I expect the gas station to be empty. It's 11 pm on a Sunday night, and I'm out on the border of Gresham to check on my broken-down van and maybe slip inside for shuteye. Instead, I see someone I know. My trusted mechanic Robert sits behind the wheel of a red Chevy Blazer with a lit cigar in his mouth. He rolls down his window.
"Hey man! I saw your van here and figured something was up. Is everything cool?"
Everything is not cool. I explain how the van died en route to the Oregon Zoo on Saturday. I tell him how I watched the van leave for Gresham by tow truck and got a ride back to Portland to stay with a friend in a swanky apartment in the West Hills, drinking Moscow Mules and watching Garden State on a comfy couch. Robert listens with an arresting sense of empathy.
After I'm done, Robert, a black guy in his mid-50s who's spent the majority of his life working in some offshoot of the automobile business on Portland's east side, offers a dense, esoteric explanation of why he thinks the van crapped out while climbing a hill just outside of town. He looks lost in thought for a moment, then gestures toward the backseat of his Blazer, ashing his cigar.
"This is where I'm staying these days," he says. "If you need to chill here tonight, that's cool. Just keep the lights off. Gotta be undercover out here."
This revelation leaves me feeling something like the van's overwhelmed engine. Turns out, Robert also lives in his car, and in a neighborhood far less pleasant than where I've been staying. He deals with the addled squawks of the derelicts queuing up to sell plasma next door at the crack of dawn everyday. Here I am, a suburban shitbag living in his van as an experiment, playing tourist in a world where people call their vehicles home because it's all they've got.
The only time I've been near the edge, Robert actually got me out of it. He rode with me to the DEQ station when I took the van to get inspected. A state trooper stopped me for speeding—without insurance—and threatened to impound my newly purchased home. Robert talked the cop into letting me go with a warning. I've owed him a beer since. Now that we're roommates of a sort, I suggest drinks at the sports bar a few blocks away.
"This place has excellent steak," Robert says as a guy yelling something in Spanish into a disposable phone holds the door open for us. We drink Rolling Rocks and talk about cars, the Trail Blazers and troubles with the lady folk. Robert tells me about the variety of factors—child support, work turmoil, some trouble with the law—that led to his current situation.
I tell him about the previous day, when I just wanted to drive to the zoo and play Huey Lewis for animals, only to end up stranded in the parking lot of a 76 station after the van hiccupped violently while climbing the hill. I tell him about the spindly, stoned-looking guy with a ponytail of dirty blond hair who sat on a milk crate next to my broken-down van and lit up a smoke. "Dude, sweet rig," he said. "You should check out this article the Mercury or Willamette or whatever is running about this guy that lives in his van."
We down our beers just before a deluge of shady guys walk in and beeline to the pool table. Time to go. As we make our way back, Robert points out the gauntlet of police cars along this stretch of bodegas and cheap apartments. "Lot of drug activity out here," he says. "Gotta be alert."
Robert fires up his Blazer to warm it up before turning in. He tells me I'm welcome to do the same if I keep my lights off. A cacophony of noises swirl around our vehicles: beaters with blown-out exhausts, SUVs with bass that rattles the zipper on my sleeping bag, busses unloading tired dishwashers returning from the city. I realize I'm privileged to have my shady spot in the Buckman neighborhood. I think about Robert: a guy who's had bad luck, but never gives the impression he's down and out. He has a job, a place to stay and a bartender who knows his name. After a month of vandwelling, I can't say you need much else.
Robert tells me to make sure I'm gone before 10 am so his boss doesn't find out, and I thank him again. We both groan about having to go to work Monday—my first day at a new job—and he thanks me for the beer. As I'm getting situated, he shouts like a roommate down the hall.
"Hey, man, I'll leave the door to the bathroom unlocked for you. Just make sure you keep the lights off. The cops are everywhere up here.â
VANIFEST DESTINY: Pete Cottell lives in a van and writes about it at wweek.com.