Tiny House, Big Problems

A brief January sojourn in “Kermit” gives our intrepid reporter a new appreciation for the much-maligned grid

I recently agreed to spend 2-1/2 January days in a 140-square-foot “tiny house” owned by my friend, Newark artist Dragonfly Leathrum, and write about it for this illustrious publication. Before I go into the gory details, let me sum up my experience: tiny houses are for the birds, quite literally.

They may be ideal for people who want to downsize their lives, live mortgage free, and leave a smaller ecological footprint. I discovered, however, that living in the claustrophobia-inducing quarters of Dragonfly’s two-story house, which sits on her property on the outskirts of Newark and which she has dubbed “Kermit,” was challenging, to say the least. It has no running water, bathroom—except for a waterless compost toilet tucked away in one of the house’s many cupboards—refrigerator, heat, cooking facilities, or electronic entertainment. The house quickly tested my inner resources, of which I discovered I have none.

I could have brought along all the amenities of modern living: a radio, a laptop computer, or even a television, and used the shower and toilet at Dragonfly’s nearby home. I also could have brought an ice chest to store food that requires refrigeration. Instead I opted to try living off the grid in the steely pioneer spirit of Jeremiah Johnson, with virtually nothing to eat but potted meat on bread, nothing to drink but cold coffee, and no entertainment save a book (Nevil Shute’s wonderfully depressing 1957 post-apocalyptic novel On the Beach) and a BB gun to shoot at non-living stuff.

“An ingenious feat of architecture” (the writer’s words), Kermit was commissioned by tiny house advocate Gregory Paul Johnson in 2002. (Photo Dragonfly Leathrum)

I soon found that the diminutive pine house is no place to spend the daylight hours.

Tiny houses vary widely in size, and Leathrum’s is one of the tiniest (1/18th the size of the average house built in 2014). She is not currently living in it and she is undecided as to its future. She purchased it last year from a friend in Pennsylvania, and is its third owner. It is among the first ever made, having been commissioned by tiny house advocate Gregory Paul Johnson in 2002. It has two wheels, making it easy to haul around, and he named it “Mobile Heritage.” After living in it for six years, Johnson wrote the tiny house manifesto Put Your Life on a Diet: Lessons Learned From Living in 140 Square Feet. Even Henry David Thoreau’s storied cabin by Walden Pond was bigger by 10 square feet. I suppose the larger ones could be quite comfortable.

Those Cupboards!

You may think that 140 square feet is a lot of room. Take it from me, it’s not. On the first floor, when you subtract the space taken up by the aforementioned cupboards (which could accommodate a mini-fridge and a hot plate or microwave oven, as well as lots of other stuff), plus the sink, small desk, and ladder to the sleeping loft, what you’re left with, in terms of real living space, is an area three feet wide and approximately seven feet long. My tiny apartment kitchenette is roomier, and during my sojourn in Kermit I never spent more than a minute or two at a time in its cramped downstairs.

The ladder-accessible loft is somewhat roomier. You can sleep quite comfortably and read by the light of a small lantern. That said, the sleeping loft has several serious pitfalls. The only way to get into and down from the loft is via an opening so small you have to perform acrobatics—the secret is to turn sideways on the nearly vertical and treacherously slippery ladder, no easy feat for anyone who is not a professional contortionist—and shoehorn yourself through it. A fat man would have no chance.

What’s more, climbing down in the middle of the night—say to answer the call of nature—is a broken leg waiting to happen. I awakened my first night soaked in sweat—the tiny house is marvelously insulated, and my sole luxury, a small space heater, did its job only too well. I thus faced the alternative of baking alive or trying to negotiate the loft’s narrow aperture and lethal ladder to fiddle with the heater. Fortunately the loft has a tiny window, which I opened. The cold air ameliorated the sweat lodge effect enough for me to fall back asleep.

Thoreau famously itemized the cost of building his cabin by Walden Pond down to the halfpenny. I can’t match him in that regard, but I can list the essentials I brought to Kermit. They included a comforter and pillow, the BB gun for self-defense in accordance with my Second Amendment rights, the tins of potted meat and loaf of bread, plus shampoo, three large jugs of cold Starbucks coffee, a gallon of potable water (like W.C. Fields, I never let the stuff pass my lips, but it came in handy for bathing and cleaning), one bath towel, a knife, a plastic spork and my book.

