Not the same
By Brianna Madia
It’s December in Salt Lake City. In the snow’s absence lays a thick smog, melting everything over in gray.
I pull my big orange van in to a Starbucks parking lot and shut the engine off next to a smaller maroon-colored mini-van with rimless tires. Starbucks is, unequivocally, everyone’s favorite place to poop. Everyone who lives in a van, that is.
Upon entry, I ordered my small black coffee and dipped into the restroom per my occasional mini morning routine. As I made my way back through the parking lot, I noticed an older gentleman—bearded and clad in a long gray overcoat—hunched over checking out my 35 inch tires. From the front seat, my two dogs barked like crazy. As I got closer, he turned with a huge smile and said, “this your van?”
At the risk of sounding egomaniacal—I’m used to this. Our van "Bertha" is a 1990 Ford E350 with a huge lift, massive tires, 4WD conversion, and a homemade shower on top. Add the fact that she is painted bright orange and you’ve got yourself a surefire recipe for a conversation starter.
“Sure is!” I replied, “sorry about the dogs, they’re friendly I promise!”
I rolled the driver’s side window down so that they could pop their heads out and cover this new stranger with kisses, which he seemed elated by. A bit sheepishly, he asked, “you got a bed in there?” We walked around to the sliding door for the grand tour. He peered in at our bed, our little propane heater, the faux wood floors, the hand-stitched curtains, Keith’s backpack filled with climbing gear.
I shuffled my feet from side to side in the cold as he turned to me with a smile and said, “I haven’t been able to find a good heating source but sometimes I’m able to stay over at my sister’s place.” With that, he turned and slid the door of the maroon minivan open to reveal a small mattress and sleeping bag. His windows were covered with newspapers.
I developed a cold sweat under my jacket. For the sake of honesty, I was frozen in place. I was mortified. Here I was, face-to-face with the very narrative I was a part of but was never comfortable addressing.
After all, how does one find the right words to adequately describe the difference between chosen houselessness and actual homelessness? What could I ever say to do justice to the gravity of that difference?
Us folks who’ve jumped on the #vanlife bandwagon live truly charmed lives. Sure, it’s gritty and dirty and smelly at times…but it’s charmed nonetheless. We spend months documenting expensive build-outs and gabbing about how excited we are to just be free of all the creature comforts of a “regular” life. And around the corner from the driveways where we sew curtains and hang lights and insulate our new little rolling apartments, people are forced from their homes by poverty or addiction or joblessness or mental illness or a litany of other individual circumstances. They retreat to their vehicles out of desperation. No one wants to share photos of their lives. They don’t have a hashtag.
I guess at this point, you may be hoping this story has a happy ending. Perhaps you thought I’d mapped out some type of solution. I’m sorry to disappoint you. The most I can come up with is recognition. As with any instance of inequality or privilege or societal disconnect, the initial step is recognition. I stood side-by-side in a parking lot with someone who in some ways was just like me…and in so many ways, was nothing like me; because he may never have had the chance to be.
To acknowledge this fact is not to disparage people from making the choice to live a life of minimalism or a life in a van or a mobile home or a little one-room shack somewhere in the woods. No. To acknowledge this is simply to take notice of the word…choice.
And so, as someone who is often praised for living in a vehicle, who has been interviewed and videotaped and photographed about living in a vehicle, I come to this table with the most minimal of offerings, and that is this:
I understand that it is not the same.
Header photo by Nick Hubbard
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