Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Driving While Normative

The new movie, Nomadland, is getting a lot of attention lately.  I still haven't seen it, but I have spent probably most of my adult life living out of a vehicle in one way or another, and in the course of the pandemic depression or whatever this has been, I encounter more people than ever now who are doing so today.

As I talk to friends and hear press reports about Nomadland, I'm compelled to share some of my own experiences, in case they're interesting, informative, or hopefully both.

What is so abundantly clear to anyone who is paying attention are two things, to begin with:  there is a very wide variety of people living out of vehicles in one for or another.  And despite the wide variety of people living out of vehicles, that variety tends not to include large groups of people, such as Black people (in the US, anyway).  If there's a part of the country where that's not the case, I'd love to know about that place, but I haven't been there.  I assume the reason for this is as many Black people I've heard interviewed on the subject say it is -- they don't generally feel safe in the countryside, alone in a vehicle.

Of course, a lot of people feel safer in numbers, for lots of different reasons, thus you have no doubt noticed the phenomenon of people living in vehicles who are clustered together on particular stretches of road or parking lots.  This is partly about where you can park overnight legally in different places, and the safety in numbers effect, along with things like desire for community.

I don't know how many white people (or others?) have been fairly solidly on both sides of this invisible line, but in case you may be one who has only been on the up side of it, these words here might be particularly for you.

What I discovered a long time ago was how true it was about cops, and by extension a lot of other people who think like cops, that the rest of society falls basically into two categories that are especially relevant:  you're either a member of society in good standing, and thus basically invisible, or you're a potential criminal.  If you're in any kind of emergency situation, in need of help of any kind, and thus, particularly visible, then this schism is especially relevant.  If you're a person in good standing, then if you're in distress, you need help.  If you're a potential criminal, your state of distress is just further evidence of your criminal tendencies.

Looking back at my life of travel, a life during which I have driven tens of thousands of miles in many different vehicles in a typical year, and crossed many international borders as well, what I find notable is both how much I was profiled when I had a certain kind of look and drove a certain kind of vehicle, compared to how invisible I generally am to cops or cop types when I look more normative and drive a more normative vehicle.

What did not change throughout much of the time I have spent on the road are the various activities such as driving long distances, speeding through speed traps, sleeping in a vehicle overnight, napping in a vehicle during the day, or doing other things in a public space based out of a vehicle.

As a hippie teenager driving an ancient Volvo, it seemed like everything I did was suspect.  At that time, my license was valid and my vehicle was properly registered and insured, because I still lived with my parents, who helped me with all that stuff.  But it seemed like the police pulled me over every other week, for no reason other than that I was a teenager with long hair driving an old car.  If I was with a friend and we parked somewhere to have a conversation, this was suspicious.  If I drove past my own high school with several friends in my car, this was suspect behavior.  If I ever dared have things in my car that partially blocked the back window, that was an easy invitation to be pulled over.  I must have been pulled over a dozen times before I got out of high school.  Once it's true that I was driving in circles in a parking lot for fun.  That's as reckless as it ever got.

Living in Boston as a young gig worker, I could afford to keep a car running but I couldn't afford all the parking tickets, so after a year or so there, my Ford Tempo was taken, and I never got it back.  Years later, upon getting another small car, a Toyota Corolla, I racked up thousands of dollars in speeding tickets during my many travels around the country.  This was before I started traveling as a touring performer, and I couldn't afford to pay the tickets, so my car situation was completely illegal.  I was driving around for years when my license was suspended and my car was totally illegal because of so many tickets in so many states.

Time and time again, however, although I'd get pulled over in the first place for expired tags or speeding or having a tail light out or any of the other reasons people driving old cars often get pulled over, once they talked to me and determined that I sounded too literate and polite and looked too freshly-showered to be a criminal, I'd always end up getting to drive off, where someone else would get the car impounded and get arrested.  Which finally did happen to me, too, eventually, in Southbury, Connecticut, only a few blocks from where I was living at the time, during what I intended to be a quick run to the bakery.

Later, once I was a full-time touring musician, traveling in a fairly old, beat-up pickup truck with a camper top on it, I was making a decent living, and easily able to pay all the tickets I got, so I didn't have problems with keeping everything legal from then on, after the arrest and court process in Connecticut.  But I'd still get pulled over constantly for speeding and other infractions related to cracks in the tail lights or some other such nonsense.  This would happen as easily in Wisconsin as in Oregon or North Carolina.

Traveling in that Ford Ranger pickup, I often slept in it, just outside of someone's house, like whoever might have organized my latest gig, or a friend's place.  If I had access to their facilities, sleeping in the truck was familiar and comfortable.  But if I tried to do that in the wrong setting, it could be trouble.  Once it involved being met with men with shotguns, telling me to leave.  This was somewhere in Ohio, I think.  Another time camping on the edge of a farm in Minnesota, an identical experience.  Both times the men changed their attitude when they discovered they were harassing a sleeping couple who did not seem to fit their ideas of whoever they thought we were, and they said we could stay til morning.

