June 6th, 2013 | by PETE COTTELL Features | Posted In: Vanifest Destiny

Vanifest Destiny: How I Became a College-Educated 29-Year-Old Who is Technically Homeless

It's really not as weird as you think.

cultfeat2_3931-VanifestILLUSTRATION: Hawk Krall

Pete Cottell quit his job in Ohio and moved to Portland to live in a van. Read why here and follow his adventures all summer here.


What do you do when you’re pushing 30 and you haven’t achieved much of anything beyond getting a bachelor’s degree from a monolithic land grant university?


Well, some people go back to school to delay the inevitable, tossing more debt on the heap in hopes that an MFA will somehow make it hurt less when yuppies ask for whipped cream on a soy mocha. Others boomerang back to the parental homestead and outfit their childhood bedroom with enough garish electronics to blast the panties off the throngs of young ladies (all zero of them!) that come back for Blu-ray Arrested Development reruns. A few document the entire experience with a brigade of similarly rudderless friends with the hope that a hastily edited lo-fi film about 20-somethings running around in Keds, guzzling tallboys and fucking anything that moves will somehow reveal a universal truth about how poetic underachievement can be.


I decided to move across the country and live in a van.


My unremarkable story starts in a modest post-industrial boomtown, where I grew up skateboarding, playing Magic: The Gathering, watching the Cleveland Indians and listening to Jimmy Eat World. It includes a liberal arts degree from The Ohio State University. It gets a little pathetic around the age of 24, when I no longer had anyone telling me what to do.


So what did I do? Like so many young men of my generation, I spent an entire week drinking Old Smuggler and playing Diablo 2 while naïvely waiting for someone in Brooks Brothers khakis to kick my front door down and whisk me away to a glitzy advertising agency on the strength of the resume I put on Careerbuilder.com. To no one's surprise but my own, this never happened. So I spent a half-decade as a service industry lackey. Every time I swiped my employee badge to clock in, an existential chicken-and-egg scenario clouded my thoughts: Was the act of working a minimum wage job to barely get by slowly draining me of my ambition to search for something greater, or did my lack of ambition put me here in the first place?


I’m 29 now, and I still can’t say I ever figured that out. One thing I did figure out, however, was how to stop being disappointed with the fact that opportunities rarely run you down.


Sometimes, though, they park right in front of your dead-end job.


Pete used to live in this very nice old house.

 

When the post-rock band I spent several thousand dollars fortifying my guitar rig for abruptly imploded before we even attempted to leave Ohio, I found myself wondering if I even liked being a denizen of the indie rock slum in the first place. I took a long hard look at the spare room of my apartment, stocked to the ceiling with decommissioned amps and effects pedals, and realized I’d be much happier without it. This jumble of electronics and cables no longer served as a means of creation; it was now a sobering indicator that I used the notion of creativity as a means to hoodwink myself into spending way too much money on a bunch of shit I didn’t need, to somehow make myself an artist. A week later it was out the door, pawned off via Craigslist to slightly younger dudes with similar ambitions.

Just as I found myself with excess funds for the first time in a decade, my situation at the coffee shop where I worked started to go south in a very Office Space kind of way. I spent the slow parts of the mornings staring out window into the street, wondering what I was going to do now that the chain of command made it clear I was getting dangerously close to being too experienced. I watched yuppies sprint across the street to Starbucks and wondered if I could ever play the role of “ascendant yuppy careerist” with such élan.


Then, one day, a rickety old conversion van parked in front of the shop. With tan racing stripes and tinted back windows it immediately conjured several crass adjectives (“rapey” being the first). The van remained in the same spot for three days. To the best of my knowledge, no one was ever spotted entering or departing the van during our business hours. The windows and the area behind the captains chairs up front were blocked out by ugly curtains, so whatever was happening inside the thing was a total mystery. I was delightfully shocked to figure that, with the one exception of the cantankerous old lady that lived adjacent to my shop, no one gave two shits about the thing. It sat there for a few days and became a weird memory quickly thereafter.


I started thinking about the life I’d made for myself. One day, I threw my essentials belongings in a heap and realized my life could totally fit in a van. I learned that a lot of other people had already made this realization, and were living in vans all over the country.


And yet I had to be somewhere specific, that is not Columbus, Ohio.


So I went the best place I could imagine for a weirdo with aspirations of being functionally homeless. Which is, of course, Portland. If homeless teenagers living under the Burnside Bridge who ask tourists in the Voodoo Doughnuts queue for spare change can make it in the Rose City, imagine the prospects for someone who plans to thoughtfully seek a job and be a highly-functioning member of society (while being homeless, technically). Living in a van is pretty extreme by Ohio standards, but until I adopt a street theater persona involves that costumes, a boombox stocked with idiosyncratic music, and a 20-foot unicycle covered with hologram stickers of cats, I’ll probably be just another dude here. Which is all I intend.


Just another dude, who happens to live in a van.

 
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