Part 3: MY HANDS ARE BROKEN BUT IN A GOOD WAY

When all else fails, do like Bey

Making lemonade like a mofo. Photo by Stacy Antoville. 

Making lemonade like a mofo. Photo by Stacy Antoville. 

Already Friday. 

My head played mental ping pong. My brother’s suggestion to call the Attorney General, call the owner, call Vinny, read up on the NYS lemon laws — all these Good Ideas hovered righteously above me. I wanted to do these things, I needed to do these things, but I was so fucking tired. I’d blown through a week’s worth of physical and mental reserves in one gigantic impulsive fireball. I had nothing left for implementing Good Ideas. Not while I also had to move out and move in in just a few weeks. 

That night, I crashed hard. But something kind of incredible happened while I slept. Some magical voodoo took over my brain and smoothed back all its ruffled quills. In the morning, I woke up completely transformed—serene, full of purpose, and incredibly #grateful. Okay, I thought:

I can do this.

First, the flashers. I swapped out the covers so all the white ones faced front and the red ones faced back. I didn’t know if this made it more street legal, but it made it slightly less “ambulance.” Time: two hours. I spent the rest of the day running errands (and writing the first draft of this blog post). 

Afterward, for the first time in weeks, my mind felt clear enough to even catch up on some reading. Perhaps one of the Paris Reviews falling off my nightstand.

As fate would have it, the first story I cracked opened was “A Natural Man” by Adam O’Fallon Price:

Alex steered the juddering van to the shoulder, and, with his dog Munson howling along in the seat beside him, he cursed ­everything: himself, the van, the criminal used-car salesman back in North Carolina who’d sold it to him, the forlorn stretch of road they were currently breaking down on, the distant memory of a service station forty miles back….
…if he knew anything about cars, he wouldn’t have bought this one.
Still, he should have known there was something wrong with the van, a mint-green Ford Econoline—

Wait. What. A Ford Econoline? A lone driver with a dog? A cross-country road trip? Was this a crystal ball preview of my future literally writ?

Okay, that’s fucking weird. But probably nothing to take to heart, right? Because first of all, my van had definitely cost more than six hundred bucks. And men, you know how they are, driving cars they shouldn’t, right? The dog, though, is revealed to be an Australian Shepherd later in the story. Which… really isn’t that far off from a Catahoula. So weird. But ultimately meaningless I’m sure. 

I’d just have to disregard this anecdote/ominous warning/shitty story* (*just kidding, not shitty story) Mr. Price was telling, because of course there was no way it would have any bearing on my journey. It was just a story! And anyway, let’s face it, there was only one way to go: forward.

The next day, my hands ached like hell, but the physical pain was actually a welcome tradeoff for the mental anguish of the past week. It signaled work done versus time wasted worrying. 

Next, the decals, the tape, and the annoying cover-up paint Venemy had slapped on. I guess the fact that he used painter’s tape was a nice gesture, but, unfortunately, it was as good at taking off the body paint as the duct tape he’d used in other spots. 

For the decals, I’d borrowed a heat gun like Vinny had suggested, saying they’d come right off. But “right off” turned out to be ten hours of tedious work, even with friends helping out (thanks Kate and Stacey!). Plus the time in between to cool my scorched fingertips, remember to eat, and walk the dog. 

Part of the reason it took so long was that each letter set required a separate learning curve to figure out its Optimal Peeling Point™— liquid enough to peel, but not so hot that it bonded with the body paint and took some off with it or burned and crumbled. For example, the letters in “SeniorCare” didn’t behave the same way as “Emergency Medical Services” or the numbers in the phone number. So it took a few wrong turns before I learned how to get the decals off properly.

Wish I had taken more videos of the process, but I couldn’t exactly record with one hand while working with the other. I guess Arlo will need to pick up some new skills. 

But look at her now:

IMG_4994.JPG

A downpour over the weekend rinsed off the van rather nicely, which of course, this being Brooklyn, someone immediately ruined. 

Thanks jerk. Whose tag is this?

Thanks jerk. Whose tag is this?

Also removed some awkwardly placed shelving. 

