It was a sunny afternoon in Buckman, and I was trying take a nap before work. I climbed into my van through the back door, assembled my bed, popped open the back windows, and settled in for a siesta.
“Hey Kathy!” said a voice nearby. “The ivy on your trellis looks great!”
Just a neighbor saying hi, I thought. No need for alarm. I generally slept with the windows shut, but I got clammy just thinking about sleeping in 90-degree heat without any airflow. They chattered about plants for a moment before reaching a pregnant pause.
“Yeah, that van,” I heard the other voice say. I imagined my neighbor gesturing towards my home—one of several dingy old vans parked within three blocks of here—with a sour, scornful look. “It hangs out here for a few days, then moves to a different spot a couple blocks away. I think someone might be living in it!”
I shot upright and cracked my head on the flashlight I mounted to the ceiling for late-night reading. I took care to not rock the van too much as I put on a shirt and crawled into the driver’s seat. It was time to bid Buckman adieu.
With the windows down and 92.3 KGON, the classic rock station my radio is stuck on turned all the way up, I spent an hour driving around east Portland in a daze. I was free to live anywhere I pleased, yet felt completely lost.
When searching for a new place to call home, it’s easy to get lazy and drop anchor in a bad spot. Beyond no-brainers like legality and proximity, a month of vandwelling has conditioned me to seek out a handful of amenities that are unique to living in a mobile apartment that provides a place to sleep and little else.
Here’s what I look for...
Shade: The sun rises early in the Portland summer. I moved here to sleep ‘til 11, which is impossible when the sun cooks you like an Easter ham by 8 am every morning. Luckily, 9 months of rainfall lead to excellent foliage. A street lined with gigantic trees on both sides is ideal, but a spot under a smaller tree on the east side of a street the cuts north/south will suffice.
Slope: Portland proper is flanked by massive inclines, which can make the search for a flat place to call it a night difficult. Even the slightest incline will have you waking up in the middle of the night with a throbbing headache from all the blood in your body collecting in your brain. Fortunately, denizens of the cheaper neighborhoods with fewer hills are less likely to think twice about the old Dodge Ram around the corner that’s been stationary for three days. With the exception of the Pearl District, “Shit rolls downhill” seems to be an appropriate saying in the Rose City.
Sketch Factor: This can be tough to feel out in rapidly gentrifying sections of town. Hipsters are generally excited about living in neighborhoods where getting knifed on the way home from the vegan waffle truck is still possible. Getting a handle on how safe the up-and-coming commercial strip with the trendy brunch place and the bike pub actually is can be tough before the sun goes down, at which point the only place still open is a liquor store with metal bars on the windows. Take a walk around the block before turning in for the night and see what goes on after dark. Is there a 300-pound dude in an old Shawn Kemp jersey creeping down the street on a hot-pink girls bike? Has an unattended Rottweiler been chained to a telephone pole and barking maniacally for several hours since you first rolled up? Is there broken glass on the curb? Is there a plasma clinic nearby? If so, keep on truckin’.
Nosy neighbors: Converse to the wisdom above, it’s also wise to avoid upscale parts of town that are inhabited by bored old rich people that drive Mercedes convertibles and use the word “sensible.” Parking a windowless van on their hilly tree-lined streets will elicit a call from the Neighborhood Watch, which will inevitably add a picture of your home to a DIY sex-offender registry compiled by a klatch of old ladies that spend Sundays making quiche, walking their cats, and shopping at Chico’s. Spotting kindred vans is often a positive indicator of a neighborhood’s collective tolerance of crusty vehicles camped out for the long haul. Look for an Astrovan with carpet on the windows.
Quietness: Van walls are thinner than house walls. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been awakened by “neighbors” with weird morning rituals like letting the goats out to graze or loudly sorting their recyclables curbside while I’m clandestinely snoozing four feet away.
“Living Room” potential: As thrifty as vandwelling is, a month in the life has taught me that giving up the amenities common to an apartment—a kitchen, a bathroom, and electricity—has been a significant tradeoff. Finding a comfy place with cheap food and drink, plentiful power outlets, and a lockable bathroom has become a daily quest. Luckily, Portland’s coffee house scene is vast and overflowing with ad hoc living rooms. Throw a rock in any direction and you’re bound to hit a local joint that employs tattooed twenty-somethings with eternal hangovers and a penchant for 80’s thrash metal and ironic pop music. Show up three days in a row and they may turn down the Slayer and invite you to a dodgeball game.
And so it saddened me to leave behind the sylvan avenues and friendly living rooms of Buckman. A few weeks in a familiar place had given me the warm feeling of “home”—but it also creeped out the neighbors. So I put my vandwelling instincts to use and set off to find a new place to park my life.
As I crossed the Burnside Bridge, I decided it was time to see the rest of the city. I committed myself to taking a little tour of Portland’s five quadrants. It would be four more nights before I had such a nice nap.