Sunsets along the rocky beaches of Pacific Grove, California, don’t change much from one evening to the next. They’re glorious, of course — pink, orange, blue and purple all at once as the bright, golden sun sinks into the ocean. Long lines of pelicans glide over the water out to sea, destination unknown. Where do they go? No one seems to know.

What’s more clear are the people who come to watch the sun, night after night. Their cars, trucks, and RVs crowd the parking spaces while they stand transfixed on sand and rock, tourists holding up cameras and phones, lovers holding each other, children playing, unconcerned with beauty.

It’s like that scene from the 90s movie City of Angels where hundreds of angels come to watch the sun go down every night, and when the sky darkens they turn to leave. It’s like that. I think the screenwriters meant to say that we are all angels.

Well, some of us.

I wait in my van until most of them are gone for the night, and then I wait some more. I like it when the people go away and it’s dark, when all I can see is the screen of my laptop and all I can hear is the sound of waves crashing on rocks.

I wait until I start to feel sleepy, and then I get ready for bed. I pull my hammock out from behind the back seat and attach it diagonally to the hooks on front and back doors. I unfold my sleeping bag and arrange it inside the fabric canoe, anchored by my pillow.

Scout is curled on the back seat beneath one end of the hammock, watching my nightly routine. I check to make sure that everything is secure, that nothing will fall or open while I drive to my sleeping spot.

Then I see headlights outside and stop. Is it a police car? Yes. It slows as it drives by. Is it the same cop who rousted me by the cemetery last week? Does he recognize my van? But he drives on and I breathe again.

I hate this anxiety, this fear. What I’m doing, living in my van on the streets of this city, is illegal. The days here are wonderful, with breathtaking views that people pay millions to see through their living room windows. I’m paying nothing. I can imagine that annoys homeowners and taxpayers. Tourists support this place but we are supposed to spend money on motels and campgrounds too. Well, at least I patronize the local businesses.

I start the engine and drive a mile or two to a quiet street in front of a motel or apartment building, never a house. Someone in a house might notice a strange, white van is parked there and call the police. I make sure to park between several cars so I’m not quite so obvious but let’s face it, a white van is hard to hide. My nerves are on edge as I cut the engine and lights, sitting in the dark for a few minutes while I watch the neighborhood for signs that I’ve drawn attention. I feel like a criminal. Cars go by. Nothing seems unusual.

Only when I feel safe do I get out of my seat and crouch to the back, where Scout once again curls onto her bed, the back seat. I sit on the cooler behind the passenger seat and pin a black fleece curtain to the ceiling behind the front seats. It won’t convince police the van is unoccupied if they shine a flashlight through the window but at least they won’t see me sleeping. That feels too vulnerable.

Last week by the cemetery, when the officer knocked on my window, the curtain was up but just folded across the tops of the front seats. His bright light still flashed through the cracks. I don’t know how I managed to get out of the hammock so quickly, how I reached the front of the van and turned on the ignition to lower the window in one motion, heart pounding. I don’t know why Scout didn’t bark but followed, silently curious.

“Ma’am,” said the officer, “sleeping in your vehicle is illegal in Pacific Grove.”

“I’m sorry,” I said lamely.

“You can’t stay here.”

“Okay. What should I do now?” I asked, half hoping he would give a poor, old lady a break, but no.

“Monterey is more lenient,” he replied. “You could try Dennis the Menace Park.”

Yes, that is the actual name of an actual park. I’d seen it on the map. I reminded myself to research how on earth that happened.

“Thank you, sir,” I said insincerely.

The officer and his partner went to the compact car next to me and rapped on the window. As I fastened my seat belt, the back door of the car opened and a very sleepy young woman leaned out into the flashlight’s glare. I felt sorry for her.

Instead of driving to Dennis the Menace Park, five miles away, I went a few miles farther to the town of Seaside, where I’d seen numerous RV’s parked at The Home Depot. A friend had told me nobody enforces the vehicle habitation law there. But as I drew close, I passed a parked police car and got spooked. I kept going, finally pulling onto a dark street behind an industrial building and for the rest of the night, sat wrapped in my green sleeping bag in the back seat next to Scout, nodding off now and then, but waking at every noise. Not a restful night.

Two nights later, parked in a Safeway lot where I thought I’d have no trouble since I’d done it before, it happened again. This officer warned me that the area was dangerous due to homeless people living in the park across the street.

“There have been armed robberies here,” he said.

That got my attention.

