On Transience

25Jun14

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The Green Pony died three weeks ago.

My forest green mini-van, green VT plates; my faerie punk portal on wheels. Her insides were tan and torn, the dashboard made sacred with shaggy debris. Her right axle creaked, the side door stuck, one window clunked under layers of gaffer’s tape. Warning lights flicked on and off with no apparent correlation to actual problems. Really, there is no logical reason why I should be mourning so deep for this piece-of-shit van, and yet… it’s very specific, this ache. It sunk in when her engine finally quit and I can’t seem to shake it.

Let me try to explain. It’s sort of a long story.

In the winter of 2011, during a time of great personal upheaval, I was forced to move out of my beloved but literally crumbling home in Clinton Hill, on Ryerson Street. I was 34 years old and had just come out to myself as transgender, and was going through the fire of what-will-stay and what-will-go with this new understanding of myself. I was also on medical leave from my fancy foundation job, dealing with a nasty case of PTSD and some pretty intense family drama.

Taking a break from permanent housing seemed both liberating and economical. I had a couple months of paid time off and a lot of escaping to do. Some friends had a queer art space in Mpls and we decided to do a show together. Great excuse to get out of town for a bit.

Heavily swayed by a 1974 book of drawings made in the back of an Econoline van named Sugaree – which also inspired my first tattoo that season – and reaching a break in my therapy (otherwise known as losing my health insurance), I decided to buy a van and live on the road for a while. I gave away most of my things, including all my femme work drag and the bras I had sworn off forever, and bought a plane ticket to the midwest.

That was when the first Pony came into my life.

We called her the Trojan Pony because she was just so stealth. She was a former Red Cross rescue van who had saved a lot of lives in Minnesota. Unmarked white on the outside, green shag on the inside, sparkling drag exploding from plastic milk crates, piles of piles of pillows and afghan blankets. One comfy bench seat and a boot that fit a double futon and still had room for a bunch of craft supplies. We filled in the cracks in her paneling with useful things like string and lube and pointed her nose toward the setting sun.

It was a thrilling adventure, for a time, as the Pony and I fell into a culture of transience. At first it felt like liberation. I could be myself, just me, for a while. I didn’t need to be beholden to anyone, or any place. Who hasn’t yearned for an empty house on the beach, a tiny cabin in the woods? Someplace cozy and quiet and totally stocked, where none of your issues have any impact on anyone else. I wanted to be ME for a while, and figure out who that was again.

For a while it felt good, road-tripping to all the magical hideaways where a queer could be QUEER without question, thank goodness. Everyone’s names and genders were constantly changing and it felt GOOD. I got dirty to a degree I had not yet experienced and fell in love with a beautiful bird-girl named Quinoa. They drove a red Pony named Boomer who ran on recycled vegetable oil; parked side-by-side outside Noa’s collective house in Seattle, it looked like our vans were in love too.

There was something about being transient that mirrored the process of my transition. It took a while to understand and accept myself as a person between genders – a shift that required a great deal of intuition and trust – but it wasn’t just gender I questioned. It was a deep reconsideration of how I wanted to live my life, the homes I wanted to create, the people I valued having around me, the work I wanted to do in the world. Staying in motion meant I didn’t need to make any permanent decisions, which was good, because there was just so much I hadn’t decided yet.

Transience also meant giving up the structure of my formerly ordered life : job, home, platonic domestic partner, health insurance – in addition to what was shaken by the ravages of trauma and PTSD : my sexuality, my libido, my memory, my family. There was room for new ideas about all of these things. I just kept moving, searching for clarity, landing wherever it felt safe enough to.

From April 2011 to October 2013 there were 17 rooms I called home. At least. I passed through four Brooklyn sublets, five queer land projects, six self-declared artist residencies and one that was legit, at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. I picked up jobs when they presented themselves and lived like a broke punk in between. I crashed in the bedrooms of some truly kind sweethearts – once for six weeks straight – and for a spell with a lover in Berlin, before moving to a converted artists squat across the Spree for a couple of months. For a month I slept in the Forest of the Future, an art installation in Greenpoint made of industrial waste. That might have been where I hit bottom, in the hollow of an ancestor tree coated with portraits of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.

I am aware that I entered into this predicament by choice, and acknowledge the layers of privilege that run through this story. Most people arrive at transience, or homelessness, through circumstances far less voluntary/far more systemic than mine. I spend a lot of time these days with queers without homes due to other problems in their lives : terrible family situations, for starters. Lack of employment opportunities, lack of savings, discrimination against trans job applicants, outright racism. Higher levels of depression and mental health troubles without the resources or culture to support getting help. Relationships that don’t work out. Evictions.

Many of these reasons are systemic or cultural challenges that require the work of a movement to address. Some of them are simple bad luck. But to speak of transience without connecting it to related issues that get to the roots of the problem is missing the point, and to frame my experiences as a total nightmare would be false.

It gets worse. I’m aware of that.

Doesn’t mean that it didn’t get hard for me, too. My own liberation soon turned to an aching, exhausting circumstance that I couldn’t quite pull myself out of. My finances were up and down and I ran out of money a lot. Relationships shifted or ended or changed.  I was usually housed but never quite long enough to feel stable. Something would happen, a house would split up, an adventure would end, and it was the same numb exercise in sorting once again – current drag in my cutest vintage suitcase, art supplies updated and packed neatly into cases. Everything else into crates and laundry bags, stashed in whatever space came free.

The Pony was really my only constant. Between cheap shitty mattresses and back-fucking couches and foam mats on floors there were days or weeks at a stretch where sleeping in the back was by far my best option. On the road I’d sneak into an off-season campground or more likely an off-highway truck stop, boxed in by 18-wheelers who’d be gone before daybreak. In Brooklyn I’d drive to the Rockaways, finding the quiet blocks where I could park closest to the ocean, butt toward the beach. Early mornings I could throw open the back doors and listen to the ocean in bed.

