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  • Ken Ilgunas

Meeting people

The day after my article published the phone at the Liberal Studies Department office was “ringing off the hook.” My program director took calls from deans—(one of them from an airport allegedly)—who were exasperated by the possibility of my story causing a media shitstorm that would potentially plop bad publicity atop Duke’s hallowed halls. My director—who was amused with the article (which I sent to her the day before it published)—responded dispassionately to all inquiries and the storm—as quick as it started—blew over.

As campus admin frenetically dealt with the situation, my article got tossed around on Facebook where I received 86 messages in my inbox the next day. Additionally, over this past semester, I’ve received countless emails, more Facebook messages, and inquiries from the media.

While I was amused with and enjoyed my fifteen minutes of fame, I was concerned about the possible consequences of revealing my secret. I worried that families out to the local ice cream shop would pose with the van for a family photo—as if it were some scenic roadside pull off—while I tried to nap inside. Bored frat boys would devise cruel ways to humor themselves like emptying their beer-filled bladders on my tires. Women—unperturbed with the sickly pallor of my pectorals and lacking the sense of smell—would chase me in ravenous packs through the streets.

Surprisingly, though, the reactions in the virtual and real worlds were vastly different. When I got back to Duke, I was glad to see that I’d maintained my precious anonymity. No one knew who I was. There were no families, no frat boys, and certainly no packs of ravenous women.

All this past semester, only two students approached me after recognizing me from my shirtless, mid-chew Salon picture. On another occasion, a middle-aged woman out of her car window smilingly said, “Hey van man.” I shot her a look of surprise, a smile, then continued on my merry way. That’s it.

The virtual world proved far more interested in my experiment. Over email, fellow vandwellers in college told me about the secrets they’d been keeping from their campuses. Several high school teachers and even a professor told me they had their students read my article to complement their lessons on Thoreau and transcendentalism. A couple freshman were curious how to get jobs with the Park Service. I received several free dinner offers and had three meals with middle-aged homosexual men alone.

I had dinner with Viv and George in Chapel Hill who later asked me to watch their dogs for a weekend. I emptied out the frozen dinners in their freezer, happy to take a break from noodles and cereal for a few days.

I got invited to a dinner hosted by a couple Taiwanese students. When one of the guests asked where I lived, I told her and she exclaimed, “Oh my god! You’re the van man! You don’t even smell!” After expressing more surprise that I didn’t carry a cloud of fleas around with me, I asked her to translate an article written in Taiwan about me, which was without note except that Taiwan—through some miscommunication—thinks that I live on “1 yuan a day” which equals 16 cents.

And then I got an email from David—a minimalist, misanthrope, doomer, and hermit who’s known in circles as the “grandfather of the introvert liberation movement.” I knew we’d get along.

He lives in a newly built Gothic revival cottage surrounded by woods on a gravel road in the middle of Nowhere, North Carolina that he calls “Acorn Abbey.” He has a blog here. I spent a weekend with him in February. David’s retired and doesn’t particularly like manual labor so he offered me free room and board this summer if I’d help him build a fence for his organic garden and tend to the crops and his four chickens.

I was offered my job with the Park Service where I’d worked the past two summers. It would have been another 10K in my pocket for relatively enjoyable work. I was tempted, but I have other goals, namely to:

1. Have a 50-book summer. Reading a book, for me, is like jogging. Sometimes I love jogging and sometimes I hate it, but if I don’t do it routinely, my body, like my mind, weakens and withers. I’ll never get around to reading all 50, but I’ll surpass—in pursuit of achieving a lofty goal—what I’d accomplish with a more modest one.

2. Enroll in an independent study course. I will be advised by a history professor in a course we’ve designed called “Student Debt and the Self” I’m curious how debt turns us into a certain type of citizen and I hope to explain, philosophically, the personal and social ramifications caused by debt.

3. Write a book proposal. After my article published, a literary agent inquired if I’d be interested in expanding the article into a book. It’s typically a 70-page document from what I’ve heard and I’m still working on assembling a table of contents. It’s both an exciting and daunting project. There’s little chance it’ll get picked up, but I knew I’d need to pursue this with every ounce of mettle I could muster. I need time, not a paycheck.

4. Live the good life. More and more, I fantasize about living in a Walden-esque cabin on the edge of the woods—a home base where I can yield crops, yet remain active as a citizen. There’s no sense in glorifying a certain sort of life. I need to test my theories. That’s why I’m spending my summer with David.

I believe there’s a happy medium somewhere between work of the mind and work of the body, which I haven’t been able to find at Duke or on my working tour across the continent. Here at Acorn Abbey, for the past three weeks, I’ve been building a fence, planting and tending crops while reading voraciously. I’m living something close to my idea of the good life.

While my living costs this summer will almost be non-existent, my bank account is slowly draining. I have four more courses to complete before getting my degree and just enough money—barring some medical catastrophe—to pay for them. My loan-free college-degree experiment is almost complete. While this experiment has helped me save money, earn a college degree, achieve national notoriety, and draw a line between my wants and my needs, one of the most fulfilling aspects of my goal has been the human connections I’ve made.


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