I woke in the trunk of my car on a cold Minneapolis morning. It was the first of December and once more this vehicle acted as home. The Mercury Tracer. A plain but steady car that’d been my off-and-on sleep spot for years. I bought it my freshman year of college. I was an aimless kid who saved three grand from a low wage job to snap it up. The Tracer was my third ride. My first was a money pit, the second a $300 shit show that friends and I spray painted then beat with baseball bats. It died and so I biked five miles each way to work. Long hauls down dark roads acted as a great motivator to save for a car. When I bought the Tracer I just wanted something to schlep me to college. I never expected it’d last twelve years. Never knew that over a decade later I’d be an honors grad but somehow living in the thing.
In the Minneapolis cold I wasn’t living in my car by intent. But in the past it was just that. It’d been my home the previous winter in Texas. I spent my summer in Oregon then worked a fall in North Dakota. After that I scooted ’round the Midwest in search of money, sleeping in my car as I tried out for drug studies. Then a girl invited me to Minneapolis. An old girlfriend from my years living there. I showed up and had some fun but she was depressed and shut me out. When that fell apart I had nowhere to go and nothing to do so once more moved into the Tracer. It was the end of November and the world was cold but I made do.
I spent my days in the library, walking the lake, and catching cheap flicks that let out at midnight. November rolled into December. On the first of the month I crawled out the trunk and into the driver’s seat. The air was cold and snow covered the ground of the park beside me. I brushed my teeth, wiped my face, then went to start my car. I twisted the key but it didn’t turn over. Instead I was greeted with a horrible roar. A blender choking on metal. I tried again and again. Then the car snapped to life but sounded like shit. Each step on the gas evoked a death scream.
I called an auto shop who recommended a tow truck. There’d been problems with the battery and I told myself this was something to do with that. I couldn’t account for the roar but a bad bat would explain why the Tracer drew no power. So that’s what it had to be. After all, this car was the key to my rambling life. Four wheels of rubber carrying me across America. So many ambling, aimless road trips that I’ve lost count. A couple dozen adventures. A couple hundred thousand miles. The facilitator of fun. I drove it all over the country: both coasts, both borders, dozens of states, cities, and national parks. I slept in this car hundreds of nights and lived out of it for months at a time. The Tracer wasn’t dead. Couldn’t be. It just needed a Band-Aid.
I packed what I could to the trunk so the tow operator wouldn’t know I was homeless. I sat in the Tracer’s passenger seat and opened its door. With water and Dr. Bronner’s I scrubbed my hair and shaved off stubble. This was just a setback. The car would be running at the end of the day and I’d make my next move — driving down to Texas. There I’d once more avoid the cold and live in my trunk all winter. I was doing great for money but still made deals with myself. “As long as the bill is under 500 bucks it’s no big deal.” I took this as a sign to exit Minneapolis. Things hadn’t worked with the girl so I knew no reason to stay longer. Today was Friday. I’d get fixed up and hit the South once the weekend was over.
The tow man hauled my car and I to the mechanic. They couldn’t get to it today but would come morning. My car was in their lot aside a busy street. I’d trunk sleep at night then slip out before they opened up shop on Saturday. They’d never know I’m homeless. I walked to the library a couple blocks off and browsed the internet. After the library closed I walked to the car to drop some shit. It wasn’t in the lot. They parked it inside and there it sat behind a locked door. I could see it but not touch it. My car. My bedroom. Well fuck. I knew this might happen so before the library grabbed my sleeping bag and winter gear. Perhaps I’d have to cold camp.
The Midwest is fucked come December. Night comes early and nature is unforgiving. The forecast for this night wasn’t great. Temps dialed down to 31 Fahrenheit. That straddled the borders of acceptability. I texted my ex explaining my car was broke and could I crash on her floor. I said I could get a hotel so no worries if not. We hadn’t ended on bad terms, she just needed to be alone at this point in her life. I still felt sour she beckoned me to Minneapolis without telling me this beforehand but that was fine. I’d come to expect her rapid shifts and repeated disappearances. They’d been a consistent piece of the six years I’d known her. She texted that she was happy to help but it’d be a few hours as she was at work. I didn’t get a hotel as now I had a place to crash for the night.
