When I first started squatting I lived in a stairwell. You know those really huge, factory stairwells that have a landing halfway up? Well that landing was my bedroom. This was roughly five years ago now. I had just dropped out of university and had nowhere to live. Luckily, my new, weird shaman friend Matthew offered me a place in his squat—an abandoned lift factory in southeast London. I was hesitant at first, as I wasn’t sure my naive, eighteen-year-old self would fit in amongst the barefoot, feather-twirling, hummus-making squat inhabitants. Surprisingly, however, it wasn’t long before that small, dark, cold cement platform felt alarmingly like home.
There were ten people living in the Lift Factory when I moved in—a strange, eclectic mix of characters that made the factory feel like something between a European hippie commune and a sordid, queer sex dungeon. There was a gay asylum seeker from Iran, a Russian lesbian goth with no eyebrows, a Swedish hat designer, a leather-wearing German kid who was apparently some sort of amazing artist (though all I ever saw him do was sell drugs), a sculptor with no sense of smell, a psyche trance raver with a neck piercing, a random guy called Ted who I’m pretty sure suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, (I was never sure if he actually lived there, as he always just crashed on the couch, but he somehow managed to have sexual relations with every housemate at one point or another, both boy and girl). We even had a pet—an American Bulldog named Punk. It was a beautifully deranged little family, and I fell in love with them all.
But back to the stairwell. To give you a mental picture, the landing was just large enough to fit a double bed, with about a foot of space left over on one side. The staircase led from the second floor up to the roof, which luckily meant it was rarely ever used. I used the steps as shelves for my clothes. I hung posters of Louis Garrel and Billy Elliot on the walls. I bought a blue light bulb. It actually ended up looking pretty cool. And oddly enough, living in that stairwell was the first time in my life that I felt completely in awe of my surroundings. Growing up in a small town, it’s easy to feel lonely. Not a personal loneliness, but a deep-rooted, cosmic loneliness that stems from a disconnect from the rest of the world. You feel isolated. But in that factory, among the art punks, drifters and freaks, everything felt fresh, new, wrong, right, weird, exciting. For the first time I felt truly connected, truly part of something bigger than myself.
There were, however, some downsides to the stairwell. For instance, the cement walls and the high ceilings made heating the space nearly impossible, which meant during winter it was freezing. Also the absurdity / superficial bleakness of the room proved slightly awkward when inviting boys back after drunken nights out. I freaked out many a seventeen-year-old with that staircase. One time, after sex, I watched a boy pull a condom off his dick, and you could literally see steam rising off his cock, it was so cold. Needless to say we only fucked that once. I also had a disabled boyfriend during part of my time there. He drunkenly tumbled down the stairs on more than one occasion. He hated that house.
But overall, what my jobless, destitute, stairwell-dwelling time taught me was: Poverty, like wealth, is an inborn attitude of mind. In the Lift Factory, we were rich. No one had anything so everything was everyone’s. We had bin food banquets. We got drunk on stolen Lidl vodka. We held free gigs in our basement. It felt oddly opulent. “Penniless decadence,” I think is what Matthew called it. I think that’s pretty spot on.