By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
"I miss having a girlfriend to come over and hang out with," he says. "It's hard to find someone who wants to live outside the bounds of culture. I'll meet someone who seems interested in me, and eventually where I live comes up. I see them look at me like, 'Oh, you live in a van.' And usually that's that."
Still, Exile isn't ready to sign a lease anytime soon. He believes that being "situationally poor," or "poor by choice," offers the greatest advantage: freedom.
"One night I was traveling up Highway 1, and I parked on the side of the road and went to sleep. I woke up overlooking the cliffs near San Simeon. I looked out over the ocean and thought to myself, 'Yeah, this doesn't suck.' "
When Suzanne Verdal decided to leave Montreal for L.A. in 1996, it made front-page news. The Montreal Gazette ran a full-color photo of a beaming Verdal cradling two cats in front of a fairy-tale wooden Gypsy camper built inside an old pickup. "Suzanne Leaving Her Place Near The River," read the headline. She was such a local celebrity that there was no need to use her last name.
Today the camper sits at the end of a Santa Monica cul-de-sac, just outside a bungalow above the 10 freeway, where the sound of traffic competes with the sound of breaking waves. This is where Verdal is staying with her "shelter angel," Dean. For six years until recently, she had been living in her camper.
When Verdal answers the bungalow door, she's practically glowing, her long, black hair tied up in a scarf covered in peace signs. She's wearing delicate pink shoes, like ballet slippers, and a long, flouncy skirt. "Come on in!" she says. We pass through the bedroom; jazz is playing softly on the radio, scrapbooks and pictures of Verdal covering the bed and parts of the floor.
She has made tea, with cream and honey, and offers fresh dates, nuts and pastries. "Oh, do you want some Camembert?" she calls from the kitchen, pronouncing Camembert like a real Québécoise, with a throaty "r."
As Verdal sits on her bed, flipping through her scrapbooks, it's easy to connect the woman now sipping tea with the one in the black-and-white photos, a teenager barely out of high school, with cropped gamine hair and big doe eyes lined in black kohl.
In the '60s, the young avant-garde dancer had been the darling of Montreal's flourishing beatnik scene. It was there she first met Leonard Cohen, who would later write the poem about her that became his hit song "Suzanne." But being immortalized by Cohen is only one story in the scrapbooks. Along with the photos of Verdal are homages to her written by poets; letters of recommendation about her talent from the CBC; awards for costume design in Minnesota. One especially proud correspondence declares that she had been made an official Romany Gypsy. But her greatest accomplishment, she says, was getting her green card to the U.S., based on her artistic achievements in Montreal.
By 1996, Verdal had decided to seek her fortune in L.A. as a choreographer. Wanting to arrive in style — on a budget — she designed and built the wooden vardo camper, her "ultimate fantasy vehicle," out of recycled cedar siding and downed trees found on a friend's land. Arriving with $100 in her pocket, she says it was hard to be "the new kid on the block." Eventually she found her way, got a few gigs — choreographer on a couple of music videos, teaching dance to actors, doing French voice-over for films. But there were less glamorous jobs, too, such as selling ads for the Culver City News and cleaning houses. Meanwhile, Verdal began to build a clientele for her massage practice. "I started getting my foot in the door. It's a double life, trying to make ends meet as an artist."
Still, she made enough to rent a three-bedroom town house in Culver City and to open her own dance studio.
Only four years later, all the momentum would be lost. Her then-boyfriend had repaired the ladder on her camper, but she didn't know he had used small picture-frame nails until it broke loose when she was on it, and she fell backward from a height of six feet onto concrete. "Instinctively, I put my wrists out to break my fall. If I hadn't, the doctors said, I'd be paralyzed. Concrete has no bounce, no mercy; it's completely unforgiving."
Verdal shattered both wrists (one still has a metal bar) and a vertebra in her lower back. "I couldn't dance anymore. I couldn't feed myself or go to the bathroom. I was incapacitated," she recalls, clutching her wrists. "The turmoil of knowing that I had lost something I'd worked for all my life was the most devastating experience; there were moments when I didn't want to live."
Worse, she became ill from mold growing in her apartment, and when she told her landlord that he had to fix the problem or she'd report him to the health department, he responded by evicting her. With nowhere to go, she moved into her camper and headed to the beach.