Living Out Of Your Car Is A Dying ArtCommentary • Opinion • poor • housing • ISSUE 39•34 • Sep 3, 2003 By Howard "Howie" Dassle Howard "Howie" Dassle In the past 20 years, I've lived in nine different homes and 14 different cities. No, I'm not some fancy millionaire who jets around from place to place. I don't even own a suit for funerals. Rather, I'm one of a dying breed. I live out of my car, and I do it with pride. Hell, there used to be legions of vehicle-dwellers like me, criss-crossing the country with no one telling us what to do, spending our nights parked next to a row of Dumpsters behind the Kmart. I still encounter people living in their Buicks, but how many of them take the time to do it with dignity anymore? Used to be, even the young upstarts knew better than to just pull over to the curb and pass out in the driver's seat. If you do that, some cop is bound to see you and feel obligated to check your vital signs. There's a subtle science to picking a good lot to camp out in. People today don't seem to understand that. You have to consider local parking and street-cleaning ordinances, changes in seasonal temperatures, and which direction to face so the sun doesn't come beaming in on you at 6 a.m. But the real truth is that there is no formula. It's an art. When you've been living in your El Dorado for as long as I have, you can just sense which spot is the right one. Yeah, it was different 10 years ago. Back then, vehicle-dwellers had finesse. Sure, fights would break out over a bag of hotdog buns, but we never shot or stabbed one another. We fought with our fists, and when the fists stopped flying, we watched each other's backs. Common decency—we let each other know what time a local grocery store threw out its expired milk. Now, all I see is loners who can't be bothered to share a tip about a gas station with a wheelchair-bound attendant, a busted security camera, and a pallet of motor oil waiting to be harvested. They don't give a care who you are or why you're on the road. They're a mean bunch, these new ones. I've been in some of the cars they "live" in. I couldn't believe what I saw. One guy put his cigarette butts in the same coffee can he peed in. Have you ever smelled a cigarette that was put out in pee? That'll rank up your upholstery faster than anything. And what happens if you bring a Waffle House waitress back to that smell? She ain't staying the night, that's for sure. I met a guy last week who didn't even have any napkins in his glove box. You can't live out of your car if you don't have the proper tools. Your glove box should contain all your vital small objects—napkins, Q-tips, disinfectant, plastic shopping bags, pens, a flashlight, your bottle, a jackknife, keys to your ex-girlfriend's son's apartment in Paducah, a few bottle openers, and your court papers. Once you've assembled the things you need, you have to take care of them. You can't leave your bolt-cutter in the trunk where it'll get rusty. It goes on the back seat, wrapped in a garbage bag. The lack of napkins was the least of this guy's problems, though. His car was filled with garbage, and not just on the floor of the passenger's side, where it belongs. When I told him that he needed to clean, he kicked the junk out the door, right onto the ground. When I'm at a rest stop, I have enough class to toss my trash under a bush, where no one has to see it. Yeah, the old breed is dying. The new guys don't know how to look at an object and see the potential within. They don't even know how to use their clothes. Your duds deserve better than to be balled up and jammed in a plastic bag in the trunk. They're your mattress, your pillows, your blankets, your emergency coffee filters, and your towels. You gotta spread them around and have them ready for when you need them. Try telling that to these kids, and they'll just laugh at you. Time was, we travelers took pride in our rides. Most people hang a sexy air freshener on the rear-view mirror and call that decorating. Man, this is your home. What's wrong with making a little effort to give the place some character? For instance, my radio busted, so I got a battery-operated one and taped it to my dash. Then, I took this picture of my kids—they're with their mom now, but I still get across town to see them a couple times a year—and hung it from the lighter knob with a rubber band. What happened to paying attention to detail? You can't forget about curtains, either. Who wants someone peering in while you're trying to take a piss or get off? It doesn't take but an old flag, a couple T-shirts, and some tape. A lot of these new guys don't care who's looking at them when they're taking care of business. That's just not right. It's guys like them who give guys like me a black eye. Worst of all, these new guys are full of tall tales, always talking about how they're gonna move into an apartment any day. Used to be, everyone knew enough to keep things real. We kept our chins up and our hopes down. We'd drive from truck-stop to rest-stop chasing a meal or some hitchhiker. But at the end of the day, when we turned off the ignition and cracked the window just enough for air—but not so much that a hand could fit through—we knew who we were. Guess I'd better move over to the right lane, because it looks like my kind is driving into the sunset.