Saturday, October 2, 2010


Yesterday I received an email from the director of the liberal studies department--the department that I am enrolled in.


I have a troubling issue to raise with you that reached me late this afternoon through the Graduate School. Duke has received a request from the property manager of the ******** Apartments -- who owns the parking lot where you are parked -- that you move your van. She has received complaints from tenants of ********* Apartments.

Please phone me any time up to 9PM and certainly over the weekend. As my computer is down at the moment, I will be unable, after I leave the office, to receive your email.

My home phone # is ***-****.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

Best, *****"

I'll hold off issuing comments until I know more, but I'd like to say that I hold my director in the highest regard. She's been supportive of me since I got here and she's always been in my corner. So if there's a "bad guy" to this story, it's certainly not her. I should also say that I am legally parked and pay $274 a year for my parking permit. And--because I've lived as quietly and unostentatiously as a monk in a monastery for almost two years in that parking lot--I have no idea why me and my van are drawing complaints all of a sudden.

More to come as I learn more...


Spork said...

Someone in those apartments is probably jealous. Simple solution, time to

Anonymous said...

Is relocating a big deal? Why don't you clarify the geography for us.

Anonymous said...

So just move your van once a week or so -- I'm betting many students rarely move their vehicles. Move it to the next parking spot over and you can say that you have done what they asked :)

twokniveskatie said...

do you pay the apartment complex to park, or the university? if you pay the university, they must have an agreement with the apartment complex, no?

this kinda chaps my ass. sure, the nature of vandwelling is easy relocation, but if you are paying someone for the privilege, ya shouldn't have to go to the trouble.....

kenavo said...

Possebly someone is reading your blog?
But moving from time to time is part of gipsylifestyle....

Ken said...

To all--this was why I lived in secret for a year. I knew something like this would eventually happen.

Let me point out that I live a VERY quiet and VERY boring life. I wake up, have some cereal, drive to work, come back to lot, walk to the library, walk back to the lot to cook dinner, walk back to the library, and then I walk back to the van to sleep. No girls, no beer, no drugs, no parties--nothing. Hardly anyone parks in my lot, and hardly anyone parked in it before they knew a vandweller was living in there. Rarely is it more than 25% full. I am in no one's way and if I did make someone uncomfortable, I could easily be avoided since I'm in no one's footpath.

There is no reason that I should make someone feel uncomfortable unless they have unfounded prejudices, which I suspect is the case. Though I haven't experienced it yet, vandwellers are often subject to discrimination. People see a big van and imagine all sorts of ludicrous things. The fact that Duke administration is supporting this is, to me, astounding.

To answer some questions.

Spork--that is a solution, but I will not be treated and kicked around like a dog.

Anon--I love my lot. I've been there for two years. So, yes, it would be a big deal. I'd love to explain the geography more, but I don't want to openly advertise the exact whereabouts of my home. Maybe in a future entry.

Anon--I'm still worried that the van will break down one of these days, and I really do try to limit how much I drive it. Having to change lots every day would be a huge inconvenience. But nice idea ;)

hobo--I'm glad your ass is chapped too. I pay the university to park. It's an unusual arrangement. Duke owns part of the parking lot in front of the apartments. The owners of the apartment complex, as far as I know, do not own my lot. So I'm confused. Very confused.

Kenavo--the gypsy life has its merits, but I wouldn't say I'm exactly a gypsy. My van is my home, and my parking lot, my neighborhood.

Bob L. said...

One likely scenario. If I lived in an apartment and there was a guy living in his van in the parking lot, I would raise the question to my landlord. Lets face it, a stranger living in a van is suspicious. Not necessarily bad, but definitely a situation to get more info on. I would think that a few people called the landlord and probably a few others even called the police. I know that when I saw a guy living in an abandoned house across the street from us I called the police. They said they could do nothing about it unless the owner complained. I could not get a hold of the owner as it was taken over by the town for back taxes. Having a homeless person who could watch our house and see when we come and go was a bit nerve wracking, until someone bought the house from the town. And if anyone has kids, well, parents can be ultra paranoid, to the point of extremes.

