Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

December 26, 2004. Living in the Cold.

San Antonio is cold.

Itís morning, Iíve camped at the rest stop east of town on I-10. I could have stayed in a campground, there seem to be enough of them around, but why pay $20 to park my van in a place thatís just as cold as this rest stop? Iíd expected to explore San Antonio on my bike, but I donít want to, itís too cold outside, and the wind is blowing. If I were still living in Arlington I wouldnít hesitate to ride my bike to work in this weather, but then it would be warm when I got to the office. It doesnít seem so exhilarating to put on layers and go out on my bike when at the end of the day I wonít be able to warm up and take a hot shower.

Iím not really hungry, but I go in search of someplace for breakfast where I can settle in with my computer and get some work done. And be warm. At San Pedro and Hildebrand, north of downtown, I come across Jimís restaurant, which looks like a reasonable place. I sit at a booth by the window, but the sun isnít strong enough to warm me up through the

glass, and it makes it very hard to see my computer screen. The scrambled eggs are good, and the buttermilk biscuits are great, but the coffee is terrible. Never mind, I spend two hours there writing about Arizona and drinking cup after cup of brownish water.

When itís almost getting to lunch time, I head to the YMCA. Iíve been glad to go to the YMCAs to work out, but now Iím also glad that I can shower there. If there were not Y in San Antonio Iíd have to think about paying for a campground, and I donít really want to use the money that way. Not that I canít afford it, I did make all my plans assuming Iíd be paying to camp most nights. But it doesn't seem worth paying for here. Tonight Iíll stay at a truck stop instead of the highway rest stop Ė at least there the bathrooms will be heated and wonít have the wind blowing through them.

I leave my van parked in the Y lot and walk downtown to check out San Antonio. I grab a few cookies from my cooler before I go. A scruffy old man is sitting on a bench near the Y, waiting for a bus, or perhaps just waiting. I hand him one of my cookies, and his face lights up. Walking in the cold is much more pleasant than biking, I donít feel as exposed to the wind. The riverwalk is pretty, and I take a lot of photographs. Iím befriended by a cat on the way, who purrs madly when I scratch her ears, and follows me along the path for a while. I head west to the Mercato, which the tourist literature describes as a vibrant market full of crafts and restaurants and unusual gift items. Instead itís almost empty, a few tourists poking in the shops, the goods a mix of cheap Mexican items, cheap Indian items, and cheap Chinese imitations of Mexican items. I consider getting something to eat or drink at their small food court and pulling out my computer, but itís just too dreary a place, Iím not hungry, and I donít want any more coffee.

Finally I decide maybe the suburban strip developments will be more alive than this, and I head back to my van at the Y. On the way I stop at a hotel to look at the phone directory, and see if I can find someplace more appealing than the tourist stops downtown. That turns out to be an interesting strategy. I find a Whole Foods Market and a Starbucks at the same address, clearly an upscale shopping mall. So I head up there with the heat cranking in the van.

Whole Foods feels like home. It smells like my kind of place, that ubiquitous smell of food coops and health food stores. I buy a slice of fancy pizza and a fruit smoothy and seat myself at a table by an electric outlet. Here I can type without my hands getting numb, as they would in my van. When Whole Foods closes at half past ten I notice that Borders is still open, so I continue working there for another hour. Then I head out to the truck stops on I-10. I drive through city streets, passing through the town of Alamo Heights. Even with everything closed, near midnight, itís clear that this is an upscale place, perhaps Iíll see what it looks like in the daytime.

Thursday morning, Christmas eve. The Y is only open till noon, so I know Iíll have to get there early. I donít know what Iíll do with the rest of the day, though. Whole Foods closes at 7:00 in the evening, so does Borders. Today itís not only cold, the sun is gone as well, and the weather reports are threatening snow. I head into town on I-10, but exit the highway before Iím downtown, so I can see what some other neighborhoods look like. I find myself unexpectedly passing antique stores, art galleries, and an old wooden house with wide porch and a sign for a bookstore and a coffee house. The bookstore is closed Ė itís not even nine in the morning - but the coffee house is open. So I go in, hoping that theyíll have free wifi and I can sort out some problems I had been having the night before loading files to my website.

