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TimeSpace: Half A Tank

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

Souvenirs from Tent City


The back of the rental car the morning after we visited Tent City. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

NASHVILLE, Tenn.--A book with a chewed up spine sits on my motel bed. A homeless songwriter gave it to me, pulling it off a table in a "living room" that consisted of little more than a chair on a mud floor under a tarp ceiling. “The rats got a hold of it and ruined it,” he said, gently handing it to me so it would remain intact. “If you don’t take it, eventually the rain will get to it and it will fall apart.”

The homes in Nashville’s Tent City are made from discarded billboards that drop from an overhead highway overpass. It’s a place you have to go over to get under and where Michael I spent hours trekking through weeds to make our way to the different campsites. We sat on couches made from car seats, watched a chicken drink beer from a cup and attended a campfire prayer service.

By the time we left –our notebooks and cameras filled with stories we will tell you later – my arms swelled with mosquito bites and my clothes reeked of smoke. Michael was splattered in mud from his shoes to his fedora. He’d slid down an embankment trying to keep up with a woman nicknamed “Mother Teresa” who lives with a man called “Papa Smurf.”

We were dirty, smelly and exhausted when we checked into the motel, a $44 a night place outside of the city. We got adjoining rooms, and on his side, Michael rinsed off the heaviest of mud from his clothes before putting them on the back of the car to dry. On mine, I started flipping through the pages of the book, making it through only a few before they began to fall out.

By Theresa Vargas  |  June 18, 2009; 7:13 PM ET
Categories:  Behind the Wheel  
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You both should've spent that $44 in our subscription TARP funds on a cheap two-person tent and bug spray, then washed up the next morning in a creek or nearby shelter.
And, now doubt, you missed the evening's featured entre at Tent City - RATatouille.

Posted by: HereComesTheJudge | June 19, 2009 12:11 PM | Report abuse

If there is a societal failure somewhere in this Half a Tank sob story, it is the failure to teach people how to live with discomfort.

One can live decently in the wild. Native Americans knew how to do it. Early European settlers knew how. It wasn't an easy life, but it was a free one.

How many of us could walk into the local national forest and survive for a year? Not very many.

How many of us might have to consider doing just that over the next ten years? Very few, I pray, but I believe I'm wrong about that.

Posted by: KarimAbdulTares | June 19, 2009 2:40 PM | Report abuse

nice photography.


Posted by: thejamesthing | June 22, 2009 9:47 PM | Report abuse

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