Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity
Special Features
TimeSpace: Half A Tank
TimeSpace: Half A Tank

Post photographer Michael Williamson is traveling across the country covering the economic situation.

Mirrors, Thin Walls And Cheap Motels


We considered booking a room at this motel in Glenvar, Va. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

PULASKI COUNTY, Va.--Cheap motels have thin walls and I can hear Michael at his computer. It’s 3 a.m. and he’s editing photos. I’m poring through notebooks of interviews.

For days now, we’ve been talking to strangers, following them as far into their worlds as they will take us. But at dinner, over Cuban and club sandwiches, pieces of our own stories began slipping out.

Michael and I both drink diet Coke, but early on in the trip, he noticed I fill my fountain cup with only a little ice. “That’s the poor person’s method,” he said. Get the most for your money, he meant. It was a statement that revealed as much about him as it did about me.

Michael grew up in foster care and has seen glimpses of himself in more than one homeless person, he tells me at dinner. One man in particular, nicknamed Shorty, led a life that mirrored Michael's own up until the age of 11. The only reason they turned out differently, Shorty had told Michael, was because when the merry-go-round they’d both been riding picked up speed and tossed them off, one ended up in a loving family’s lap and the other didn’t. Luck has something, although not everything, to do with how some people turn out, Michael tells me.

“Why do you think they use the term hanging on?” he says. “Hanging on to what?”

Some of my earliest and best memories are of walking home from elementary school with an aunt. We'd stop along the way to dig through dumpsters for treasures and pick pecans from gutters to sell. If I never felt poor growing up, it’s because that's what everyone around me was. I know what it's like to pay for fast food in coins, drive a car with no paint and shake shoes in the morning for roaches.

By the time Michael and I finished dinner, it was late and we were eager to return to the motel. We would stay awake long into the night, poring through the images and words of others, separated by a wall that somehow now seemed thinner.

By Theresa Vargas  |  June 8, 2009; 1:50 PM ET
Categories:  Behind the Wheel  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Mourning Paper
Next: Selling The Family Heirloom


i came over here because Joel Achenbach, who I suspect has incriminating photos of me, recommended this blog. But you know what? This is great stuff. Sort of like Carl Hoffman's "Lunatic Express" but without the passport troubles.

I'm looking forward to reading more of this.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | June 8, 2009 3:05 PM | Report abuse

Yes, this is excellent work. I am looking forward to reading.

Posted by: Fern21 | June 8, 2009 3:34 PM | Report abuse

I prefer having money to not having money.

Posted by: BaracksTeleprompter | June 8, 2009 3:48 PM | Report abuse

Betcha Theresa had the club (and only ate half, took the rest in a doggie box back to the motel), while Michael had the Cuban.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | June 8, 2009 3:55 PM | Report abuse

I too am looking forward to following this over the summer. Could be the "must read" of the season - high hopes!

Posted by: woowoo | June 8, 2009 4:03 PM | Report abuse

Well, for starters; The Blue Jay Motel should sell that CLASSIC old sign to Fuddruckers so they can hang it in one of their restaurants. They will make more selling that sign than they ever will renting rooms.

Back to the article: having grown up middle class (not upper or lower, just middle), here is my advice.

Stop picking up pennies. When you see a penny remind yourself that you need to be thinking about dollars.

IF you can't get a degreed, salaried position with benefits (if you can, take it) THEN stay well clear of the wage-slave jobs because they are designed to keep you in servitude. Find something else to do like painting houses for a living. Just load up your car with a bunch of tools - type doesn't matter - and go out on the street looking for work. Hint: fixing cracks in sheetrock and house painting will keep you indoors when the weather is bad as will laying tile and installing wood floors. Anybody, and I do mean A N Y B O D Y can do these jobs with zero training. If you can speak English and return a phone call you jump to the VERY top of the heap!

Posted by: Heerman532 | June 8, 2009 4:10 PM | Report abuse

Reading Heerman532's comment noting that probably about 80% of the contractors I know have severe drinking problems. Speaking of diet cokes ... these guys like to fill a large slurpee cup 3/4 up with cheap vodka and the rest with coke. Very little ice of course ... just as described. I'm not sure but it sure seems like that is a very high pressure lifestyle ... one that seem too often to catapault one from riches to rags, and homelessness.

As the economy worsens the jobs you describe likely will shrink dramatically. Its about priorities. You don't need your house painted, your kitchen upgraded, even basic essentials no longer need to be done. Its all about survival and just keeping that roof over your head.

What you are reading here could very well describe most of the population very, very soon if Obama does not succeed in a reasonable way in the ensuing 8 years.

Its not like it hasn't happened before.

Posted by: periculum | June 8, 2009 4:47 PM | Report abuse

Although I will agree that homelessness can be a "state-of-mind" it is also very much a hard fact of life. In which you aren't going to be able to easily rent a decent SMALL place because many often ask for references and do the now very cheap credit checks which pop little red flags next to your name. The same thing happens when you look for gainful employment ... even of the type Heerman arrogantly ascribes to the "easy" bin.

You end up looking for jobs where they pay you "under the table", or if you were "in the system" as Mr. Williamson was, you too often end up looking for ways to go on SSI, social security disability. Its a vicious merry-go-round in which the system, to be self-perpetuating (those are jobs too!!!), will often end up subtly sabotaging your efforts to be self-supporting and sustaining!

Posted by: periculum | June 8, 2009 4:56 PM | Report abuse

If the wall between the reporter and photographer in this blog seem to grow thinner, the distance between the blog itself and some of the posters here is seemingly about as wide as the Grand Canyon.

