Livin’ in a van, down by the river.

True story. I actually did that once. At the time, it felt like a very odd life. Now it seems like it’s calling me.

Just after high school, I was dating Paul, the man who would become my husband for 27 years. He was living with his family a couple of miles from where I was living with my sister’s family in Kingwood, TX, just north of Houston. His family was from Detroit, and they had come down during the automobile crash/oil boom years in the late 70s. Detroit had dried up. Houston was booming. They were a family that lived hand-to-mouth most of the time. My sister was getting a divorce, so things were falling apart at home for me. She was selling the house and looking for work and an apartment for her and her daughter. I spent a month recovering from a horrible case of the chicken pox and spent a good deal of it at Paul’s family’s house, because they had all had chicken pox. My sister’s husband hadn’t had it and was scared of getting it because it might “render him sterile”. (Insert eye roll here….he was never really much of a dad and honestly didn’t really like women.) So rather than spend all my time sequestered in a room, I went to Paul’s house.

I began to stay over there more and more, even after I got well. It was not a perfect environment in a lot of ways, but it wasn’t so tense or with so much pressure on me.

After my sister found a place to live, she said I could go with her, but she would rather I broke up with Paul, someone she didn’t care for overly much. I was a stupid kid. I chose love rather than a steady roof over my head. Part of that choice goes back to the big dreams I had, about which I posted last Friday. My sister is very practical, and I love her for that. But I’m different. I have a creative soul and a free spirit. This is probably why my life has often made me depressed and anxious. I didn’t go with my heart for a great chunk of my existence.

Anyway, I stayed with Paul, and hard times fell on his family again.

Soon, everything they had went into a storage shed, and the roof over our heads was that of a Dodge van. His parents, their four kids (all still in school), me, and two dogs. Yep. It was nothin’ but a party. As much as his mother was (and I guess, still is) a pain in the ass with a bad temper, she didn’t kick me out. She probably should have, but she didn’t. Maybe it was his dad who let me stay. He was a pretty good guy. I’d never experienced homelessness before. My dad had earned a very good living in Houston, and he somehow managed to still keep us going on his social security checks in Fitzgerald, GA. Yet here I was, getting ready to spend my first night homeless.

There was something exciting about it, to tell the truth. I didn’t have the maturity to think of all the things that could possibly go wrong. Flat tires. Engine trouble. Break-ins. All I really saw was a bit of adventure. Reality set in that first night, though. The van had a convertible area in the back for a bed. Paul’s two brothers took that. His parents slept in the front bucket seats. Paul and his sister and I somehow managed to sleep in the middle. His dad always fell asleep quickly, and boy, did he snore! The only time I can remember him yelling at me is when I tapped him on the shoulder and asked him to change position because he was snoring so loudly I couldn’t sleep. He said, in so many colorful words, that he didn’t care if I couldn’t sleep and not to bother him again or I’d be sleeping on the ground outside!

And everyone, of course, took off their shoes for sleep. It was chilly outside, so the windows were kept closed. I have never known people with smellier feet. Oh God! It was brutal. So much for adventure!

Soon after moving into the van, we began parking in the lot where his family had a storage shed. They thought it might be safer, given that it was inside a locked fence. One of Paul’s brothers was in shop class at school and was helping to repair a friend’s Mustang. The Mustang was also parked in that lot. He eventually gave us the keys, so Paul and I slept in the Mustang. (0.5 stars. Do not recommend.) I’ll never forget how cold it got at night, sleeping in that ‘Stang. I’ll never forget having to pee in the middle of the night and having to just sit on the cold edge of the doorjamb to go right there on the cement. I had no other options. Still, it was better than being crammed in the smelly van with his whole family. This lasted about two weeks, until the Mustang was fixed and the owner of the storage place found us out. That’s when we moved down to the river.

The San Jacinto river snakes between Humble, TX (where we all went to school), and Kingwood. It flows beneath several bridges. Paul’s dad drove us all down there one evening, and we parked for the night. It was nice and quiet. The traffic was light overhead, and we could hear the frogs and soft voices from other folks camping nearby. There were often campfires in oil barrels, just like you see in the movies. We weren’t the only ones who had fallen on hard times. There is so much I don’t remember now, but I do remember that time stretched on with little hope in sight of getting out of that van. The offer was still open for me to live with my sister, but I didn’t want to leave Paul.

After a few months, we learned that my brother was going to sell his 1970 Ford LTD. We borrowed a little money from my mother and bought it from him. He drove it out to Houston from Sacramento, CA, where he was stationed, and handed us the keys. Now we had a home of our own. We drove out to Katy, TX (west of Houston), where my sister had found a townhouse for her and her daughter. I wanted to at least be closer to her. Paul and I both found jobs at a Burger King there, and we started parking our car out behind the store. By then, summer was coming on. That meant leaving the windows open a bit, lest we suffocate in the heat, and that meant we had to deal with mosquitoes.