“Are you just passing through?” he asked, and I said yes, although that wasn’t strictly true. I was staying in the area until my friend, Jessica Bruder’s scheduled reading of her book, Nomadland, in San Francisco the following Sunday. (The book is about some of my friends—and even me—aging vandwellers and RVers who work hard jobs for low pay because they can’t afford to retire. It’s really good. You should read it.)

“You can park at a church not far from here,” he offered, giving me directions.

“Thank you!” I was more sincere this time.

That night, I got a good sleep for once. But after that, the anxiety never left. Following Jessica’s reading, I came back to Pacific Grove because I was expecting packages at General Delivery. Then, I just stayed. It’s nice here.

All the activity of hanging the hammock and finding a parking spot for the night has woken me up. I’m not sleepy any more. And I’m anxious. What if I’m awakened by another rap on the window? Where will I go this time? I decide that tomorrow is the day I will finally leave. I will go east and find some BLM or national forest land where I won’t have to deal with this shit. That’s why they hassle us, after all. To make people like me give up and leave.

I climb into the hammock and wrap myself in my warm, green sleeping bag, watching the moving glow of headlights as cars pass in the night. So comfortable. Scout’s rhythmic breathing behind me and the sway of the hammock finally lull me to sleep.

I wake in the dark and fumble for my phone. It is 6:18am. I slept all night with no incident. What a relief! Maybe I can stay here a few more nights after all. I get up and drive straight to the beach. It’s important to get away from your sleeping spot as early as possible so as not to draw attention. Scout curls up in the passenger seat and goes back to sleep. I realize for the first time that she hasn’t barked at night in a long time, and I feel thankful.

The sky is pink in the east and I can see that nobody else is here yet. Unlike in the evenings, few people come out to watch the sun rise. I pull into a parking space next to a picnic table, where bushes provide a bit of privacy for when the tourists come.

I’ve parked here for the day before but twice, a man in his sixties came and took over the picnic table even though I had parked right next to it. I hadn’t noticed him until the fumes from his charcoal fire in the barbecue filled the van. How rude! I drove away, head starting to pound, wondering why someone would fix lunch for himself like that, all alone. Was he homeless?

I didn’t go back for a week until this morning, forgetting about the man. It didn’t occur to me that he would do the same thing again, but he did.

He was about to pour lighter fluid on the charcoal grill when I scrambled to the front seat and leaned out the window,

“Hey,” I said, using my nicest old-lady voice, “would you mind using that picnic table instead?” The other table was just fifteen feet away. “The fumes get into my van.”

“No,” he replied, not even looking at me. “Too many people walk by there.”

“Well, I was here first,” I said, getting testy.

“That isn’t a parking space.”

It most certainly was, but he was about to squirt that lighter fluid on the charcoal and I could see I was going to lose this battle.

“Fine.”

I started the engine angrily and put the van in reverse, foot on the brake. I could see in my backup camera that he had parked his Volkswagen Beetle right behind me. Large rocks were in front of me. There was no way for me to pull out.

I felt a thrill of revenge as I took my foot off the brake, and the van lurched backward. I had no intention of hitting his car, but he didn’t know that.

“Don’t hit my bug!” the man shouted.

I revved the engine and backed up a few more inches.

“Then move your precious bug and let me out!”

He put down the lighter fluid and ran to his car.

I’m not proud of this but I yelled, “Asshole!” as I drove away.

Scout watched all of this with the curiosity of a child seeing a not-so-nice side of her mother.

Later, when I had calmed down a bit, I had an awful fantasy, one that I would never do, but I got malicious pleasure out of imagining it. I rewrote the end of the scene, getting out of the van, grabbing that can of lighter fluid and squirting it all over the man’s lunch, then setting it on fire.

I know, not my best moment.

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Showing 4 comments
  • Laila Atallah
    Reply

    I just adore your writing and storytelling, Lavonne.

  • Cam Coogan
    Reply

    Ugh, the anxiety of trying to find a place to park and sleep. It’s sad that there is little acceptance for an alternate lifestyle. Just one night of undisturbed sleep and then move on- why can’t it be as simple as that?

  • BFG
    Reply

    As far as I can find, there is only one legal place to van sleep in Monterey. “Camping and sleeping in motor vehicles or trailers overnight is prohibited by City code.Camping in Monterey is allowed at Veteran’s Memorial Park.” From the City web site.

    Sounds like a nasty city.

    Nice to read more from you LaVonne.

  • BFG
    Reply

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