World’s Saddest Self-Help Book Teaches You How to Live in Your Car


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Car Living: How to Make it a Successful, Safe, and Sane Experience

Author: A.J. Archer
Date: 1999
Publisher: Touchstone Adventures, Oregon
Discovered at: Thrift store in an old mill building in Bridgewater, Vermont

The Cover Promises: That things have gotten so bad that “successful” is the résumé adjective you hope to apply to the time you spent living in your car.

Representative Quotes:
“Winter has many advantages for car living, but extreme cold is not one of them.” (page 51)
“It is embarrassing, but let us face facts. Just because you live in your car does not mean you are going to cease having to ‘use the facilities’ as they say.” (page 35)

One of those books it would be really uncomfortable to wrap up with a card that says “I saw this and thought of you,” A.J. Archer’s Car Living stands as the most upbeat book about American homelessness since On the Road or maybe even Horatio Alger. Better still, as a practical matter, it’s slender enough to stash in a glovebox or slide between the seats. Author Archer is so bully about the benefits of your hunkering down in a Toyota Celica for six months that she refueses even to acknowledge car living as having anything to do with homelessness. “Your car is a home,” she insists. “Full-time RV’ers are not considered homeless. Why should you be?”

Before you can say “Plumbing!” or “Closets!” Archer moves on, investing her considerable inventive power into this list of the types of people who live in their cars:

1. The Urban Nomad
2. The New Covered Wagoner

Yes, waiting for the carp-hops to clock out so you can park and sleep in the Sonic lot is exactly like playing Oregon Trail.

“There are great differences in how we live today as opposed to the pioneers of the 1800s,” she acknowledges. One example, coming just a paragraph later: “Microwave food is easy to come by, and every 7-11 and university has microwaves for use.” Also: “When the modern covered wagon comes to a halt there are vagrancy laws waiting.”

To her credit, Archer doesn’t always pretend that the grim realities of car living are actually a great adventure in the all-American homesteading tradition. “People who choose to live in their cars usually do so under stressful conditions,” she admits, kind of unnecessarily.

Addressing readers who might be considering this itinerant-but-not-homeless lifestyle, she even lays out the negatives:

That last one, the problem of entertaining, should be addressed in the sequel that this still sadly relevant book demands: The Complete Car Hostess.

To relieve some of those discomforts, Archer offers sound advice about where covered wagoners should park, how they should handle summer heat and winter cold, and how to score the occasional shower at the gym or truck stop. Other bathroom needs are trickier:

The Car Living Bathroom Remedy: Have gallon sized reclosable bags, such as Ziplock, on hand and also have larger plastic bags. Try to picture this if you will and keep in mind that this works equally well for men or women, although men, as usual, will have an easier time of it.

Kudos to Archer for having the courage to denounces men’s historic, unfair advantage in baggie soiling. She advises men to “poke your apparatus” into the bag and “let go”; for women, the process is more complicated.

This can be tricky. Be sure to have some newspaper under you. Straddle over bag and proceed to relieve yourself. If you are attempting this maneuver while perched on your car seat, you may wobble a bit. … When finished, daintily wipe yourself, zip the bag tightly closed and place in a larger plastic bag. You can use this method several times during the night with a new bag for each time if you need to and no one will be the wiser.

That’s the best evidence yet for car living not being homelessness: Home is anyplace you care enough to lay down some newspaper.

There’s one more step to Archer’s Bathroom Remedy, applicable both to men and women. In the morning, as you head in for your shower, grab the plastic bag(s). Then:

Once in the bathroom of the truckstop or fitness center or college, dump the contents down the toilet and dispose of the bags in the trash.

Now that you are wandering university campuses with sacks of your own waste, just like the pioneers did, you’re ready for these last bits of Archer’s advice:

Do you remember when you were young and turned over the chairs in your family room, borrowed your mother’s old blankets, and made a fantastic fort? … A modern fort will give you need privacy.

If you know ahead of time that you are going to be living in a car, and you have a choice of cars as a divorce situation, hold out for the more livable car or van.

There are plenty of grocery stores like Safeway, Albertson’s, and natural food stores where you can end up full just by snacking on the food items available on the demonstration tables.

Should you be in deep snow and need to run your engine at anytime, be sure the tailpipe is free of snow or other minerals.

Another fact overlooked by “normal” householders–a dog can help keep you warm at night in an extremely cold climate.

Be sure to have your favorite tapes or CDs with you. If you do not have a tape or CD player in your car, look for them at second-hand stores or at garage sales.

In my town, McCormick & Schmick’s has a 10-item menu availabe from 3 – 6 p.m. weekdays where each item is only $1.95.

It is always easier to check out the costs of showers at a truck stop or a promising campground when you do not need one yet and when you still have a home.

That last one is excellent advice. Rather than spend your pre-car living days doing everything you can to ensure you don’t actually wind up living in your car, you should spend them checking to be sure you know exactly how much showers will cost you when the bottom falls out.

Still, goofy as it often is, Archer’s book offers something all too rare: Actual tips on how to get by in a country that pretends everybody’s gettin’ by just fine–when we all know they’re not, especially as the U.S. is now suffering its biggest-ever reduction in pay rates. Thanks, A.J.! May your Ziplocks never runneth over, and may your front-seat blanket forts stand impregnable!

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