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  • Ken Ilgunas

Last day at Duke. Last day in the van.

(Let’s not consider this the concluding post to my vandwelling experiment, even if it may sound like it. I have my graduation ceremony on May 14th—I suppose I’ll wrap everything up then.)

Last night was an “under the sleeping bag night”—too cool for just a linen, but warm enough that I didn’t need to zip up my bag. As it always is, vandwelling at night was idyllic. Behind my headlamp, I read Andrew Ferguson’s Crazy U (an entertaining read about the inanity of college admissions), occasionally hearing the hoots of owls and the fluttering of bamboo leaves. Sometimes a soft wind would blow into the van, causing my beige blinds to swell like lungs gulping a gust of oxygen.

But in the morning (this morning) I woke at 8:50 a.m. to footsteps around my van. Footsteps are nothing unusual; it is a parking lot after all. But then there were more footsteps. And more and more and more. And chatter too. Within minutes, 12-20 people congregated just four parking spots away from my van.

Much to my horror, a couple of people with Duke “Fire Safety” were training Duke employers—perhaps security guards—on fire extinguisher usage. And they selected my parking lot to do it in. I gingerly pulled the blinds back and saw a large propane tank hooked up to what looked like a giant Bunsen burner. Every minute, they’d light a fire, there’d be a big WHOOSH, and then I’d hear the frothy purge of an extinguisher putting it out.

“You bring the marshmallows, Barry?” someone said.

“Let her rip!!!” yelled one of the trainers.

I was in bed and only wearing boxer shorts—my standard vandwelling garb. I worried that someone might recognize the van as the “campus vandweller’s van,” and come over to have a looksy, thinking that I was an early riser and that I’d already walked to the library. (I most certainly am not an early riser, and 8:50 a.m. is an agonizingly early hour for me.)

I hid under my covers to make myself look like a lump of linens to any would-be investigator who might otherwise catch sight of me between the gaps where the blinds don’t cover the tinted windows. Luckily I had Crazy U nearby, so I brought the book under my little fort and serenely resumed reading.

But the sun had just cast its rays onto the roof of my van, which quickly began baking me like a pig in a blanket. To make things worse I had a lunch/gym date with one of my professors at 11:30. I also needed to go to Kinko’s to bind my book/final project (which I titled Vandweller) and to the East Campus gym to get my clothes and shower supplies out of my locker so I could workout with my professor at the faculty gym.

It was a logistical nightmare, made worse by some malfunctions in my normally trusty digestive system, who was gurgling for a bathroom trip asap.

I laid there for an hour, trying to remain focused on the text, while my ass contractions steadily increased in tempo. I worried that if I didn’t get out of the van soon, not only would I miss my meeting with my professor, but I’d spend my last day in the van living out the plotline to my long-awaited and far more vile sequel to my April 2009 much-beloved blog entry, “Throwing up in the van.” While the crass side of me wishes I could conclude my experiment with “Shitting in the van,” I thought it would be just as good a story if I could somehow escape this situation without getting caught.

Of course there was nothing really at stake. It was my last day in the van—too late for them to pursue any “action” against me if they did happen to be disturbed with my presence. For all I know, they already do know about my. The van drivers who escort students across campus after-hours affectionately refer to my van as “Burgundy.” And this blog was distributed over email to the entire campus police force after I was kicked out of my old parking lot and placed in this new one.

I could have just walked out my side doors as I do every morning and nothing would have happened. Though, I would have felt awkward and uncomfortable and probably would have made the trainees feel awkward and uncomfortable. I had to find another way out of the van.

I was in a tricky situation. I couldn’t exit from the side doors, the front passenger door, or the rear doors without being seen. My only option was to sneak under the black cloth partition and exit the driver-side door. But where do I go from there?

Over the past couple years, I’ve come to know what causes every squeak in the inside of my van. I stealthily moved to the edge of the bed, placed my feet in just the right spots, and–as quietly as I could–put on my cargo shorts and thread the belt through the loops, keeping my hand gripped on the buckle so it wouldn’t jingle. Then I put on my shirt, and stuffed my books into my book bag and laptop bag. I knew I was going to have to make some noise to get under the partition and into the front seat, so I waited for them to turn the Bunsen burner on. When I heard the “WHOOSH,” I ducked under the partition, hurried to the driver seat and quickly exited the van. Yes.

Now I wasn’t sure what to do. No one could see me behind the van, but I couldn’t simply walk right past them. I looked into the bamboo forest yards away. It looked too thick, too impenetrable–with stalks, in places, no more than an inch or two apart. I stood there for maybe three minutes wondering if I should just walk right by the trainees and give myself away. But I had to get to the gym and Kinkos and the bathroom, so this was no time for dallying, and I was still simply too timid to walk past them. I waited for the Bunsen burner to erupt again, and when it did, I sprinted into the thick of the woods, high stepping over fallen branches and snapping dead bamboo stalks like porcupine quills. I broke through the forest, happened upon a street, walked to the bus stop, and head to Kinkos.


Kinkos was on Ninth Street near my old parking lot. I figured I might as well say goodbye to my old neighborhood and my old parking lot—the Mill parking lot—while I was here. I walked past the coffee shops, nodded my head to the African American bum who everyone calls “Slick.” Modeling his glitzy tennis shoes and colored shorts overtop camo pants, he looked less like a bum than an out-of-commission superhero.

The sidewalks were speckled with cigarette butts, steamrolled chewing gum, and pockets of grass bursting through sidewalk cracks. Across the road were a couple prodigious oaks whose limbs are so long they almost reach far enough over the street to tickle store roofs. I walked into the old bookshop, and then to my old parking spot.

I felt a hint of sadness. But just a hint. I am sad to leave, but also glad to go. I guess I never really felt at home here at Duke, and sometimes I wonder if I would have been better off at some hippie, artistic, liberal arts college elsewhere—some campus where I might have had an easier time fitting in. Yet I remembered how, at Duke, I’ve met some amazing professors, took some mind-bending courses, will–if all goes to plan–graduate debt-free, and had more than my fair share of fun writing about it all on this blog.

When I started the blog nearly 2.5 years ago, I wanted to share the truth with readers—to give them as authentic a picture of vandwelling as one can possibly give over the internet. I think, for the most part, I’ve remained true to this goal, but I’ve had to fight the temptation to glorify living in a van into something it’s not.

I thought about my escape from the van just an hour before. It seemed like a fitting event for my last day in the van. My idyllic slumber, when juxtaposed with the many inconveniences I experienced this morning, presents a fairly accurate depiction of my life vandwelling. There is peace and quiet and nature and cheap housing, yet there’s no bathroom, skin-melting heat, and people who may be uncomfortable with my presence…

Tomorrow morning, I head back to David’s where I’ll spend the rest of the month of May sleeping on a large bed in my air-conditioned room with Wi-Fi, which I’ll use to put the van up for sale on Craigslist.

What can I say? Despite my ambivalence about Duke, saying goodbye to the van is, well, going to be a bitch.


East Campus Gym.

Ninth Street.

Old Neighborhood.

Hula-hoops in bamboo forest.

My escape.


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