I peel back the piece of black fabric that keeps the sunlight at bay and try to figure out where the hell I am. I don’t entirely recognize the block where I’m parked, but in Portland it’s safe to assume I’m close to a coffee shop. I grab a clean shirt and the brown corduroy pants I’ve worn for the past three days and try not to shake the van too much as I get dressed: If the authorities were to happen upon a creaky old conversion van with a groggy, pantless man inside, they might want to talk. I slide out and head for Southeast Ankeny Street’s Crema. My bladder relieved and fresh coffee in my system, I start charging my electronics and finally begin the day.
Finding a place to take your morning piss is just one of the little problems with not having a house that you don’t anticipate until you don’t have a house. The three most basic: Where do I shower? Where do my student-loan bills go? Where do I hang out until it’s time to sleep? It turns out the solution to all of these problems, like so many situations in life, is to look like you know what you’re doing.
I’ll be honest: Personal hygiene has never been one of my top priorities. When I logged 45-hour weeks as a barista, I assumed the persistent aroma of coffee made daily showering a waste of time. Homelessness, however, comes with extra baggage. While it’s true I don’t have a house, I’m trying to avoid being a bum: I have no intention of begging for change, growing dreadlocks, adopting a pit bull or ending up “on the dole.” Keeping clean is the keystone of this plan.
So my first trip to the Hollywood 24 Hour Fitness was pretty weird. My membership tour was conducted by an enthusiastic personal trainer eager to show off all the high-tech fitness gear put to good use by gym rats in neon clothing. He seemed confused when I asked him to show me the showers. The trainer’s sales pitch kept rolling until he told me about the free towel service—done deal, I said. I’ve been there every day since. Ironically, I’m now cleaner than I ever was back when I had access to my own shower, and I even hit the stair machine when I’ve had a few too many Ol’ Dirty Bastards. The gym is usually packed, which makes it easy to get in and out in 10 minutes, totally unnoticed.
The mail situation was a bit dicier. The United States Postal Service informed me that you cannot get a post office box without a local address. This confused me. Their reasoning has something to do with 9/11.
Hopefully, the freedom-hating terrorists who wish our country harm do not go to the Yahoo vandwellers group, where they will find tips for identifying shipping-supply stores with lax requirements for mailboxes. I ended up at The Postal Annex on Northeast Broadway, where a car title and a driver’s license got me a box. The fact that the deed to my home/van still bore the information for my house/van’s previous owner didn’t slow the clerk. He went straight to the VIN number, scanned a few copies, and handed over keys to the new depository for my outstanding student-loan statements. While I was there, I printed off my résumé and headed back to the coffee shop/lavatory where my day began.
Like many coffee joints in Portland, Crema closes early. I still feel weird about being the guy at the bar with a laptop, so I moved to Southeast Grind, a 24-hour shop on Southeast Powell Boulevard. A hodgepodge of loafers and grad students took up the table space, but I found a seat on the couch and spent the rest of the evening staring out the window as the crowd around me got progressively weirder. I went outside to get some fresh air and noticed an old VW bus with flower-printed drapes covering its windows. A Chevy conversion van with a similar getup was parked at the end of the next street. My people. This may be their living room. Actually, I suppose it’s our living room.
I watched a few episodes of Arrested Development on the couch before packing up and heading home. The fallout of six cups of coffee was on its way, but I would be ready.
VANIFEST DESTINY: Pete Cottell lives in a van and writes about it at wweek.com.