You say your job has been outsourced to Mumbai, your house is in foreclosure, and our great system of plenty ain't got shit for you? Join the club. With apocalyptic headlines promising the swan dive of America's economy, every day is beginning to look like 1929, only without the flapper hats, Gatsby, or legal pot. The problem is doubly sticky for car enthusiasts — when things go completely sideways, popular theory holds that humans will abandon luxuries to fulfill their fundamental needs. On some level, it holds water — eating canned Alpo isn't too popular, but then again, neither is starving to death. But what about when your car is a fundamental need? You looked years for that unmodified twin-turbo Supra, and you'll be damned if an economic "correction" is going to rend true love asunder. There's only one answer in that case, and it's to check into the Hotel Toyota.
This is a subject on which I can speak with some authority. Two years out of high school, it was the question, "So what makes you think you have what it takes to be a team member at Bennigan's?" that started me towards the door and down the long slide to unemployment as a lifestyle. I'd left the manager there, tomato-red and fuming, unable to intimidate me with his miniscule employment superpowers. Most jobs, I came to the conclusion, were ridiculous — and if I worked at them long enough, I would become ridiculous, too. My bosses knew that I didn't want to be there; they didn't want me there, either. In the two months after that I'd discovered that I wasn't cut out for mowing grass, pouring coffee, tossing pizza, unloading trucks, customer service, shoveling dog food into bags, or — what started the tailspin — serving deep-fried bricks of suet to my distended countrymen.
I did, however, have a 1996 Integra GS-R, finished in the most ebony of color schemes and with which I sure as hell wasn't going to part. That's how, for the next three weeks, it was mi casa es mi coche. I've been there and didn't get my eggs scrambled, and there's no reason why you can't, either. But rather than survive by your wits alone, take a minute to run over the following tips so you don't make some of the same, dumb mistakes that I did.
If you have the luxury of choosing, go for a minivan or SUV with tinted windows. Pickup trucks with a rear bench seat work well for this, too, since it's hard to see in the rear with the front seats upright. With a sedan, you'll run into the problem of how to conceal yourself at night. With a coupe, you'll need to fold the rear seats down and stick into the trunk, or risk turning your spine into a curlicue. Resist the urge to sleep in a contractor van. If you do, you'll run into grief from people thinking you're either an undercover cop, running a mobile grow house, or a pederast.
Invest in some earplugs. Something you won't notice until you're actually trying to doze there is that the street is loud. Really loud. Garbage trucks, sport exhausts, and cars that go bump in the night will conspire to rob you of your precious shut-eye. Even people on the sidewalk project their voices farther than you'd expect. Yelling at people to keep it down from an apartment window usually works. Prairie-dogging your head out the sunroof to yell "Jesus Christ! I need to be at work in four hours!" doesn't garner the same sympathy.
Screw fast food. You can pick up a loaf of bread, some carrots, apples, and cheap peanut butter at the grocery store for less than five bucks, and it'll keep you fed for days. No matter how tempting, don't give in to the urge to fill your stomach with yummy hot food — a weeks' worth of the McDonald's dollar menu will set you back $42. Remember: Unless hitting the skids means you are forced to live from your Rolls-Royce Phantom, you won't have a built-in refrigerator. Everything you buy needs to keep at room temperature or be eaten that day.
You'll need to keep clean to maintain your job and your sanity, and for this you'll need a shower. Don't be a dumbass and try to rinse off using someone's garden hose, public fountains, or swimming pools. Get thee to a truck stop. Gyms may have nicer showers, but truck stops don't incur a membership fee. Remember, there's a very tremulous balance between living in your car and absolute destitution, and all that separates you from the guy that panhandled you this morning is a shave, a shower, and maybe a perforated liver.
Personal hygiene is also important. Unless you set up camp in a demilitarized zone or Chicago's south side, every fast-food chain in sight will have a clean, unlocked bathroom at your disposal. Just be sure that you don't hog the only sink in the joint, or else someone will complain to the manager. Remember, your job is to avoid conspicuity at all costs.
Don't be an idiot and park in an industrial park. Those have security companies that will notice your car in the lot after hours. Don't head out to the suburbs, either. Homeowners in suburbia are already paranoid about the rabble spoiling their manicured lawns, and they'll call in a strange car on the curb faster than you can say "white flight."
If you don't want your car to attract notice, find someplace where street parking is de rigueur and overnight permits aren't needed. Nobody is going to notice your anonymous little car when it's sandwiched in between two banged-up urban kickabouts. Get there late at night and leave before 9 AM. This will draw as little attention to yourself as possible.
If you absolutely must, Wal-Mart stores let cars, RVs, and tractor-trailers park in their lot overnight. If the rent-a-cop in the white Ford Ranger with the little amber beacon gives you grief, tell him you're just passing through and need to crash for the night.
You don't have the luxury of washing your sheets when they're car upholstery, and living in it for even a few days will funk up the interior like a gym bag. While you're out of the car, leave dryer sheets under the front seats to help mitigate the stink. If your car smells like someone gutted a hobo in the back seat, there's no way the Waffle House waitress you bring "home" is going to stick around, much less spend the night.
You may be tempted to while away the time with some cheap and tasty booze. Don't. Not only is alcohol a sure-fire way to burn through your cash reserves, but if you're rocking a buzz inside your car and the cops come knocking, the presence of your keys anywhere inside the car could be enough to charge you with OWI. There's an old chestnut that says you should pop open the gas door and put your keys in there, so that they're not technically inside the car, but like on-board hydrogen generation and Ron Paul's presidential campaign, this is one of those things that only works in theory, in Imaginationland, and on the Internet.
Electricity is a wonderful thing. You can pick up a cheap AC inverter for around $20, which will let you run your stuff off the 12-volt lighter socket in your dashboard. Just remember, you can drain your battery in a matter of hours with an inverter, and most auto clubs will only make one house call a year.
Get a post-office box as soon as you can. If you wrangle a job interview, you can use it to provide a real address on your application. And if you still have a laptop, you can get Netflix to send you DVDs to keep you from going stir crazy; $15 a month for fresh movies is less than you'll spend in one night on the town.
Wi-Fi hotspots are your best friend. Panera Bread is the old respite of the 'net-less, but Dunkin' Donuts is adding free Internet access across the country. Libraries used to provide a good place to jack in, but post-9/11 they've started welding the metaphoric sewer lids shut. Avoid airports, Starbucks, and most other chains that offer wireless access — they contract those services out to a third party, and they can charge as much as $2 an hour to connect.
Finally, you'll need to consider clothing. Clothes take up an inordinate amount of space — just think about how large your dresser is — and there are not many places you can fit them in your car while maintaining enough space for you, too. If you can't ditch the non-essentials with a friend, you'll need to find somewhere to keep them until they're needed. You'll also need a contingency plan for your dirty clothes; after spending a day calcifying on your skin, they'll pollute your clean clothes the same way a rotten apple will spoil a basket of fresh ones. Keep the dirties in their own bag until you can make a trip to the Laundromat. Dollar stores are a great source of strange-ass detergent (who knew that Tide destined for Jordan had a different label?) at cutthroat prices.
Above all, remember this: You have a set amount of hours in which to live. Most people slot those hours for staying inside on beautiful days, plodding down taupe-carpeted hallways and plotting for their next big promotion to Assistant Regional Undersecretary to the Vice President of Red Group. Hey, a man can dream, can't he? But by living out of your car, you will — by choice or circumstance — be experiencing distilled existence in a way that those shuttling numbers from column A to column B never will. The time ahead may not be easy, or comfortable, or safe, or glamorous. But it's going to be yours. And it's going to be interesting. Good luck.