Iím feeling pretty crabby when I go in. Iím worried about my web problems, and even more Iím worried about what Iíll do all afternoon, as the city shuts down for Christmas and the warm places to work on my computer close so their staff can go home to decorate Christmas trees or share holiday dinners. But it turns out that the coffee house has free wifi for customers, their coffee is good, and my web problems were in fact trivial.

A cheery outgoing woman sees my computer, and asks if Iím a writer. I never know what to say to that. Only someone who doesnít write at all would think that using words as a tool of one's trade makes one ďa writer.Ē I have a book being published in a few weeks, and I do write a lot of things, but I donít know if that makes me a writer. I tell her I have a book coming out in January. Sheís impressed, and hands me a magazine for writers with a list of prizes I could apply for. Iím a bit at a loss Ė I donít think of applying for writing prizes. It turns out to be useful, though. Looking at the prize descriptions, I realize that the things Iíd like to write fall into a recognizable category other than ďI want to be John McPhee when I grow upĒ Ė they seem to be labeled creative non-fiction. Thatís handy to know.

I head to the Y, which is more crowded than Iíve seen it before. Itís a really good Y, nice pool, towels provided in the locker rooms and in the gyms, excellent aerobic machines. Iím slow washing my hair after my workout, and Iím one of the last people out as they close the facility for the holiday. I sit down on the cooler in my van and have lunch while I consider what I should do next. I want to get to know the city better, but itís too cold to bike. I could find out some things over the web, but I donít want to go back to the same coffee house to get free wifi, and Iím not about to use up precious weekday cellphone minutes logging in to read about San Antonio. Finally I head back up to Borders and see what they have about the city. The shopping mall is packed with last-minute shoppers, but I find a space for Matilda, and even find a table in the Borders coffee shop next to an electric outlet. I pull a few books off the shelf and settle in to read.

Several hours later, the crowds are thinning out and I look at the movie listings to see if thereís anything interesting that evening. I donít really want to go to the movies, but I donít want to hang around in my van in the cold reading a book, either. I could drive over to the truck stop and make myself at home in their restaurant, but Iíve had quite enough coffee and Iíve written most of what I want to write for the moment. I wonder whether maybe I should just spring for a hotel for my last two nights in San Antonio. There are lots of cheap places on the edges of town Ė Motel 6 and Best Western and La Quinta, with big neon signs offering singles for $39/night with free HBO or free wireless. But even free wireless isnít that tempting, and I imagine their dreary rooms, no more enticing than my van. The thought runs through my head that I could go for a nice hotel downtown, where there are tourists instead of truckers, but itís not worth a few hundred dollars to do that. I wonder if I should head to a state park an hour away. It would certainly be pretty and quiet Ė but Christmas is the one day of the year that the state parks are closed. And it would be just as cold there as in the truck stops. I canít go hiking because of my perpetually aching foot, and itís still too cold to want to get on my bike.

Iím beginning to feel like a homeless person, always looking for a place to put myself thatís warm, that would have a nice clean bathroom, where I wonít be overstaying my welcome. Christmas closes the options because it closes so many facilities. Lots of people do seem to go to the movies on Christmas eve. So even if itís not what I would do, at least itís not odd. I buy a ticket for Phantom of the Opera and stop into Whole Foods to have a bit of dinner first. Improbably, Iím tempted by cold roast beef, and I buy some. I rarely want beef, and have always assumed that if it appeals to me, my body must need it. As Iím eating dinner, it does occur to me that if I were really homeless I wouldnít be able to escape the cold by eating steak at Whole Foods.

Christmas morning the clouds are gone, but itís still not warm. And today everything is closed. Iíve slept at the TA truck stop, so I have breakfast at their restaurant, bringing in my computer and working for a couple of hours. The waitresses are very cheerful, even though they are stuck working on Christmas morning. A couple of local county sheriffs are at the next table, a Hispanic family with a small boy nearby. Other customers come and go as I sit at my computer drinking weak coffee and working on photographs for my website. Itís finally the weekend, so I check my email through my cellphone, but on Christmas morning there isn't much even on the prolific Vanagon list.