Tada!

Tada!

And found a friend connection, Pablo, who helped me understand the nest of wires in the console—mostly emergency related and useless under normal driving conditions (and sorry, I never tried the sirens or lights before I unplugged it all!).

Pablo was working on his own RV, so he had a lot of good info I hadn’t considered, like buying yacht/boating supplies since they’re also meant for small spaces and run on very little energy. Portable toilets for example. 

Little by little, things were coming together. The storm had passed, I was gaining momentum, my brain had unleashed a really weird/cool superpower I didn’t know it could do. 

I just mainly now had to build a bed and winnow my belongings down to the mere essentials among the sixteen years worth of accumulated junk along with stupid sentimental stuff that I’d kept through every prior move. 

That means saying goodbye to a lot of cherished books, records, letters (maybe not letters), plants, kitchen gadgets, worn out shoes, my favorite bike. How do you decide what’s worth keeping? Do sentimental things depreciate or become more valuable over the years? Or do you just keep finding new sentimental things to replace the old ones? How do these tiny house people do it?? 

To be continued…

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2: I Walked Into the Abyss and Came Out Alive

I just wanted to live differently

From my first NYC visit in Y2K. Back when people were still shooting Polaroids. Or at least I was

From my first NYC visit in Y2K. Back when people were still shooting Polaroids. Or at least I was

In 2001, I moved to NYC with $1100 in my pocket. I’d sold my ’87 Honda Accord—the last car I owned—and had a freshly paid off credit card. I arrived with no job prospect, no apartment, just a friend of a friend’s phone number. But I trusted that things would work out.

In some ways they did, but not without the constant Sisyphean struggle between working enough to live on and having enough time for my creative pursuits. I guess it’s what a lot of artists face, except here, that struggle seems magnified not only by the sheer expense of living here, but also how close success seems—many of my friends have “made it” in their respective careers. But with the way things kept panning out for me, I didn’t know if I ever would. In my life, famine seemed to follow feast with clockwork regularity.

Side note: Not to get too New Age-y on you, but my North Node may be at fault. Supposedly the stars say that I’ll forever be pushed out on my own unless I follow my own creative path. I guess Oprah had this same problem too. We share the same North Node apparently.

So last year I started thinking about leaving the city. A few recent trips to the West Coast had gotten me dreaming about all that fresh air, skyscrapers of the tree kind, vast coastal meadows for my dog to gallop across, and maybe even, a lower cost of living. I planned to wait until fall of this year so I’d have time to pay off some bills, tuck some savings away, and just wrap my head around it—sixteen years was the longest I’d lived anywhere. Brooklyn was home.

Except, of course, my job had other ideas. They let me go in spring, only a few weeks ago, forcing a decision way sooner than I was prepared for.

Existential in-between job crisis commencing countdown...

My conflicting desires collided. Get back on the hamster wheel and try to squirrel away enough money, or get the F off. Stick with the familiar, or make a really radical shift. I knew that changing things up would require drastically reducing my spending and downsizing like hell. (While still earning an income.) So how could I cut my biggest expense— rent? I’d been casually looking into vanliving. Was it for me?

I needed a sign.

There were three.

1. My almost-name-twin Héloïse Chong posted this on her Instagram.

Cheesy, sure. But I know you feel me on this.

Cheesy, sure. But I know you feel me on this.

2. I walked into a café and stumbled upon a magazine interview with Nicole Eisenman. Something to the effect that when you look at a painting, you’re not only looking at what the artist chooses to include, but also what they* [*gender neutral singular] chooses to leave out.

What was I choosing to leave out in my life? Where were my choices taking me? I wanted to be true to my spirit and live an #authenticlife, but such an extreme shift scared me. Plus the New Yorker had just written a piece on #vanlife, and those people sounded really annoying. I also didn’t want people to think I was jumping on some stupid trend (but maybe secretly this was also a sign?).

