Winter was coming on fast. For me, it didn’t mean snow angels and hot cider after icicles have formed in my nostrils. It didn’t mean Christmas or family or snug nights with a book by the fire. No the first frosty night made me afraid in ways I never felt growing up. I remember the first night the temperature fell below freezing – the breath of life becomes a steamy fog, and ice grows on the corpses of fall and anything else without warm blood pumping through it. Like cars.
My car was a 1994 Buick Lesebre. Not your pride and joy car, but the heater worked and there was a lot of leg room. In the reclined passenger seat I lay and watched my breath float away from me and attach to the windows to form intricate, symmetrical patterns of ice, my own breath betraying me – still, I loved to watch. Every blanket, coat and article of clothing I had was piled on top of me so that really only my nose could testify to how cold it was. Every few hours I started the engine and ran the heater ‘til the icicles in my nose melted and I could breathe again, but mostly I just stayed still, almost completely motionless except for my ankles and thighs rubbing together in a mindless dance that sometimes gave the illusion of warmth. And this is how I slept, if at all, in hour-long intervals, dancing and defrosting ’til the sun came up and scared the ghosts of breath away.
When the sun came, I would emerge just a little more from my laundry so that I could hold a pen, and then I would write. Not words. Music. Then, I wanted to be a composer. To glorify God, or myself, or both – I don’t remember. It was the dream that made living in my car seem insignificant at the time. Every day I wrote music, scribbled notes onto yellow manuscript paper and imagined a concert hall full of dressed up people, all waiting to hear my music. I could even tell you the appearance of these people; each one of them was more familiar to me than anyone of real matter. Dreams are funny things.
I never called myself homeless, still don’t – because homelessness implies so much more than simply being without a home. The homeless are penniless, famililess, hopeless. And I had parents, completely oblivious of my situation, who sent me money every week, most of which filled up my twelve gallon tank, and the rest bought me enough food to keep me above one hundred pounds. When I spoke to them on the phone, I kept my teeth from chattering and told them cheerfully that I was home watching sitcoms and drinking tea. I couldn’t tell them the truth because I wasn’t supposed to need them anymore. I was stubborn to a fault, but it kept me from feeling sorry for myself – and so I am glad to be stubborn.
During the day I went for walks, sat in coffee shops, book shops – you know, the kinds of places that don’t kick you out for not buying anything. Sometimes I even went shopping; I’d buy a dress or blouse with my weekly allowance because buying a dress made me feel normal; it was my disguise, and without it, I felt like a caged thing at the circus, huddled in the corner while people cringed. But circus freaks don’t wear floral dresses. And they definitely don’t have clean hair. Dirty hair was a dead give away. So I stood outside the college dormitories until eventually someone would come out and hold the door for me, and I would stand in the shower until my fingers pruned and the water went cold. I washed my hair three or four times, convinced it would last longer, and I can still smell the suds that smelled like strawberry chap-stick and feel the smooth tile beneath my feet.
Still, I was only an image of normal. I couldn’t invite anybody over, ask them to come inside my life, my car. So often days would pass in which I did not speak more than two words to anyone. The silence was exhilarating and frightening because the less I said, the more noise there was in my head. Had I tried to make a friend, I think I would have scared it away with nonsensical stammering, spewing scattered bits of the chaos inside my mind, probably with a stutter and nervous slur of simple words because I was so unaccustomed to conversation. In fact, it happened this way a few times, and all I remember is my tongue sticking to the top of my mouth and suddenly being very conscious of how chapped my lips were. I always ended up the same way, ducking in my car to avoid further confrontation and trying to refocus on my composition to relieve the humiliation. My power to forget healed many injuries. I am both grateful for and afraid of this ability.