Later, I would be touring so much in so many different parts of the world that although I was living out of a vehicle most of the time, the vehicle in question was a rental car.  But after the Ford Ranger died and before the rental car period began, I was touring the US in a big Ford Mark III van that wasn't that new, but it had been well-maintained, it looked especially nice because all but the front windows were darkly tinted, and it altogether looked pretty spiffy.

This was easily the nicest-looking vehicle I had ever owned.  It was a mechanical disaster, and I poured many thousands of dollars into it every year to keep it running, with all the miles I was putting on it, and it guzzled gas like nothing I've ever seen.  But the point is, it was an entirely new driving experience for me, as a touring musician.  I had suddenly become invisible.

I was also entering my thirties, and dressing less outlandishly than in my hippie youth.  From this point on, I stopped getting pulled over for speeding, although my driving had not changed.  If I was sleeping in that van, I was automatically considered to be a respectable person on vacation or something like that.  Harmless, if visible at all.  This would be the case with all the rental cars as well, not that I ever sleep overnight in them, but I often nap in them, anywhere, and this never raises an eyebrow.

Of course, this phenomenon is at play without vehicles involved as well.  As a teenager or young adult, I engaged occasionally in the practice of defacing public property with stickers and spray paint.  I was arrested for this twice and very seriously threatened with arrest another time.  These days, as a middle-aged, reasonably well-dressed and relatively shaven white man, even if I'm not pushing kids in a stroller, I can deface every sign from here to the other end of Portland without a cop ever saying a thing to me, or anyone else, unless it's to compliment the sticker.  (Except twice, near a police station in outer east Portland where there is often a lot of activity that includes Proud Boys roaming around in the neighborhood.)

As a teenager exploring the world of hallucinogenic drugs and eastern philosophy, I enjoyed the practice of trying to blend in with what we hippies called "straight society," while tripping hard on LSD, and engaging some random suburbanite in a conversation about the weather without raising suspicion.  As a cleanshaven, middle-aged, CIS white man wearing jeans and a t-shirt, I have frequently engaged in a sort of reverse practice to this one.  Thinking about it now, it would be a strange thing to try to do, but only 15 years ago it wasn't so unusual to smoke a cigarette while walking down the sidewalk in most American cities.  What was much less common was smoking things other than cigarettes.  I went through what I suppose was a bit of a reckless period, when I wanted to see what would happen if I walked through a business district of a city while smoking what was quite obviously a joint made entirely of strong-smelling cannabis (not mixed with tobacco, the way we smoke joints in this part of the world).  What happened was exactly nothing.

Just to explore that a bit more:  driving the old Corolla and the old pickup, I distinctly remember several occasions when my vehicle was searched for drugs by police dogs, or threatened with canine searches that I managed to nicely talk my way out of.  Driving a new car or a rental car or the nice-looking van, I've never been searched by dogs or threatened with searches by dogs, on the extremely rare occasions when I've actually been pulled over in such a vehicle.

Certainly the impression I'm left with is if the driver looks and talks like me and the vehicle is relatively new, that's the kind of person you want smuggling your drugs.  And if the person walks and talks like me and is smoking a joint while strolling down the sidewalk anywhere in the US?  I have yet to encounter a single cop who wants to bother with that situation, or who feels inspired by it to behave with brutality or anything like that.  I'm invisible, along with whatever I'm driving.

What's particularly telling about the lack of speeding tickets since I started driving newer vehicles -- rental cars are always new or almost new -- is that I still get just as many speeding tickets in Europe as I ever did, but never here.  It's true that I tour a lot more in Europe these days than in the US, so it's not an exact comparison or anything, but I do still tour regularly in many parts of the US.  What's notable is that in Europe, it's very unusual to be pulled over on the highway by a cop for speeding or other infractions.  If you speed, a camera will take your picture automatically when you go through the speed traps, and you'll get a ticket in the mail, because they can look your address up via the license plate of the car you're driving, basically.  In the US, it's up to the cops to decide who they're going to pull over for speeding, and so they don't pull over cleanshaven white men with short hair and no tattoos or piercings driving new cars.

So yeah, I guess that's what I wanted to share.  For all you people who have never had the experience of being someone other than a normative-looking white person driving a relatively new car, people who are not in that kind of situation have very, very different experiences than you do, when they drive, take a nap, camp overnight, or do just about anything else in this society.  And I can tell you that from personal experience, even though my own encounters with both cops and farmers with shotguns has so far not resulted in me being seriously injured.

And of course conversely, I can say from abundant personal experience, in case anyone out there needs to hear it, that for all of you who are driving old cars, driving with tattoos or piercings, driving with dreadlocks, driving with any other unconventional hairstyle, driving with too much luggage, driving with too many people in your vehicle, and of course as we should all know too well by now, for driving with dark skin, you are most definitely being profiled.  For some of you/us, that situation may be momentary, tied to fashion or a temporary bout of unemployment, and once you're sort of phased in with the normative, you disappear from view, like some kind of pale ninja.  For others, it's permanent.

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