3. The first person I talked about it with was my colleague Dani. I told him I was thinking of getting a camper van and leaving New York. I wasn’t sure the reaction I’d get, but the look on his face gave me all the extra courage I needed. A thousand watts, instantly lit. THAT IS MY DREAM, he said. He wanted to do it too, except his wife would no way agree to living like that. But the more we talked, the less crazy it sounded. The next day, I woke up knowing:

I would live in a van.

Strangely, once I was on the other side of that decision, it seemed perfectly sane and normal. That is until I actually bought the van. (If you missed that part, you can read about it here.)

So there I was, that Friday morning at the DMV, three days after Buy Day, my mind like a vulture gnawing over every grievance. Let me list them (yes two lists in one post). Sure, there was the high mileage, but also:

I couldn’t unlock the driver side door. Which I didn’t find out until after I paid for it and went to pick up the car. Vinny texted that this was a safety feature that could easily be disabled. (I’m still racking my brain WHY WOULD THIS BE A SAFETY FEATURE?) And no it’s not easy because the inside frame is basically welded shut.

I couldn’t get Google to elucidate the NYC rules regarding sirens and flashers. Could I even risk driving it without getting pulled over for driving an illegal car?

But mostly, the biggest problem was this.

It was not cute. Not like this.

Cute. So so cute.

Cute. So so cute.

Nor stealth, like this.

Such stealth. Much covert.

Such stealth. Much covert.

After I left the DMV, I texted Vinny demanding he buy it back for misstating the mileage. He flatly denied any wrongdoing. I texted my friends that I was freaking out about it. I posted a hail mary to Reddit, was this the dumbest thing ever? I poured over more photos of Pinterest-level adorable campervans. Ugh. What had I gotten myself into. My van would never be that cool.

I shut my laptop. Too much mental exhaustion screentime. I needed to get in motion. The least I could do was go buy the proper screws for the license plates. So I did. Three times, before getting the right kind and size(s). Luckily, the hardware store was just down the street, and on the last trip, thank my functioning brain I bought a couple different sizes, because it turned out the front and back required both.

I also reluctantly bought something called Goof Off, a graffiti paint remover that the store clerk convinced me would almost definitely remove the body paint along with the unwanted paint. Great.

I unscrewed one of the lights in the ceiling to check out the insulation situation.

I removed a brace whose only purpose seemed to be blocking the side door.

I looked under the jump seat and discovered the alternator. 
Check. 
Check. 
Check.
Check.
Check.

Baby steps.

The physical activity kept the panic at bay and I found ways to console myself. Maybe this could be my starter van to practice on and I could sell it later on. At least I didn’t have the headache of still looking for a van right down to the wire. (I mentioned I’m moving out at end of the month, right?) Maybe it wouldn’t require as much modification as a raw van, which would leave me more time for de-acquisitioning all my material belongings. I still had a lot to do in three weeks.

But maybe this wouldn’t be so bad. All I needed was to just keep swimming.

 

No reason. Just a photo of Arlo down in the Rockaways circa 2000.

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1: I Bought an Ambulance and Regretted It

I didn't mean to buy an ambulance. 

I meant to buy a regular van. And I didn't mean to buy it right away, I meant to get the ball rolling and start browsing. See what's out there and get a sense of what I needed. Like maybe look at a half dozen vans first, take a week, shop around. But no. I bought the third thing I saw.

Third thing I saw. 

Third thing I saw. 

See, I'd originally responded to the Craigslist ad to look at an Astro. Turns out the guy had a couple Astros. Perfect. There were options. Unfortunately, both options were pretty craptastic. The first looked appealing because of the wood paneling, which maybe meant I wouldn't have to cut and build my own. But in person, all the shoddy workmanship became obvious. 

Yuck. 

Yuck. 

The seams were bulging with spray foam. Cut wires fanned out from random cutouts. And a gap in the flooring exposed a layer of grime that looked decades thick. I didn't look forward to the prospect of gutting it and cleaning out all that toxic gunk. The second Astro was a carpeted monstrosity that actually now I can't remember what was wrong with it except that I hated it upon sight. So when Vinny, the seller, showed me photos of the ambulance he was selling, I was intrigued. (I was also intrigued by the mailtruck he was trying to pawn off on me, but geezus krise, how would I park that thing?)

