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25 October 2015

Vans and Trucks

I'm not at a hackathon this weekend; I was accepted to HackingEDU in San Mateo CA but without travel assistance/reimbursement, and my budget only goes so far. There are others coming up on the calendar, but I'm sort of in a travel lull for the moment. I'm okay with that, I need to recharge a little bit, although deep down I'd rather be on Pacific time right now. It did cross my mind, while I was waiting for my flight home at SFO, to not come back to Wisconsin at all. It's possible that if I'd done that, I'd have a new job already and... but that's at least a little bit unrealistic. If I had just stayed I could also be homeless a long way from home with no job and no way back. I'm trying to move forward, not backward, so here I am.

I've been reading the past week or so about software engineers in California buying vans, or trucks, or even boats to live in rather than paying market rent to have an apartment. That's perhaps an unfair summary, because there are a lot of reasons people choose to be nomads besides money-- but from my faraway spot in the Midwest, looking at bunk beds on Craigslist going for the same monthly rate as my studio apartment in Madison, these people aren't crazy. As I've been reading (and looking at the pictures they've posted), I've also been thinking "hey, I already know I can handle that kind of situation and survive". Remember, I'm planning to move to the same area in (!) than a year.

I'm not sure if I should be proud of thinking like that, or if I should be just a little bit concerned. I've put a lot of energy into not being homeless, and into keeping myself in an apartment, and all of that. I'm also very seldom home-- I sleep and shower at home, and other than that I'm either on campus or in transit one direction or the other. Had it not started to get cold at night, I might never have needed to move into transitional housing, never had to deal with all of the shit associated with Porchlight, etc. Then again, living out of one's car isn't living, it's surviving. Still. There were nights that I slept really well, curled up half in the back seat and half in the trunk, doors locked and me hidden well enough under blankets that if anyone did look in, they'd never know there was a person sleeping inside. I can't say that I miss sleeping in my car in a parking structure, but maybe there's a tiny sense of adventure involved that won't go away.

It takes a certain amount of something-- maybe it's passion, maybe it's insanity, maybe it's both-- to decide that even though you're going to have to sleep in your car/truck/boat and take showers at the gym, you're going to continue doing what you're doing with your life anyway. I made the decision, when I became homeless, that I was going to stay and see through what I'd started here. I could have packed up and left. I could have turned to crime. I could have done a lot of things, but I refused to admit defeat and I stayed put. In my car.

I also, when Porchlight evicted me, didn't leave. I hustled a little, hid in plain sight a little, and managed to find myself a place to live.

It might also be independence, and just a general desire not to have anyone else in control of your life. I could have a living situation that involves roommates. There are plenty of multiple bedroom houses around campus where I'd have a bedroom of my own, and share a kitchen and bathroom with someone else, that would be cheaper. There are plenty of those kinds of places in any decent sized city, and San Francisco is no exception. So sharing a living space is an option, but honestly-- no. I don't need a lot of space, but the space I do have has to be mine, and mine alone. I need quiet. Sometimes, I need to pace and think out loud in the middle of the night. I don't like anyone messing with my stuff. I'd probably be a shitty roommate, and I'm very much okay with that.

This has led me to thinking that, given a beat to hell van, probably a conversion van, maybe a trashed repossessed one that some dealer or auction house wants to unload cheap-- given that, I could strip everything out. Seats, carpet, upholstery, the entire works. Strip the interior down to bare metal and start over. I don't consider myself a tradesman, but I know how to rip shit out with a crowbar. I know how to drill holes, and bolt things down, and lay and cut carpet, and hammer boards together so they stay together. A bed, a dresser, maybe a bar to hang clothes on, a desk, a chair. Wifi? Sure. A fridge, a microwave, a sink, a hot plate? Doable. Power? Run an extension cord just like you do with a camper. Or, solar and batteries. Or both.

I spent the entirety of Desert Shield and Desert Storm working inside of squares and rectangles crammed to the ceiling with radio equipment. Ground Radio's motto? "We can fix anything." I once, briefly, worked for a company that installed land mobile radios in cars and trucks. I'm a hacker. Wiring up the inside of a vehicle is something I can definitely do.

A functioning toilet is something else that they make for vehicles, but I should be forgiven for outsourcing that installation to someone who knows what the hell they're doing.  Maybe impractical, but certainly possible. Until technology or my budget advance that far, there's always an available bathroom (that doesn't involve risking a public urination charge) if you know where to look. Or in an emergency, a Gatorade bottle (thank you, USAF, for teaching me practical skills I can use in the civilian world).

PTSD is certainly a factor in all of this. The past year or so, in addition to trying to stabilize myself a little, I've spent a lot of time thinking about where I fit. I'll have to live with my memories wherever I move to-- I can run around the earth again and again, and they'll still be in my head. Moving away from here will help, at least for a while, because I won't have to see all of the places. I won't have to walk past the transitional housing shelter I lived in, or Porchlight's office on Brooks Street, and I won't have to walk past all of the places on the sidewalk where I spent the night at various times.

In terms of dealing with PTSD, there's not much more I can do here. The VA Hospital isn't offering any new solutions. The Vet Center blew me off so severely that you couldn't pay me to go back there. I've tried veterans organizations-- the VFW's mission was getting drunk and trying to convince me to become a life member. The American Legion was also happy to take my dues, but wasn't interested in much else about me. Things that are directed to Iraq/Afghanistan veterans exist, but I'm usually the only Desert Storm vet in the room-- and it's extremely rare that I run into another vet that used to be homeless. I don't know that being in California will solve everything. Maybe it won't-- but I have to do something. I can't just sit here for the rest of my life.

There is also the question of being a software engineer with a disability. Like most of my life, there is no manual for this part (or if there is, I can't find it). I'm doing a lot right now as a developer to learn how PTSD affects me-- what I need to do to concentrate when I'm coding, how to manage the sleep + medication + caffeine equation, development methods like agile that complement how my brain works instead of beating my head against the wall. There are things I've been able to do, like setting up my work hours with a more-or-less open ended finish time so I can take the time I need to bang on coding problems with a mental hammer and using tools like Trello and Slack and Google Calendar and a couple of other apps to keep track of what I'm doing next. That question still isn't completely answered, and maybe there never will be a complete answer, and most important, maybe that's perfectly okay.

Someday, if there is a judgement day, I want the scoreboard to show that I gave life everything I had and didn't waste any of the talent I was given-- that even when I didn't win, as Steve Jobs once said, I still made a dent in the universe. Even if it meant I had to sleep in a van in Silicon Valley for a while.









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