Good luck on a new place if that is what you need to do. Maybe you can find a place where you can introduce yourself to the people that will see you "lurking" out there and let them know that everything is OK.

JP said...

This is outrageous! Pure and simple discrimination by people who live in a sheltered dream world. If they want to live in a place where everyone has a comfortable 1200sqft home they can move to the 'burbs and fight the length of grass blades with their homeowners association. Haven't you mentioned there's homeless people near by? And they want you to move you monestary?

I'm ready to stage a protest outside of ***** Apartment building. We'll give them something to be uncomfortable about!

Bob L. said...

"We'll give them something to be uncomfortable about!"

Yeah, THAT will help. 8^)

It is NOT a dream world for these people (I am not excluding myself here either). People work to create a life that they think they want. Most people want safety and security above all else no matter what they might say. Let me ask a question: if I moved my van to a place across the street from your home, and just seemed to live there, would you not question what I was doing there? Would you not start locking your doors and windows? Get a little nervous when walking down the street? Maybe call the police to have them check up on what I was doing? If your answer is no, then you need to work on your situational awareness.

When someone is looking for a place to rob, they will case the area. Park someplace to see if anyone notices or calls the cops. Watch the habits of the people in the area, and those that live there. This makes it very easy to know if you can get away with the crime. My apartment was broken into in this manner. That is just a reality of life. Unfortunately, this is similar to the behaviour of someone that is Van Dwelling, so they automatically fit into a category of "Suspicious Behaviour".

If a person wants to live a life less "normal", then that person has to expect that "normal" people will be suspicious. It is hard wired in our brains to be suspicious of people and things that are not like us. It is how civilizations were born.

Now, if I was in the situation where a van was parked in my parking lot, but that van dweller introduced himself, or the landlord informed me of the situation, I would probably not be concerned. I might even welcome having someone in the lot to watch out for things. I know I would be somewhat envious. I would probably end up inviting said V.Dweller in for dinner once in a while. Can't say that it is likely that most of the people in a large building would feel that way. Some people have so little situational awareness that ANYTHING out of their view of normal will scare the crap out of them. Those people would NOT be invited in for dinner.

Bob L

kenavo said...

Well, now it did not work out so well with the secret life, try to be more open about it.
Maybe somebody offers you a place to park your van on a privat place.
I really hope that you soon find a solution, you need a little safe place to study.
Good luck and be brave!

Ken said...


I’m grateful for your continued readership, and—based on previous comments—I gather that we see eye-to-eye on many things. But I think—in regards to this issue—we see things differently.

You say: “It is hard wired in our brains to be suspicious of people and things that are not like us.”

This is obvious and true. But that doesn’t make it right. This hard-wired suspiciousness is the root of all prejudice, discrimination, racism, etc. In an uncultivated mind, “passion” determines action. In other words, the base and simple thoughtlessly react to whatever preconceived notions they have of people whose race, gender, sexuality, or style of home is irrationally bothering them. These notions, history tells us, are more often than not completely off-base and ridiculous. Black people have been considered subhuman, women have been considered subservient, gays have been linked to pedophilia. A cultivated mind—a mind that has the capacity to think critically and question established (and off-base) social mores, a mind that has been enlightened via education, experience, and empathy—will, rather, not let their passions determine their actions. They will—through use of reason—act (or decide not to act) in a manner that is more in accord with reality than their uncultivated counterparts.

Let me be forthright… It is wrong to judge me or anyone because I live in a van. I don’t care if people consider it abnormal or if it makes someone uncomfortable. I am being penalized, not because of my actions, character, moral fortitude, or my respect or disrespect for the law; I am being penalized because someone else has unfounded, wrong-headed prejudices.

