I was lying in my bed, half asleep, when I heard the first knock.
It wasn’t so much of a knock as a bang. Someone was pounding on the side of my house. In the large metal box that is my van, it reverberated around the small space and startled me awake.
I had been half asleep when it happened. Just in that place before sleep, where you aren’t quite awake but you can still sense what’s happening around you. My heart rate skyrocketed.
Who is that? What is happening?
“Hello? Open up in there!” Someone was yelling at me to open my door. The loud commanding voice of someone who is used to being intimidating was reaching me through my thin metal walls.
I didn’t move. My heart was pounding in my chest as I shrunk slowly under my covers.
The pounding went on and I lay frozen, terrified, listening. I knew the laws in Santa Cruz prohibited people from sleeping in their cars, but I wasn’t sure the people outside my van were cops.
I slid my hand out of my covers and grabbed my phone so the light of it wouldn’t give away my presence. It was 11:48pm. I was breathing shallow breaths under my covers, trying to open them a crack so I could breath easily without moving too quickly. I didn’t want to rock the van.
The man outside was still yelling at me to open up. Alternately banging on my van door, shouting and then jumping on and shaking my van. Every sound was amplified by the hollow metal frame of the van, making my whole world shake.
What do I do??
I had been waiting for a friend to get out of a late night movie with his girlfriend. The movie had started at 9pm and I figured they would be done around 11:30, we’d have a beer or two, chat and then I would go to sleep in my van while they went into his dads house for the night.
I was parked on the upper west side of Santa Cruz, a beautiful part of town on a hill with a view of the Monterey bay. The night had been cloudless, and I had sat on my bumper for a few minutes just looking at the starts in the night sky.
I was parked across the street from my friends house. It was one of the childhood homes we had grown up in. I had memories of pool parties, trick or treating, hide and go seek and countless family dinners in this house. It’s the kind of place that tugs at your heartstrings when you see it. I remembered it being bigger, of course.
Around 11:15 I had decided to lay down in bed and just rest. I texted my friend:
"Hey, I’m going to rest a bit and watch a movie on my laptop. Shoot me a text when you get here."
My eyelids had drooped and I started to doze off. I turned out the lights and lay my head on the pillow, he’d text me when he got out of the movie… surely….
BANG BANG BANG
And now here I was. Lying as still as possible under my covers, slowly suffocating under my blankets. It was so hot. I was sweating and cold all at the same time. I texted my friend desperately multiple times, but his phone was off.
What do I do??
The person banging on my door wasn’t going away. They didn’t say who they were. They just kept yelling. So I stayed still.
10 minutes passed. Then 15. I looked at my phone, 12:15am.
What do I do??
I could see a flashlight tracing the outline of all my windows, trying to find me inside. I didn’t breathe.
I heard soft whispered voices outside my van. A man and a woman. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but they were speaking to each other. They sounded afraid.
The man outside tried opening the doors. The handles rattled innefectively. I always lock my van at night.
The yelling man was standing on my front tire and shaking the van as hard as he could. He was trying the doors, he was yelling for me to open up, he was banging on the door. I squeezed my eyes shut and stayed still.
I could hear more hushed speaking outside my van. The banging stopped. A car had pulled up behind me and was shining it’s headlights on the back of my van. People we’re walking around the outside of my van saying things to each other that I couldn’t quite make out.
Someone came up and slapped something on my drivers side window. I heard footsteps walking away towards the car, there was a final vindictive bang on the side of my van, then I heard car doors slam and the car drove away.
I didn’t move.
It was silent outside.
But I didn’t move.
What do I do??
Minutes passed. I sweat. But I didn’t move.
Should I drive away? Should I stay? I can’t stay here. My friend hasn’t texted me back, should I just leave? Maybe I’ll just park in his drive way? Maybe his Dad is home? We can laugh about this tomorrow over coffee. Fuck! What the heck was that?
I slowly, gently, got out of bed. Walking on eggshells would be an understatement. I'm terrified if I move to quickly someone will be tipped off to my presence. I reach for the water bottle on my kitchen counter and drink deeply. I was parched. No time for anything else. I quickly got in the front seat of my van, pulled down the blind I had up, and pulled into my friends driveway.
