.

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Yeah, you’re right, but you’re on the forefront of theoretical financing and so forth. I’m sure there’re a lot of scenarios being bandied about.

COWEN: Of course, but they remain on paper, I would say.

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Yeah, until you’re punched in the face. Okay, I got it.

On changes in DC

COWEN: Your NFA buddies — when you’re with them, you’re all chatting. What is it you talk about mostly?

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: I got used to the way your mind works, first of all. I’m pretty monomaniacal. You’re called a polymath. Well, all these polys have got to come in and insert itself at some point, I suppose.

Which brings back the question, what are the freebies that you do? Movies, lectures, concerts, talks, tours. “Okay, Lawrence, it’s time for the reading of the list.” He spends most of his day compiling everything that’s possibly free within a 15-mile radius of DC. You remember this. After the Bums Banquet, I’d say, “It’s time for the reading of the list.”

He would go on for several minutes, saying the National Gallery of Art has a movie tomorrow. The Pickford Theater has one on Thursday. There’s a free concert at the Library of Congress. There’s a talking-head lecture, he would call it — it’s boring to him, but he liked the music and any movie. In its heyday, it’s possible. Is it possible to get stress syndrome from too many freebies available?

COWEN: It’s called the internet. [laughs]

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Right. Well, I got enough just on foot. I’m glad two years ago, I took advantage as much as possible. The mainstays, the trifecta of freebies, the Smithsonian Institution, the National Gallery of Art — make it four actually — the Archives, and the Library of Congress. They all have independent programs.

On a good day, and especially on a weekend — the National Gallery film program had the weekend. You could start with a kiddie matinee at 10:30 in the morning, and go to a five-o’clock Romanian film in the afternoon, about four or five movies all together. But here’s where the stress comes in. The Environmental Film Festival, yes!

They’re doing packed movies every day for a week at the Natural History Museum. Then there’s an anime festival at the Freer Gallery of Asian art. This takes some serious traveling-salesman paradigming. How do I get to here and to there? And running times — you have to jockey these times and stuff. You can get a good workout — not just one venue but several simultaneous pregnant venues on the weekend.

Otherwise, if you can catch a freebie in the evening, the primary reason for this cultural event — with rare exceptions — is this is some classy comfortable shelter. Or winter — all-day at the National Gallery. Plush seats and there’s something for everybody — entertainment.

[To James Deutsch] You said in that [Smithsonian] interview that you keep busy during the day, and once in a while, you might catch an evening — that’s the focus, the evening freebie. That’s what’s critical. 

What am I going to do between bedtime, such as it might be, whatever it turns out to be, and the last church closing or soup kitchen? A film from Korea or Hong Kong, something at the Freer Gallery. It’s an education, and it’s also a luxurious shelter at the same time.

I’m operating at 10 percent, 5 percent of the before time. The four-letter word for this is loss. All of the comfort counselors are in on that. 10 topics removed, that’s the answer to the categories.

COWEN: That’s a good answer.

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: A couple, not more than a handful of other obvious homeless people at these venues.

COWEN: You know them all when you see them? Or you can tell by looking at them?

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: By sight. One of the ladies after the shutdown — the one I’d seen on a regular basis — I think it was she in the front row there that I had to climb over. Sit on the end — I don’t know why people do that. It’s universal, I suppose.

There are a lot of people that I have not seen before roaming the streets, a lot of competition between the rats and other bums. I’m scraping now more than usual. When the tourists see me foraging, and a lady from Ohio or something — they gave me a sandwich from a food truck they didn’t eat. I said, “Welcome back to DC, America. Good to see you.”

[laughter]

COWEN: Putting aside COVID, over the last 40 years that you’ve been living here, for you, what’s been the most important change in Washington, DC?

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: I can only quote what’s in the paper: regentrification.

COWEN: How does that affect you though? Better for you? Worse for you? Easier or harder?

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Yeah, the Wharf is killing me. I have to be careful now, not to be too specific in my whereabouts and locations and stuff. Remember Alex from Target? Supermarket clerk in Florida? He was getting so much good vibes, psychopaths in the country were sending him death threats. Why is he getting the attention and not me? He was constantly getting — did you read that? Hate mail and death threats because he’s such a nice guy.

I don’t know what kind of reaction we might get. Comet Ping Pong — come across the country, the power of deception, delusion, conspiracy.

There’s a lot more traffic since the Wharf has opened up, but now, since the Spy Museum is at [L’Enfant] Plaza, people are on their phones, and there’s a sidewalk on the far south end before the freeway, which is full of parking meters. You can hardly get one that has people side by side.

I see people going that way or their phone, on their Google Map, and I’m saying, “Hold it you’re not going to be able to walk side by side.” Four abreast, of course, if they’re ten in a group, they’re going to take up the whole sidewalk. “That way, it’s a constricted sidewalk.” Some people thank me, but most, “Google’s telling me this. I’m going to go this way.”

I think more it’s because that used to be the quietest spot around for me. Now I have an invasion of the location-grubbing hoards, the tourists, trying to find something. Is there no feedbacks to Alexa? “Google has not been here. It doesn’t know how to — ”

[laughter]

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Take it from a native, and don’t disturb my peace is the unspoken. So that’s how it affects me.

As far as the large scale, look at the news. Southwest especially. Every square foot is accounted for. Every church has been propositioned. “Tell you what, I think you need help paying the bills. Tell you what, you have a lot of maintenance and stuff. The infrastructure — your old building is breaking down. We’ll give you a brand new church. Just sell us your property.”

