The cops may be on to me. It's 10:30 on Monday night and I'm walking "home" to the van where I've lived for a week. I've got one eye on a police cruiser as a black-and-white Radio Cab whizzes by—briefly worrying me that this is a full-on sting. The actual police car slowly lurches down a side street near the Buckman neighborhood spot I've occupied for the past two days, and I impulsively walk to a bar at the end of the block. The cop stops, creeps forward, then stops again. I am officially freaking the fuck out.
If you are going to live in a van parked in the city, being able to park without being hassled, which vandwellers call "stealth," is your top priority. "If they don't notice us, they won't hassle us," says Robert Wells, author of How to Live in a Car, Van or RV—And Get Out of Debt, Travel and Find True Freedom, the $2.99 Kindle book which has become a Bible of sorts for me.
Every vandweller knows three basic commandments: Avoid being seen entering or leaving the van; get inside only after sundown; keep the hell away from parks, schools and other large public spaces. After a week, I'm getting sloppy.
The problem started with a very good night of sleep. My ability to sleep inside the van has come a long way since my zombie-filled nightmare next to a Gresham plasma clinic. Perhaps too far. On Monday morning, after a long weekend of booze and pancakes, I am still in a comalike state around noon. I will get a job—I did not come here to just be a dirty hippie living in a van, but to live in a van as a means of simplifying my life while I get my shit together—but since I don't have any employment yet, why not sleep until noon on a Monday?
I put on a pair of flip-flops and stumble out of the passenger seat, falling head-first into an overgrown bush someone must have planted overnight. Not only have I left the van in the middle of the day, I have done so clumsily. In a daze, I look to see if anyone had witnessed my blunder. A quick scan of the area yielded nothing but a stray cat in a staring contest with a sparrow perched on a neighbor's picket fence.
Having recovered from my tumble, I slide open the rear passenger door to gather my things for the day. An avalanche of pens, shoes and dirty, vintage T-ball shirts spill out of the van and onto the sidewalk. Again, I should know better. "You must find a way to organize your possessions, or your mobile life will be a nightmare," says my guidebook. A whole chapter on organization tips follows. I have not been following them, so I spend 10 minutes peeling my stuff off the sidewalk. I curse myself. I lock up and started walking in the direction of a coffee shop I've been calling "my living room" when I notice an old man in a porch chair sitting in the front yard of the apartment building near my van. The table next to him is covered in empty Rainier cans; hopefully he isn't lucid enough to recount my gaffes to the appropriate authorities.
I go to the coffee shop and apply for lots of jobs, even the barista gig at a high-end department store I really would prefer not to have. I go to the gym, hit the treadmill and take my daily shower. I have a drink with a girl I met at Sasquatch. Then it's time to go back home. Which is when the cops roll by.
With police officers lurking too close to my van for comfort, I slip into a dive for a PBR. I play some pinball to cool my heels. I tell the bartender in a fedora and Buddy Holly glasses about my delusional bout with the cops, and he gives an amused scoff. "You're in the right place," he says, gesturing toward a table of tattooed barflies. "You practically get a discount for having priors at this place." I think about the old man on the porch. Did he call the cops on me?
An hour later, it's time to find out. I'm unnoticed as I get into the van, and decide to move it to a darker street. My new street has even more weird old vans on it than the last. Some drunken kids on their way home from the bar at the end of the road also notice this, loudly exclaiming how many "bitchin' vans" are parked on their street every night. After reflecting on the day's events, I pledge stricter allegiance to the vandweller code that would have prevented the whole debacle. I spend the last night of my first week in my new home asleep without a stir. I get up at 8 am to apply for more jobs.
READ: Pete Cottell quit his job in Ohio to move to Portland and live in a van. Follow his adventures here.