Living off the Grid
You've seen them. Maybe one has even parked on your street: a conversion van, curtains drawn, or a camper with signs of everyday life. They are so ubiquitous in Venice that some locals have been trying to turn the onetime hippie enclave into a parking-permit-only town as a way to ward off these "undesirables." Who are these people who can live in a van? Some have made the choice to downsize their lives, not wanting to live conventionally or pay rent, and some have been forced to scale back their lives due to losing their job or their home. Either way, it takes a certain kind of person to give up the trappings most of us have become so accustomed to. Living in a van is not just a lifestyle but a state of mind. Many thousands in L.A. are living in their vehicles or in tents or some other temporary shelter. Four of their stories follow.
STEVE IN EXILE
It's a rainy day and Exile has been holed up at home, a faded blue and rust-specked 1969 Econoline conversion van. He's sitting cross-legged, dressed in layers, baggy cargo pants and a T-shirt over black thermals. His soles, thick with calluses, are black from the miles he's walked barefoot. Exile has the look of a castaway — long, graying, stringy hair tied in a ponytail, several days' worth of stubble, and intense, yellow eyes.
He moves around a lot to avoid overstaying his welcome. Sometimes he spends a couple days out by the beach, or he heads up to Santa Cruz, but lately he's been parking at a secluded spot by the L.A. River, where no one seems to notice him. That's a good thing.
At one time Exile was known as Steve, an accountant working for a dot-com company, living in apartments in Culver City and later in Sacramento. Steve had short hair and glasses, wore button-down shirts and khakis, ate meat and drank bottled water. He drove a Honda Civic coupe with a sunroof.
But Steve was also a budding anarchist, and he found it increasingly difficult to avoid hypocrisy in his own life and harder to live among what he calls the "gen pop," or general population. "For brevity's sake, I'm an anarchist," he explains, "but I generally don't follow the anarchist line, 'cause a lot of anarchists are anarchists in label only. They talk a good talk, they advertise all their causes in patches and walk around looking like a marketing campaign. But what are they really doing to provoke change?"
Steve had always been an activist, but as he grew older, he became more a weekend warrior.
"I was going out there and challenging authority and challenging the system directly," he says, "then having to go back to the office on Monday, to this dreary, humdrum lifestyle I had adopted for myself, for the sake of creature comforts. It felt foreign, and I felt so absent from it all."
Six years ago, fully committing to his beliefs, Steve quit his job and began to shed the layers of his life: He gave away furniture to friends, sold his car, pared possessions to whatever could fit in his van, and then he moved in. Steve became Exile.
"I made a choice to live in my van, so that I don't have to work at a job I don't like or to limit my speech to that which is comfortable for people," Exile explains, as he prepares lunch with raw sprout wraps that have been "liberated from Whole Paycheck."
"The status quo dictates that if you don't live by their standards, you're considered homeless or a social pariah or whatever critique they want to throw at you," he says. "My van is different from other people's homes, but it's a home. I'm not paying rent on a place I don't own. I think it's comfortable, I like it."
He surveys the wooden-paneled van, rain falling gently on the roof, and points to some speaker parts he's about to install. "Plus, it's about to have a bomb-ass stereo."
Exile spends most of his days as a full-time activist, living months at a time on the Cal/Mexico border, in what he calls "a low-intensity warfare state" with the Border Angels, bringing food and water to dying, dehydrated immigrants. Don't get him started on animal rights, especially the "number of animals who die in laboratories at UCLA, Davis, Berkeley, Arizona State; animals that don't have the luxury of escaping the torture and horrors inflicted upon them."
Protesting has not been entirely peaceable for Exile. He has felt concussion grenades, tasted tear gas; he's been beaten up and thrown in jail. He was hospitalized after fighting for the South Central Farm: A security guard broke his nose in two places and the bones in his face below his left eye socket, crushing his maxillary sinus cavity. "A nurse told me not to sneeze or my eye might pop out," he says, almost laughing.
Exile does have to work odd jobs, every so often, to pay for his food and gas, and he admits that living in his van isn't perfect, mainly because he must still rely on fossil fuels to get around. The van has no electricity, but since he's vegan and eats raw, he doesn't need it. Other than occasional harassment by police, which he avoids by paying attention to street signs and by paying his "rent" (vehicle registration) once a year, the biggest drawback for Exile is loneliness.
"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.
Verdal remembers being terrified those first few nights in her camper. "I slept with one eye open, like cats do. I was frightened of lunatics, vandals, the cops and crazy people, lonely people in the middle of the night."
It was a cold November, and she slept in the warmest part of the truck: a bunk toward the roof. The space was too small to stretch her legs out, so she slept in the fetal position. She took in two more cats. Her cats kept her warm. "They saved my life," she says. "Time has a way of slipping without you noticing. The cats became my alarm clocks, waking me for their breakfast, keeping me grounded."
