June 14th, 2013 | by PETE COTTELL Features | Posted In: Vanifest Destiny

Remodeling My House/Van

Time to rip out the seats, buy some hangers and make this place livable.

vanifest-destiny-logoILLUSTRATION: Hawk Krall

I never considered myself to be a messy person. Sure, I had a propensity to put things in “organized piles” and shove them aside to be dealt with later, but having an entire bedroom to enable a delusion of tidiness made it work for years. It wasn’t until the bulk of my clothing, office supplies, and the French press I stupidly anticipated needing my adventure in vandwelling were lying in a heap on a sidewalk outside my van/house that I realized such an approach was officially obsolete. If I had any hope of making my tiny house on wheels become more of a home and less of a headache, I knew it was time to get down to business and go full-on Joy Mangano on my new abode.

In my vandwelling bible, author/guru Bob Wells informs would-be rubber tramps that while there is no wrong way to prepare for your newfound life of minimalism, throwing everything in a giant heap on day one is a “very miserable way to live.” Due to time constraints, I ended up doing just that, and the result was an episode that left me suspecting a (possibly) drunk old man called the cops. Never again. A trip to Home Depot was in order. 

Step one of the “Getting Ready to Move In” section of the bible seemed simple, obvious, and essential: rip out the seats. The ratty old captain chairs in the middle of the passenger area had been the bane of my existence since I bought the van a week back, and I knew that this piece of low-hanging fruit had to be attended to before I even thought of making any other organizational progress. In addition to creaking like a rusty bear trap every time the pillowy air suspension of my home hit a speed bump (of which there are plenty in the Buckman neighborhood), I was convinced they were also the responsible for the melted Velveeta smell that only became apparent after the fumes of burnt oil stopped clouding up my living room every time I started the engine. So I bought myself a ratchet set and decided to get to work. 

On the way back to a shaded spot in a sparsely populated section of the Mall 205 parking lot, I noticed a Jeep Cherokee parked conspicuously close in an adjacent spot. As I got closer I heard the clamor of drums that kick off “Rock ‘N Roll” by Led Zeppelin, at which point it became apparent that there was someone was in the Jeep. With blacked out windows, an array of antennae in all sorts of lengths, a Realtree bumper sticker, and a pop-up camper in tow, I began to reconsider my plan of doing extensive work to my new home in broad daylight in the back of a Home Depot parking lot. This was probably a Clackistani, and he might not like the idea of some city boy turning his van into a home in the parking lot of his local shopping center. 

I’ve found it best to completely ignore such situations, and went on my way like what I was about to do was nothing out of the ordinary. After fumbling around with the passenger-side chair for a good ten minutes, I realized I was getting nowhere. I got on all fours, shimmied under the van, and realized that this was clearly a job for a professional. The window of the Jeep rolled down slowly and revealed what looked like a cross between Rip Torn and the lead singer of Smash Mouth, but twenty years younger and way more sunburnt. 

“Yer gunna need the exhaust manifold out the way from down thur before ya even think about cuttin’ them bolts outta there mang,” the guy in the Jeep informed me. “Ya need some clamps er sumfin, too.” I looked down at the ratchet set I just wasted $19.99 on, then at the seats, and thought that spending $49 a night on a room in the sketchy Motel 6 on Powell is always available as a sensible alternative to this insanity. 

“Takin’ that thing campin’?” he asked. 

“Yeah... camping.” I replied. 

The tinted window went back up and I stared off into the distance at Mt. Tabor for what seemed like an hour. 

I spent the first 19 years of my life in Akron, a rustbelt city located about 40 miles south of Cleveland. Once the “Rubber Capital” of the nation, my hometown has spent the better part of the past four decades figuring out how to avoid the fate of similarly downtrodden post-industrial wastelands like Youngstown and Detroit. My dad grew up in Goodyear Heights, a working class section of a proud blue collar town that was once on the up and up. He spent two stints in Vietnam as a ranger and worked third shift at the Firestone factory to finance a degree from The University of Akron. Before he left behind the life of a factory worker for a slightly more lucrative career in the realm of life insurance, I have no doubts that he, or any of my other friends’ dads, would’ve been able to rip this goddamn car seat out of this shitty old conversion van in a matter of minutes. I, on the other hand, grew up playing video games and majored in talking. With the exception of beating on an espresso machine with a hammer until it starts working again, non of the job skills I have that would’ve been marketable in a town like Akron before outsourcing and brain drain reared their ugly heads are non-existent. Doesn’t a pile of student loan debt count? 

Determined to rid the van of these seats, I headed back to the Space Age station in Gresham to find the only person I knew with any mechanical skills whatsoever: Robert, the mechanic that fixed the oil leak a week back. The engine stalled as I parked in a spot as far from the plasma clinic as possible, which I quickly assured my newfound mechanic friend was not the issue at hand. After some poking around under the chassis, Robert came to the conclusion that the job would be “a real motherfucker” but would be possible with several cans of bolt grease and the right kind of clamp. After thirty minutes of tinkering, the seats were finally disconnected. I dumped the loathsome chairs at a Pick-n-Pull a few miles south and marveled at the massive spatial upgrade. 

Upon realizing how far I was from the part of town where people would care about someone using a power drill in the van in broad daylight, it only made sense to finish the job in the parking lot of Walmart. To my amazement, Portland’s Walmart is almost identical to every other Walmart I’ve ever had the privilege to surrender my business to. The parking lot has more trees and Subarus, but everything else is roughly the same. After wandering around in a stupor for ten minutes, the screams of a young girl in a Kool Aid-stained Dora the Explorer swimsuit became too much for me to handle. I grabbed a box of rubberized screw-in hooks, a dorm-sized rug, a rod to hang my clothes and a ham sandwich.

As expected, no one gave me any guff as I drilled holes the windows open and Andrew WK blasting from the van’s stereo. The sun was shining, the van finally had what resembled a living room, and the poorly organized piles of all my possessions were finally sorted into something useful. For the first time in months, all of the shirts I owned were ready to be put on hangers! 

Ah yes, hangers. By the time I realized I had neglected to buy those, the sun had gone down and the scene in the Walmart parking lot was getting weird. An altercation involving a guy on a motorcycle and a young lady with three children at her side was brewing in front of the store, so I headed back to the mall. After miscalculating how many hangers I needed, I found myself back in the Target across the lot from Home Depot for a fourth time, at the same check out.

 

“Boy, you must have a huge closet!” the girl at the counter said as she rung up the last pack of cheap wire hangers in the store. With thick black glasses, a red cardigan sweater, and black hair that was loosely pulled back in what may have been a pony tail a few hours ago, she kinda looked like a half-Japanese version of Janeane Garofalo. She definitely looked like she was in to Weezer. 

As I hung up the last of many plaid shirts that’ve been with me since the emo era, I looked at my “closet” and felt a weird sense of accomplishment. “I live here now” I told myself over and over. I spent 20 minutes on the stairclimber at the 24 Hour Fitness in the back of the mall, took a shower, and headed back to the van for the night. I hung my gym bag on a hook above the back seat that folds out into my bed, and realized how closely it resembled a futon. The whole setup looked a lot like a dorm for a tiny person, and I laughed when I remembered that I dodged getting stuck in a dorm room with a random weirdo freshman year by living in a dilapidated off-campus party house instead. Bathroom or no bathroom, I built this (mostly) on my own, which is more than I can say about the Motel 6 on Powell. 

Pete's house/van, all fixed up.

 

 
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