Showering in San Francisco

San Francisco is awesome. Nice beaches, good weather, good food, lots of sights to see. What’s not to like?

Oh, I do have one teeny, tiny issue. In order to live/do anything there, you have to spend money. Crazy, right?!

I have heard that this “spending money” thing is a normal requirement of most major cities, but when I visited San Francisco last year, I had been living in my car while driving down the west coast of Northern USA. My next job didn’t start for another few weeks, so I didn’t have a lot of spare cash.

I got to San Francisco just in time to hang out with my mum for a few days, who was there on a work trip. I really liked it. It was hot, for a start, unlike Canada in late October. Once my mum left to go back to the UK, I decided that Archie (my car) and I should stay down south until my accommodation up in BC was ready for me.

This was great-ish plan. On the plus side, I was living in my car. I didn’t have to pay extortionate prices to stay in the crummiest hostel in California. I had my own room! I had a comfy mattress! I had supermarket snacks! (Sometimes I’d treat myself to a coffee so I could use Starbucks’ power points to charge my phone and I’d feel very cosmopolitan.)

Big city living. I was sophisticated and brushed my teeth nearly every day.

On the downside… I was living in my car. This presented a number of problems. Firstly, sleeping in your vehicle is illegal in San Francisco. They’re pretty strict about it. Most parking near parks and beaches are closed from 11pm-6am and are rigorously patrolled.

This meant I had to be super careful about where I parked and that all my windows were completely covered. I’d normally try to find a nice-looking side road or a safe parking lot to sleep in. I’d get there as late as possible and wake up as soon as the sun rose to make sure I could move before anyone could spot me. (I had visions of the police on walkie-talkies, stalking me through the back streets. I may have been being slightly paranoid. When they eventually caught me it wasn’t for vehicle camping.)

The other problem I faced is that I wasn’t living in a fancy van fitted out for sleeping in. I literally put the seats down in my car and chucked a mattress in there, along with everything I owned. There wasn’t a kitchen, storage space, or most importantly, a bathroom. This was generally okay, as I was used to being on the road at this point and being smelly and slightly gross wasn’t problem for me.

My view from bed, including all of my belongings and some questionable fashion decisions.

However, living out of your car gets slightly more difficult when you’re in a city. Going to the toilet requires planning, and people start crossing the street to avoid the funky smell coming off of you.

So that I wasn’t entirely socially ostracised, I quickly learned a few places to shower. These are genuine tips, tried and tested, for anyone trying to camp under the radar:
1. Get a mum who is on a work trip and then you can stay in her hotel with her and use her nice fancy shower (thanks mum!)
2. Swim in the sea. Not always the best because the sea is really cold and not always that clean. Which leads to….
3. Large public beaches normally have an outside showerhead that people can use after being in the water. Or in my case, bringing shampoo and washing my hair.  
4. You should use this one with caution, but go on a dating website. My profile at the time read “Travelling around California in my car. I need a shower”. You’d be surprised how many people offered. Some of them were weird but I ended up meeting one guy who let me wash, use a toothbrush, and I got to charge my phone too! Score!

For a while, I was winning the game. I was living in San Francisco, basically for free, and no one could stop me. It was exhilarating. No one knew I was there – I was a shadow in the wind, a ghost, flitting from place to place, sleeping on the streets and getting by on peanut butter sandwiches and KitKats. Haha! Travelling was cheap AND easy! Why didn’t more people do it this way?!

One morning I woke up at 5am and immediately was paranoid. I had sneakily parked at a boat club parking lot that was FOR MEMBERS ONLY. They had been having some kind of function the night before, and for some reason I thought my grubby Dodge Caravan would blend in with their Audis and Rolexes and Other Expensive Things.

Anyway, I woke up and realised a lot of the cars around me had gone. Since I was already awake, I decided to drive down the street to where I knew was a big parking lot near a beach. I clambered over my piles of stuff to get into the front seat and started my car.

I started driving down the road and not thirty seconds later I saw flashing lights behind me.

Fuck, I thought to myself. Fuck fuck fuckity fuck. The police! Did they see me leave the boat club? Had they really been watching me this whole time? Well crap. They’d finally caught me. So much for going unnoticed.

I pulled over and opened my window. Kept my hands on the steering wheel. I could see the cop getting out of his car and walking over to me. What if they shot me? They shoot people in America, right?

“Good morning,” the police officer said.
“Hello,” I said, putting on my best smile and trying not to seem suspicious.
“Do you know why I pulled you over?”
“Um, no,” I said.
“You’re driving on the wrong side of the road,” he said. I looked up. Oh, shit. He was right. I was on the left side of the road. I had even pulled over and stopped on the left side of the road. In my sleepiness, I had reverted back to driving in the UK. I felt like a complete idiot. How stupid could I be? “And your lights are off,” he added.
“Oh, shit,” I couldn’t help but say out loud. It was still very dark out, and I had been unknowingly relying on the streetlights. “I am so sorry, I’m from England,” I said, in some weak way of explanation.
He frowned at me. “Can I see your license and registration?”
“Yep yep, sure!” I hastily rummaged in the glove box for my documents. “Um, my license is in the back. Can I go and get it?” I asked. He nodded.

As I got out of the car, I realised I was still wearing my flowery pajamas. I had to open up the car door, which displayed my mattress and duvet, clearly slept in. Illegally slept in.

“Where did you sleep last night?” the policeman asked.
“Oh, I, uh, stayed at my friends house. They, uh, live in the city, I just had to get up early to come for a run….” I babbled unconvincingly. Go for a run? I thought to myself, inwardly shaking my head. What the fuck am I talking about?
“Hmm, okay. I’ll be right back,” the cop said, taking my documents and walking back to the police car.

I got back into the drivers seat, panicking. What was he going to do? How much would the fine be? Thousands of dollars probably – I was driving on the wrong side of the road, for heaven’s sake! And I was obviously camping in my car. It felt like I was in shock. How could I have been so stupid? A huge fine was coming, I knew it. What was I going to do? What if I had to go to jail? They wouldn’t actually arrest me, right? Or would they? I had no idea.

I was nearly in tears by the time he came back and handed me a ticket.

“Here you go. Make sure you’re more careful next time,” he said and walked away.

The ticket was for 75 bucks.

I nearly passed out with relief.

He had somehow believed my lie about staying at a friends’ house. Either that or he felt sorry for me for being such a poor liar and realised I would never survive in American prisons.

On a more serious note, looking back on it, I realise how lucky I was a) not to have killed myself or any other people, and b) especially in light of recent news, how privileged I am. As a young, white, solo female traveller I often need to be careful, but in that situation I realise that the police man’s perception of me (as a blonde English girl) almost certainly contributed to the treatment I received. I can’t help but wonder what the outcome would have been had my skin been a different colour.

To anyone wanting to go to San Francisco, I thoroughly recommend. There are some awesome sights to see and beautiful beaches and parks to spend time in. If you’re going to camp in your vehicle, it’s definitely possible. Just be careful, and maybe book into a hostel room or a real campsite every now and again.

Getting outta there. The authorities will never catch me again!

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