Standing outside his champagne-colored Saturn wearing a USC sweatshirt, Jonathon Marcou looks like just another good-looking frat boy. His khakis are pressed and cuffed, he wears Vans boat shoes with no socks and his long lashes almost brush the lens of his fashionable tortoise shell glasses.
But the 31-year-old rapper never graduated high school, and for the last three years, he's been living in his car. He somehow managed to make a mixtape during that time, featuring hooks and melodies which wouldn't be out of place on Power 106.
“Welcome to my humble abode,” he says, opening a door. That new car scent still lingers, and it looks freshly vacuumed. In the front seat is a loaf of bread, which he buys because it's cheap and fills him up when he can't afford to eat dinner. In the backseat is a box of toys he hopes to hand deliver to his two daughters in Florida. The trunk serves as his closet, his clothes neatly folded.
Marcou grew up on the outskirts of Tampa, the son of a single mother. Kicked out of high school, he got into cocaine, pills and mescaline. At 20, though, he did well working a telemarketing job. He began rapping with a group and by the time he was 25 had given up his day job and signed a management deal. “I always thought it might be a front for something else, but we were getting shows and making money,” he says, sitting at a table outside Tanner's Coffee Co. in Culver City.
Then, right after his 27th birthday, the studio was robbed. His relationship with the mother of his children was breaking up and a friend living in Long Beach suggested he give California a shot. In the summer of 2009, with $85 dollars in his pocket, he hopped on a Greyhound.
He crashed with friends and found a job at Rent-A-Center. He quickly realized, however, that getting to recording studios in L.A. required a car. In February 2010 he bought one. He'd lost his job, and with the car payment, food, and the money he was sending home to his girls, he didn't have enough left over to rent a room. He figured living out of his car was a temporary solution.
“That first year was hard,” he says. Not knowing L.A., he often found himself sleeping in parking lots of the wrong areas. He slept in the backseat until he woke one night to a group of people approaching his car. Now he stays in the driver's seat.
By trial and error, he learned the tricks. “If you ever have to sleep in your car for a few nights, find a Denny's parking lot. Cops come and go, which keeps people from messing with you, but the cops themselves also don't mess with you because they aren't sure if you work there or are a customer,” he says. He likes to park in the vicinity of a grocery store, a laundromat and a Bally Total Fitness, where he has a $10-a-month membership that allows him to work out and take a shower every morning and night. He knows where the best restrooms are, and never goes anywhere in the morning without taking a “bird bath” – splashing his face and washing his hands. “You want to avoid someone saying, 'Dude, did you sleep in your car?'”
A year after moving into his car, things began to look up. He scored a well-paying construction job that lasted seven months and saved enough money to rent studio time. He recorded his mixtape, Who Is Marcou?, during fall of 2011. But the job ended and he'd spent all his money.
This year has been especially difficult, and currently, he's only making about $300 a week. The thought of suicide often has crossed his mind. “It's embarrassing. When you're young and full of hope, you never …” his eyes get red and he looks down at the table. “I never thought I'd be 31 and living out of my car. I've had [a razor blade] in my hands. But I'm not a coward. I pull down my visor and look at the pictures of my girls.”
He copes by having faith (“Asking if I believe in God is like asking if I believe in my legs”), a nice phone with a Netflix account a buddy lets him use and humor. Once he took a girl to dinner. She got into his car and he'd forgotten to stash his pillow. “She asked why I had it and I made up some story about passing out drunk and wishing I'd had a pillow. 'Oh, I thought you assumed I was going to sleep with you,' she said. I was like, whew, good. 'Cause I thought you thought I lived in my car!”
He raps a new verse, and it's catchy and funny. His flow is nimble, his breath control good. Dusk falls, and it's so chilly I'm eager to get in my car until the thought occurs that Marcou likely never has that feeling. As if reading my mind, he suddenly shrugs.
“When I had a record deal, I remember thinking how much easier it was selling CDs out of my backpack. Maybe in a few years, I'll look back and think how much simpler life was living out of my car.”