There is a house that is so big, according to its homeowner, Jackie Siegel, that “…you can go a couple days without seeing the kids.”
Siegel is the protagonist of Queen of Versailles, a documentary about her husband’s attempt to construct one of the largest homes in the United States.
Named and fashioned after the Palace of Versailles in France, the 90,000 square-foot house sprawls across 10 acres in central Florida. In 2012, the Seigels fell on hard times and decided to sell the unfinished home for $65 million. But no one bit on it. With its fabled features, it was either a listing agent’s dream or their worse nightmare. Today, with their finances turned around, the Seigels continue to own the property and with construction resumed, the house is expected to be completed by the end of 2016.
Not everyone believes that bigger is better, or that you even need a house with four walls. In the same year that the Seigel’s plans began to fold, photographer Rachel Bujalski was a production assistant on Queen of Versailles. She was in her early twenties then, and after working on the film, she decided to turn her lens to a different direction.
“I was almost disgusted with it,” Rachel says about her time working on the project. “Not with the people, but with what society has told us is good and what we should have.”
I met Rachel the way modern people do these days. I found her project “Connected Off-the-Grid” on Instagram and began following her. At first glance, her feed could have been mistaken for outtakes from a boho-chic fashion shoot. There’s long-legged girls with braided tresses, men with hard-lines and leathered skin, and hippie mama’s holding babies. Everyone’s glowing, but there’s also a noticeable depth to these people with their fixed gazes, something that most certainly hasn’t been nurtured in places we’d traditionally think of as home. It’s a question I’d love to pose to Rachel’s subjects, but that’s her story to investigate. This one is about Rachel Bujalski. The woman who has chosen to live like the people she documents.
The premise of “Connected Off-the-Grid” is that Rachel photographs people who make home without the usual accoutrements–namely a home in the traditional sense: four walls and plugged-in. It’s also an appraisal of people living the “new ‘American Dream’, a population that is both plugged-in and plugged-out of the society at the same time.” What’s interesting about Rachel’s work, aside from her knack for storytelling and visual acumen, is that at its core it challenging us to reimagine what it means to create home. Suddenly, you realize the fine line between the words “homeless” and “house-less”, and the power of choice.
Most of her subjects live in their cars; the few who do live in permanent structures like a treehouse, for example, subsist on solar power, a generator, and bottled water. The things that weigh them down are few. They can be mobile or stay put. “Stuff,” that fatty word we use to indicate the physical objects filling our homes, doesn’t dictate her subjects’ abilities to inhabit space the way our two-car garages have become overflow storage units bounding the rest of us to place or to our past. It appears that the people Rachel meet are comforted not by what they have, but by what they don’t need.
Rachel once had a lot of stuff too. When she arrived in California, she lived in an apartment in Venice, and did fashion photography. A recent import from Chicago, she traded a life spent barricading herself from the bitter cold for palm trees and a sea breeze. The money was good, but after doing too many photo shoots in closets large enough for people to live in, Rachel didn’t want to do it anymore. As a photographer, she believed she was responsible for the media that advertisers disseminated to make people feel inadequate or lacking of, well, stuff.
“I was almost disgusted with it. Not with the people, but with what society has told us is good and what we should have.”
She felt bad, Rachel tells me over the phone. And feeling bad made her want to do something good. Soon after she dropped the fashion work, took odd jobs, and founded with homeless activist, David Busch, “The Mirror, Mirror Project“, a nonprofit whose goal is to “bring the homeless and artist communities together in a creative way to show each other, as well as others, that they share more in common than their zip code…”
There was one problem though. In a bitter twist of irony, the woman trying to understand and help the homeless community, was on the verge of being without a home herself. Without her high-paying fashion job, she couldn’t afford where she lived anymore. The Los Angeles she lived in then (as it continues to worsen today) boasts one of the highest priced rental markets. Add to that food, transportation costs, and utilities, and what you have is a place where affordable housing you’d actually want to live in is in short supply. You have to get creative, so Rachel did. While visiting a friend in the marina one day, she found out she could live on a boat for a fraction of her ballooning rent. And just like that she bought a boat on Craigslist for a few thousand dollars and moored it.
“I don’t know how to sail,” she laughs. But she certainly knows how to navigate the Los Angeles housing market.
os Angeles is booming. On a recent visit, which included meeting Rachel in-person for the first time, two taxi drivers and my hairstylist spent most of their time talking about real estate. The downtown skyline is punctuated with cranes and near-completed high rises. The subway, which people either don’t know about or chose not to talk about, has become the darling of urbanites as plans continue to unfold connecting the posh parts of the city to its beating core. People who rent lament the skyrocketing housing market, but that’s something Rachel doesn’t have to worry about anymore.
