He Discovered the Secret to Living Rent-Free


At Camp Base No. 1 he keeps several suitcases containing his art — drawings and sketches, many of ships, skylines and local musicians, done on paper, cardboard, Masonite and wood — in addition to a few woodworking projects and an L.L. Bean windup radio on which he listens to NPR at night. He also has coffee and a hand-crank coffee grinder, which he is looking forward to using again when he’s back in a setup with a hot plate. At the moment, his kitchen facilities consist of a blue plastic cooler that on a recent afternoon held a bag of ice, cranberry juice and some leftover Greek food.

Name: John McGill

Age: 57 Occupation: Artist, woodworker, handyman Rent: He barters woodworking, art and repair work for short-term places to stay, many of them in the Red Hook area of Brooklyn. Mr. McGill occasionally stays with family in Hell’s Kitchen as well, also in exchange for work. In the summer, he tries to find work outside of the city, so he can camp, preferably beside a fire. This year he expects to assist a friend who is building a cob house in Phillipsburg, N. J. Current kitchen setup: A cooler. But if he has a place where he can really cook, “I go crazy. I go to Esposito’s” — on Court Street — “get two of the largest pieces of pork, marinate them with vodka, wrapped in ripe mangos, cook them with portobello mushrooms and garlic. Dessert is Godiva chocolate coffee. Then I get a small bottle of Jameson 12-year-old whiskey and stir it in.” His first apartment in the city: A one-bedroom walk-up on Avenue B. In 1982, it cost $285 a month. The last apartment he rented in the city: A wood shop where he also lived, in Red Hook. He lived there alone, between 2001 and 2006 approximately, and it cost $1,100 a month. “There’s no way you could do that now,” Mr. McGill said. “You would need, like, 40 friends.”

“I’m the Igloo guy, compressed into a small area,” Mr. McGill said as he moved a few of the landlord’s many plastic storage crates to reveal his sleeping area: a narrow mattress with a sleeping bag.

As for bathroom facilities, Mr. McGill said he has “arrangements — locally, I’m always close to places where I can take a shower, use the bathroom, friends’ places.”

When it comes to housing, the barter system does not always yield even results, and the places where Mr. McGill has lived over the past few years have ranged from downright charming to rather primitive.

He has stayed, for example, in an atmospheric old longshoreman’s house in Red Hook, a former coffin factory in Bushwick and the master bedroom of a Sea Gate mansion that was later destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, in Brooklyn; his friend, who was renting the house, preferred to sleep on the couch. “That was a great camp,” Mr. McGill said fondly, describing how he fell asleep at night to the sound of waves crashing on the beach. But he has also slept in many a basement, a hammock in a heated Staten Island garage and, for several months in the mid-aughts, on top of a nonworking elevator shaft.

Photo

Mr. McGill’s temporary home in Brooklyn.

Credit
Alex Wroblewski for The New York Times

For a few weeks in 2015, he slept on a Murphy bed in the home of a family living on Pioneer Street in Red Hook, while he taught their 7-year-old son how to dig holes for pylons to support a new back deck. They found bottles of mineral water from the 19th century, marbles from the 1920s and a Mercury dime, which they organized into an informal archaeological museum.

Not infrequently, Mr. McGill also stays in a Hell’s Kitchen walk-up where his ex-wife lives, when he is renovating the apartment downstairs that one of the couple’s two daughters inherited from the ex-wife’s brother.

“I’m allowed to stay there if I’m working on something. And when I stay there, I can count on a comfortable night with TV and blankets and Pantene hair spray,” he said with a theatrical flourish about his head.

Even before adopting his current way of life, Mr. McGill said, he has never liked to stay in one place for long. He moved to New York from Dublin in 1982. He came as a student, researching environmental construction practices, but he had to pay the rent — his apartment on Avenue B cost $285 a month — so he started working.

But by the time he lost his wood shop in Red Hook, for which he paid $1,100 a month, he had soured on the arrangement and rents had risen so high that they precluded living alone.

Fortunately, many of his friends in Red Hook own older buildings that often need repairs. Many also own bars in those buildings, on whose walls he stages his art shows; he has one now at Verona Wine Bar on Van Brunt Street. He also barters for food and wine, he said. If it’s good.

“I don’t want to live with five people and their bedbugs,” Mr. McGill said. “I’ve built a lot of bars around here, done work on a lot of places. It’s a good village I’ve got. You just have to have the ability to adapt to each situation.”

As for whether he ever gets nervous about finding the next place to stay, Mr. McGill insisted that he doesn’t. “You know there’s always going to be another leak somewhere,” he said.

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