When your dreams exceed your budget

This happened a long time ago, and many of the variables I'm about to mention have undoubtedly changed. I wouldn't do it again at my age, and I'm not saying anyone else should do what I did. It was probably damned stupid. Parental guidance is advised.

Seattle, Washington, in the late 1980s: A much younger me had decided to make some major changes in life, and I won't bore you with what that was about. Suffice to say that for what I had in mind, I'd need several thousand dollars — money I did not have.

I had a steady job, an ordinary apartment, and a van that was paid for, but still I was barely breaking even. How could I come up with a whole lot of money?

Well, the van was all mine, so why not live in it? Just by not paying rent, I'd save hundreds of dollars every month. I could raise all the money I'd need in, I figured, maybe two years.

Was I nuts or would this work? Yes, and yes.

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The most obvious problem would be living with no shower, no toilet, and no sink.

But I could shower at my job. I was the only person working overnight at a car dealership, and the building had showers for its day-shift mechanics. They'd given me keys to the building, so I had privacy and shower access seven nights a week. First problem, first solution. What's next?

I visited a store that sold supplies for recreational vehicles, and bought a portable toilet, a little like this one. It's very low-tech: all it does is support your weight as you sit and shit into a plastic bag that's clipped under your butt.

I brought the toilet home, attached a plastic liner, and took a practice poop in the kitchen. (Why take a dump in the kitchen? Because the bathroom in that apartment was really, really tiny.)

There was no leakage, and no stink when the lid was closed, but there was a lot of liquid at the bottom of that trash liner, which seemed like an unnecessary risk of spillage inside the van. It seemed wiser to pee into a bottle in the van, and use the portable toilet only for poop.

Bought cheap, refillable plastic jugs of water for drinking, and for washing my hands after using the toilet. With no sink, I'd have to step out of the van to wash my hands, but that seemed workable.

Living in the van was an unusual thing to do, and people tend to frown on the unusual, so it seemed wise to be discreet. This was long before every weirdo in the world felt at home on the internet, and back then I thought I was the only weirdo.

The van wasn't at all discreet, with big windows on both sides, and another big window at the back. If I lived in the van, anyone walking by would see that someone lived in the van, and I need more privacy than that.

So I carefully measured the van's interior, bought some plywood, borrowed tools from a handyman friend, and constructed a clumsy, ugly wooden box that would fill the back of the van. The box would be my bedroom.

Painted the box black on the sides and back, to match the color of the van. My thinking was, someone who sees wood through the window will be suspicious and wonder what's inside — I'd be inside, and wanted no visitors, no suspicions. But someone who sees only black through the windows of a black van wouldn't think twice about it.

When two coats of paint had dried, I slid my big wooden box into the van. It was after dark, and leaving a flashlight lit inside, I walked around the van's exterior. As I had hoped, the painted plywood box made the van look like it was empty, and no light was visible from outside. If I was inside reading a book or watching TV, no-one outside would know.

I bought a futon, took some blankets and a pillow from my apartment, and tested the set-up to make sure it was sleepable. I tried to sleep in the parking lot at my apartment building, but every time anyone came or went in their vehicles it woke me.

It would be smarter, I figured, to park the van farther from all the humans, so I crawled from the bed to the driver's seat, started the engine, and drove away. Spent the rest of that night in an almost-empty park-and-ride for the local transit system, and slept undisturbed, until a cop pounded on my window at dawn. "Sorry, officer, I must have fallen asleep. I'll be headed home now."

OK, I said to myself, gotta watch out for the police, but maybe this "living in my van" thing is going to work. After another test night, it seemed like all systems were go, so I gave my landlord notice that I was moving out.

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Spent the next few weeks shedding possessions, moving most of my books and other stuff into a storage facility, and tinkering with my set-up in the van.

Made another trip to the RV supply store, where I bought a small cooler that plugged in to the cigarette lighter and could keep milk cold enough it wouldn't curdle.

Also bought a portable TV and a small fan, both of which also plugged into the lighter. With an extension cord that reached from the cigarette lighter to the back of the van, my nifty new 12-volt appliances would be within arm's reach, whether I was in the front or back of the van.

I bought a battery-operated lamp I could screw into the plywood over my head, so I could read in bed with no worries of killing the van's battery.

It's been a long time from then to now, so I can't tally what prepping the van cost, and inflation would make the numbers nonsensical anyway. As I recall, it added up to about two month's rent for the apartment I was leaving behind, and it felt like a wise investment. Felt like I was a half-assed homeowner, with no more rent to pay at the first of every month.

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I must have moved out of my apartment a few days early, because the first night in my half-ass tricked-out van wasn't the first of the month. Googling just now, I see that it was Monday, September 28, 1987.

The date is Googleable because on my first night as a van-dweller, I watched the premiere of a new show called Star Trek: The Next Generation, on my little black-and-white TV, in the front seat of my van, parked at a 7/11, darting inside for Slurpees and snacks during the commercials.

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Over the next couple of years, I made sandwiches in the van, and bought a 12-volt cooking pit, so I could have soup or ramen with my sandwiches. I drank water and sometimes soda pop from convenience stores, read books and wrote zines in that van, and peed into jars with screw-tight lids. The van was my home, and it was fine.

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At first, I slept in residential neighborhoods. It was dicey, though, to crawl from the driver's seat, through the curtain and into the back of the van, while someone might be peering out their living room window to see why nobody got out of that black van that parked a few minutes ago.

