“We can live in the van. It has everything we need ― a bed, a stove, even a little fridge,” my boyfriend, John, suggested.
It was the height of the Great Recession in 2009. I’d just been let go from my conferencing sales job in West Los Angeles, and we could no longer afford to pay our bills and the rent on our studio apartment.
“It’ll be like camping!” he said.
This was not the life I’d imagined. Eight months earlier, I’d won Rookie of the Year in my sales office and had even made it to Gold Club, the annual trip to Cabo San Lucas for top sellers. I was looking forward to marrying John, buying a house and starting a family.
“Just until you find another job,” he assured me.
John, a small online business owner, had recently slashed his own pay to avoid laying off an employee. Now, we had to learn to share his skeletal salary, less than 100 square feet of mobile living space, and, not without incident, a 1-gallon pee bottle.
Today, with housing shortages, soaring rents and outlandish home prices, more Americans than ever are living in vehicles. In response, cities across the nation have passed ordinances prohibiting sleeping in cars. Supporters of these bans, like the one recently reinstated in LA, say they’re necessary to ensure “safety” in their city’s neighborhoods, but I bristle at the implication. Living in a van never made me dangerous. And, yet, I got kicked out of Starbucks once under that assumption.
With my mouth in full lather, I heard a jingle of keys before the heavy Starbucks bathroom door swung open.
“What are you doing in here?” The supervisor yelled more than asked.
“Brushing my teeth,” I answered clumsily, the way people talk with toothpaste in their mouth.
Despite my obvious innocence, she peered toward my open toiletries bag and the items splayed across the sink, as if she were expecting to find more than just dental floss and face lotion.
I spit as politely as possible, rinsed my mouth and explained, “I bought a steamed milk with vanilla and got a token for the bathroom.”
I wondered if maybe she thought I’d snuck in behind someone and had forgotten she herself had served me the latte an hour before.
“Well this isn’t your personal bathroom,” she scoffed. “There’ve been complaints.”
“Oh! I’m so sorry,” I said, both shocked and embarrassed by the offense I imagined I caused. She held the door ajar with her hip and shoulder, never taking her eyes off me as I quickly packed my things to leave.
A block down the street, I slid the van door closed behind me and shocked myself by bursting into tears. “I just got kicked out of Starbucks!” I cried to John.
“Wait. What happened?” he asked, sliding his long body off the platform bed to console me. We hugged in the kitchen, meaning, in front of the mini-fridge and tiny stove situated between the bed and the two captain’s chairs.
For my benefit as much as his, I replayed the events in an attempt to make sense of what had occurred. First, I bought a drink and got a token, just as I’d done multiple times that week. Since we didn’t have a bathroom in the van, we often hung out in coffee shops, mornings and evenings, to use the facilities. Then I checked my email to see if the recruiter I’d been working with had any good news; he didn’t. After the evening rush had cleared out, I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth and wash my face before bed.
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” John said, though we both knew that didn’t matter.
Despite the beverages I bought, the supervisor had come to recognize me not as a regular customer but as a vagrant. At best, vagrants are embodiments of otherness and are treated with mistrust. At worst, they’re criminalized.
Despite the beverages I bought, the supervisor had come to recognize me not as a regular customer but as a vagrant. At best, vagrants are embodiments of otherness and are treated with mistrust. At worst, they’re criminalized. Though most general anti-vagrancy laws have been deemed unconstitutional, they continue under the guise of city ordinances prohibiting loitering, camping, panhandling and, now, sleeping in vehicles.
“I’m going back in there to yell at her, and then tomorrow I’m calling corporate to report her!” I said, my hurt suddenly transformed into fury. “It’s not OK to kick people when they’re down.”
As I walked back to the coffee shop, I paused in the shadows to consider what I’d say. Clearly, this snooty supervisor lady was getting something wrong about me, but what? True, we lived in a van and were struggling financially, but inside I didn’t feel the way that she obviously saw us. Should I tell her I’d graduated from UCLA with honors, or that 18 months prior I made a $10,000 bonus check but put it all toward my student loans, thinking that paying down debt was more responsible than saving money? What detail might redeem me in her eyes?
Then I saw her. Still in her uniform, a purse slung over her shoulder, she was walking toward me. I closed the distance between us under the light of a streetlamp.
“I don’t understand why you threw me out,” I blurted out.
“Look,” she said, exasperated by the sight of me, “there’ve been a lot of homeless people around here using public bathrooms to shoot up. It’s a health hazard. I can’t have customers complaining...”
“But I’m not on drugs,” I interjected. “I just can’t afford to pay rent.”
Maybe because I was nervous, I began to overshare. I told her where I grew up, about losing my job, even where we showered (24 Hour Fitness or the YMCA). I must have struck her interest because she began to ask questions, with one in particular that really boggled her: “But how do you two not kill each other living in that small of a space!?” It seemed no answer I gave was good enough.
In turn, she began to tell me things about her own life. I learned she grew up there in San Clemente and had a younger brother who was “partying with pills,” and I wondered if that had something to do with the way she looked at my toiletries bag. She told me she’d recently broken up with her boyfriend and, unable to afford their apartment by herself, she rented a room nearby “just for now.” She wanted to go to nursing school “to get a recession-proof job” but couldn’t afford to work fewer hours. I understood that conundrum well. Before I knew it, 20 minutes had passed with us talking in the glow of the streetlamp.
Still, the next day, John and I went to the public library to use the bathroom and Wi-Fi. John worked on his online business, and I hustled some entry-level writing gigs, a profession I could pursue remotely. A couple of months later, we crossed the border into Mexico, where our dollars would go further, campgrounds were plentiful and there was less shame in being poor.
Neither of us could have predicted then that we’d end up spending five years living in that van, four of them traveling from Mexico to Patagonia, and the last two with our baby girl, whom we welcomed to the world in Lima, Peru.
Van life became a way for us to reckon with the loss of the American dream. Unable to afford the proverbial house with a two-car garage in either of our hometowns, we instead set our sights on location independence and work-life balance.
Throughout the years, I’ve wondered how that supervisor at Starbucks is faring. Did she ever make it to nursing school? Did her brother get off drugs? Where does she live today?
According to Zillow, the median price of homes currently listed in San Clemente, her hometown, is $1.1 million. The median rent price is $3,600. And, yet, Orange County as a whole has one of the largest homeless populations in the state, with nearly half unsheltered. In fact, as a temporary solution to curb the homeless encampments plaguing the city, the San Clemente City Council recently passed an ordinance designating one area for vagrants to camp. It’s nicknamed “The Pit.”
Erik Sund, the assistant city manager in San Clemente, said, “We had to create a designated camping site for the homeless in order for the Sheriff’s Department to enforce the anti-camping laws elsewhere in the community.”
I never did report what happened to Starbucks’ corporate office. I can’t say whether that supervisor realized it that night, but, statistically, we were more alike than different. About the same age, she and I grew up middle class in beach towns an hour apart from each other, and we both had higher aspirations but, in the meantime, were doing our best to get by. Yes, I lived in a van and she rented a room in an apartment, but that degree of separation could be measured by a single paycheck. Perhaps the only thing buffering her from my fate was my compassion, something I hoped she’d pay forward to the next person who came into Starbucks to brush her teeth.
With 78% of Americans reportedly living paycheck to paycheck, sometimes kindness is the only currency we have to float us to the next day.
Stevie Trujillo is working on a memoir about turning heroin, the American dream and other national scourges into spiritual gold. Spoiler: It’s a love story.