In the strong sun I expect my van will warm up nicely, so by late morning I set out to see what San Antonio neighborhoods look like by day. I cruise through Alamo Heights, and find myself at a museum whose grounds are open though the galleries are not. They seem a nice place to stop for a while, so I drive around to a parking lot behind the buildings. Itís quiet, like a small private park. A nice place to do my backup workout for when the gym is closed, lifting weights while reading a novel. No one passes by in the grounds, I think Iím the only person there on Christmas day.

A few hours later I remember that I had planned to get a look at San Antonio today, I wasnít going to just read a book and lift weights in my sunny van. So I head out, cruising about. The neighborhoods arenít very interesting, though. Finally I head back to the shopping mall where Whole Foods and Borders were, to see if their Starbucks is perhaps open on Christmas. It is, and very busy. I grab a table beside an electric outlet, buy a coffee, and continue working on photographs. Itís noisy and crowded there, filled with people coming from the movie theater. I donít really want to stay, but where else is there to go? My van is warm now, but here I have electricity for my computer. On the other hand, I don't really need the electricity, and once it's dark out my van will cool down quickly. I might as well take advantage of the sunshine.

Studying the map, I decide to head for a big park that's on the way into town . Itís a pretty place, with ponds and pavilions and lots of picnic tables. There are a lot of families there, feeding the raucous ducks and playing ball. To my dismay, I see a sign warning that the park is closed from 11:00 pm till 5:00 am, with a stiff fine for violators. It seemed like a nicer place to spend the night than the truck stop. I park my van and turn on the radio to listen to Prairie Home Companion. When it ends I put on a light to read. A police car pulls in with its flashers on. Nervous that they are going to hassle me about perhaps camping in the park, I turn out my light and peer outside. The car is there for a long time, shining spotlights across the playing field and then talking to a group of folks next to their pickup truck. Gradually I realize that the cops arenít interested in a camper van with Virginia plates, and I go back to reading. At nine thirty I pack up and head over to the truck stop again, parking in an area marked for cars and RVs, near the restaurant. Iím off in a far corner, between a big RV and a blue minivan, where I feel a bit less conspicuous settling in for the night.

In the morning it dawns on me that the RV and the minivan are there long-term. No one emerges from the RV at all, though their generator is running. Thereís fog on the minivan windows, so I know someone is sleeping in there. A teen-aged girl emerges with a small child, both laughing as she grabs the toddler and runs into the restaurant. Half an hour later I hear repeated efforts to start the van, and see a couple worrying over it. Thatís two adults, a teenager and a toddler Ė how many people were sleeping in that small van? I pack up and drive out, heading in search of breakfast.

Half a mile up the road I see a big group walking in the shoulder, and realize itís the folks from the minivan, with some other people. They recognize Matilda, so I pull over. They are walking up to the shopping mall to buy a part for their van. I offer them a ride, wondering if they will all fit. They pile in, two adults, the teen-ager, two toddlers, and a boy of nine or ten. The mother explains that theyíve been living in their van since they came to Texas from California in September. Her husband has a job repairing trucks, but they haven't been able to rent an apartment because no one wants so many children. Now they are trying to buy a house, and hoping all the paperwork will go through and they can move out of their van. Their realtor, she tells me, was really worried about them sleeping in the van in the cold, but whatís the alternative? Sheís happy, though, because the children have just started school two weeks ago. A police office came to their van after Thanksgiving to say that a regulation had changed, and now the children can enroll in school even if they donít have an address.

Her husband buys the parts they need, and as we squeze back into Matilda to return to the truck stop she asks me if I like camping. I explain that Iíve been traveling since March, thatís why I have so much stuff in my van. She asks what kind of work I do, so I explain a bit about traveling overseas to work on environment problems. She wants to know where Iíve been, and I mention a few places Ė Egypt, Vietnam, southern Africa. Sheís really interested. As they get out of my van at the truck stop, she invites me to come stay with them as soon as they have a place. ďYou have lots of stories to tell, youíre a really interesting person,Ē she says. ďIt would be really good for my children to hear about your life, it opens their minds so they know what else is out in the world.Ē She gives me their names, and tells me how to find her husband at his work next time Iím in San Antonio. ďI really want to know you better,Ē she says.

The six of them return to their minivan home to begin the repairs. I drive off in Matilda to find some breakfast, then head to Austin to visit my friends.

Continue to the next entry. Return home.

Unless otherwise indicated all text and photos on this site ©Joy E. Hecht.