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. 

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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