With no other means to express herself, Verdal says, she made homelessness her performance art. "I had to have the camper clean, neat, the bedding fresh. I got very creative with cooking. I always kept my clothes fresh and looking good. No one would believe I was homeless. My hair was always neat. I didn't want to buy into that stigma of being downtrodden, part of the great unwashed, as it were, in the eyes of the world."
She set up her chair, and planters bursting with vibrant geraniums on either side of the chair. It challenged passersby because there was beauty and dignity in her situation.
"I had to win people over, and it took a long time," Verdal says, sitting cross-legged on her bed. "They think either you're a mental case or you're a drug addict, or there's something very, very dysfunctional about you, for you to live in your truck. Sometimes people would come talk to me, but most times people treated homelessness as if it was some kind of contagious disease."
Verdal flips through her scrapbooks and pulls out a couple sheets of paper, her poems written to her street sisters and brothers. She chokes up a bit as she reads them. "It's something very visceral that you feel out there," she says when she's finished. "It's so empowering because you're able to survive another day, pretty gracefully, and not get hooked on anything — when you know you could, very easily, through despair, take an extra drink or get hooked on something that's not legal. I'm telling you, had I not had the dancer's discipline, I might have."
"I've been a vagrant for some time," says Raven Servellon, in the tiny, nearly gutted, abandoned Airstream trailer she calls home. But she doesn't look like someone you'd call a vagrant, and not just because she's young, even younger-looking than her 25 years, or freshly showered and sharp; it's because of her optimism. She smiles a lot and laughs easily. You can see a bit of the waif, a touch of street urchin, maybe? But a vagrant?
"Vagrants can't help it. There are people who are able to not be vagrants and there are vagrants. I couldn't help it. I don't want to think of myself as that now, of course," Raven asserts. "I like to think I live here now."
She surveys her space, her artwork on the trailer wall, the floral comforter on the makeshift bed, her few decorative garments hanging across from the "could-be" kitchenette. Could be, if the dollhouse-size appliances — a stove, fridge and sink — were hooked up. But if they ever worked at all, nobody knew. Instead, the stove houses some sketchbooks, the fridge some receipts. The defunct bathroom in the back was repurposed as a vanity. "I guess you can say I fell off the grid," she offers, shrugging her shoulders. "It kind of happened and I'm okay with it."
Falling off the grid for Servellon didn't happen in an instant. It was a long peregrination that perhaps unofficially began when she dropped out of high school and left her "crazy, dysfunctional family" back in Orlando. She bounced around, lived in New Orleans for a while, returned to Florida. She had been, as she describes it, "swimming through life," when she got pregnant at 19 by an on-again, off-again boyfriend. By the time she turned 20, she had given birth to her son, Quinn, and moved to begin a new life in Los Alamos, New Mexico, to be near her boyfriend's mother. "I was immature," Servellon says of herself at that time. "Just because you have a child doesn't mean you suddenly grow up."
She became increasingly restless with her life in Los Alamos, and when a 28-year-old musician living in Los Angeles began to woo her on MySpace, she saw it as her chance. She moved to L.A. to live with him, leaving behind her infant son, with the intention of settling in and sending for him in two months' time.
L.A. didn't make a great first impression: The MySpace dude lived with two other guys, who crashed in the living room. He had no car and no job and whatever online chemistry they had going on didn't hold up in real life. To compound the situation, Raven found it hard to find work.
"When I moved out here it was difficult to be stable," she says, tracing the roses on her bedspread. "I didn't come here with entertainment ambitions. I didn't know anything about art. I didn't even know what Andy Warhol looked like. I didn't do music, or any Los Angeles–type things. I just came to live here and see what happened."
She took what odd jobs she could get. One of her defining moments was landing a job at Soap Plant; it didn't pay very well, but it opened her eyes to the art world, to Warhol, and Leigh Bowery, the Bauhaus architectural movement. She gave herself a cursory education by flipping through books in the shop's aisles. And began to paint see-through pregnant women with exaggerated labia, developing a style of squiggles she calls "worms."
But everything seemed to run its course in Servellon's life and, like Blanche DuBois, she often had to depend on the kindness of strangers. Eric Kroll, the fetish photographer, let her stay with him for a while. When she got a job at 80M Gallery, the owner offered her a place to sleep, at his home in Malibu. "Malibu?" she says, wrinkling her nose in disbelief now. "Can you believe that? I lived in Malibu!"
After a few weeks, the long rides back and forth on PCH took their toll and Servellon began living in the gallery. "I washed in the sink and slept on the floor. I didn't even have a pillow. I crumpled my clothes up into a ball and slept on them. See, I'm a vagrant!"