The ambulance wasn't such a looker on the outside, but she was a 2006, with a quoted 105K miles (which was wrong, but later), and the insides were already outfitted with shelves, outlets, lights, and standing room. All I had to do was put a bed in there and I'd be set! I consulted with my friend Michael who I'd dragged along with me. Mulled it over for five minutes — I didn't want to be sooo impulsive about this. But the adrenaline was already kicking in. I couldn't resist it. Plus, Vinny told me it was going to auction the next day, so I needed to decide pretty quickly. Should I do it?

I mean, IT SEEMED LIKE A REALLY GOOD DEAL. 

Vinny said he could probably get more from it at auction where it was going the next day if I didn't snatch it up right then. Vinny. Who lived in a poolhouse in Canarsie, had better manicured eyebrows than I do, drove a late model Benz coupe, and sold cars out of a sinkhole of a car lot situated next to a wannabe mansion (the lot owner's) that gated away an aggressive pack of Rottweilers and Pitbull that fully warranted the Beware of Dog sign, times three. 

The ambulance, however, was parked in front of his house a few minutes away under a canopy of cherry blossoms, gently cascading to the ground. You understand this contrast, right?

We took it for a spin, listening to the beastly rumble of the V8 engine. The steering wheel had a thing (a catch, a shimmy) which Vinny waved off as me being not used to driving a big truck. I should've mentioned my history driving PA vans and boxtrucks but I was too distracted by the driving. And the shelves! Did I mention all the shelving?

So yeah, of course I bought it. 

Those shelves tho.

Those shelves tho.

Standing room.

Standing room.

And it felt good.

I felt euphoric. One decision DOWN. We blasted the stereo (in Michaels' car) on the way home. We texted my friend Tina (and Michael's wife): I just bought an ambulance! There were photos of me smiling happily in front of my new ride. We celebrated over takeout at their place. I biked home, title in hand, with a renewed zest for life. 

Then I ran the Carfax.

Which said 225,000 miles.  WTF. Why was I so dumb that I didn't do this before the fact. I texted Vinny. He reported back, Then that's what it is.

The next day, I was so exhausted from having spent ~30+ hours the previous weekend finishing up all my ceramic projects so I could move out of my ceramic studio in time, that I could barely think. Nonetheless... I called my insurance company of choice—which only military families can use. But they said they wouldn't insure commercial vehicles — even though it was now for personal use. Without insurance I couldn't pick up the car. The dread crept in like the spray foam on a poorly insulated Astro. On top of it, Vinny texted that I most definitely had to pick it up that night. Sanitation had tagged it to tow since it didn't have license plates. 

It was going to be towed THAT NIGHT.  

I explained the insurance situation and he said I just needed to call someone else, which I really didn't want to do because I wouldn't get the discount. But I logged onto a major insurer anyway and, surprisingly, it took all of five minutes to get the van insured, with no questions about its commercial usage. Also, it weirdly already knew the VIN — I guess because I'd been looking in the marketplace already and so my information was out there? Thanks Big Brother. 

Since I'd missed the DMV hours, I cajoled my roommate into lending me a spare Arizona plate she had lying around on display. (Coincidentally, I wanted to get Arizona plates vis a vis my parents, but I couldn't figure it all out in time. Also, they have a cactus on them, cute.)

So I biked down to Canarsie, a 45-minute ride and fumed when I saw the van. Vinny had painted over all the emergency markings with black paint. WTF. I texted Vinny. I thought you were going to tape over it, not paint it. He told me I could get it off with something called Prep Salt or Clay Bar. Neither of which I could ever find, local or online. Basically, it was my problem now. FUCK.

I installed the plates and drove home, noticing the odometer for the first time. It read 232,810 miles after all. 

At dinner with friends that night, we toasted my purchased, but over the next two days, doubts plagued me like a cyclone of scorpions. 

You made it to the end, but there’s more on the way! Show your support by sharing on Facebook or tossing a few dollars into the tip jar.. For every $15 in contributions, you'll get a personal handwritten postcard from me once I hit the road this summer.