I felt like crying. My heart was beating insanely fast. I looked on my window and saw an ‘abandoned vehicle’ notice had been slapped on my drivers side window.
I definitely couldn’t sleep now.
I turned on my lights. Sat down on the floor and grabbed my journal. Writing always calmed me down.
I guess it was the police? Why did they nock on my van? Did I do the right thing? Should I have opened the door? How was I to know it was the police? They didn’t identify themselves. What if that had been some crazy stranger?
I sat on the floor and took deep breaths until my hand stopped shaking. I put pen to paper and started writing.
5 minutes later I heard a car pull up behind me. Headlights on. I heard loud footsteps and then another bang on my van.
BANG BANG BANG
My lights were on and my side door was open. Why would it not have been? I was awake and in what amounted to my second home.
“Hello?” I peaked my head out of my van. “Can I help you?”
There were 3 cop cars parked behind my van. 6 cops stood in various positions around me. Bright lights shone instantly into my face. The silhouette of a man reached his hand to his hip.
“Sit on the curb over there. Right now.”
I sat on the curb.
There were two cops standing above me. Two were standing on the street directing traffic, and two were shining lights around my van and the parking lot in general.
The rest was a repeating list of questions.
"What are you doing here?"
"I’m waiting for a friend."
"Who’s your friend?"
I give them his name. "We grew up together. This is his Dads house."
"Where is your friend?"
"He’s in a movie with his girlfriend."
"Can we search your van?"
"Who else is in the van."
"What are you doing here?"
"…I’m waiting for a friend."
"Are you on drugs?"
"Are you drunk?"
On and on and on. Over and over again. It’s 12:45 in the morning. I'm wearing my pajama shirt and a pair of shorts. The concrete is digging into my thighs leaving uncomfortable indentations that stick to my legs when I move. My arms are crossed over my chest self consciously, I'm not even wearing a bra.
They ask me to call my friend, but I left my phone in my van.
"Can I get my phone?"
"No. We will have an officer get your phone for you. But we need to search your van."
A tall cop with short cropped white hair keeps asking me who else is in the van. He kneels down so his eyes are level with mine but I can barely make out his face with all the lights in my eyes. He's just a silhouette of a man and a stern voice. He could be anybody.
No one.. I tell them. It’s just me. I’m alone. He doesn’t believe me.
"Who else is in the van?"
People are driving by on the street. Someone takes a video of me sitting on the curb with 6 cops standing around me.
"Do you have permission to be here? They ask me."
"This is my friends house. I basically grew up here, I’m just waiting for him to get back from a movie with his girlfriend."
"Do you have a romantic relationship with this friend?"
"What? No. We’re friends."
Over and over again.
“I think I know what’s going on here.” The short blond cop says to me. He writes something in his note book and closes it.
“We just called the owner of the house. You do not have permission to be here. So, you are going to get in to your van and drive away from here. Do not come back. Do you understand me?”
The cop who has been doing most of the talking takes out his phone and snaps 3 photos of me sitting on the curb "In case the owner of the house reports anything missing." He tells me. I smile awkwardly, hoping they never show these photos to my friends Dad.
“Ok. Now get out of here. And never, ever come back. ”
I’ve wrapped my arms around me because of how cold it is. I walk barefoot, back to my car. I feel ashamed. I feel like I’ve done something wrong. I feel like a criminal.
As I sit in the drivers seat I put my hands over my eyes and lean against the steering wheel while the cops behind me pack up and leave.
I drive slowly back to my moms house on the other side of town. There are tears in my eyes but I refuse to cry. This was a stupid misunderstanding. I grew up in that house! I went to birthday parties and ate cake and had a lemonade stand on the street.
I pull up outside my moms house and park my van. I feel creaky and old as I amble slowly into bed.
I hate this.
I think as I lay down in my sweatpants and hoodie.
I hate this.
I bunch the covers up around my face and try to sleep.
I woke up groggily the next morning.
Having the cops called on you sucks.
