April 8, 2019 – Dash Point State Park, Federal Way, WA
Life can change in an instant—just one catastrophic event can throw things into chaos. It’s how many become homeless, through the loss of a job, the loss of an un-insured house, the cost of an un-insured medical condition. Though I’m living in a tent, I haven’t considered myself a “homeless” person, until last Monday that is.
The day began with the promise of sunshine and a game of pickleball. I’d been yearning to play since leaving Hawaii 3 months ago, and finally we both had paddles. Our plan was to find the closest court and hit the ball around a bit, so I could teach Brent the basics of the game. Then, the next day, we’d drop in at an indoor session and play some real games.
We picked up Brent’s prescription, then headed to the pickleball courts. Halfway there, in the left turn lane, the Jeep stalled out. It refused to start again, but fortunately gravity was on our side. I threw the car into neutral, Brent jumped out, gave it a quick push, then jumped back in while I coasted onto the side street of a nearby apartment complex. Our first concern was the battery since we’d recently had the car tuned up and were told we needed a new one. We walked up to a nearby auto parts store, picked up a battery, pulled it back a mile or so on a trolley, and plopped it into the Jeep. It started up this time, but it sounded like shit, rattling and shaking like an ancient tractor. Coincidentally, another mechanically-challenged car sat parked right in front of us and a local mechanic had stopped by to take a look at it. He heard our clanging engine and his grim expression told us this wasn’t going to be a cheap problem to fix.
What in the hell would we do without a car? We couldn’t survive. Not only did we need it to haul our stuff, but now that we were in a tent site with no power, we depended on it to charge our phones. Brent had two important appointments that week. An MRI (finally!) was scheduled for Wednesday, and his court hearing for early Friday morning. Getting to the hearing would require two hours travel time on four different buses.
My brain was on overload, trying to find an exit route from the mess we were in. I sat around camp, as paralyzed as the Jeep on the side of the road, running by different scenarios which, in my negative state of mind, all led to the same place—I’d be stuck with a car payment for the next 3 years on a car I no longer owned. Not only that, but I’d have to get a new loan for another car. How could I handle that? I couldn’t.
The first time we ventured out of camp carless was the first time I felt truly homeless. But it wasn’t all bad. Brent had mentioned many times the negative side of homelessness—the tweakers, the scammers, the cold rain—but that night I saw a different side. As we sat with Loki on the curb outside Safeway, I noticed for the first time two distinctly different worlds. There was the world of hustle and bustle, shoppers who came and went, hurrying to grab what they needed, rarely talking to others. Then there were the homeless, more than I’d ever noticed. They shared a common bond and didn’t hesitate to approach us, share information, request a smoke. It was Brent’s world and, though I didn’t understand it as he did, I was beginning to feel more at home in this other place, where people spoke their mind—no bullshit here. We hiked back that night, both of us wearing heavy backpacks, and my aching body the next morning screamed “get a car!”
The Hotline website advertised a rental car for $10 a day. “Let’s rent a car for a week while we decide our next step.” I’d paid $10 just the day before to get Brent to his MRI appointment by Uber, so it sounded like a good idea to me, at first. I thought I’d reserved the car for the same day, but as we sat on the bus headed for town, I noticed the reservation began on the following day (Friday). Brent’s court appointment was early Friday morning, and we needed the car right away. I called the main number for Enterprise and, judging by the heavily accented voice on the other end, I’d reached a call center in some distant country. I explained that I needed to move the reservation up a day. “No problem,” he told me in broken English. “You can pick up the car at 10:30.”
We arrived at the rental agency and the woman behind the counter set me straight. “Sorry, we don’t have any economy cars available right now. We tried to call you, but we didn’t have your phone number.” What?, I thought to myself. You mean the call center didn’t relay the number? Surely that would be considered vital information??
“We should have one available this afternoon around 2:30. I’ll give you a call.”
We strapped on our packs and hiked down to a nearby mall, looking for ways to kill time. A couple of hours later, I called the agency for a status report.
“Sorry, we still don’t have any economy cars, but we do have a compact car available. We’re not supposed to hold them, but if you can be here in 30 minutes I’ll save it for you.”
“Great.” I wasn’t happy about having to pay more, but surely it couldn’t be that much more, I thought to myself. Turned out there were two available, and I decided on the blue Nissan Sentra. Then we got down to the nitty gritty. “Do you have insurance?”, she asked.
“No, I cancelled my policy when I realized my Jeep was totaled. I can probably re-activate it, but it’s liability-only coverage.” I’d rented cars in the past and they’d always accepted my insurance, even though it wasn’t full coverage. In fact I spoke to someone a day later who’d recently rented from Enterprise using only his liability insurance.
The agent didn’t look happy. “We need to protect our cars. Without full coverage, you’ll have to purchase our insurance, but don’t worry, I’ll find the cheapest rate for you.”
Great, I thought to myself. Not only do I have to pay for an upgraded vehicle, but now I have to pay for insurance as well. My car rental had jumped from the advertised $10 a day to more than $30.
Two days later, we shopped for used cars and found a 2010 Ford Ranger truck with canopy that would be perfect for our travels. They would pay off my old loan and give me a new one, with a monthly payment not much higher than the other. I turned in the rental car and composed a letter to the Enterprise district manager, requesting a refund for the insurance charges and the upgraded vehicle cost. On the receipt, I noticed they wrote that I had “accepted” their “optional” insurance policy. Right …
Finally, things are looking up. We have a decent vehicle and it’s a stick shift! That’s all I drive in Italy and I prefer them. Brent is already making plans for improvements. He’s building storage cabinets for the back under the camper shell, and a bed on top of that so we access our stuff and sleep as well. It won’t cost much since he’s using wood from pallets scavenged from the back of stores.
We don’t have results yet from Brent’s MRI, but the hearing went well. The prosecution hasn’t been able to locate the homeless guy yet (the person on the losing end of the altercation), though they’ve left numerous messages. If they can’t locate him in the next two weeks, the case will most likely be dropped. It’ll be at least 3 weeks before we can head out to Arizona. By that time, we’ll be close to warm weather in Washington and hot weather in Arizona. I’d be tempted to stay here until the fall, but not sure I want to continue camping. These same old clothes are starting to get to me—last night I was back in my long johns again—and water is starting to seep through the tent floor.
As I’m writing this, rain has moved in, and the sky is overcast. Loki is losing his winter coat and tufts of fur dot the campsite. The more aggressive birds, mostly crows, are hopping in to retrieve it for their nest building. Though it’s a weekday, we’ve entered high season for camping, and Dash Point is nearly full. Across the way sits a small yellow school bus, its rear end adorned with stickers. There’s a big one across the top stating “PRIVATE CARRIER” and a handicapped sticker below a window adorned with an abstract dove. At one point I look up from my typing and see that the bus is rocking and rolling. The wild gyrations continue for a couple of minutes, then cease. It’s a scene I’ve seen played out in numerous comedy movies and I laugh silently. Handicapped, eh?? Not where it counts, I guess.