Here is the audio and transcript, recorded outside in SW Washington, D.C. And no, that is not a typo, he does call himself “Alexander the Grate,” his real name shall remain a secret. Here is the event summary:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Recommended, you won’t find many podcast episodes like this one. It is noteworthy that Alexander has a better and bigger vocabulary than the median CWT guest. Also, this is one episode where listening and reading are especially different, due to the ambient sounds, Alexander’s comments on the passing trains, and so on — parts are Beckettesque!