There were times when it was lovely but on the whole it was stressful. The way you never feel quite secure, even when the van is locked. Not knowing where the next set of money would come from, and what kind of long-term work might grant me the freedom I was growing vitally accustomed to. I missed my house on Ryerson Street like crazy. I couldn’t remember what I had lost and what I had kept and which closet, in which state, of the half-dozen closets and basements my shit was squirreled in, held particular objects I wanted to touch.

And transition was confusing, gender was confusing, “they” pronouns took some internal getting-used-to, explaining it to people when I was still sorting through it was hard. Thank goodness for queer community, and spaces where gender wasn’t assumed or didn’t matter. Thank goodness for the sprawling web of friends and faeries and chosen family who caught me, listened to my intense vented stories, fed me when I was broke, set out clean sheets for their couches, loaned me the keys. People are confusing, people are kind, there was so much generosity around me and all I could do was be grateful for it, and turn it back out when I could.

Owning a huge friendly cargo van in a community of broke punks is sort of like winning the txt msg lottery. Five straight people or 17 queers (who tended to be more lenient about things like seat belts) could pack into her back – and many of them DID, on beach trips and road trips and beyond. When it came to other people’s Pony missions I couldn’t say no to anyone – so many people were supporting me that I wanted to do what I could in return. Moonlight beach parties helped with a fraction of the expenses, but repairs were cleaning me out. And two years of emergency moves or picking up bookshelves from curbs, trips to the Rockaways with a dozen riders home at 3am, art projects and film projects and band gigs and storage runs had worn me out. My friend Sam was letting go of his mom’s old mini-van and, in a 3-way trade involving the Trojan Pony and some cash, the Green Pony’s long slim key fell into my tranimal paw.

I named her the Green Pony by default, because “Pony” had come to mean “vehicle” in my weird peculiar lexicon and – well – this one was green. She never quite had the charm of the original Pony, but I was a reverse size queen by that point and smaller meant snug which meant YES. A personal Pony, too busted to borrow. She was made the year after I graduated from high school, which felt weirdly appropriate to my transition-fueled queer adolescence. I listened to mix tapes I had made in the 90’s and wondered what would’ve happened if I’d gotten into Bikini Kill instead of Pearl Jam.

The Green Pony held me through six more months of transience, many of them spent waffling between Vermont and Brooklyn, weighing the better place to land. Ultimately, it was love that pulled me home to these potholed city streets, a dried-up bouquet I picked for my sweetheart dusting the dashboard under seashells and pine cones from later adventures together.

I moved into Penny’s house this fall, and slowly began collecting my treasures from all of their hiding spots. The Green Pony got used to alternate sides parking. And we all started hanging out at Sylvia’s Place, an emergency shelter for queer youth who are surviving their own stories of transience, without the benefit of broad social networks, advanced degrees, white skin and 20 years of independent living.

I started this story the day after the Green Pony died, and it’s taken a while to get through it. A lot of these memories are painful to revisit, even from the quiet safety of a bed I have slept in for almost a year. Arranging them into a narrative has meant grieving again for all that I lost, and sorting through what I still have. For three weeks I tore the house apart looking for her title amidst the paper rubble, feeling like a crazy person til I finally thought to call Sam, who it turns out had kept it for safe-keeping. I brought the title to her final mechanic, paid my last respects before sending her off to the scrap heap. And then we transferred her green plates to my new Pony – a perfect cross between the two prior vans with the added cool bonus of a TV/VCR.

Losing the Green Pony was like losing my safety net. Without her I felt unmoored, adrift, transient once more. When Penny and I are low on funds, we imagine ourselves living on love in a van by the river, cooking up beans and singing Bon Jovi lullabies. It’s a comforting image – though it’s strange to get used to being a team. Survival has long been a solitary effort. The Pony gave me a hard motorized shell and wheels to run away fast. Staying still is a different sort of challenge.

To be without a home is a terrible thing. In its truest sense the word “home” implies ongoing warmth, the security of a physical structure. When I was sleeping in the ancestor tree I had none of those things, and yet – being queer is ultimately what gave me comfort.  This process of questioning, of spiritual transience, might well  be the home I’ve been searching for.

Queer is a home that I carry in my heart, a badge that I wear beneath my skin. No matter where I travel, I take my queerness with me.

Even without the Green Pony, I carry it with me still.

farewell, green pony. you were a good little van.

I’ll miss our road trips and drives to the beach,

our hotboxes and kiki lounges,

penny’s favorite nap spot,

my portable living room on wheels.

with you I knew I would never be homeless,

or without a sharpie

or lighter

or granola bar

or hideaway.

maybe my next van-love will have better brakes

and an engine that won’t quit,

but you held on for so long

like the tough survivor

we both are.

bon voyage darling.

onwards and upwards

to future adventures

in the junkyard in the sky.

If you’d like to donate to the Green Pony Fund it would be most appreciated. All donations go directly towards the cost of a new Pony, a sudden expense I was not quite prepared for. Getting a new Pony felt essential. The $2500 it has taken to get her off the ground ($1800 for the van, $200 for repairs, $500 for insurance), in my working artist world, is a significant expense.

Anything raised that goes over her start-up expenses will be put towards groceries for Family Dinners at Sylvia’s Place.

donations can be sent to :

:::::: https://www.paypal.com/us/webapps/mpp/send-money-online ::::::

:::::::::::: send $ to :::::::: greenponyfund@gmail.com ::::::::::::

On July 3, I’ll be hosting another Moonlight Beach Party to benefit the Green Pony Fund.  RSVP here.

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