How many vandwellers are there in the country? Who knows exactly, but it’s clear that there are (literally) tons of them. There are 6,500 members on the Yahoo Vandwellers message board group, and I’d wager to guess that there are even more who have not registered or don’t have access to the internet. Now how many of them are rapists, child molesters, thieves, monsters? I, for one, have, in 27 years—many of which were spent traveling, meeting strangers, and abiding in different homes across six very different states—never have once come across, met, or had an interaction with a vandweller of questionable character. Sure, there are probably some bad guys out there living in their vans who I’ve yet to meet but that’s just what they are: bad apples in a bushel replete with decent, well-meaning citizens. Never should we judge the whole based on the few.

This is the same sort of ridiculous reaction many had after 9/11 when Muslims were thoughtlessly discriminated against because people drew loopy parallels with them and the plane hijackers. You could draw similar analogies with the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany or the internment of the Japanese in 1940’s America—all terrible reminders of when a country and its citizens inform themselves, not with facts, but unfounded fears, and act, not with sense and sanity, but spleen and superstition.

Let me put a hold on the grandiloquent language and come back down to earth. I get it: girls, families, whoever are uncomfortable with a dude living in a van nearby. But you know what? Tough shit. People must be tougher, more thick-skinner, and tolerant. We are a heterogeneous society, and we ought not bend over backwards to placate the rigid-minded and mentally-sheltered. It’s unacceptable.

Ken said...

Two more points…

Surely, there is a reason why we’re inclined to feel prejudice. Prejudice, in some circumstances, can be a good thing. Hypothetically, if nine out of ten people on the street who wore yellow tee shirts committed random acts of violence, then it’s only natural (and smart) to lump that tenth (though non-violent) person with the bad guys. But, to bring it back to my situation—because there are evidently so many more good vandwellers than bad—it should be clear that presumptions and prejudices directed toward vandwellers is wrong, baseless, and false, thus rendering the prejudice futile and unhelpful.

And lastly, JP has a point. Why the derision? Believe me, I’m not arguing that protesting is the solution to my problem, but civil disobedience has cured many of the world’s ills. Frankly, it probably would work.

Anonymous said...

I love your blog!

I read your post last year with how you dealt with the cold. Have you made any changes to deal with the upcoming winter months?


Ken said...

Kenavo- I’d say I’ve been pretty open about it since I published my article (Dec. 09). Anyone who asks me where I live I say “in a van” instead of making up some ludicrous lie like I used to. And everyone’s always eager to learn more. I’ve been offered another lot, but I love my lot. And who’s to say that this same thing won’t happen in that lot? Thanks for the warm, encouraging words.

Anon-thanks! No changes. Adapting to winter isn’t tough at all. I spend most of my time in the classroom, library etc. so the cold isn’t a problem. If I was in the van full time, I’d get insulation, or install a wood stove or something. All I need on really cold nights are a pair of thermals and my sleeping bag. The cold is no big deal.

Bob L. said...

I apologize if I made it sound like I thought what was going on is "right", I was trying only to state that it is how it is. That people are how they are. They can be changed, but are unlikely to do this on their own.

I will apologize in advance for the long, rambling post (posts, it was too long). Too much coffee does that to me. I also apologize if anything I say here makes you upset. I think I pushed a button unintentionally with my last post. I thought I was agreeing with you, just pointing out how people are.

You say it is wrong to judge you because you live in a van. I agree. However, to cast a blind eye on some man living in a parking lot, or any other out of the ordinary situation, is not right either. The proper way to handle it, and the way that most small town or country people would handle it would be to introduce themselves to you, find out what is going on, THEN decide if there is a problem here. Too many people overlook what is going on around them and don't question things. Yes you are being punished for someone's prejudices. That does not make peoples prejudices or fears unfounded. You consider yourself a van dweller. Most people have never heard of such a thing. You are just a man in a van. Might as well paint a sign offering free candy to children as far as most people are concerned. I am a member of the Yahoo Van Dwellers group as well. I am hoping in the not too distant future to head out on the road, hopefully on my bike, and not in the US. There are lots of cautions about how one is perceived by the public.

