Urban Camping

The Stoics suggest that if you have something you really enjoy, you should give it up occasionally. This helps you to more fully appreciate having the thing. For example, if you have a warm winter coat, occasionally walking around without it will make you appreciate it more.

This got me thinking: what don't I appreciate enough? The first thing that comes to mind is having a home: a safe, cozy place to relax and sleep at night. I feel like I should be grateful for my home, but it doesn't trigger an emotional response. In an effort to develop that emotional gratitude, I'm going to spend the next few days without one.

I left my apartment at noon today. I packed a backpack with two cans of chickpeas, a loaf of bread, and a jar of peanut butter. I also packed a raincoat, a long sleeved shirt, and a pair of sweatpants. I'm wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and a jacket.

The next few days will probably be quite unpleasant. But I'm excited to get back and fully appreciate the softness of my bed, the luxury of sleeping with half a dozen pillows, the silence of a private workspace, and the sense of safety and control that comes from locking a door.

I've decided to do this at a small local college. I think it will balance safety and realism nicely: there's strong corona management and a lot of police on campus at night, but I don't expect anyone will be particularly happy to discover some kid living out of a backpack.

The weather was unseasonably beautiful, so I spent the first three hours doing work on the lawn. When it got dark, I moved into an empty auditorium to take several hours of calls. Frankly, the day was more productive than I had expected.

Dinner was simple but good: chickpeas out of the can and two slices of bread with peanut butter.

I left the auditorium around midnight. I spent an hour looking for a comfortable and well-hidden place to sleep, but couldn't find one. In the end, I got antsy about the number of police cars driving by me and settled on a clump of three bushes next to a transformer.

First night sleeping arrangement! Photo taken several days later.

There are two things that were hard for me about sleeping outside: logistics and psychology.

Logistically, sleeping outside is about as bad as you expect. It's cold, despite wearing four layers and the temperature staying in the high 50s. The street lamps are bright. Curling up to stay hidden is uncomfortable. The rocks and sticks in the dirt dig into your arm. Whatever part of your body you put weight on get pinched between the ground and your body and immediately falls asleep.

There were also pleasant logistical surprises. Dirt is remarkably soft; much softer than the tile floor at a hackathon. The transformer that I slept by made a really nice, soft, consistent humming sound (almost better than my sound machine). It didn't rain.

On the psychological side, sleeping outside turned out to be more challenging than I expected. Part of the problem is my sleeping habits. I always sleep on my side with a sleeping mask and white noise. Without these things, it's hard to signal to my body that it's time to sleep.

The real killer, though, is the sounds. The voices of people walking by every few minutes. Are they going to see you and freak out? Rustling in the underbrush a foot or two from your head. Is it a squirrel? A raccoon? Is it going to bite you? Tires rolling. Is that the police car, coming to get you? If you get up to look for the source of all the noises, you'll never sleep. But if you don't, fear and excitement and anticipation interrupt the process of falling asleep while your imagination runs wild.

I'm sure that exposure and time would resolve this stress eventually, but it's formidable the first time you face it. In the end, I'm quite certain I slept for no more than half an hour. I gave up and started my day at the first hint of morning light, around 5a.

It was quite delightful to watch the world wake up. First, some joggers out. Then, as the sky starts to lighten, guys in athletic uniforms pass me, headed toward the track. Then sunrise. But it's a college campus, so even then everyone is still asleep. When the doors unlocked, I went inside to get a coffee, and started listening to Stories of Your Life on a bench.

"Hey." I woke up half an hour later to an older guy in a ironed white button down looking at me. I don't know how long he had been standing there trying to catch my attention. I took off my headphones braced myself for him to yell at me. Instead, he said, "are you OK?" I apologized for falling asleep, and said that I was fine. He looked at me for a long second and then left.

I wondered for a while whether he had been in one of the police cars that passed me, wandering aimlessly late at night while I looked for somewhere to sleep. Or maybe he'd seen me sitting on the bench, working in the predawn darkness. Perhaps it was that, combined with the number of layers of clothing I was wearing: a t-shirt under a long sleeve shirt under a jacket under a raincoat. Maybe he saw the clump of leaves that I found later in my hair. Or the loaf of bread stuffed in my bag, or the toothbrush in the side pocket. I don't know.

At first, the interaction made me feel grateful and cared for: somebody cared enough to stop me and check that I was OK. But as time passed and it sunk in, I felt more and more watched, and the relationship more and more adversarial. Was that the police officer communicating that he was paying attention to me and knew that something was up? This feels like a conflict between my usual relationship with police (I'm grateful that they're there) to my current relationship (feels like they're out to get me).

Later in the day I walked to the grocery store, where I bought four yogurts and some peanuts. Even the grocery store posed a challenge: had someone stopped me, they would have opened my bag and seen my chickpeas, peanut butter, and bread. What proof did I have that I wasn't stealing it? (I still don't know how people manage this.)

I started thinking about where to spend the night when it began raining on my walk back. It's hard to find somewhere dry: the doorways with overhangs are well lit, and trees won't keep you dry. I considered sleeping between some shipping crates or in a fenced lawn-equipment area, but eventually chose an alleyway partially covered by the overhang of a parking garage in a more industrial part of campus. The ground was asphalt, but it was dry and looked to be staying that way. There was also only one long unobstructed lines of sight; it was closed in on the other three sides.

I slept against the wall, right behind where the camera is in this photo.

After I picked out my sleeping spot, I did a few hours of algebra homework, and then grabbed my stuff and walked quickly and directly to the alleyway around 1 am--no wandering this time. I was looking forward to sleeping easily after the exhaustion from the previous night.

Instead, I had vivid, gripping dreams about abstract algebra. Specifically, half a dozen subgroups of GLn(C) (the orthogonal group, the symplectic group, the special orthogonal group, the unitary group, etc) were engaged in an intense political power struggle for control over my backpack. (Yeah, really.)

Between the asphalt and the algebra, I slept poorly again, and around 3:30 woke up to the sound of three dudes hanging around near the end of the alley. Not wanting to find out what they were up to, I threw my bag over my shoulder, hopped through the window into the parking garage, and left. I sat on a bench and listened to Liking What You See: A Documentary until the sun came up.

By this time, the lack of sleep had really started to catch up with me. (This is something that I knew once but had since forgotten: if you're sleep-deprived, it's hard to muster the energy to do much of anything.) Unable to focus on anything, I figured this was probably the point of diminishing returns, and decided to come home.

I leave this experiment feeling pretty happy. It was risky, and I was relatively poorly prepared. I'm lucky that none of the bad things that could have happened did. I feel like I achieved the goal, which was to feel more aware of having a safe and secure house and a dark and quiet and stable place to sleep. But I'm particularly proud to have done it because it's a vote for an identity that I want to have: the kind of person who's willing to do stuff like this on a whim.