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9# Lesson from an old rag

Updated: Dec 27, 2020

What do you do when you're alone and everything goes wrong? You try different things, you improvise. There is always something to do.

I was racing against time to finish building la Chichona before winter. Every day I woke up, picked up la Chichona and drove to Home Depot. I was almost done with the insulation, and way behind on everything else. There were too many balls to juggle with: the electric setup, the kitchen, the plumbing, the wood work, the furniture, etc. And so much I didn’t know.

Working on one thing at a time was no longer possible. I often got stuck in the middle of a task and jumped to another. To do things right, you need the theory, the practical knowledge and the resources. In my case, it meant knowing the what, the how and having the right tools. In my best days I had two out of three. Every day, a new challenge emerged.

I sought help everywhere, and many friends answered the call. Some worked on la Chichona, some lended me money, others hosted me and some came to hang out. Moral support during hardship is important and underestimated.

One day, we were installing the solar panel on Home Depot’s parking lot when an old black man in a green Hawaiian shirt approached us. He spoke in a singing southern accent. The man asked if it was allowed to spend the night in one’s car, here in Home Depot’s parking lot. I didn’t know and wasn’t in the mood to chat. My hours were counted and he was slowing us down.

The old man saw us working and kept asking question after question. I was cold and rude. Then realized I was acting exactly like that bitter punk at Home Depot, doing the very thing I hated! I changed my attitude, smiled, and gave him the attention he deserved.

That old man had been on the road for the past 30 years! He and his wife had been exploring the USA and Canada in their old 1986 GMC, from Louisiana to Alaska. What an incredible adventure! He was happy to hear mine and insisted on sharing a piece of advice he had received from an Old rag as he liked to say: “When you’re on the road, Murphy’s Law is as solid as gravity”.

I pondered over what he said. He was right, and I hadn’t even left Montreal yet. For pretty much any task I attempted, I was missing something and had to adapt. When everything you try goes wrong, you keep trying until somethings work out. In the end, something always works out.

The longer I spent doing manual labor the more I experienced Murphy’s Law. Hence, I learnt to prepare for it. I started walking into Home Depot with a measuring tape, a notepad, pictures on my phone and an endless list of questions. Everything had to be crystal clear to reduce the risk of error.

For example, I would ask the associate to show me how to use a pressure gun. I was insistent and had to try the product myself before leaving the store. Some basic concepts, like making a wood joint, were hard for me to grasp. Everything was new. Looking stupid or annoying didn’t matter anymore. La Chichona wasn’t going to build itself.

With enough visits, the Home Depot punk and I even shared an inside joke. “You again!” he said every time he saw me. I chased him for knowledge, and found a guilty pleasure in torturing him with all my questions. I would push it until he ran out of patience, snapped and walked away. I was drowning in hardship, lonely, and he was my only distraction…hahaha poor guy.

With time, I had become that annoying customer every employee knew and avoided. The guy asking too many questions, the guy who takes 30min to buy a screwdriver, the building a van in the parking lot.

When you hang on to something long enough, you get used to it. No matter how uncomfortable, difficult or embarrassing it is, you carry on. Roadblocks had to be removed and someone needed to do it. Public embarassment and strangers’ opinion are a cheap price for that. The only thing that mattered was solving the problem at hand.

Backpacking for the past 2 years forced me to be minimalistic, to choose utility over style. This is fine if you are by the beach but in a big city, you stand out. At the end of the day, I looked like a construction worker who had a rough shift. My clothes and hands were always stained. Depending on the task, it was spray foam, glue, paint, oil or blood.

The day I finished the insulation, I had a house warming party planned at a fancy friend’s house and needed to get ready. Before I started this project, getting ready meant dressing up. It meant wearing nice shoes, a matching outfit and colonne. With la Chichona, getting ready meant taking a shower.

I pushed the door to the party, all eyes were on me. As I walked in looking for my friends, people stared with a mix of fear and embarassment. Who’s this hobo? they thought, so hard I almost heard it. I had spray foam on my hat and smelled of bleach. To be fair, I would have thought the same.

Converting a van is a long and difficult project. A project that transforms you every day, especially if you’re doing it alone. Repeated failures develop a feeling of helplessness worsened by loneliness. And if like me, you have a tendency to obsess over deadlines, your vision tunnels and nothing else matters. I stopped caring about anything but the build. Unconsciously, I placed people into two categories: those who help and those who don’t.

La Chichona was consuming me.


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