I walked to stay warm then caught Blade Runner 2049 in a second run theater. As the credits rolled I checked my texts. One had come in just before 11 saying her work went long but she’d be done at midnight. Would let me know when she was ready. Despite her history of disappearing off the map she knew my car was in the shop. She enthusiastically agreed to let me crash so I didn’t worry. I walked the cold, snowy streets with my backpack awaiting her text. Kept my hand on the phone that’d buzz and bring words from warm places. I texted queries but received no reply.
I walked to a McDonald’s for coffee but it was close to midnight and closed. I wore my bomber hat, ski gloves, and down coat. I stayed warm so long as I kept moving. By now the temps dipped to low 30s. I flicked my phone on and off from airplane as the battery drained. I still expected a text from my ex. There’s no way she’d just leave me in the cold after making a plan. I knew she had a penchant for weird, convoluted lies but nothing like this. We weren’t on bad terms. She wouldn’t leave me stranded. Wouldn’t slip off with no word. But she did. I was on my own.
By now it was well after midnight. I was hesitant to snag a hotel as I felt I’d be ripped off. I’d only be there a few hours. A few hours of warmth and comfort. But in this moment money trumped logic. I faced an uncertain car bill so pulled the purse strings tight. I’m cheap and that often acts as a detriment to my well-being. Here I was living the life of a bum instead of a normal one. That’s what really put me in this situation. Not the girl. Not even my car breaking down. It was my years of choices to live cheap and dirty. They led me here. Would keep me going. I live close to the bone and am used to discomfort. I could pull through this. So no hotel. I decided to try my luck on the banks of the Mississippi. I headed east to the tree line then scanned for a path to water.
I found a dirt rut that led to river’s edge. I walked its steep and rugged course, using my phone as a flash light. Made way through trees and down the embankment. I’ve slept in my car a million times in sub-zero weather. Camped along rivers on long kayak trips. So I figured one night here with a low of 31 was doable. Not fun but no biggie. I found a clearing just feet from the flow with a fallen log. I made camp between it and the water so come morning I’d sleep unseen. I bundled up, slipped to my sleeping bag, then closed my eyes to the world. The heat from my walk fucked off in an instant. Night air nipped my unprotected face. The deep cold of bare dirt disarmed the layers meant to protect me. Bag. Coat. Wool. Skin. Old Man Winter slipped in and fucked me with a frozen dick.
I tried adjustments and jumping jacks but nothing worked. Covered my face and breathed to my shirt for warmth but that only left me coated in condensation. Breaths outside the shirt formed little clouds from battling cold air. Off in the distance I watched a trickle of cars crossing a bridge over the Mississippi. I thought of their heated interiors and drivers headed to home. To partners and comfort. Things I’d have if this wasn’t the life I was living. A beaver patrolled the river just offshore, keeping watch and slapping its tail. Twenty feet away he’d constructed his hut. The cold soaked deep as I lay on frozen ground. My phone reported a temp of 25. So much for 31. At two in the morning, desperate, I called the girl. She’d turned off her phone. Ignored my texts. I cursed her fucking name and swore to never speak to her again. What a shitty thing to do. This wasn’t working. I packed my sleeping bag and headed back up the hill.
I walked the jogging path to generate heat. Laid on a park bench overlooking the river. Cold air shot through its slats. I tossed and turned and after an hour received no rest. I walked to build my heat then tried the bench again. It was a no go. I tramped twenty minutes to the nearest McDonald’s to see when they opened. They flicked the lights at five, the lobby at six. So six a.m. would be my savior. I’d walk these gates of golden arches in just a few hours. I paced up and down the main strip, E Lake Street, to build warmth. Then I turned back to the bench and lay in cold misery. I cursed the girl. Chastised my cheapness.
I rubbed my legs and torso to warm me. Felt thankful the earth only dipped to 25. A few days from now the weather was showing an overnight low of six. This wasn’t fun. Wasn’t some adventure or neat night to look back on. It was just fucking miserable. My nose, fingers, and toes burned with tingles and pain. If it were any colder I’d have to get a hotel for fear of damaging them forever. I grew up in a land of blizzards and forty below. Lost chunks of skin off feet after boots filled with snow. I knew the danger of cold and yet here I was testing its limits. I lay on the bench in a curled ball, eyes closed, digging in my pocket to check the time. Six came and went. I felt too gone to move. I rose at 6:30 and started my trek to McDonald’s. There I’d drink hot coffee and await news of my car. I stopped to piss under dawn light. As I peed two joggers blazed past me.