For instance, until recently, I forgot the night I was questioned by the police. I had parked in a carpooling lot outside of town. It was surrounded by prairie and highway, and I had slept there many times before with no trouble from the police. From this spot, I could see the stars as clearly as if I were floating above the atmosphere with them. The day I was asked to leave broke my heart. A fat man who looked entirely too pleased to discover something amiss knocked on my window and asked me to step outside. I struggled to release myself from the tangle of blankets, but I was otherwise too stunned to think. I stood barefoot in the parking lot and mechanically produced my license, social security number and some ridiculous reason why I would be sleeping in my car. I said I didn’t know it was illegal, and he said he didn’t care. This bully of a man kept me standing in the blowing winter for forty-five minutes while he looked up my record and asked me questions. I lied about everything except my identification. But no matter how I lied, I could not fully recover. My dress didn’t do me any good that day. The flashlight in my face showed me for what I really was, and I had to look away, to forget.
It’s curious, the things we remember. Sometimes insignificant details plague our memory for life while what we perceive as life-defining moments slip through the gaps in our brain and get washed away with time. Like the day the police asked me to leave. I can’t remember what was said or how many policemen were there or what they looked like, but I can remember a prairie dog who braved the winter, that was infinitely bigger than he, to sit in the shelter of my front, right tire and wait with me. He knew something was wrong, something was changing. We had a history together, a sympathetic relationship that kept me company. It began the day I showed up in the parking lot and disrupted the daily pattern of noises and commotion by playing my trumpet. The sound erupted into the hollow night. It soared over the highway and into the prairie dogs’ homes and eventually came back to me, a clear, warm, brassy echo that penetrated my very core. It was after the first song that I saw the prairie dogs; nearly one hundred tiny, cautious bodies crept closer and closer to find the source of the sound. By the end of the second tune, I had a devoted audience. They shifted nervously, like all rodents do, but all and all I think they liked it, maybe even understood it. Now, one of them, not even a foot high, stood by me with a timid fidelity that I have never experienced with any human being. I drove away with a heavy heart, and I often wonder if they remember me, if the same ones are still living, if they can hear the tunes I played in their tiny, anxious brains.
I don’t visit them anymore; I guess it’s because leaving was too painful; one more song would just seem to prolong saying goodbye, and I am not very good with goodbyes. But in the course of a day, I see many animals: deer, rabbits, horses, squirrels, birds, sometimes prairie dogs, and I always stop my day for just a few minutes to talk or stare or sit with them. There are a few I see regularly and some I’ve even played my trumpet for. No room has ever matched the acoustics of playing outside, into rolling hills and starry space, and no audience has ever been more devout or sincerely interested in my music than the animals. I prefer playing for them to any number of dressed up people in a concert hall. Ultimately, my real passion exists in the sound, not the fame, the unprecedented, heavenly communication between myself, God, the animals and the earth.
It was my nights with the prairie dogs that began a thought in my mind that hasn’t rested a moment since, a battle against my humanity – against reason, responsibility, government, society, my own intellect. The barrier between myself and every other living creature became impossible to ignore. Every element of my life employed reason somehow. Despite my demoted rank in society, I was a product of its lifestyle – everything from combing my hair to buying new clothes to dreaming of concert halls. I reflected its values and succumb to its expectations every day. And worse, my awareness did not hinder my participation. But there were times quitting was palpable. Most often, these times were at the park. I was usually the only one there – I suppose that’s because it’s not the golf course kind of park where poison has got rid of bugs and weeds and any brown grasses are plucked like gray hairs. But my park was wild and overgrown. There were red-winged black birds swaying on tall wheat grasses and cattails by a marshy, unlittered shore, and ducks nestled in the shelter of the Cottonwood trees. I preferred this place to all others, even in the months of winter. It was here that my thoughts made roots, which are now so widespread that it seems I’ve never really left. I can never forget my footprints in the snow because my perception had changed so much that I was no longer walking on top of the earth – I was supported, carried, nurtured, the way the soil nurtured the trees, or at least I flattered myself to think this. I felt more likeness to the restless, migrating birds than to my own kin, and lying in the natural burrows between the Cottonwood’s great, arching roots, I felt I could truly inhabit the earth, that it would protect me the way it protects so many gracious creatures. But I never had the courage to stay past dark. Right there – there is the difference.
Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if I had stayed, if I had grazed on the earth and defied the life that expected me to return. Would the muddy shore have crept towards me and eventually swallowed me whole? Would I have been plucked like a flower and taken back into the roaring world of reason and responsibility where I would wilt and shrivel into a fragile shell of faded color? Would I have even survived? I think my expectations for quality of life limit my ability to adapt. A squirrel, say, does not expect to sleep in a home with the thermostat set above sixty degrees. It does not expect to be full all the time, nor does it have the same expectations for comfort and safety. I do. People do. We approach life with expectations, and so we can never understand a squirrel.
I knew a particular squirrel who I named Walter after my grandfather because he looked old and his tail looked like a winter branch. I know by now it must seem that I had a thing for rodents, but really they just seemed to gravitate towards me. Plus, I kept peanuts in my car. One morning I woke up to find Walter sitting on the hood of my car, watching me sleep, or perhaps trying to wake me with his scratchy chirping. His black eyes focused in on me, piercingly steadfast and unusually brave for a squirrel. I took a handful of peanuts and held it out to him. I didn’t coo at him or click my tongue the way some people talk to animals. I didn’t say anything, but I kept eye contact. He waddled (yes, waddled) towards me and helped himself, one by one, to the peanuts in my hand. He was there morning after morning, and I even had the thought that if someone offered me an apartment I would have said, “No, thank you. Walter needs me.”
Like with the prairie dogs, Walter and I lost touch. I can’t testify to the longevity of a squirrel’s life or the acuteness of its memory, but in my heart I believe he is somewhere beautiful and green – and I’m there too, my spirit, with a can of Planters peanuts.
All right I do have a thing for rodents. Strange as it sounds, they filled the role of friendship that was otherwise completely vacant. I didn’t need conversation, someone to drink with or ask me to be a bride’s maid; in fact, I quite preferred communication without the hassle of talking back and forth. At times, infinitely more was said between their beady eyes and mine than could ever be spoken. I’m still not good at conversation, but to get along well with others, one must learn to perform it moderately well because silence tends to invoke such labels as “misanthrope”. Not that I am one who cares to avoid such presumptions. And they would not be entirely incorrect.
I can’t color myself too defiant, though, because I was afraid of judgment – enough to fix my hair and wear fancy dresses to disguise my situation. I’m not sure exactly when I came to be of the mind that the world didn’t deserve that consideration. I mean, I wasn’t fooling myself; all the fuss about appearances was just a consideration for those around me, so they wouldn’t have to feel uncomfortable sitting next to a girl with a pit-stained, white t-shirt and ratted jeans that fell just below protruding hip bones that seemed to jut out into the world and force my secret on passers by. So, sometime in the first or second month after Christmas, I stopped dressing up. I wasn’t a Christian, but something about the Christmas spirit illuminated how phony my masquerade was. I was a participant in the very thing I condemned, and like any ethical human being who has discovered hypocrisy in their self, I made earnest actions to level with myself and get rid of the contradictions in my life. I stopped dressing up, and immediately, people’s looks were riddled with questions. I smiled and answered none of them with a curious spite. I felt like the circus freak, and I didn’t care.
Materialism and the constant, mindless consumption of things is a lot easier to see from a car with all your things in it. I won’t deny ever having been a part of it, because I was – and to some degree, still am. It’s so easy to validate new shoes for work, a new car for better mileage or a new house for a well deserved upgrade. But in the whirl of consuming, it is difficult to see the increasing dissatisfaction with things. I became aware of how frivolous I had been prior to living in my car; there are, in my memory, a few occasions when I actually threw change into the trash. Now I would not slight a penny in my path. In retrospect, the wealthy are those who see the value in what they have, not the ones who are constantly chasing after greater acquisition. Not that I didn’t wish I had more – I did, but I was never unsatisfied in any important way. I had life’s essentials and so much more – the privilege of an education, a dream, family, music, the prairie dogs and squirrels. Really, I was very fortunate, wealthy – if you will. One man served to remind me of this.
