I’m startled awake. My eyelids burst open to a disorienting scene of lights flashing through the flag that I’ve got set up for privacy between my cab and rear compartment. My van is being rocked and there’s a banging on my driver’s side door. Is it the cops? How could they know I’m in here? If I lay low, they’ll go away, right? No, those aren’t cop lights. Is it a tow truck? I never planned for this scenario. I lay still and wait. Then I hear the volume of the large diesel engine outside intensify and the lights and the sound recede into the distance. I’m dead-tired, and the threat is gone, so I drift back to sleep.
The next morning, I slide out from under my blankets, climb into the front of the van, and begin piecing together the events of the night before. There’s no ticket on my windshield, my drivers side mirror has been pushed tight up against my door, and there are empty garbage cans lining the curbs where I’m parked. It must have just been a trash collector trying to squeeze his way down the narrow street.
It’s illegal to live the way that I do, punishable by up to 30 days in jail, a $100 fine, or both. This can lead to some tense situations, but I usually don’t think too much about it. I mind my own business, and follow a code that makes sure everyone else does too. I’m a stealth van dweller, and my presence goes largely unnoticed. Still, sometimes without a patch of ground to call my own, I feel exposed and vulnerable.
While learning to hide in plain sight has kept me out of trouble, it’s also had an unintended consequence: I’ve became an accidental voyeur; the proverbial fly on the wall. Like a hunter in a blind, I lay on my bed, silently observing brief and sometimes private moments in the lives of the strangers passing by, like a man plunging a needle into his arm, a kid picking his nose, a girl checking her reflection in a window, a frustrated conversation, office gossip, or a lingering kiss.
From my van I see the things people don’t intend to share with others, and just when I start to think my life is strange compared to theirs, I see all of those vulnerable moments and realize that maybe we’re not so different after all.
—Jeff Kish’s weekly column is written on a laptop aboard the customized Ford Econoline in which he lives. You can catch up on Kish’s past stories: The Rubber Tramp Diary, Entry One, and his back story about shuttling through-hikers.