As it turned out I had no need for knife or spork, as Dragonfly kindly provided me with a small hunting knife, which I used to spread potted meat on bread and to whittle.

A Yeti?

So, what did I do all day, without the distractions of modern living? Well, on day one, with clear skies and temperatures that climbed to a welcome 50-plus degrees, I spent several hours taking potshots at peeling tree bark with my BB gun. I pretended it was the faces of my enemies. Then I crossed the large field behind Dragonfly’s property (which she has named Camp Whistle Pig) to an impenetrable thicket of trees and brambles. A cock crowed, an owl hooted, and I felt at one with nature. That is, until I discovered a large footprint that belonged either to a moose—sure, people swear you won’t find moose this far south, but just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not there, lurking—or a yeti.

Alarmed, I immediately returned to the relative safety of Camp Whistle Pig and Kermit to practice shooting one-handed, should an enraged moose tear the other arm off.

Oh, and I came across the spoor of some demonic woodland creature, a deer perhaps, or a hobbit. This disquieted me. Deer are reputedly peaceable beasts, but I wouldn’t want to come across a surly one. And I hate hobbits.

Despite these rustic entertainments, I was grateful for nightfall, during which I enjoyed a cozy cookout Dragonfly hosted for friends. Ravenous for a hot meal, I quickly devoured three sausages. As it says in the Bible, man cannot live by Spam alone.

Day two was cold, wet, and—I’m not going to lie about it—dreadful. I got up late—I saw no reason to rise with the sun, as the sun was nowhere to be found. The cold (you could see your breath) and drizzle made parking my butt on Kermit’s wet porch a damp and bone-chilling ordeal. And the BB gun had lost its allure. As for On the Beach, I’ve never been a daytime reader, which is just one of the reasons (there was also booze) I was lucky to graduate from college. Bored and miserable, I contemplated—purely to add a frisson of danger to my life—shooting at a nearby drum with the words “flammable liquid” emblazoned on it.

Instead, I opened yet another tin of cold meat and tried my hand at haiku:

Dreary drizzle day
Waterless compost toilet
Get me out of here

Then, still in a literary mood, I began writing aphorisms in my soggy notebook. One went, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t hang a keytar on him and expect him to play Gary Wright’s ‘Dream Weaver.’” Ben Franklin I’m not.

A Frigid Bath

Honestly, the most exciting thing I did on that insufferable second day was use the compost toilet. Oh, and I took a bath in the frigid outdoors, pouring very cold water over my head clad only in a pair of shorts. It is not an experience I care to repeat.

I then tried my hand at whittling, which was a celebrated time-passer in the days before the advent of radio, the Victrola crank phonograph, and cocaine. After an hour spent whittling what I hoped would be a nifty vampire-killing stake, I came to understand why Thoreau wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

On night two I went to bed early (nothing else to do), only to discover that the miniature lantern, which had served me well the night before, no longer provided sufficient light for reading. So I stared at the peaked ceiling, and suddenly noticed what appeared to be bugs crawling across the pine boards.

Horrified, I nearly fled, never to return, but finally summoned the courage to lift the lantern for a closer look. The “bugs” were the heads of nails. It was official. I was suffering a bona fide case of cabin fever.

I finally calmed my nerves enough to fall asleep, and awoke the next day with the conviction that no way was I going to spend a third night in Kermit, lest I find myself turning into scaled-down version of Jack Nicholson in The Shining. I hung around some on the porch, staring off into space and muttering to myself before finally packing my provisions into my car and heading back to the wonders of crass civilization.

What did I learn from my brief stay in a tiny house? Just this: while my artist friend’s diminutive dwelling is elegant in its simplicity and an ingenious feat of architecture, I wouldn’t want to live in it. And in response to Thoreau’s famous call to “Simplify, simplify,” all I can say is that simplification can be one very complicated business. And, like many, I have entertained fantasies of abandoning the grid to live a hermit’s life in a snug cabin far from the snares of advertising, the internet and reality television. But no more.

I like the grid. Hell, I love the grid. I love it so much you will have to pry it from my cold, dead fingers.