One church after another is doing that. You can see it everywhere. The church on I Street, the jazz church, actually, I won’t mention, but everyone in the Southwest knows that. People are saying they’re selling out. It’s tough in post-Christian — some people say — America to keep up attendance up. They got to find some schtick.

Every square foot. They recently built a building between HUD and L’Enfant Plaza over the freeway. That’s a land assessor, really, on steroids that finds every square foot, and everything is up for grabs. They have a mind for everything.

COWEN: I have two final questions for you in our last five minutes.

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Oh, really?

COWEN: Yes. First one, if you had a lot more money —

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: It’s actually been 55 minutes? Wow.

COWEN: Yeah, time flies when you’re having fun.

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Okay, that’s why you’re jumping around at light speed.

COWEN: Correct. The first question: let’s say you had a lot more money than you have now. Maybe you won the lottery. Would you give that money to other NFA people when they ask for money?

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Oh, I do that. You don’t have to ask. Because I’m totally impecunious, I’m totally out of the monetary system. I tell people, I’ve been disabused of the monetary system.

When I say “foraging,” I do what the squirrels do. I just follow them, I tell people. But people’s mirror neurons kick in. They say, well, “Your brain’s fooling you into thinking that you’re doing foraging in the overflowing receptacle, to euphemize everything here. Automatically your higher functions are saying, “There’s no need for this. I don’t have to do this through my mirror neurons.” What do I do? Obviously, I take the money out of my pocket and go to the nearest shop to buy.

That’s nothing to do with me. They say, “Hey, buddy.” A lot of people command me, “Go get you a lunch.” I have a beautiful platter — I’m more or less vegetarian — of rice, arroz con frijoles. The construction workers — during the middle of the shutdown, they were the only business around for big construction projects — the Memorial, the Air and Space Museum, these buildings here.

So, the hundred construction workers, and most are Hispanic — they eat their shish kebab off their platter and leave the beans, the rice, the salad. I say, “What is that? That looks like . . .” I sniff it, and I say, “That’s green rag-based paper. I’m not a goat. I don’t eat paper. Look, there’s some real food here. Don’t you recognize real food?”

We eat by concept until we learn otherwise. So what was the original question on this one?

[laughter]

COWEN: If you had more money, would you give it to other NFA people?

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Yeah, yeah.

COWEN: So you would?

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Hold on. I’d do it automatically. If they insist. I’m not going to wrestle when they’re stuffing the $20 in my pocket. If I see the $20, I say, “Oh, sorry, but my minimum donation I accept — ”

[laughter]

“I’ll accept that if you can add nine more zeros to it.” [editor’s note: Alexander later told us that he meant to say “add twelve more zeros to it.”] At $20 trillion, maybe I can help with the national debt. That ties into that. That’s my new minimum donation. Better make that $40 [trillion] now because we go through a trillion a year, so have a little hedge on that. So $30 to $40 trillion is my minimum donation.

Everything else, I either give to the poor box, or the last one I got was $1, and I put it on the lid of the trash can. There’s a lot of competition, people going over the same cans, but I still manage to feed myself and my fellow omnivore here [James Deutsch].

COWEN: Last question. Let’s say the DC city government puts you in charge of developing a new program to help NFA people. What would you recommend? What do you think should be done?

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: I kept the focus on myself and my local contacts.

COWEN: But you know a lot about this area, correct?

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Tyler, they’re doing more than what the average municipality has been doing. They’re very proactive. I really can’t complain. Their heart is right, even there’s still tent cities. The count is, what? Fourteen hundred loose individuals, not counting families. The family is priority. They took care of them first. That’s a tough population to deal with, or the last on the line.

The specific question was what would you do to —

COWEN: What would you change? What should be done in Washington, DC, that would be better for you and the people you know?

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Alright, I can speak for myself and the few of like mind that I know. I got my eye on all these empty office buildings that they keep building, especially now. Estimate how many people you think are actually going to remain teleworking that were not before? Percentage wise?

COWEN: 20 percent I think will keep on doing it. Yes.

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: At least, yes. Alright. That’s 20 percent more office space, and they’re still building Phase 2 of the Wharf.

COWEN: Should they invest more in quieter trains?

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: I’ve been tempted to get a quart of grease and smearing it on the tracks. I wonder what it would do to the propulsion system.

[laughter]

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: The family shelter — it doesn’t have to be a fancy office building. Horror stories for families — kidnappings and all this stuff. So they moved the families out. But I say, “If you give me a partition and these open bays, I’d love that.”

You didn’t ask about the Mitch Snyder shelter that he twisted Reagan’s arm to refinance and all that. I was there, talking with Mitch with the planning and stuff, and he was $200,000 short of having individual partitions. The way I left it, it was five people in two double bunks in a common space.

Alexander the Grate with James Deutsch

PDS — personal differentiated space — that is the bottom line, preferably in community. That’s my optimum. You have your own space, but you have access to an immediate community. You have the best of both.

They’re learning that in senior citizen housing, now. Give them their own rooms and their private bathrooms, but there’s a beautiful social space with common Wi-Fi and cable and everything else in the living room. That’s a perfect setting. You can satisfy both needs of man.

COWEN: Thank you very much, Alexander the Grate, and also James Deutsch.

ALEXANDER THE GRATE: Wow, time flies when you’re having fungus.

COWEN: Yes.

[laughter]