Bob L. said...

I mentioned situational awareness to one reader. You said QUOTE:"People must be tougher, more thick-skinner, and tolerant. We are a heterogeneous society, and we ought not bend over backwards to placate the rigid-minded and mentally-sheltered. It’s unacceptable." END-QUOTE Situational awareness works in many ways. Just as we should be aware of strangers watching their house or whatever, we should also be aware of how we are perceived by others. Sometimes how we are perceived can put us in dangerous situations. Scared people are dangerous. In this country we are more likely to have the cops visit if someone is afraid. In other countries, they might just sick a mob on us. I agree that people should be more thick skinned and tolerant, and the rest that you said, BUT, that is not going to happen on it's own. That is why I said maybe you should introduce yourself to the people that live near you. Frankly, that is what happens in any small town or other uhh, isolated? neighborhood. If you move in, and keep to yourself, people will suspect you of things. There will be rumors. That does not make it right, but it is up to you to change that.

I am a motorcyclist and have been fighting the "Biker" stereotype for 30 years. You mention civil disobedience. Instead of this, or better, along with this is something called setting a good example. You do that well. BUT.... I am guessing that no one knows this, or at least not the ones that are complaining. No one knows who you are, they don't know that you are setting a good example. They know nothing about you. You are just a stranger, and fit in with that image their parents drilled into them of someone to be afraid of. Of course, I could be wrong. It could be that the person(s) that complained are just afraid of everything, or jealous, or for some reason don't think it is "right" for you to be doing this.

Your example of yellow shirts may be right, but in my experience that is generally not the case of most people's prejudices. There is something I created that I named the Volvo syndrome. It is a game I have played on a number of people. I mention to them that Volvo's are the worlds safest cars driven by the worlds worst drivers. They don't believe me. I tell them to watch, as Volvo's tend to be easy to identify by their shape and the stripe on the radiator. The next time I see them, they say they agree. They say that they keep seeing Volvo's doing this or that bad thing. Then I tell them that this is a prejudice. You see, what I believe happens is that people look out for Volvo's and since they are looking at them, they see the screwy things that people do. I doubt that it is any more frequent in Volvo's than other cars, but they are now only looking out for Volvo's. Every time a Volvo does something screwy, it reinforces what I told them. Just because it is only a tiny fraction of the V's that are screwing up, and that the fraction is probably the same with any similar sized group, the person is only watching for Volvo's Then, if they see a car do something, but it is not a Volvo, they might say, that guy should be driving a Volvo, there by reinforcing their just created stereotype. THAT is a bit more how prejudices survive and grow. An identifiable group, a preconceived notion of how things should be, and enough reinforcement to feed the belief. You are a man in a van. People were taught to be afraid of you. They see in movies that men in vans kidnap little kids. It would not matter if there was NEVER an incident of a van being used in any crime. People have been led to believe that vans are used and that belief is enough to make it fact in many peoples eyes. It ain't pretty.

Bob L. said...

sorry for the double posting. I got a message saying my post was not accepted, but I guess it was.

You said that you have told many people that you live in a van and that they are very interested in it. I would not be surprised if none of these people are the kind that would be scared to see you in the parking lot. They might be the kind that would come and talk to you after they saw you there a few nights though. The people that would call the cops would be too afraid to talk to you at all. I have been a motorcyclist for 30 years. For the same amount of time I have been in an office, professional environment. I am always running into people that find it fascinating that I ride motorcycles. Although times have changed some, many peoples notions of bikers is that they are hoodlums, but that they keep meeting people that are nice that ride. For some of these people it does not matter how many "nice" bikers they meet, they will always think the nice ones are the minority, even though they are not meeting ANY bad ones.

Earthlings are weird.....

