I lived in a van for a summer and took Drawing 1. I have a story, but I don't think it involves mental illness or laziness or wasting my life. I was working full-time as a sysadmin at an Ivy League school and taking classes full-time there at the same time.  Yes, that meant I slept very little and had no "free time", whatever that is. One spring I was moving out of an apt I had rented with some friends for the school year and I had another apt set up for fall, but hadn't set up anything for the summer. My parents unmarked white utility van fit my bed perfectly and I decided to just not move my bed out and live in the van for the summer. I had a place to shower at work, I decorated the inside of the van, and it became home. I wasn't a creep, I wasn't homeless, my parents lived 45 minutes away so I had a fallback if it didn't work out, I had a place to shower, I had a job.

However, what I underestimated was how much people freak out if you're doing something even slightly outside of their concept of normal. I had found a great parking spot pretty near work, in a corner under some trees, however, within a week a construction worker called Safety and Security and reported a suspicious van.  He was driving a jacked up muffler-less pickup truck with a rifle in the back — who's the suspicious one?  6am one morning, I was jolted awake by the loudest scariest banging noise I've ever heard, it felt like someone was punching me in the heart. A security guard was knocking on the sides of the van trying to see if someone was inside. I was too groggy/freaked to just stay put behind my curtains and tinted windows, I got out. He told me I can't sleep on college property, recorded my license plate and said they would be watching me.

I can't describe the lack of feeling of safety that having a locked door and a wall, specifically something thick that muffles knocking gives. I then tried parking on the streets discretely but had a hard time sleeping because I kept waiting for the cops to come knocking. I started parking a few miles away at a Walmart — what a weird experience that was. RV's would come in and set up in a circle in the middle of the lot (I stayed on the outskirts). Every night around 2am some locals would come by and drive in circles around the RVers and throw bottles at them while yelling and squealing tires. No peace of mind there. I started parking at the local truck stop, no locals there, but now I had to worry about a sleepy truck driver backing into me in the middle of the night. Breakfast at the 24hr diner there was delicious though.

I started reading some forums about van living and found an article about how people who are forced to live in a car or van temporarily often find themselves pushed further into the fringes. I was doing this by choice, but I couldn't imagine someone who thought they could just live out of their car for a few weeks until their first paycheck from their new job could cover first/last/security deposit in a new city, only to be constantly hassled to move and then fired when someone at work found out. The numbers were troubling, something like 80% of people who temporarily attempt to live out of their cars end up actually homeless, jobless and carless.

Eventually some people renting an apt nearby and had a free parking spot let me park there.  I didn't necessarily feel lonely, I was busy and had stuff to do, and I still had friends. But I definitely felt something, that people thought I was troubled, or needed help, or that something was wrong. And maybe they didn't really, but I realized that I myself was starting to avoid social contact. I would wake up early and sneak into work to take a shower before other people came in so they wouldn't notice, even though my boss knew I was living in a van and didn't care — I wasn't going to lose my job if anybody found out.

When it came time to move out of the van, it was with mixed feelings. It as getting colder at night, and I would sleep better, but I had gotten used to it and now whenever I borrow my parents van to move something I feel nostalgic for that time when it was my home.

What I learned was that society does not take kindly to seemingly slight deviations from normal. The movie Wendy and Lucy came out a bit later and reminded me strongly of that outward push that society initiates on people who appear as "outliers". Certainly, it makes sense for the health of the system, but I was taken aback by how tight the tolerances are.

I was surprised by how strong that outward push was and how narrow a band "normalcy" really is. Sure, I expected people to be weirded out, but what I didn't expect was for how alienating that felt. Actually, what I didn't expect was that something that was comfortable and an adventure would generate not a pulling in force but a pushing out.  It wasn't, "are you ok? can we help?", or, "what's your story?", it was "wtf, get out of here". It just made me think about all those times that we all/I avoid or get weirded out by people that are different. And how that very action of being weirded out can make them weirder.

 

* The above originally appeared in a thread on Hacker News discussing van living.