When I was homeless, I lived in a picnic pavilion at a rest stop for two months. By lived in, I really mean slept in. The rest area attendant arrived at 8am, so I left well before he started work. I usually woke with the first light of the sun, rolled up my sleeping bag, put on my shoes, and walked out on a nearby trail. The trail went past a tree, all alone in the high desert. I usually stopped at the tree, rolled out my sleeping bag on the ground under its branches, took off my shoes again, and stretched out to nap for another couple of hours.
Not only did I not want the rest area attendant to find me, accuse me of living there, and call the cops, I didn’t want any civilian bystander to call the cops on me either. Best to not have anyone see me in the rest area during the day, which is why I left as soon as I had enough light to see the path.
I suppose I could have spent my nights under the tree, but I was afraid I’d encounter a rattlesnake or an unsavory human out there. I felt safer in the civilization of the rest area, with its lights and flush toilets. In retrospect, I don’t know how much safer I was in the rest area Babylon.
The rest area attendant got off work at 5pm. Sometime after that, I’d go to my “apartment,” the picnic pavilion which opened toward the natural attraction tourists came to see. The other pavilions opened toward the roadway running through the rest area. Anyone sleeping on the concrete floor of one of those pavilions would be easily spotted by cars driving through at night. Because my pavilion didn’t open toward the roadway, I could sleep between its low stone back wall and the back bench of the concrete picnic table, and no one driving through would see me.
The rest area was open all night. People could go there to look at the natural attraction 24 hours a day, any day of the week. It wasn’t unusual for people to sleep there in their cars. Others pulled in to use the restrooms in the middle of the night. Sometimes people partied there, drinking alcohol and taking who-knows-what drugs. And I’m pretty sure couples came there to “smooch” (my euphemism for anything from making out to oral to full-on intercourse).
Lovers were attracted to “my” pavilion for the same reason I was: it offered just a little bit more privacy.
I never rolled out my sleeping bag before dark. I didn’t want to be spotted sleeping (translation: living) there. I’d read a borrowed book or a newspaper fished from a trashcan and wait for darkness to descend. Often, I’d simply look out at the spectacular view. Once it was adequately dark, I’d roll out my sleeping bag, position my backpack on the ground within arm’s reach, take off my shoes, and snuggle down for sleep. Once I lay down, I didn’t pop my head up to see what was going on, for fear someone would notice me and wonder what I was doing on the ground behind the picnic table.
I don’t know how late it was the first time a couple invaded my space. It was dark during a time when days were long, so it had to be after 9pm. I had been on the brink of sleep when the people sat on the picnic table. Of course, they didn’t know they’d invaded my space. I was so discreet, they hadn’t even realized I was there.
I didn’t know what to do. I’d heard from several single sign-flying and hitchhiking women that sometimes people worry about women in such situations and call the cops to do a welfare check. I didn’t want these people to call the cops because they were worried about me. I wasn’t running from the law, but I didn’t want to be hassled by the police, didn’t want to be told I couldn’t sleep at the rest area any longer or that I needed to move on out of town. Better not to interact with the cops at all.
I knew the longer I waited to say something to the couple, the more awkward it was going to be when they discovered me. (I never doubted one of them would notice me eventually.) I suppose I could have pretended to be asleep, but what if they started making noise impossible to sleep through? Then I’d have to “wake up,” and what if they had their clothes off?
So I sat up and said something like Hi. I’m just sleeping here. (I don’t remember my actual words, but I was trying to convey I’m harmless. I’m fine. I was here first.)
The woman screamed. It was a loud, piercing, blood-curdling scream. So much for discretion.
I started apologizing. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.
Then one of my worries came true. The woman started asking me if I was ok. Are you ok? she kept asking me.
I tried to assure her I was fine. I told her I was just sleeping. I told her everything was good.
Are you ok? Are you ok? she asked again and again.
I wanted to say, I was ok, before you woke me up. I was ok before you screamed. Instead I just assured her I was currently fine.
Finally they left. I don’t know where they went to have sex (maybe the car they’d arrived in?), but the cops didn’t bother me that night, so I guess I’d convinced them they didn’t need to worry about me.
The next time a couple tried to use my picnic pavilion for their shenanigans, it was truly the middle of the night, and at least the guy seemed drunk. When I sat up and told them I was sleeping there, neither of them seemed worried about me or upset in any way or even vaguely surprised. These people had obviously seen a lot in their lives.
I could tell they didn’t want to leave, but they also respected the fact that I’d gotten there first. So they left, but they didn’t go far. They simply walked out of the picnic pavilion and sat down on the ground right next its wall. I could hear every word they said! (If only I could remember their every word. If only I had taken notes.)
The woman (who seemed significantly younger than the man) talked and talked and talked, mostly about her unhappy life. (It’s just as well that I don’t remember the details. She probably wouldn’t want me to repeat her stories, although I wouldn’t feel too bad about doing so, since she knew I was right there the whole time.)
The man? Well, what he said (in drunken repetition) to the woman boiled down to this: I want to be your friend. But I also–if you would like–want to make love to you.
She didn’t fall for his line while within my hearing. Maybe she was hoping her litany of woes would cool his ardor. Maybe she simply needed someone to listen.
As for me, I was wishing I couldn’t hear them. I really just wanted to go to sleep, not listen to an unhappy woman and a horny man.
I thought about calling out, I can hear you!
I thought about calling out, Shut the fuck up! I’m trying to sleep!
In the end, I said nothing. I didn’t want an altercation, especially with someone who was drunk. I only wanted to sleep. I comforted myself with the knowledge that I could sleep for a few more hours under my tree in the morning.