I stepped to the store and basked in its warmth. It didn’t feel so much good as it did a relief. I fixed my hair and bloodshot eyes then ordered breakfast. I wasn’t hungry but knew I needed something in my body. Slowly I warmed on coffee, bacon, and biscuits. The surrounding stimuli hurt my brain. When up all night the morning hits you hard. Lights bright. Noise amplified. Your brain opens its aperture and lets in more. Little sleep is the preamble to entering a hallucinogenic state. I’ve been through it before. Rotating between the real world and the one your sleep-starved brain shows you. I did my best to sip coffee and calm my senses. I took pleasure in eavesdropping on the crew of old men around me.
A group of five or six older guys sat at separate tables, carrying on disparate conversations. Utterances with no real drive or destination. They dressed in well-worn layers. I worked at a gas station in high school and knew these types well. Retired dudes who’re bored so gather out of habit. Not much to say but this is the morning routine. In my sleep-starved state I found their conversations funny:
“You know how much they sell these pants for at the Goodwill? Thirty bucks. I found these in a dumpster.”
“I never had hemorrhoids. My wife did. It runs in families. She had them cut out fifty years ago. It seemed to work for her as far as I can remember. They put a plug in you so the hole doesn’t seal shut when healing.”
I swallowed the last of my coffee then walked to the library awaiting the call for my car. It came. My engine was shot to shit and would cost $2300 to fix. That’s near what I paid for the whole car twelve years and over 200,000 miles ago. So that was that. The Tracer finally bit the dust. It didn’t even feel bad. I kind of knew this was coming. For years I told the car that if it just got me through one more trip I’d be thankful. It killed it every time, never breaking down, always firing up for me. At the end of a long drive I’d pat its dash and thank it for being so good. So I couldn’t complain that Death finally touched the Tracer. It was twenty years old and more than served its purpose. I felt it fitting that it died while acting as my home.
The auto shop left my car in the lot and said I could keep it there over the weekend. I’d live here ’til Monday then depart the city. I arranged for a tow and transport in two days. I had too much shit to take on the bus as my whole life was in that car. I’d have to go to my parents to regroup. The Tracer was my home, my transport, my everything. An airplane plodding across America at 80 miles per hour. I’d buy a new car as soon as I got home but for now this was a wake. A final 48 hours with my sweet old Tracer.
Over two days I packed and said goodbye. In the trunk I found a frozen banana flavored condom. Well there’s a load I’ll never blow. I passed the time with walks, reading, and watching movies on a laptop in my now dead car. Sometimes I twisted the key in hopes she’d roar back to life. This incident a hiccup. But the Tracer was dead and I knew it. Come the second night I crawled to the trunk for my last hours in there. I heard some guys outside my car commenting on the stuff inside it. They scoped the shit for a robbery. This put me on edge but they fucked off and didn’t return. So I went back to sleep for a final time. After hundreds of nights bedded down in the Tracer this was the end. I thought back on how much it’d given me. All the things it allowed me to do. I had so many memories tied to this car.
When I first bought it in college a group of friends and I went to the mall and came back with a dozen paper cologne samples. We stuck them in crevices and for years these paper tabs hung there. I drove the Tracer coast-to-coast countless times. It carried friends, family, and lovers. Brought me to crowded festivals and empty plains. I fucked in here a million times. Cried. Froze. Burnt up with Texas heat. But most importantly it was my home. I slept inside it at least five hundred times, its trunk an ever present cradle. It saved me thousands in lodging. Gave me the freedom to just pull over and sleep anywhere. To travel unencumbered. Whenever I took off on a long journey I never thought of its ability to carry me there. That was a given. It gave me its all and now I could ask of it no more.
Come morning the Tracer sat empty after I loaded my life into another car. I examined it a final time. The floor and interior sat stained and dirty. Black tape batted down threadbare seat springs. The tip of a coil spilled through. So many times it ripped the ass of my pants as I rose. That wasn’t all that was beat up on the Tracer. It sprouted rust, the driver’s seat was broken, back doors wouldn’t open, tape deck long gone, and some vandal kicked in its door at a MAX stop in Portland. Still it drove like a champ. So many years. So many memories. The thousands of hours we spent together. I felt thankful for each one. So I patted the dash a final time. Locked the doors and bid adieu. Its era had come to a close.