'Tiny Living' Is Only Romantic If You Get To Choose It. I Didn't.

I grew up in a "tiny house" and it wasn't a dream come true.
peeterv via Getty Images

I just read another essay on living in a tiny house, and like every other essay on the subject, the author makes it seem like a wonderful adventure where less is more and a tiny house gives people the freedom to live wherever they want and go wherever they want.

Tiny living is only romantic when you get to choose it, and I didn’t have that choice. I’ve lived in tiny houses and don’t ever want to again.

The first tiny house I lived in was a small trailer in a trailer park with my father, mother and two brothers. Then, as a college student I lived in a six-foot-by-eight-foot aluminum garden shed in someone’s backyard in San Francisco. In both cases, where I lived and how I lived was determined by necessity and not a romantic notion that the world would be better off if I was not squandering its resources.

My family lived in the small trailer from the time I was 6 years old until I was 10. My father tried to convince us that we were part of the elite in the trailer park because our trailer was 22 feet long and seven feet wide. And since “small” trailers were those with a length of 20 feet or less, we lived in a superior sized trailer.

There was a small bedroom for my parents. My brothers slept in bunk beds in the middle of the trailer, and I slept in a rollout bed over the kitchen/dining room/living room. Of course, I was always the last one to go to bed because when my bed was pulled out there wasn’t any room for anyone to sit in our kitchen/dining room/living room.

There was no bathroom. Instead, there was a large bathhouse conveniently placed at the end of the lane for our use and for the use of everyone else whose trailer did not contain a bathroom.

It was like camping in a national park, and walking down the road to the bathroom is what you do when you are camping. Except we weren’t camping. Walking down the road to use the bathroom was just a normal everyday living arrangement and not worth commenting on or complaining about. It was just the way it was.

The author's childhood home.
The author's childhood home.
Robert Simola

So what was it like to live in a small trailer? It wasn’t romantic or weird or an unusual hardship. It just was. It was the normal and ordinary way to live. After all, everyone I knew also lived in the trailer park. And while there were many trailers larger than ours, there were also trailers that were smaller. And while I knew that people lived in real houses, we were not poor like others I read about who didn’t have anywhere to live. I also lived in a house ― mine was just smaller and had wheels and would occasionally be moved from place to place.

One week I would be in Yosemite feeding the deer and the next thing I knew I was in Albuquerque at another new Catholic school, and before I could really get acquainted with New Mexico, we moved on to Southern California.

We were not homeless, and we did not have to sleep in our car or on the street. And when we moved, the trailer was hitched to the back of the car and we took our home with us.

Although they never were ubiquitous, it seemed like there was a trailer park wherever we happened to go. Today the trailer park has often been replaced by mobile home parks, and the tiny homes I was familiar with have been replaced by Mac-mansions on wheels.

My wife’s parents lived in a mobile home park and would get incensed if their park was referred to as a trailer park. It wasn’t like a trailer park I had ever known before. The mobile homes in their park were supposed to have wheels but none of them did and none of them could be moved from their permanent spots without a great deal of expense and the use of professional movers. In addition, the “mobile homes” in their park were not 154 square feet in size like the one like I lived in, but more like 1,540 square feet or more. And more importantly, none of the people living in these parks with their pristine, landscaped yards were ever referred to as “trailer trash.”

“'Trailer trash' were people like me and my family who lived in trailers, who lived in tiny houses because that’s all we could afford.”

“Trailer trash” were people like me and my family who lived in trailers, who lived in tiny houses because that’s all we could afford. “Trailer trash” were often people who were just one step away from living on the streets and who struggled every day to make ends meet and survive. “Trailer trash” was the label me and my family and friends were given because of our tiny houses, even as we did our best to live our lives with dignity, hope and love. Trailer trash was an epithet that came from the outside world, and even as a boy I knew I wasn’t trailer trash.

How could I be trash when my father drove a Cadillac? How could I be trash when I lived in a house and had new clothes every Christmas and every birthday?

How could I be trash when I didn’t really live in the trailer. I only slept there. I lived and explored the world outside the trailer, a world with marbles and pirates and train tracks that, in my mind, would take me to Xanadu and Timbuktu. I similarly lived in the jungles of Africa and climbed the tallest mountains in the world and discovered and explored ancient and lost civilizations.

And when we ended up in Pasadena, next door to the trailer park was Bessie Park and the Bessie Park Boy’s Club with a big library where I could check out as many books as I wanted whenever I wanted. And the Bessie Park Boy’s Club had a wood shop where I would build furniture worth a king’s ransom and create carvings better than anything ever made by Rodin or Michelangelo.

It was my childhood, but living in a tiny house wasn’t a dream come true. For my family it was a hard-scrabble living to be put up with until times were better.

But for those who want to live in a tiny house, go ahead. But don’t spend $30,000 or $40,000 or $50,000 to have one built. If you want to live in a tiny house, there are still trailer parks around where you can find a tiny house much cheaper. If people want to save the earth, they shouldn’t waste the earth’s resources building a new tiny house. Repurpose an old trailer. There are still 22-foot trailers around that might be just perfect for them to live in.

Or the tiny house lovers could go all the way and live in an aluminum garden shed. I know where there is a yellow and green one, at least I know where there used to be one in San Francisco. It featured none of the comforts tiny-house lovers are looking for, but it was just perfect for a poor graduate student majoring in writing poetry. Along one wall was a twin bed which only took up three feet of living space, and since I am less than six feet tall, there was plenty of space for me to stretch out.

On the other side of this tiny house was a sink. True, the sink was not hooked up and could not be used, but at least the house contained a sink. A life-sized statue of the Virgin Mary stood at the entrance blessing this cast-off collection of broken and damaged statuary. Was it romantic? No. But the rent was right and living there did allow me to go to graduate school.

So tiny house hunters should not spend tens of thousands of dollars building tiny houses. They can find an aluminum garden shed the same size I lived in for about $300. The struggle is the reality of actually living tiny.

As for me, instead of a tiny house, I now have a great big house on five acres of land with a giant library more than three times the size of both the tiny houses I used to live in. What’s romantic for me is having my own library and dozens of fruit trees growing in my yard with ripe fruit most of the year and enough space to stretch out, walk around and have an indoor bathroom... or three.

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