Posted by: Jumpy66 | June 8, 2009 5:29 PM | Report abuse

If you are young, healthy, single, strong, and don't have to answer to anyone else, you can fill your car (if you have one) with tools and try to find work. Unless, of course, your car is currently holding everything you own because you've been living in it for the past few months. That is especially ironic when you are driving it to your full time job which doesn't pay enough to have a place to live, and covering the windows so you can fool yourself into thinking your co-workers don't know where you are living.

Of course, a car is a luxury for the homeless, doubly so if it still runs. And it's really hard to cover the living arrangement if it also includes your children. But this is boring. The details of homelessness are both boring and disgusting to everyone else. Homeless people don't brag all that much.

Not that only homeless people are poor. It is very possible to be poor and not quite have slipped out into the street. You stay a day or two in front of that. But sometimes when you are trying to figure out how to go on from one hour to the next keeping yourself and your kids alive, it is difficult to remember that someday you may have the luxury of sitting at a computer and telling people how easily they could get out of trouble with a simple hard tug on their bootstraps. Really difficult. You have to stay focused on the basics, like food, shelter, and safety. Load your car up with tools? Tools you stole from where? Money for a hammer means no food again this week. It's much easier to go hungry than to let your children go hungry, at least the first few times. After a while you get used to them being hungry, too. When you start out the idea that you cannot even feed your children is too horrible to think of, but you can get used to pretty much anything.

You put off hitting bottom by changing where the bottom is. Life this week is below where bottom was last week, but you move the bottom to be lower than where you are. As long as you can keep that up, you don't hit bottom. Just so long as you can keep it up. And you focus on slowing your fall, because after a while the idea of rising becomes inconceivable.

"Stop picking up pennies." That is really rich. A rich man's thought. You should be thinking about dollars? You are too busy thinking about continuing to breathe. A penny is a lot more than nothing when pennies are all you are living on.

Avoid the wage-slave jobs? Poor people have little time to worry about long term career prospects. They are thinking about hunger, cold, danger and death. Poor people die of being poor. Their kids die, their spouses die, their parents and siblings and friends die of being poor. A job which pays is the difference between life and death, and while you may think you would not choose to be a wage slave, are you really saying you would choose to die? And to kill all those other people who depend on you? That sort of choice is not a luxury poor parents can afford.

Posted by: gardoglee | June 8, 2009 5:57 PM | Report abuse


Aww, I've been homeless for 3 years and that's a lotta B.S.!

After leaving the immaculately clean but depressing homeless shelters where I was continually hit on by disgusting old men and had to wake up early and attend AA even though I don't drink, and get bossed around by power-tripping, racist blacks, I WISED UP.

I set up a tiny tent in the woods and used my Jedi powers to jack into a 250-volt main and pull 110 volts without a transformer (I'm a savant. It's a curse from god).

Then I packed my little cave with so much electronics that it looks like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise and hacked into someone's wireless internet. I've even got A/C a little camp fridge, and over-the-air HDTV in here. I lay around completely naked 24/7 and don't have to see any (ugh) HUMANS for weeks at a time.

I make BIG money on ebay selling electronics I find in the Public Storage place dumpster which no one else recognizes as valuable.

I mean GOOD stuff, like mainframe computer test equipment, a TV studio time base corrector, sealed cases of radio-controlled toys, and the entire inventory of a defunct Annandale computer store.

I sleep whenever I want, make fondue with $12/pound imported cheese, and I have NEVER been happier in my 34 years, even when I was a systems programmer or nuclear engineer.

Uhh... except in college.

Look Theresa, you're really doing a disservice by scaring everyone and telling them that homelessness is necessarily awful or even uncomfortable. If you can't stand the horror of the so-called "real world", or if the greedy businessmen jettison you like a bad warp core, you can be a refugee from the liars and the cheaters and the other human garbage, but:


Pix of me and my half-buried, cozy little one-woman Apollo-capsule house at:

--faye kane, homeless brain

Posted by: Knee_Cheese_Zarathustra | June 8, 2009 6:14 PM | Report abuse

Nice post, Faye. I am (was) in IT as well, and did the homeless thing for 1.5 years. Loved the solitude, no bills to pay. I showered at a University, spend day reading in library, and worked at a food coop for food. Never slept better. Simple, productive life. Had to do it for a couple of months recently. Thought I had a good place (old growth forest), but some other homeless guy stole my tent, blanket, and sleeping pad. Dang! Also, deer come by and snort at me and wake me up. Fun to play 'Dodge the Cops'. (I have become invisible to cops) Was searching for another wooded area recently, found a perfect site, but someone beat me to it. I worry about ticks in summer. Caught Lyme disease. The humans don't even realize the stress their under.

Posted by: roubaix | June 8, 2009 9:39 PM | Report abuse


Loved your blog. To state that I was a little disappointed with your site, would be an understatement. Girl, you have a great mind, 'but a mind is a terrible thing to waste'. Unfortunately, one of the truths of long term homelessness, is that mental health issues arise or incident. Girl, get some help because you do have a lot to offer, except you are trolling through life. I am sorry for that. Be well.

Posted by: jakesfriend1 | June 8, 2009 10:23 PM | Report abuse

I like good writing--carry on trucking.

Posted by: Braguine | June 9, 2009 7:49 AM | Report abuse

Love the writing and I for one love the motel sign!

Posted by: docreport | June 12, 2009 11:58 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company