A January cold front out of the Gulf of Alaska brought damp frosty air and intermittent snow flurries into the city and our neighborhood. I wondered whether the rust bucket on wheels, aka the Volkswagen van parked in front of my house for the last several days, might be harboring someone who was in danger of freezing. Indeed, the van had become a talking point on our block, where neighbors, although friendly, otherwise keep to themselves.
“Do you have a child home from school?” Agnes, a widow and retired teacher from across the street, wanted to know.
“No, I don’t,” I replied. I didn’t need to ask why she wanted to know.
“Well, it’s that…that thing parked in front of your house. To whom do you suppose it belongs?”
“Not a clue,” I answered. “But I’ll look into it,” I promised.
It’s usually quiet on Fairview Lane and the lawns are garnished in season with borders of flowers, tastefully arranged. The hedges of red-tip photinia, laurel and boxwood are neatly trimmed and never encroach over daily swept sidewalks. The houses on our street are not elegant, but they are painted and roofed before there is evidence of need. Some houses even boast solar panels on roof tops, despite our usually gray and overcast Seattle skies.
The sixties era van had four bald tires and a treadless spare mounted on its front. Stickers with slogans protesting various shortcomings of society or the malfeasance of various municipal, state, and federal governments conveniently masked the van’s rusting metal. The out of state license plates were current. Curtains covered most of the windows, obscuring whatever life might reside within.
On our street we aren’t used to irregularities. Neighbors know and greet each other as they walk to the nearby bus stop or climb into their hybrid cars on their way to work. A few hardy souls don bicycle helmets and roll up cuffs as they pedal into the morning traffic. So when neighbor Agnes expressed her concern about the VW I was “hosting,” it fell to me to take action before other neighbors checked in. Besides, I was concerned about leaving my house for a planned trip to the sun of Hawaii while an uninvited guest posed a potential problem in front of it.
As I planned my course of action from my living room, the van’s age drew me back to an experience I had in my own youth. In college, my first love was a bright young woman from a well-to-do family. We had made plans and swore undying love, between exams and term papers. Before a particularly difficult chemistry final (we were both in pre-med), she decided to answer the lure of long distance and left me and college to follow the open-ended promise of the road “before she got bogged down in the life that was planned for her.” She was ‘California Dreamin,’ as she put it, and threw a backpack into an earlier version of this same VW van and climbed in next to a man I didn’t know, who wore a beard I couldn’t have grown, with a tie-dyed shirt, love beads, and sandals I would never have worn. She drove out of my life and never looked back.
Nostalgia or not, I had promised Agnes I would look into the van. I called around on both sides of the block. How embarrassing, I thought, to have a neighbor’s friend’s car towed? No college-aged kids or friends laid claim to the vehicle. Indeed, no one had seen a VW of that vintage since they were in college themselves. Some of my neighbors even speculated humorously that I was trying to relive my own youth.
When my daily paper went missing from the porch, the level of seriousness became heightened. I printed out a sign and placed it on the van’s windshield. “Is this an abandoned vehicle?” the sign asked, without greeting or signature. What was I expecting, I wondered? A polite, hand-written note to the effect that “No, I certainly wouldn’t abandon my only means of transportation and shelter in the coldest part of the year. I’m living here now. Drop by for tea sometime.”
After several calls to city departments, I learned there is no law against sleeping in a car in the city of Seattle up to seventy-two hours. And, further, that it would take at least fourteen days for a traffic official to determine whether the van was, in fact, abandoned. Those are ‘working days,’ no weekends, holidays, and not counting furlough days for city employees in the current economic recession. There would be another seventy-two hours before a warning was posted on the vehicle and a tow truck was called. And, finally, the tow company had fourteen days in which to remove the interloper from the street.
Even though there was no quick fix here, I decided to take the next step, even if it required my version of street theater to mobilize the creaky mechanisms of government. With the first call to the city, I identified myself and provided my address. With the subsequent calls, I disguised my voice, alternating a high-pitched voice with a deep basso. With each call I emphasized my fear of potential crime activity. I enjoy movies whose characters have accents. And I particularly like the Slavic accents. They seem to drop the articles and invert the word order: “Is van park-ed in street too long time,” I say in my best imitation of the Ukrainian who painted my house last year. Then I attempted the accents of the Mexicans, or were they Nicaraguans, who roofed my house several years ago.
