For 36 hours last week, I lived on Bitcoin alone. Surviving on the cryptocurrency, even in one of the world’s financial capitals, wasn’t easy. It required long subway rides to far-flung vendors where I was often the first Bitcoin-paying customer.
To get started, I bought 0.00737523 Bitcoin ($50) on Coinbase, a popular cryptocurrency exchange. It took an hour, $1.99 in fees, uploading a photo ID, and calling my bank after the charge was flagged as possibly fraudulent.
Coinbase also canceled my first attempt to buy the volatile currency because the price had fluctuated in the 10 seconds or so it took me to check out. I went to bed and woke up with Bitcoin worth $50.14 in my digital wallet and a list of things to accomplish: grocery shop, do laundry, buy socks, work out and get a haircut.
The closest place I found was Kavasutra in the East Village, a 30-minute subway ride away. (The subway does not accept Bitcoin, so to ride I had to cheat.)
After pulling a shot of cold brew for 0.00014486 BTC, or $1, the barista called up a QR code on an iPad. I scanned it with an app on my phone, but it didn’t work. He began coaching me like a child patiently setting up Grandpa’s Facebook account and then gave up.
But eventually I figured it out, the payment went through and I became his third Bitcoin-paying customer of the day. Paying with cryptocurrency was like that: exciting, fraught and never the same twice.
I was invoiced by email for a load of laundry at the Eco Laundry Companyin Chelsea. I texted with a hair stylist in Israel who accepted a tip on behalf of his colleague at Armando Piña Hair Salon on the Upper East Side. I waited — fingers crossed — for five minutes before a payment finally posted and I could dig into an ice cream sandwich at Melt Bakery on the Lower East Side.
And like an obsessive day trader, I would check my digital wallet and watch as the value went up and down by a few cents every few minutes. It was fun until I got hungry. I had searched for restaurants and grocery stores using Coinmap, the Blockchain Wallet, and filters on Yelp, but almost none took Bitcoin, and most said they never had.
“No one is really using it the way it’s supposed to be used, as a currency,” said Dan Sim, who accepts Bitcoin at his Lean Crust pizza shop in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
Circa 2013, he said, he’d process dozens of Bitcoin purchases a week, but as the currency became more valuable and volatile, that’s dropped to zero. “People don’t want to part with their Bitcoin,” he said.
I couldn’t find anyone to sell me less than $200 worth of socks or a gym that accepted Bitcoin. By the time lunch rolled around on Day 2, I was ready to throw in the towel. I headed to Sweetgreen. Its restaurants don’t accept cash, but they still take good old-fashioned plastic.