When 80M closed in 2006, and with no other prospects, Servellon packed it up and moved back to New Mexico to be near her son, this time settling in Santa Fe. But things never took off there, either. She lost three jobs all at once. "Getting fired from three easy jobs is ridiculous. I don't know what happened exactly," she sighs. "I became so disheartened."
Servellon set her sights again on L.A. One night, she met a charismatic artist with a real mustache and a fake Russian accent. He offered her a ride to Los Angeles. With only two days' notice and without hesitation she took him up on his offer. Again, Quinn stayed behind.
Eventually, she landed in the trailer — and Servellon was excited to live there. "It's my own space. Like my own little house," she says cheerfully. She isn't bothered by anything — not the drunks who loudly wander around the hood at night or the rocking motion of the trailer as her movements shift the weight below from cinder block to cinder block. "I can tolerate a lot of situations," she says, "and I don't have much. When you move around a lot, you have to consider what you really need. There is one major source of heartache, though ..." She pauses, and looks away as she admits she left Quinn's baby book back in Santa Fe and that most likely it's gone forever.
"There are reasons people do things," Servellon says. "You can get to those reasons and sometimes you really don't want to get to them. They're painful, so you don't think about it too much."
Quinn still lives in New Mexico, with his father and stepmother. He's 5 years old and gets angry with Raven on the phone, which pains her so much she hardly calls him anymore. "I never did what I was supposed to do, basically," she mourns. "I never could do what I was supposed to do. I never could find that job that made all this money, to support me and Quinn. It wasn't coming together, and it just never did."
She has recently found work doing movie surveys for movie studios and spends her free time painting, or posting videos on her YouTube blog. "I don't know what's next. Maybe showing my art. I hope I'm doing things the right way. Am I alone in that?" she asks. "I mean, do other people know what they're doing?"
Update: Raven recently moved back in with her boyfriend, sharing his studio apartment in Glassell Park. Her son continues to live with his father in Arizona.
EASY COME, EASY GO
For the past 10 years, Easy has lived in a brick-red Westfalia van parked in one of those quiet, sleepy family neighborhoods east of Lincoln Boulevard in Santa Monica. You could find him hanging out with neighbors, talking about politics or sharing local gossip. Back then, most people on the block knew him, and some sought his company. He always parked in the same two places, moving from one to the other on street-cleaning day. Easy always said his life was just how he wanted it. He visited friends, like the couple who moved to a house in the Marina and often invited him to parties and on fishing trips on their boat.
A black man in his late 60s, Easy was always neatly dressed, freshly showered; he had a laptop and a cell phone. He was an intriguing character with a penchant for vodka and beer, but you never saw him drunk or stumbling around. He worked odd jobs, did construction or painted people's houses. Over the years, his hair grew grayer, he grew thinner, especially his arms and legs, his chest was more sunken, and he lost a few teeth.
Easy has lived in vans for more than 30 years. In the late '60s, after a failed marriage and a job that went sour, he took a lot of LSD, grew his hair out, lived in a commune, and in 1968 moved out of a two-bedroom apartment he was sharing with a drama-filled couple, Sid and Nancy on acid. He gave away his belongings and moved into a slightly rusted, dandelion-yellow Chevy van, his first of more than two dozen. "The system stopped working for me, and I stopped working for it, baby," Easy says of his decision.
He went wherever he wanted, crisscrossing the country, before settling on the street near Santa Monica College. The college offered the facilities and space he didn't have in the van, a home away from home. Easy spent his days at the school's library, using their computers and reading books, or working out in the gym, where he could shower and use the toilet. He even used the microwave in the student lounge.
"I buy those Ramen noodle packs and toss the little flavor packet. That has MSG in it; that shit's no good. I add some fresh, chopped onions, a little garlic, ketchup, a little salt and pepper, and heat it up. "
One day last year, Easy returned to find his van gone. "Well, my home was towed today," he says, completely unshaken by the event. True to his name, he was calm and unworried. "They're only things, baby." When Easy is passionate about something, he speaks like a preacher, drawing out words and adding extra emphasis to others. "O-n-l-y things!" he adds, gesturing as if he were giving a sermon. "This whole world is crazy. Stuff, things, money. That's all anybody wants is money. Simplicity. That's what I say. Life is about simplicity."
Lately he has been having trouble on the block. Many of the old neighbors have moved and a few new people don't want Easy there anymore. He suspected one lady of calling the cops, which resulted in his van being towed.
"Don't worry," he says with a smile. "I have places I can go. I'm not gonna sleep in the bushes."
But no one ever saw him on the block again — his cell phone's turned off, and he never did have e-mail. No one knows where Easy's gone.
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