If the powers that be feel that you need to move badly enough, they will find some rule, town ordinance or something that will force you to move. They may even find something that will make it impossible to do your van dwelling anywhere near school. If nothing else they could make it so hard for you that van dwelling becomes more work than it is worth. I hope you can talk them out of it, or if not, then find some legal precedent to force them to allow you to stay. I applaud anyone who tries to live what might be considered a normal life but in an unusual way. Van dwelling, tiny houses, minimalism, et cetera.

Ken said...


You say, “I was trying only to state that it is how it is. That people are how they are. They can be changed, but are unlikely to do this on their own.”

I gotcha. Thanks for clarifying everything. I probably just misread your comment. And, ha, coffee makes me ramble too, hence my long comment this afternoon.

I agree that they should have contacted me in some fashion (as they might’ve, as you suggested, in a rural village). I’m baffled that the owner and Duke administration has decided to handle it this way. Why not email me, asking if we could talk about it over a coffee? I’ve been there for almost two years, and suddenly, out of blue, without having talked or interacted with any of the parties involved, they just ask me to leave… Why not try to determine if the students really did have reason to feel “uncomfortable” before rashly acquiescing to their wishes?

You say we should be cognizant about how we are perceived. I totally agree with this too. If I felt inclined to, say, sacrifice a goat in front of my van, I’m sure my “perception-alert alarm” would go off and say something like: “Ken, this isn’t a good idea. They’re going to think you’re nuts.” Here are some examples of me modifying my behavior to help me “fit in” and to offset some of the extremes of my eccentric lifestyle (which, god, really isn’t that eccentric): I shave my face and shower every day, wear clean clothes and keep a trim appearance (even though I’d rather let nature take over). In two years, I haven’t told any of the teachers or kids I work with at the elementary school (where I’m employed) that I live in a van. I’ve met countless people who’ve emailed or facebook messaged me who wanted to see the van. Despite having a blog, a popular article, and done several interviews, I try to live an extremely quiet, low-key life in the van—I’m in no ways seeking attention in the real world. These are ways in which I “manage” how people perceive me.

You suggest I introduce myself; unfortunately I’m awfully timid when it comes to that sort of thing, so I figured this blog and my article should have been an introduction enough with the student body. And while I do say some eccentric things, I hope that most everyone who reads my stuff thinks I’m sane, reasonable, and rationale.

The apartment owner is clearly aware of this blog, and if she did the slightest bit of research on me she should know about my Salon article too. It should be clear to her based on my writings, and if she probed deeper, the reputation within my department, and my spotless criminal record, that I’m not just some camo-wearing, long-bearded, 27-year old version of the Unabomber; I’m just a poor student with some slightly different ideas than the status quo. (Not that I have anything against you long-bearded camo-wearers ;) So I guess I’m saying that while the students who complained about me don’t know me, they should know—with a minimal amount of effort--enough about me to at least encourage them to withhold their complaints.

Loved the Volvo and biker examples. Makes perfect sense.

You’re right, there probably is some “ordinance” they could utilize. But this is what I believe—I believe students should be able to live in their vans (or in some other atypical living arrangement so long as it’s reasonable safe and preserves one’s health) at Duke, or any university. If they kick me to a different lot, it’s like letting me ride the bus so long as I sit in the back. That’s unacceptable. If I have some legal wiggle room, I’ll—as I say in my Salon article—take this to the Supreme Court if I have to.

Marie said...

I'm really sorry about what is happening. Of course that person's request is totally questionable, but maybe you could have a letter transmitted to him/her by the appartment owner to explain the reasons of your presence on the parking lot, and propose to meet him to talk calmly. Sending a personal letter (rather than relying on the blog) seems a good way to start a dialogue, providing that you don't write in it that you will burn his cat in retaliation, of course. It would be worthwhile to know why he wants you out. Confrontation will only fuel his anxiety, show him you are a very civilized human being. Hope it turns out well!

Ken said...

Marie--Those are words of wisdom. I can control my emotions very well; there will be no confrontations.