He was no man that I ever spoke to, yet I knew him, and I think he knew me. He slept beneath an oak tree at my park. Only God knows what circumstances landed him there; my best guess wouldn’t even come close. My own were complicated enough that I knew no person ended up under a tree for the same reason. He was forty, maybe fifty – it’s hard to tell the age of his skin beneath a beard he’d let grow all winter long. This man was homeless, not I. But he was a different kind of homeless – not a beggar or a dumpster diver. Truthfully, I never saw him leave this spot; he lay in a natural cradle in the bosom of earth. I say cradle because the ground held him, hugged him, maybe even rocked him when no one was looking. No matter what the temperature was outside, he looked to be at peace – the look of a man asleep with the thermostat set at seventy. Sometimes, I thought he was dead, and I would wander down towards the bank where he lay and watch his chest for the gentle rise and fall of a sleeping breath. He was never dead. I don’t know how his tiny, meatless body survived the insufferable cold. There were times ice blew horizontally, but it was never enough to make a ghost out of this man. I never spoke to him because he looked to be as disinclined to conversation as I. Plus, I wasn’t entirely sure he wasn’t a ghost, and I liked not knowing. Anyways, while his eyelashes froze together and bugs nestled into the folds of his skin, I sat in my car in a cocoon of blankets, the heater toasting my face and making my eyes water, and I was grateful.
But in the same day, I could feel envy and resentment looking at a home with three or more empty bedrooms a block away from this man and myself in a world where millions are in need of a home. I was a part of the middle class once and probably will be again, but never the kind with so much to spare. Taking up space has increasing value in the middle class, but homes and offices are built on top of space, shrinking it until all of it is boxed and owned. But given the chance to have a box of my own, I don’t think I’d snub it for another winter in my car – or, God forbid, beneath a tree.
Now, I think I am somewhere in between – sometimes part of the boxed up world of man, sometimes part of the untamed park. I guess I’m still looking for the balance, if one exists between the two, and I’m prepared to change at the first discovery of truth; it’s the only thing in my power to change.
I don’t own the Buick Lesebre anymore. I traded it for a white Chevy Malibu, and within a week, it was bought by an old woman who drove it carefully to the grocery store and the hospital to visit her husband. She kept it very clean, but it was hard to let it go. One might think I could spit and say good riddance to such a car, but I couldn’t. It contained memories in the raw, physical sense – and sometimes, for what it contains, things can matter.
I’ve never slept in the Malibu; although, it contains elements of sentiment and memory that I’m sure will make it difficult to part with when the time comes. It’s funny that often things are our only evidence of memory, of experience – and even as the memories are stored in the chambers of our brains, we infinitely prefer something tangible, something we can trust to our hands, or to a drawer, or the very walls of our homes or cars.
Living in my car, I didn’t miss the things one might think I would. Like with memory, I missed strange details that had once seemed meaningless – the lamp I read by at night, the thumping sound the heater made just before it came on, the smell of laundry detergent on my clothes, but more than anything, I missed the implications of these things – predictability, security, familiarity. But if life were lived with those things always intact, there would be no change, no growth, no discovery.
I am not the same, and I will never be able to resume life as it was before living in my car; in good conscience, I couldn’t – no matter the perks of ignorance. My feelings for that time are not bitter. In fact, I think of it with an unnatural fondness. Time does that. This unyielding, unflinching movement through space brings the hard times as surely as it brings relief. I trust it now, the cycle, the infinite passage forward into inconsistent winds with the comfort of knowing everything will pass.