“There ees a folks wag`on in frente of thee house. Ju want thee number of thee car and thee house?”
Clearly, these calls were not working to move the wheels of bureaucracy any faster than the old VW’s ascent up a steep Seattle hill.
The first time I saw a light inside the van, I was emboldened to attempt the direct approach. No threats, just an offer of gas money to move on; park in some other neighborhood. At least he’d know he wasn’t anonymous; that people were aware and watching.
“Is there somebody home in there?” I asked finally, one overcast, rainy morning, as I tapped on the driver’s side window with my class ring, the only ring I had left on any finger since my divorce some years ago. The accent was mine: Northwest US, where we say “warsh” for wash or ‘Warshington’. After my third knock on the window, a hand appeared, tentatively, to move an improvised curtain, followed by a head, wearing a wool Andean-style cap with ear flaps, over a clean-shaven, rather intelligent-looking face of a forty-ish man. Through the dirty windows, I made out cords and wires and parts of computers. He was not the picture of down-and-out I had imagined, which came with a beard, long hair, dirty and possibly smelly clothes. This was not a typical street bum with a vehicle, or, like my father used to call them, a “knight of the open road.”
The local and national media carried on non-stop about the plight of the unemployed and homeless in America. I always assumed addiction and mental health problems were the cause. There was TV coverage of the tent cities like the Hoovervilles during the Great Depression. But this was my first sighting of a homeless man living in his vehicle, in my neighborhood, right in front of my house.
“Are you all right in there,” I asked, at first feigning concern.
“Uh, yes, “he said. “Thanks for asking. Thanks for your concern.”
“Do you need anything?” I asked, more worried that he would pee on my prize rose beds. Or worse. I recalled hearing on a news segment that any one of us could be in similar straits after missing a few months’ paychecks. You can only live on credit cards for so long. The utilities get turned off; the rent payments pile up, as do the eviction notices. Not to mention the mortgage foreclosures. But what concerned me and my neighbors was that desperate people in those circumstances might resort to illegal activities. Certainly, ‘not in our backyard.’ We all do pay our taxes. After all, property values are at risk.
Isn’t there some agency that provides for these people? Where do they go to carry on their business, their human necessities; dump their trash, I wondered to myself?
“No. No thank you,” the man in the window replied politely in a soft voice. “I’m sorry for the inconvenience. Things have gotten difficult. I lost my job. My wife…she moved in with her parents, took the kids...”
He was embarrassed. Or at least, I thought he should be. I would be. But I’m not in his situation; and after my plans to offer him money for gas and maybe expenses to move on stuck in my throat, I didn’t know what to do. “I’m sorry,” I said, “Times are hard.”
I retreated to my porch. From there I could see my neighbor, Agnes, watching the goings-on across the street. We both observed him through our curtained windows, our eyes meeting briefly, as he pushed his own wrinkled and dirty curtain back across the window and opened the van’s door. He climbed out, closed the door, locked it, and walked hurriedly across the street and down the block without looking back. And that was the last I saw of him.
Some days later, I saw the notice on his windshield announcing that the impound date for the vehicle’s removal. There would, of course, be towing charges, as well as daily storage fees until the vehicle was claimed. At last, I thought, I could almost hear the corroded gears of our municipal bureaucracy engaging and starting to move. I got out of bed earlier than usual on the 18th of February, the day before the impound, and drew aside the curtains. The van was gone. I rushed out to the sidewalk to confirm that the old clunker hadn’t been moved farther down the block. Seeing nothing, I celebrated my righteous victory of order over chaos with a fist pump.
But, like a sneaker wave at the ocean, an unfamiliar emotion caught me off guard. What would the guy do now, I asked myself? Was this remorse I felt? Regret? Or was it, so help me, payback on my part for my own personal loss of a girlfriend to a similar vehicle so many decades ago? But the man in front of my house had nothing really to do with my love lost to a vagabond in another VW van so long ago. I shrugged away those bygone images and the pain they had caused, as I dismissed any thoughts about the owner of the current van and his loss of safe place to park. I walked back onto my porch, retrieved my morning paper, and moved toward the warmth of my orderly kitchen and the smell of freshly brewed coffee.