I woke up to the sound of my phone buzzing repeatedly on my desk. My friend had finally seen all my frantic texts for help and was responding. He wanted to know if I was ok, he wanted to know if they had given me a ticket, he wanted to know what happened.
I was fine, I assured him, only half meaning it.
It turned out that the neighbors who lived across the street had seen me in my grey hoodie sitting on my bumper watching the stars and thought I was sitting staring at their house. They called the cops to get me to leave, and when I didn't come out the cop slapped an abandoned vehicle sticker on the side of my van. When I had driven into my friends driveway the neighbors had been watching me and called the cops again to say I was trying to rob the house across the street.
When the cops had called my friends Dad in the middle of the night, they hadn't given them my name, they had just said "There's a woman trying to get into your house." Which is why he had told them I wasn't allowed on the property.
I got off the phone with my friend and sat on my floor.
That sucked. It felt like I was a criminal. I hadn't done anything wrong, other than sitting on my bumper and being too afraid to come out of my van. Maybe I should have just opened the door after the first nock?
I thought about the couple who had called the cops on me. What must I have looked like to them? A stranger in a hoodie sitting on the bumper of a big grey van late at night outside their house. I wanted to be mad at them.
I wanted to tell them to get their heads out of their asses and stop assuming everyone who didn't live like they did was out to take their stuff and ruin their lives. Living on the upper west side of Santa Cruz means you have the kind of money that can buy you the security of 6 cops showing up outside your door when you get scared. It means you have kids that go to expensive colleges and you're considering running for office in the next few years once you've paid off your most recent vacation home.
How could someone living that kind of life, who already had so much power, take away my good nights sleep and make me feel like I was a criminal just for existing? They had taken away my security, in a place that was central to my upbringing. A space that had been safe and formative and a foundational part of my existence was taken away, and all because they were afraid I was going to take their stuff...
I could feel the anger, but it was far away. The more powerful emotion I felt was pity.
I felt bad for them. I almost wanted to buy them flowers and apologize for scaring them.
What kind of existence is it to be that afraid?
They lived in a big house on top of a hill with expensive cars in the driveway. They had a balcony with a view of the ocean, and large bay windows that were nearly floor to ceiling, and they were afraid of...me?
What a beautiful wall you must have built around yourself to feel those kinds of emotions. The hushed voices I had heard the night before must have been the husband and wife. Maybe this wasn't the first time they had called the cops on someone like me, maybe they were used to staring out the window, waiting for someone to come park in front of their house so they could jump up and call the police to remove the sight of a shabby old vehicle from their evening view of the city lights.
I thought about my own life.
For me strangers were just new friends waiting to be made, and the sight of a new van on the block was cause for excitement. I got up and started boiling water for coffee. I thought about all of my actual homeless friends who couldn't even afford a van, and lived out of backpacks or motorcycles with saddle bags. They spent their nights living in caves in the forests, or bivying on the side of the road. I thought about the way I had looked at homeless people before I hit the road. Had this couple with the nice house on a hill thought of me the way I had once thought of the bums on the side of the interstate?
I thought about my privilege. I thought about all the stories in the news of black men and women who had been shot by cops like the ones who had pulled me over for doing much less than refusing to answer the door. I thought about the homelessness issues in Santa Cruz and wondered if the couple in the house on the hill had been robbed by a homeless person before.
I kept coming back to this idea that these people thought I wanted their stuff.
The reality is that I want the life farthest from what they have created. But we live in a society that assumes that wealth is everyones ultimate goal and those who do not have it are going to do whatever it takes to get it. I wondered if they had done whatever it took to get that house on a hill. Was their own desperation in gaining wealth and security also what pushed them to live in fear of that being taken away?
All that stuff, taken away by someone like me.
My water had boiled and I poured it over the coffee grounds. I opened my side door and held the warm french press in my hands to keep away the chill of the cold morning. I sat in the doorway and looked out into the driveway of my moms house.
I have everything I need right here.
I drank my coffee as the sun rose, thought about the complexity of money, and wondered if I would ever own a house on a hill and call the cops on someone like me.