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June 4th, 2014 PETE COTTELL | Culture Features
 

Vanifest Destiny: Happy Vanniversary

My year of living in a van—minus two months of apartment hell.

scroller-vanifest_4031ILLUSTRATION: Jon Stommell
Packing for a music festival is always a huge pain in the ass. As Sasquatch 2014 drew near, I anticipated the day before my departure would be an endless panic attack triggered by fear I was forgetting my tent and sleeping bag.

But when you live in a van, everything you need is already packed—just turn the key and go. After a quick stop for groceries at the Irvington Safeway, I was ready to roll. The night before leaving, I parked in front of a friend’s house. I woke up with the sunlight peeking through the retractable skylight I installed the previous week. I French-pressed some coffee while my friends nervously double-checked the piles of supplies they hoped would keep them comfortable through a long weekend in the high desert of central Washington.

This, I thought, is just one more reason I’m happy I’ve lived in a van for a year now—minus a couple of months. We’ll get to that later.

My original plan was to use “vandwelling” as an inexpensive means to get a foothold in Portland until I found a job and moved in to an apartment. To that end, I was successful: Within a week, I had a job (“The Hole Story,” WW, Jan. 15, 2014) and was living rent-free in a shitty old van that cost me the equivalent of two months’ rent in the apartment building I parked in front of. A few months later, I found a barista job that paid twice the money for half the hours and began socking away cash. I took advantage of my surplus of money and free time by exploring the Columbia River Gorge, the coast and Mount Hood. Being “homeless” in Portland was turning into the best year of my life.

The nomadic life of leisure was not without its downside, however. Showering at the gym was a nuisance, afternoon naps were out of the question, and the idea of anyone wanting to date a 30-year-old hobo was laughable.

Waking up next to the ocean was great, but the lack of a “living room” was becoming a problem. Instead of loitering in my van, I became a regular at a neighborhood bar amenable to me camping out for hours on end. The difficulty in working from a bar is obvious: You’re the guy plugging away at a laptop while everyone else is getting drunk. I sought a more suitable place to burn the midnight oil and found Southeast Grind, a 24-hour coffee shop on Southeast Powell Boulevard that looked like a good fallback for tight deadlines. The coffee is drinkable and the place never closes, but the regulars at an all-night cafe in the dregs of Southeast’s Brass Pole District turned out to be even worse than drunks watching a Blazers game at Beulahland.

“If I see Jasmine usin’ my lip gloss one more time, I’m gonna smack that bitch!” shrieked a girl in fishnet stockings and an orange pencil skirt as the front door swung open. “Teddy, you best tell that skank to learn her fucking role—I ain’t tellin’ her twice!”

A flabby guy in faux-designer jeans and a leather jacket grabbed the door from behind her. He looked like a cross between Vanilla Ice and a fat Elvis impersonator. A girl in white sweatpants and a see-through halter top charged in behind them, shoved Vanilla Elvis out of the way and collapsed in a heap on a sagging velvet couch.

“My job ain’t ta babysit y’all!” Vanilla Elvis screamed. Even with Deafheaven’s Sunbather cranked up on my headphones, I still overheard the juicy bits.

“I told Jasmine to stop showing up to work high, but I can’t tell her to stop talking shit about your girlfriend. She’s a bitch—just deal with it!”

Between the barista’s dubstep playlist and the scene on the couch, I decided the work I had put off for weeks would have to wait another night. I went back to my van and slept fully clothed in a 20-degree chill and wondered if a 60-square-foot efficiency with no amenities was still practical. I decided it wasn’t.

The cold was tolerable, but the paranoia of being found out was also getting to me. While driving home from Canada the previous week, my van’s engine went kaput somewhere south of Olympia. I asked the AAA driver to deposit my defunct home on a side street a few blocks from work, and spent a week weighing my options. I thought about getting another van, but wasn’t excited to roll the dice on another $1,000 beater from a sketchy dealership in Gresham. I tried to land an apartment with some strangers from Facebook, but the application process was derailed when I was unable to provide the landlord with any housing references. A two-month sublease at a friend’s apartment in Hollywood looked like the best option to reintegrate myself into the real world, so I forked over $900.

I moved my paltry possessions into the closet of my new room and wondered if I had sold out. What would I do with all this space? Who pays the electric bill? Is the ability to lay in bed and watch Netflix for hours a hazard? I walked down Northeast Halsey Street—past the gym I belonged to for shower access—and bought some groceries. I went home, brewed a pot of coffee and decided it was time to take advantage of having an actual desk for the first time in six months. Instead of getting anything done, however, I fucked around for an hour and kicked the can further down the road. I can do this tomorrow, I told myself.

The novelty of having electricity and water subsided, and I quickly reverted back to the lazy guy I’d left behind in Ohio. I spent days binging on peanut butter-filled pretzels and Bob’s Burgers. I was near my gym, but easy access to my own shower rendered the ancillary perks of a membership useless to me. Unless I was working, I was either asleep or engaged in a Netflix bender. After hitting the snooze button on my alarm clock a dozen times, the incessant howling of my roommates’ blind wiener dog finally got me moving for the day. It was 12:30 pm, and he was lost in my closet again.

I stepped out of bed and found my foot in a warm pile of dog shit. I stumbled to the shower and hosed off my foot while the dog bumbled around the bathroom like a sad Roomba with a bowel problem. I went to the kitchen to make breakfast, but everything I needed to cook eggs was covered in grease. My coffee stash was empty, and the French press had soggy grounds floating in it. I stood there in my underwear and came to an abrupt realization: Living alone in a van was way better than this.

Outside of work one day, I ran into a regular who knew my story. He asked about my plans after the sublease ended. I shrugged.

“Well dude, there’s a room opening up at my place if you’re interested. It’s $500 a month. It’s me and three other dudes, all late 20s. Just around the corner from here. It’s super chill.”

I told him I was interested, but I wasn’t sure. I was early for my shift, so I opened my laptop and checked Craigslist. I found a metalhead selling a busted Dodge for $1,000. Besides a Black Sabbath sticker on the dash, the interior was completely bare. I bought it on the spot and spent the next few months rebuilding my new home from the ground up.

Now, I’m back to showering with strangers at the gym, but I’ll take that over waking up to a pile of dog shit any day. I did forget to bring a tent to Sasquatch, but I didn’t even need one. When your home is on wheels, nothing gets left behind. 

 
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