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Living in a Van in America

After traveling around the world, there’s not much welcome in a parking lot in Ohio.

A flight around the world had changed more than just the culture and climate; it had fundamentally changed the nature of existence. In Asia, I was by some standards wealthy, but by returning to my own country I was left, in the words of one of the ‘peace officers’ that seemed to continually be threatening me, ‘destitute.’

I looked around my new home with something like pride. ‘Old Bessie,’ as my mother used to call it, was a decrepit, badly rusted white minivan that in the best of times had looked like a marshmallow and had driven like a boat. It was clear, however, that the best of times were gone for the poor old creature, and I found myself praying constantly that it wouldn’t burst into flames or fall to pieces as I drove it down the road to Columbus.

Amazingly, after a three and a half hour journey that would take a more road-worthy vehicle little more than half that time, I found myself coasting into a city that I at once loathed and knew that I couldn’t escape. The looming skyscrapers of steel and glass were clothed in an ominous cloud cover, barely visible in the steady rain. My windshield wipers had lost most of their blades earlier in the journey, and I struggled to see the road from behind the cracked, dirty windshield.

Eventually, I arrived on the massive campus of the Ohio State University. I drove around for a while before discovering a parking lot in a collection of stores near campus, and backed in beside a dumpster. I hesitantly turned the key off, and pulled the vice-grips that functioned as my door handle back to open the creaky door. As I stood outside, I observed my situation and smiled.

“No one will even care, man,” I told myself. “I can stay here as long as I want…”

I went to the side door (or the ‘front door’ of my house) and took out a bicycle. I locked the doors and began to ride around, deciding to survey the area. It seemed perfect until I came across a sign at the entrance of the lot reading:

Absolutely No Parking For Non-Customers. Any Vehicles Left On This Lot Will Be Towed At Owner’s Expense.

“Shit…” I mumbled, failing to realize how often this would become a problem.

I re-loaded the bike and returned to the driver’s seat, praying that the van would start. Miraculously, when I turned the key it did, at which I breathed a heavy sigh of relief. I cautiously pulled out of the lot and continued down the road away from the University.

After several minutes, I spotted a Giant Eagle grocery store and pulled into their parking lot. It looked like an excellent contender, and I pulled into the back of the lot to park. Finally, I felt reasonably comfortable with my legal parking status, and I turned the key off and climbed into the backseat.

My bed was the greatest luxury of sleeping in the van, a soft, cushioned space with enough room to stretch completely out horizontally once I mounted a wooden plank between the flattened backseat and the rear doors. Looking back on the many places I’d slept on the road, seedy hotels and park benches, the sides of busy highways and high mountain passes, I felt that my new home was one of the more comfortable.

I spent the rest of the day riding around on the bike and scouting the area, preparing for my first class the next day. I slept reasonably well that night in the back of the parking lot, and awoke in the cold morning well rested.

Before I went to class, I stopped into the University gym for a quick workout and shower. During the day, I occasionally returned to the van to make sure that it hadn’t been towed, which had become a nearly constant worry. After another night, I decided that I would eventually have to move, or risk being towed.

Therefore, the next day I decided to pay to get a University parking pass, which I assumed would allow me to stay on campus indefinitely. I rode my bike several miles across the massive campus to the parking permit registration office, only to realize that I needed my license plate number before I could get it. It took another hour to ride back to my parked car on the bike, write down the number, and return to the office.

When I arrived, there was a long line snaking around the corner for about twenty meters. Frustrated, I began to walk around looking for a water fountain, when I made an amazing discovery. Sitting majestically on a table between two vending machines, I spotted a courtesy microwave, the answer to all of my cooking problems. I rubbed my hands together in happiness and thought of all the warm black beans smothered in melted cheese that I would enjoy, and returned to the somber line with a broad grin.

Eventually, I was called forth by one of the workers, a fat white girl with bland features and thick glasses who eyed me indifferently.

“How can I help you?” she groaned.

“Hi,” I said, “I need a parking pass.”

