It took me a few days to code up this blog, so I'm going to write a couple of posts back to back just to catch the site up to speed with my life.

I don't know exactly when I had the idea to live in a van, or where I first read about people who had done it. What I do remember, distinctly, is finding out how outrageously expensive it was to live in the Bay area.

Let me set the stage: It's 2014, and I've just found out that I'm going to be interning at Google in the summer. I start looking at the corporate housing options, and find out that the cheapest options are nearly $100 a night. Having enough on my plate at the moment, I bite the bullet and find some roommates for the four person, two bedroom option. The summer starts, and I'm having an amazing time, but as I start to settle into a routine, I notice something fairly tragic: for all the money I'm spending on this apartment, I'm hardly ever there! I wake up, catch the first GBus to Google, work out, eat breakfast, work, eat lunch, work, eat dinner, hang out at Google, and eventually take a bus home, pack my gym bag for the next day, and go to sleep.

Once I realized I was only ever at my stupidly expensive apartment to sleep, I started hatching my plan.

Graduation

The weeks leading up to my inevitable departure from UMass Amherst are but a blur at this point, a torrent of papers, finals, and tough goodbyes. I remember having to check the "One Way" box when purchasing my flight, which at the time seemed like exile, or even a death sentence. I remember sitting in Marcus Hall for the last time, frantically typing away at my Machine Learning final, wondering when I'd next see any of the people around me. I remember walking out of my last class, a 4 PM history GenEd about the American family. I remember the strange feeling of seeing my bedroom empty, something I hadn't seen since I moved in nearly two years prior. Compared to the next steps in my life, these memories are fairly small events, which somehow makes them more important, you know?

May 17th

I'm happy to report that my last moments on the East Coast were not squandered. Despite being given enough clues and slip-ups to paint the picture pretty vividly, I was still shocked to walk into a room at Dave and Buster's and find my friends all gathered together. This was great for a few reasons:

  1. I have some pretty sweet friends.
  2. Dave and Buster's is my jam.
  3. I got to say all my goodbyes at once, and go out with a bang.
  4. Alcohol.

It goes without saying that I had a blast, and though it gets a little fuzzy towards the end, I doubt I'll be forgetting it any time soon. So thank you to my thoughtful, wonderful parents for pulling the whole thing together, and my friends for being there.

The Departure

Leaving is hard. Even once you've said all the proper goodbyes, it's hard to leave if you don't know when you're coming back. My grandma tried to play it like I would never see her again, and while she very well may be right, I wasn't ready to admit that to myself. But time marches on, and with the help of my good friend Pat K., I made it to the airport well ahead of schedule, packed with everything I could fit into a mid-sized suitcase. With two hours to kill, I did what any reasonable person would do and got belligerently drunk off of martinis at the airport bar. Good times.

Source: XKCD

And here is where things start to get interesting. Since my internship last summer, when I realized the only thing I needed was a place to sleep, and company perks could provide the rest, I've done a little bit of research into how exactly this whole van situation would play out. In my search, the most encouraging thing I found was this:

Google Security came by very early on, but once they determined that the guy in the mysteriously parked white van was just an eccentric Googler and not the Unabomber, they never came by again.

-Ben Discoe, Google [x] UI programmer

If tech companies weren't actively preventing this, I might as well give it a shot. Worst case scenario, the whole thing doesn't work out and I get an overpriced apartment like a normal human being.

Figuring it out

Eventually, I started putting pen to paper and figuring out the logistics of the whole scenario. I would get either a Ford Transit Connect Van, a Chevy Conversion Van, or a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. All of them had enough space to put a bed in the back and keep a few basic belongings. For food, I would eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner at work, Monday through Friday. On weekends, I would eat select meals at work, and explore the Bay area for my other meals. As far as hygiene goes, I'd work out every morning at one of the corporate gyms, and shower and do other morning stuff after. If I needed a bathroom during the day, naturally I would use one at work, and I would hang around campus working on work and personal projects until I was ready to go to sleep, and then I would retire to my van conveniently parked in a nearby campus parking lot. For official documents, I'd use a Private Mailbox, because you can't put a PO Box address on many different types of documents. I felt like I had my bases pretty covered. Naturally, there are still going to be unanswered questions though, and I hear new ones every time I explain the idea to people.

So here we are, almost a week into living in California. How have things progressed, you ask? Well allow me to tell you!

Second Thoughts

Arriving in California was comforting, but also a little overwhelming, and my roommate's words kept echoing around in my head, haunting me.

Don't live in a van. Don't do it.

-Zach B, Roommate for Life

I started to second guess myself. Was this really what I wanted? Was I actually being insane? What if I went through with it and then decided I didn't want it? I'd have to deal with all the stress of having to find an apartment while starting a new job, and trying to sell the stupid van on top of all of it. Would I actually be alright without truly having a home? I was in full-fledged panic mode, and I'd been on the West Coast less than a day. Panicking is very not my style, or so I like to think, so I decided to do the rational thing, and make a list of pros and cons of living in a van, and then make a well-informed decision based on that. So, ordered from most important to least important reasons, here is my list:

Pros

  • Money Savings. Even sharing bedrooms, rent in the Bay area is going to cost at least $1,000 a month. That's a bare minimum, it doesn't include utilities or anything else. It's $12,000+ a year that I'm practically just burning. No return, no equity, just gone.
  • Life Experience. I've never truly stepped outside my comfort zone. After living in California for a summer, I realized just how little of the world I've actually seen. If I do plan on travelling the world, I'll need to be comfortable with unconventional living situations, and this is certainly a good place to start. Plus, there is never going to be a better time in my life for me to try this. I'm young, flexible, and I don't have to worry about this decision affecting anyone else in my life.
  • Transportation and Proximity. Having a car is very much a necessity, and by living in it on campus, I can cut my commute down to a few seconds instead of hours, which means I can spend my time more productively. Plus, I hate traffic, and my company's 25,000+ employees ensure that there is a whole lot of it in the morning and evening hours.
  • Health Benefits. If I'm living in a van, I have no choice but to go to the gym on campus to shower, so living in a van provides me with a strict daily regimen. In a similar vein, since I'm eating all my meals at work, it means my diet will be organized into three meals a day during the week, without any late-night snacking.

