Hotel Sienna: Life in a Minivan
I drive a 1998 Toyota Sienna minivan named Phyllis. I am a 22-year old female, and I do not have kids who play soccer. Or kids at all for that matter. But Phyllis was my home during my senior year of college, and so we’ve grown rather close.
Phyllis is painted a color Toyota calls “Silver Spruce.” She has 181,648 miles, defunct air conditioning that no amount of Freon will cure, a front-passenger window that goes down but not up, brakes that need replacement (badly) and one side-door whose inside panel came off so many times that I finally gave up on duct tape and threw the panel in the trash. When she starts up, Phyllis makes a sound I can only describe as disgruntled.
To save money on rent my senior year, I removed Phyllis’ backseats, used an egg carton-like foam pad and my friend’s old surfboard cover as mats, and slept in my camping sleeping bag. I put my clothes in a plastic dresser and used a sun-reflector to block out the morning rays. Bathrooms (or lack thereof) posed the biggest dilemma. At night, I parked by my campus gym, which had both showers and bathrooms (but which also closed rather early). Custodians working late-night hours would let me in, not without giving a confused glance to my toothbrush in hand. But for that occasional middle-of-the-night-pee… well, let’s just say the bushes near my parking lot ended up getting a little more watering than usual.
Friends and peers found Phyllis and my new living situation very cool—lack of bathrooms and all. I stood behind a few freshman boys in line in the cafeteria one day and heard them talking about this “rad” senior girl who had starting living in her car. I felt famous. Two friends in the grade below me started sleeping outside almost every night (despite the fact that they had an apartment), next to a ditch. They referred to it as The Drain, speaking of their sleeping exploits with pride. I resisted the urge to call them posers. Inspired by my story (or so I’d like to think) another student, a commuter, started sleeping in his car instead of driving home every night. I had followers. I had started an anti-rent revolution. I was cool.
When I first started sleeping in my car, I would avoid telling those outside my circle of friends where I lived. Given that sleeping in your car was illegal by both city law and the school’s handbook, I exercised a little prudence. But divulging my living situation to those I could trust elicited a response so bolstering to my ego that I began to skirt the question less; soon I thoroughly enjoyed answering questions about Phyllis and what it was like to sleep in your car, providing details on van-life with pride. The truth is, I liked being different, and I liked people thinking I was different.
I drove Phyllis around with swagger, blaring Led Zeppelin and rocking my head in the manner generally only allowed for those with much cooler vehicles. When I heard comments like, “You’re the only girl I know who can pull off a minivan,” I took them as supreme and ultimate compliments.
But now, out of college, paying rent (barely), and trying to be adult-like, the minivan has lost some of its appeal. It turns out Phyllis’ charm was pretty short-lived: something akin to shame has replaced my swagger. I wouldn’t let this reach Phyllis’ ears, of course, but depending on where I’m going or whom I’m meeting, I’ll park well away from my destination, choosing to show up on foot rather than in a car that still shows signs of being lived in. The other day, leaving a Starbucks’ patio after turning down the flirtations of a fellow customer, I couldn’t help but feel slightly embarrassed driving away (in clear view of the patio) in a soccer mom’s vehicle. I suddenly felt so very unsexy.
I realized then that, in a lot of ways, I’ve never been very different. I cared in college about what people think, and I still care now. It just happened to be that living in your car was novel and exciting and epic to a bunch of college kids who had (most of us, at least) always lived relatively soft and plush lives. Acting like it was “no big deal,” I sneakily boasted about living in my 1998 Toyota Sienna in the same way someone might slyly insert into conversation that they own a beach house in the Hamptons: radically different boasts, yes, but oddly with the same goal of self-aggrandizement.
It’s been hard for me to realize that what I enjoyed most about living in a minivan was telling people I lived in a minivan. I liked my brief moment of glory. But it’s been even harder to realize that, a year later, not much has changed. I’m 22, and I still just want to be cool.
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