Paul noticed that smoke seemed to drive them away, so we’d smoke cigarettes before falling asleep and again if we woke up. We picked up some incense and would light a stick of it before we drifted off to sleep. That helped, but nothing could save us from the bugs entirely. At one point, I stopped counting the bites after I reached 100. We often worked double-shifts in the store, which kept us busy and in the air conditioning. I took to wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt when I had a clean one so that customers didn’t stare at all the bug bites on my arms. We got a meal for every shift we worked–not a healthy meal, but sustenance–and that was a real blessing. The manager was understanding and would let us use the sink in the back to wash our hair. We would scrub everything spotless afterwards. we would use the store restrooms to wash up the rest of our bodies. Occasionally, the assistant manager would let us come to her house for a shower, which was so appreciated.

It was a difficult time, but it was an adventure that I’ve never forgotten. It had its fun moments, but it has also had far-reaching effects on my life. Since that time, I feel like I’ve been running to stay ahead of homelessness. I started working in corporate America in 1986. No more fast food or retail jobs for me. I was always a smart girl, so I learned everything I could learn on the job and by reading everything I could get my hands on. I worked my butt off. I traveled for business, which I both loved (for the adventure) and hated (for being away from my kids). The more time went on, the harder I worked. In 2001, I published my first book on Cisco computer networking (which I did from 1990 until 2004) and completed three chapters of a shared authorship on Juniper network routing the following year. Then I went back to college and finished my BA in Communications in 2007. In 2013, I finished my MS in Technical Communications Management. I helped write a textbook as part of that program, and continued to work hard. To say I worked 18 hours a day during all of that is not an exaggeration. I became an insomniac, because my brain was always ON.

I’ve had to slow down a little since then, though. There have been more hard times, but I’ve managed to stay employed except for a month between jobs in 2016. I’ve now been divorced twice. I’ve had to use money out of my retirement account a couple of times, meaning that I could only live for about 2 years on what’s left. I’ve had cancer (still have it until they finally clear me later this year–I hope!). It has all made me look at what I want out of life a little more closely.

My best friend and her wife took me on an RV trip in the summer of 2019 to Chincoteague, VA, to watch the pony swim. They have a large fifth wheel that they tow behind a big silver pickup truck they call “Stella”. That was an amazing week! They’re part of an RV/camping group that meets up at different places around the country, and this was one of those trips. Everyone was cool and relaxed. There were campfires and shared meals. At night, we’d retire to the RV and we’d chat and then relax with our reading lamps until we were tired enough to fall asleep. I was usually up first in the morning, so I made the coffee. I can’t remember a more relaxing trip in my life! Not only was I with friends, but I was able to let everything go. I did a lot of walking and a lot of thinking; more importantly, I did a lot of smiling and laughing. I didn’t even care that I didn’t have a computer with me. I would text or play games on my phone in the evening, or I would listen to an audiobook. I slept like a rock.

After that trip, I started looking at RVs. The trouble is, I can’t really afford an extra payment on anything at this point, but I’m still looking. I’ve been thinking that the only way I’ll get to retire is if I pick up a nice RV and live in that. It’s definitely cheaper than living in a house. If I throw off all the trappings of my current life (not now, but in the not too distant future), I will be able to write my own books of fiction and poetry. I’ll be able to think about living, not just about making a living. And even more than that, I’d be free. I’m not sure my son likes the idea for me, but as I told him this morning after we finished watching Nomadland, having had cancer flipped a switch in me. Suddenly I am craving life again. I want to see those places on my bucket list. I want to do those things on my bucket list. I’m getting more than a little tired of running. I don’t want to be one of those people (like so many I’ve known) who never gets to retire. One guy I worked for at SAIC died the day before he was set to retire. I’ve always thought that was the saddest thing I’d ever heard. It’s not uncommon, though. Paul’s dad never got to retire, not that he could’ve afforded it. He was on another business trip when he started having chest pains. He had just cooked Thanksgiving dinner for us all the day before. By Saturday, he was dead of a heart attack at 46. He had just met our 3-month old son.

We’re all slaves to our 40-hour-a-week jobs and live in fear of layoffs or firing or stock market crashes that cause our companies to fail. Funnily enough, last night I dreamed about an old boss (who was a real prick). I was in the parking lot, sitting in a lawn chair. Paul was sitting beside me in a lawn chair. I was accessing the test bed in the old company’s network to test a program I was working on. I was found out, of course. But I had a nice conversation with the old boss just before he cut off my access. He had been getting ready to drive away in his shiny, black, expensive car. Just before he did, I noticed a big ding in the hood of it. Very telling, I think.

What does all this mean? It means I am starting to plan to live before I die. I don’t know yet how long it will take me to get to retirement, but certainly by the time I’m 65, I’ll be making the move. I have always joked that I’ll be working through lunch on the day of my funeral. I no longer think that’s funny. And I no longer want that to be my reality, unless you consider that I will write until I die.

Peace, J

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