Too many cops knocked on my window too many times, demanding to see my ID and play 20 Questions, so I soon decided not to park the van near people's houses. Usually I parked and slept in large, mostly empty parking lots.

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Seattle isn't known for especially shivery winters, but when it was 40° outside, it was also 40° inside the van. I had plenty of blankets, and the van's little heat vents up front, and in the winter, I usually slept in the driver's seat, not on the futon in the back. I'd tilt the seat, cuddle up in my blankets, and every hour or two I'd start the ignition and run the heat for a while.

Summer was a bigger problem. Science says the color black absorbs and radiates heat, and I can vouch for science. If it was 80° outside, the van became a sweaty oven. Nope, no air conditioning. In the Pacific Northwest, air conditioning is a luxury, something for rich folks, but it never gets terribly hot so a/c really isn't needed — unless you're living in a black van.

Hoo boy, by 8 or 9 every sunny morning, I needed to be in the front seat with the windows rolled down. Most summer days, even with the windows open, I needed to splash water onto my face every 45 minutes or so, to keep the grime and sweat from dripping into my eyes.

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Most of my effort setting up the van had been about building the bedroom box in the back, but after the first few weeks I rarely slept there. I lived in the driver's seat, tilted back so no-one could see me.

What that means is that the van didn't need to be a van. It could've been a compact two-door hatchback. There was usually nothing in the bedroom box in the back, except my futon, some fast-food wrappers, and the toilet.

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The toilet, by the way, was another aspect of my big plan that didn't work out as I'd expected. It was smart to have a folding toilet in the van, a necessity and a great convenience, but I only used it in emergencies. Thousands of times I peed in a bottle in the van, with no serious spills (am I allowed to be proud of that?), but almost always I pooped in the men's room inside fast-food restaurants, department stores, government offices, or even churches.

Why? Well, I'm not easily disgusted, and dropping a deuce in the van didn't bother me. What I didn't like was opening the van door with my soiled hand, in order to get out and scrub up by pouring water through my fingers onto the asphalt. I didn't like the possibility of dropping or accidentally ripping the bag while trying to tie it up neatly, and spilling its contents all over the van, and needing to dispose of the turd quickly, before the summer heat aromatically baked it in the bag.

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Midway through my first vagabond summer, I stumbled upon a great improvement to my living situation — a rest area on the interstate. It was a long drive north from where I'd been parking, but the rest area had trees and shade, so the summer heat wasn't quite so scorching.

And it had easy access to toilets and sinks. The restroom had lots of spiders and bugs, and one of the stall doors never latched, but none of that mattered 'cuz I had easy access to indoor plumbing.

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During my time in the van I had perhaps a dozen unpleasant chats with curious cops who wanted to see my license, and wanted to know why I was parked wherever I was parked. Sleeping in a parking lot is borderline breaking the law, or at least cops think so, so I was always nervously on my best behavior during those interactions. Plenty of "Yes Sirs" and polite, often untrue answers to their many, many questions.

A ticket or even an arrest was always possible, but I was lucky — every one of those conversations ended with "Thank you, officer," as the cop walked away.

And yes, I am aware that any of those middle-of-the-night knocks on the window of my van could've turned out a lot worse if I hadn't been white. Sadly but realistically, my advice is to avoid being black while living in a van.

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The cop interactions were a serious drag, and after yet another 3AM chat with a cop, I was almost ready to give up and start looking for an apartment. I was only about ⅔ of the way to my financial goal, though. Not paying rent was the whole point of everything I'd done, but it gets tiresome, knowing that any night could be interrupted by any policeman.

What I needed was someplace where I'd have permission to park the van, and I’m not sure I would've found it on my own — there was no Googling back then. Luck came through for me, though.

The night after being rousted by a cop at the rest area, my gut feeling was that the same cop would back be at the rest area to make me miserable again, so instead I cruised a few semi-busy roads, looking for an empty parking lot. That's when I saw the sign.

"Nightly, Weekly, Monthly," it said, with prices I've forgotten, but they were low. Behind the sign was a dirt road, a few trees, half a dozen seedy-looking mobile homes and rusty recreational vehicles, a few cars and pick-up trucks, and three empty parking spaces.

It was sort of a trailer court and sort of a campground, with toilets, sinks, and showers, and it looked perfect for my needs.

One of the mobile homes had a sign that said "manager," so I knocked and we talked, and in five minutes I lived there. I'd be paying rent, yeah, but not much. Can't remember what they charged thirty years ago, but it was about a third of what I'd paid for the apartment I'd left a year earlier. A good deal.

And best of all, I no longer needed to be discreet about living in my van. A guy in a Plymouth was also watching TV in his car. Same as me, my neighbors walked from their vehicles to the shit-shack (as we called it) carrying their TP or soap and towels. We were a low-rent community of nomads.

So I un-installed the bedroom box, and in the summer opened all the van's windows and the tailgate for a delightful breeze. I tilted back in the driver's seat, and slept with my feet sticking out the window. It was home, and it was perfectly legal.

After living in the van for two years, I'd saved up enough money to fund my next adventure, made possible entirely by a generous endowment from living in my van.

Like I said, I'm not recommending any of this. Just, maybe it's something to think about, when your dreams exceed your budget.

Republished 4/17/2023  

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