“Right, your BuckID, please,” she demanded, holding out her hand.

I produced my student ID and handed it over. Without a word she swiped it and handed it back to me.

“You’re a junior,” she stated, as if I didn’t know. “Here are your options…” she continued as she pointed down at a map of the campus covered in a maze of colored spaces.

“You can get this lot for $40 or this lot and those lots for $120.”

“Right… I can park overnight, right?”

“After four o’clock you can move to this lot from this lot, or you can pay $120 for this lot.”

“Aha…” I said, scratching my head in confusion. “Which one’s cheaper?”

She looked at me for a moment like I was an idiot.

“This one’s $40, that one’s $120,” she said in a terse voice, pointing at the map.

“Right…” I said, as I paid $40. “And I can park overnight right here, right?”

“After four o’clock, yes,” she said, looking past me at the next customer. I filled out a form and she dug under her desk for a moment before producing a green parking permit with the letters “WC” printed on it in bold letters. I smiled when I took it, believing all of my troubles to be solved.

I rode the bike back to the van one last time, loaded it in, and drove to my new home at the back of the most remote parking lot on campus. It was surrounded by a bit of woods, which I realized that I could use to go to the bathroom at night. In short, every basic need was now settled, and I felt confident that I would be able to enjoy a comfortable life in my new home.

As I was riding the bike around to scout the area, I realized that the lot where I was staying was covered in retched, No Overnight Parking signs. Eventually, the sun was setting, and I decided to look for the lot where I had been told I could park legally for the night.

After a brief search, I settled on a thin lot adjacent to the Olentangy River, and joked with myself that I really was living in ‘A van down by the river.’ I chained my bike to the front bumper and climbed into the backseat, quickly falling asleep.

I was awoken abruptly from deep slumber by a thunderous knocking on the window, inches from my head.


“Huh!? Uhh…! Huh…?! Huh?!” I grunted in reply, a shock of terror passing from my testes up to my chest, choking my breathing and leaving me gasping for air. It took me a moment to compose myself.

“I’m here!” I finally bellowed, swinging the side door open and facing a damp, cold breeze.

The officer seemed surprised as he looked me over from head to toe, standing hunched over in the doorway in long underwear and a fleece sweater.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

I had a morbid fear of the American police, and felt no reason to trust him. I tried to put on an air of respectability, and spoke politely.

“I was sleeping, sir.”

“Don’t you have somewhere else to go? Why are you sleeping in a van?”

“I don’t have any money, sir…”

He seemed to look at me with some pity, and I pointed to the parking pass hanging from the rearview mirror.

“It’s alright for me to park here, right? The girl told me to park in this lot…”

“You’re a student at OSU?”


“Well, I have no idea if you can stay here, campus police could come around and slap you with a hundred dollar fine… There are a lot of robberies around here, you know. Well, anyway, you should probably find somewhere else to go…”

He walked away without another word and I shut the door and collapsed back onto the bed. I peered through the windows and saw that I was the only car left in the lot. I sat for awhile wondering what my next move should be, then stepped outside of the van in a pair of flip-flops. The cold air quickly cut through the haziness in my mind, and I realized that I would have to leave.

I unchained the bicycle as the squad car pulled out of the lot and loaded it quickly back into the van, happy that I had gotten to sleep early. I then climbed into the driver’s seat, started the van with a quick prayer, and pulled out of the lot. I headed toward the center of the city, to a different Giant Eagle in one of the nicer parts of town.

The streets were silent in the early weekday morning. The only other cars out were the omnipresent police, waiting like stalking serpents on street corners throughout the city, and especially near campus. When I arrived at the Giant Eagle, a security guard shot me a quick glance before returning to a conversation on his cell phone. I parked in a remote corner of the lot and moved to the back of the van to lie down again, but couldn’t go back to sleep. A creeping doubt worked its way over my mind in those early hours, and I wondered how I would survive life in America.

M.J. Lloyd

James Tramplefoot has been, and will continue to be on the road indefinitely, for years and probably decades.