When Rachel is in L.A.–now just a few days a week since she travels most of the time for work–she lives in a twenty-seven foot Catalina sailboat named “Windfall II.” She didn’t name the boat, but the name seems to nod to her current situation which affords her both the time and flexibility to do photography for her “Connected Off-the-Grid” series. It was the boat that inspired the project after all.
“A lot of people are living on their boats in the marina so I started questioning people, asking them, ‘Why do you live like this?’ That’s how it started.”
She’s been docked in the marina for over two years, and in that time she has developed a routine to handle life in a small space without the usual amenities like a bathroom or full kitchen. When Rachel describes her day to me I can’t help but draw a parallel to a college student’s dorm life, except that there’s no one fighting her for the shower.
“The shower is up at the top of the dock, not on my boat. It took a little bit to get into a routine,” she says, “but now that I have it down to a science, everything’s really quick.”
There are other trade-offs to making life on a boat comfortable. For example, for most of us it’s a distant ancestor who lived without an ice box, but Rachel lived without one in Los Angeles for a year. When she got one (a special size that is smaller than the standard freezer compartment) she was able to expand her breakfast repertoire from dry cereals and toast to egg white omelets and yogurt. It’s not too far from the way she cooked with her family on their regular camping trips when she was growing up. She mentions the camping to me with a fondness. If we are to believe that we have a tendency to recreate the familiar, then Rachel’s self-imposed living situation makes sense. Living on a boat is like camping on water.
While she might not have the space or refrigerator capacity to host a dinner of eight, there’s plenty of room to entertain on the deck of the Windfall II. Just like any neighborhood, and perhaps more so, there is a community within the marina. When a fellow boat dweller passed away, Rachel posted a picture of him. You got the impression that their relationship was anchored on more than the fact that they both lived on the water–that it was instead a shared view of the world despite the decades separating them in age. Friends and neighbors (other people with boats moored nearby) stop by and enjoy a sunset view in the quiet marina. There’s no honking horns or cars screeching to a halt at a red light, and for a minute from her deck, it’s hard to believe you’re still in L.A.–a city that’s trying at every moment to be home for more than 10 million people.
Rachel and I finally met in Venice, at a coffee shop in a strip-mall building where guests in the outdoor seating area take in a nondescript view of a parking lot. She arrived a little before me. While we had never met in person, I knew her right away–as anyone might recognize a person untethered. She was dressed casually with wavy blonde hair relaxed down her back. A warm smile set off her glow. She hugged me. Then, just like a cliché, we talked as if we knew each other our entire lives. The conversation meandered and came to a halt when she told me she would be subletting her boat.
“If you know anyone,” she said kind of winking at me, “let me know.”
It’s far easier after I’ve spent time with Rachel to peg her not as home-maker, but as a builder. She builds upon her ideas and the moves she makes in her life. From the Queen of Versailles to shooting fashion, to living on a boat–the natural progression, she’s decided, was to live like her subjects: off-the-grid. She was even getting rid of her sedan in lieu of an SUV, so it would be easier to work and live. For most people, the thought of a move across town would reduce them to cold sweats, but not Rachel. She had already completed a major down-size when she moved from apartment to boat, so she surmised that going from a boat to her car would be easy. Plus, she explained, documenting how other people were doing it had empowered her.
We finished our coffees and Rachel let me know she needed to get to the gym. She offered to drop me off at the airport after she ran by her boat for her gym clothes. I could see where she lived. When we arrived at the the marina, I took in the locks and gates everywhere. It suddenly dawned on me that I never asked her about security. She is a single woman, after all, living alone in an unusual place when she is docked, and wandering the world when not safely in her slip. How did she manage?
“I check in with my family almost everyday,” she assured me as if she’s accustomed to these kinds of questions about her safety. “They also see when I post on social media.”
In the end, it’s about trusting her gut. One encounter she once had with an old guy made her feel uneasy, so friendly, polite Rachel left without saying good-bye. Just like in the “connected world”, politeness sometimes isn’t an option in the one that’s off-the-grid.
We pulled in front of a gated pier.
“You can see the boat over there,” Rachel indicated through the windshield. “I’d invite you in, but it’s a mess since I just got back from a trip.”
It’s good to know that boats get messy, too.
Since I wrote this piece, Rachel has sublet her boat and just finished working on a documentary about a Trinidad, California, tree-sitter whose alias is ‘Carbohydrate’.
She is continuing her journey to the coast of Canada where she will be documenting an island community that exists entirely off-the-grid. She currently lives in a Toyota 4Runner she outfitted for sleeping and working on the road.
You can follow Rachel’s travels on Instagram. For more on her project “Connected Off-the-Grid”, visit The Story Institute.