Cons

  • Social Suicide. I will most certainly be "That Guy". No amount of planning or forethought excuses the fact that I'm the psychopath living in a van in the parking lot. People will eventually find out, and it will affect my social life.
  • Inconvenience. Living in a car is not convenient. There's no bathroom, shower, or refrigerator in a reasonable distance.
  • Stress and Anxiety. The whole process is supremely stressful. Picking out a van, buying it, converting my license, getting insurance, all without a car and all before I've even started working and making money is a lot to deal with. Not to mention the illegality of most of it. Then once all of those things are out of the way, I'm still pretty anxious about being caught, and how I'm going to sneak into and out of my van.
  • Upfront Expenses. At least with renting an apartment, I'd be paying gradually, without too much upfront cost. But between buying the car, buying insurance, fixing the car, setting it up, and the taxes and fees on top of all those things, it's a pretty big financial burden for someone who hasn't even started working yet.
  • Good luck getting laid. Interestingly enough, it was my mom who asked me about this one. I can only imagine that it's going to be next to impossible to get laid when I'm the van guy. Sure, I can get a hotel for the night, but it's still strange and I still have a bit of explaining and convincing to do. Since I'm not nearly smooth enough for that, I've accepted the fact that I'm going to be celibate for the next who knows how long.

The Decision

As you can guess by the fact that this blog even exists, I'm in the process of doing this, for real. I definitely wavered a bit before making my decision, I even posted in the "New Engineers" group looking for housing. But after weighing out the pros and cons, and evaluating where I want my life to be in 4-5 years, I decided that I'm going to do it.

A Slight Detour

One of the main things I realized from writing out the benefits and drawbacks was that it wasn't a van that I wanted. I wanted something more personal, something where I could relax even if I wasn't sleeping. And that's how I ended up with a 16' box truck, pictured above. After about ten hours of looking around at vehicles, at $8,800 (before taxes and fees), this 2006 Ford E350 Super Duty Cargo Van with 157,000 miles looked like the best bet. The "box" part is a roomy 128 ft2, larger than any of the bedrooms I've ever lived in prior.

The Setup

The past few days have been a stream of car-related errands. I purchased the car on Wednesday, after a grueling five hours at Green Light Motors doing test drives and looking over the truck and applying for financing and insurances. On Thursday, I got new tires and a license to match. On Friday, I picked up the bed. Along the way, I've also done a bit of graffiti and insect removal, all part of the package.

The hardest part so far has really been parking the damned thing. It's roughly 20 feet long and 11 feet high, which means that it doesn't fit in most parking spaces, and even when it does, overhanging trees threaten to rip the top off. In the large, open-air parking lots on campus, this won't be a big deal, but maneuvering it around in the meantime has certainly put my CDL knowledge to work.

Source: Home Depot

When you move into a new home, a trip or two to Home Depot isn't just likely, it's inevitable. Turns out that holds true even when your new home is a box truck. Below, I've detailed the unfocused and wide-ranging list of items I found myself purchasing.

  • Graffiti Remover. I didn't quite find the truck in the most perfect condition. One tire was gouged pretty badly and the left side had been tagged up pretty good. The tire is all fixed, and the graffiti remover is surprisingly effective, but I've got a lot of area to clean - by my measure about 37 ft2. A couple more trips to an empty parking lot to clean it and I should be all set.
  • Work Gloves. To keep my hands from being coated in graffiti remover.
  • Step Ladder. To reach the top of the graffiti, though I actually haven't needed it yet.
  • Rags. To wipe off and mop up the graffiti.
  • Hornet Killer. Another pleasant feature of the truck, small hornet nests in both door crevices. Haven't gotten around to taking care of this yet, mainly because hornets are terrifying. They're like bees, but less fuzzy, more menacing, and can sting you until they're completely sure you're miserable.
  • Rope. Until I start building/buying legitimate mounting equipment, I need a way to make sure big things (like the bed) don't move around too much while I'm driving. I don't want a few sharp turns or hard brakes to mean rearranging the furniture. I'll post pictures eventually, but basically I tied sliding knots around the rails on either side of the truck.
  • Switchblade. To cut the rope, and just generally handy.
  • Broom. To sweep up the dust and trash that was in the back. I like to keep my truck dungeon clean.
  • Trash Bags. To dispose of the dungeon dust and trash, though I actually need to find a waste disposal place in the area.
  • Padlock. To lock up the back when I'm not "home".
  • Tape Measure. Generally useful, mainly for figuring out placement of shelves and furniture in the future.
  • Battery Lamp. The truck actually has some built-in lights in the back, but I got an extra one for good measure.

The only reasonable theme to glean here is that I'm a serial killer. Between the rope, trash bags, switchblade, gloves, and padlock, I'm surprised Home Depot didn't call the FBI as soon as I made it to the checkout area.


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