Monday, March 2, 2020

On Fear: Part 2

Today is the sequel to last week's writing prompt on fear.

It is unedited and I have to say that I feel with some more attention it could be a bit cleaner.  There's a mixed metaphor in there about applying brakes while sliding backwards on a ladder and I'm almost positive that's not how ladders work.

In any case, I think it makes its point decently, and I'm disinclined to revisit the topic any time soon.


The first time I felt anger about living in a van, it was when someone complimented me on it.

I was at a friend’s house in a pleasant, suburban neighborhood. It was autumn and the leaves were turning. It would have been something you could call beautiful, if you lived in a house with heating and insulation. For me, it was foreboding, because it signaled the upcoming Pennsylvanian winter. Every fallen leaf, and gust of wind, and bright orange jack-o-lantern meant one less second until the world would ice over into an unforgiving, blistering cold. The nights would grow longer, and during those nights, I would sit up shivering in a silent eternity of solitary stillness, waiting for the sun to arrive again.

The person who complimented my van was my friend’s neighbor. She was a middle-aged woman who wore too much makeup and a lot of costume jewelry. When she discovered that the rust-red 1979 Chevy Vandura on the curb was mine, she squealed with delight and asked to see it. I obliged; opening the back doors revealed my entire home to her, less than a hundred square feet containing a futon to sleep on and a few meager possessions.

“It’s so Bohemian!” she said.

My experience living in a van was that other people generally felt positively about it. Or at least, they convinced themselves that they did. The difference between being homeless and being an intrepid adventurer who chooses to live in a van is that there’s no safety net if you’re homeless. But when you look down and realize that there’s no net, you get vertigo. And so you learn not to examine your predicament too closely. You learn to romanticize it.

The raw fear of being trapped, of moving along the chute to the slaughterhouse floor because of your inability to do anything else, is what it feels like in the moments before you become homeless. The desperation to solve an unsolvable equation builds; eventually, you are forced to give up. And when I gave up, I took control the only way I could: by reframing the circumstances by thinking of myself as an thrill-seeker, instead of a desperate person rolling backwards on the socioeconomic ladder without any brakes.

It was rare for me to examine my predicament too closely, but when my friend’s neighbor complimented me, I felt a rare surge of irritation at her lack of empathy. This was not “Bohemian.” It was a goddamn tragedy. Sure, I never called it that myself, but couldn’t she see how wrong this was?

I had no electricity, running water, or heat. I did, however, have two jobs. Whenever people found out I was living in my van, I tended to throw out this qualifier as quickly as possible. People make assumptions about how you ended up in your van.

There’s an emotional dishonesty that occurs when people try to justify the unjustifiable. It’s understandable, of course. There’s a reassurance in the lies people tell themselves. Lies such as, “It could never happen to me, because…” Ultimately, everyone wants to believe in a fair world, one where tragedies such as homelessness only befall those who have earned it, or at least, failed to prevent it.

The stark reality is that it can happen to anyone. Some people may have more or fewer crises between themselves and abject poverty, but sometimes, circumstances collide and the result is something inconceivably terrible. I am not the only person in the world who has been facing homelessness while gainfully employed.

But to guard myself, I never admitted to the fear I felt. I made jokes. I showed off my van. I was an intrepid adventurer, not a homeless person. So long as I didn’t look down, I could lie to myself and pretend there was a net. And that was what my friend’s neighbor was doing, too, when she exclaimed how “Bohemian” my lifestyle was.

Even as someone who experienced homelessness firsthand, I find myself distancing myself from the emotions I felt, because of how unpleasant they were. The metallic, tangy taste of anxiety whenever the wind blew and I sensed the upcoming winter. The heart-pounding terror of late night noises, when some atavistic, fight-or-flight part of my brain activated, and I sat on the back bumper of my van with a crowbar, the hair on the back of my neck up, my eyes straining into a prehistoric darkness for any threat that might lurk.

Lacking safe or adequate shelter is something few people have to experience physically. However, in order to address the dehumanizing reality of the situation, it is necessary to experience it empathically. When we distance ourselves from it, when we lie to ourselves about it by downplaying, justifying, or romanticizing it, then it becomes a less pressing issue, on par with a kitchen remodel. Something that ought to be done, eventually, but that lacks the human component and can be put off indefinitely. To deal with homelessness, we first need to allow ourselves to feel the full force of the fear, discomfort, and injustice of it. Only then will it get the attention it deserves.

If you want to know how you can help the homeless, click here for proactive ways to get involved.  If you live in Los Angeles, check out the hashtags #ABridgeHome and #EveryoneIn for more information.

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