It was another night in another Wal-Mart parking lot after another day of driving. It was already dark when we arrived, and I didn’t even care about getting something to eat. All I wanted was to sleep.
This Wal-Mart clearly allowed overnight parking. It looked like a combination of a truck stop and an RV park. There were three 18 wheelers in the lot, at least as many Class C RVs, and even a couple of Class A motorhomes. Of course, there were several obvious van dwellers, as well as people sleeping in cars, trucks, and jeeps. This Wal-Mart welcomed the weary traveler.
We’d spent a couple of nights in this parking lot the previous week, so we went to bed confident no one–no cop, no store manager–would knock on the van in the middle of the night.
It was probably eleven o’clock–maybe even midnight–before we lay down. I fell asleep immediately and slept well, but The Man was suffering from a bought of insomnia. He told me later it was two or three o’clock in the morning before he succumbed to sleep.
I was awoken from my deep slumber. The Man was awake too. The dog was barking.
What’s going on? I mumbled.
I think someone knocked on the van, The Man told me.
I listened. Nothing. I looked at my watch. 4am.
Who’s there? I asked loudly. No answer. I was convinced The Man and the dog and I had shared some sort of auditory dream hallucination. There was no one there. I dropped my head back onto my pillow.
Then…clearly…I heard a knock. It was a gentle knock, not a cop knock, but still, someone was knocking on the van at four o’clock in the morning.
Who’s there? I asked again loudly. I did not sound friendly, even to my own ears.
I’m cold, a female voice said. Do you have a blanket?
Are you fucking kidding me? I thought, and The Man verbalized something similar.
The Man is a very giving, generous person. I try to be a giving and generous person too, but this was too much for either of us.
No, I said. We don’t
I’m cold, the woman said again. Do you have a blanket? she asked, as if she hadn’t just asked the question and been told no.
No, I said again. Go ask someone else.
The woman went away, and while The Man and I were able to doze for another hour or so, we never got back to the place of deep sleep she’d interrupted.
In the light of day, The Man was remorseful. Maybe we should have helped her, he said. Maybe we should have let her sleep on the floor of the van.
I felt justified in our initial decision to turn her away, and I explained my reasons to The Man.
First of all, I didn’t have an extra blanket to give her. I live in a van with another person and a dog. Space is at a premium. I don’t carry around a stack of extra blankets. For a while I had an old sleeping bag with a broken zipper I wrapped around my cooler for extra insulation, but when The Man moved in, it was jettisoned with other nonessential items. I would have given her that if it had still been around, but she was too late. It was gone. If The Man wanted to give her some piece of bedding he owned, he should have spoken up.
Secondly, I don’t open my doors to strangers after dark, much less at 4am. Even with The Man and the dog to protect me, I don’t think it’s safe to wake from a deep sleep in the middle of the night–even in a well-lit parking lot–and open my home to someone I don’t know.
Third, the woman was in the parking lot of a store open 24/7. If she was cold, she could have gone into the store to warm up. She could have walked the aisles. She could have taken a nap in a restroom stall. She didn’t have to stay outside if she was cold.
Fourth, there were plenty of other people overnighting in that parking lot. We were not her only chance for survival. If we couldn’t help her, there were other people to ask.
Finally, I’ve been homeless (as in, with no van, as in, living under bridges) in that city at that time of year. While it might have been chilly outside, it wasn’t deadly cold. The woman was in no danger of dying of exposure.
If I’d had a spare blanket lying around, I would have handed it to her through a window. If we had been in a remote campground or wilderness area, and she’d had nowhere else to turn, no place indoors to go, I would have tried harder to help her. If it had been winter–snowing, freezing–I would have tried harder to help her, maybe even invited her to sleep on the floor of the van. But I didn’t think it was my responsibility to provide for someone who didn’t think about wanting a blanket until 4am.