7 min read

Zen and the Art of RV Poop Maintenance

A little bit at a time. Right.
Photo: A man wearing a magenta dress with tiered ruffles and an absurdly wide black straw hat steps over a sewage hose connected to an RV at one end and a dump portal in the ground at the other.

“A little bit at a time, right?” an RV Person said to me, last year. If I was a fledging RV Person then—and I was, just a couple of months in—he was RV Yoda. Though he was probably younger than me, he’d lived in multiple RVs over many years. Once, he and his RV were parked in someone’s garage, and the garage caught fire. He very calmly told me this, and also that the garage door was locked from the outside—whether in general or at that moment, I don’t recall, because I was so alarmed—so he had to pound on it and yell to get someone to let him out before he caught fire, too.

Someone heard him calling for help, and so, someone did.

End of calmly rendered story.

Me, I told him with my voice full of stress about all my needed repairs. There’s always a running list, because no sooner is the roof patched for winter than it’s summer, when the roof needs to be totally replaced during the break in the rain, and the kitchen faucet has had a leak at the base for months (they start to leak at the base, faucets that spend their lives shaking with the vibrations of tires against asphalt). At the time of this conversation, I was still trying to get done the simpler-seeming job of inside paint. I was overwhelmed by all the projects I needed to complete, and that was long before I learned that I can’t actually drive twenty gallons of untreated sewage around in dead-summer heat without needing to do a deep-cleaning black tank process at some point, which I still haven’t done, and I still haven’t cleaned out my hot-water tank with a debris wand, even though it’s been five months since someone told me to. But this RV Yoda just smiled at me calmly after I rattled off whatever was on my to-do list at the time and said, like we were both in on this mentality: “A little bit at a time, right?”

This made me want to scream.

When I wrote magazine features, I wrote so many so close together that a storied veteran of the industry asked me, when we met, how I was doing that. I remember being shocked at the question. I had just assumed that was the pace; I couldn’t fathom another one. When I started to remember the abuse to which I’d been subjected, I processed so much so fast that more than one therapist over the years urged me to back off, slow down—take it easier. When I finally stopped fighting my own awareness that I was trans, I forced the gears of a state insurance system to turn so quickly through sheer insistence and bureaucratic hustle that I had a free needleful of testosterone in my arm within two months and zero-copay stitches in my surgically flattened chest seven weeks after that.

I do not, is my point, do a little bit at a time. I do Getting It Done.

Or I did, anyway.

“People who’ve lived in an RV have this calm,” I told someone once—and that was before I met the guy who was chill about being trapped in a flaming garage. I was referring principally to a new friend I’d met right before moving into mine. They’d magically appeared in my life as I was liquidating my belongings, an RV angel who arrived out of the ether with the wisdom of having lived parked on Oakland streets for four years. Though we barely knew each other, they helped me pack up my apartment, and though the moving logistics far outstretched the amount of time I had to complete them, they said to me calmly over and over, unfazed (and miraculously unannoyed) by my panic, “It’ll get done.”

The other day, I was taking a shower when my foot suddenly punched through the 25-year-old fiberglass that makes up my tub. Given that it’s hollow underneath in that spot, it’s surprising no one ever cracked it open before, standing on the plastic with their full human weight. God knows what important truck parts it’s placed over—I don’t know if even god knows, but some RV mechanic probably does—so naturally I became immediately concerned about water getting through to them. “Get and apply waterproof tape” became the top priority of my to-do list, ahead of “get bathtub replaced!” which was already on there because aesthetically (and now physically) it was clearly time, and I really do need to call someone about the kitchen faucet, and also schedule a couple of nights at an RV park where I’m hooked up to sewage so I can do the black-tank treatment I finally ordered, which just arrived with the debris wand I finally got around to ordering, if not actually using, too.

It doesn’t seem like that big of a deal when I write it all out. It seems like a bigger deal when I acknowledge that I also need to get my coolant flushed. But whatever was on the list at the time I was freaking out about it to RV Yoda, it eventually got done. Or it didn’t. Both were fine. Are fine. The other night, probably related to my now-more-urgent need for a new bathtub, I got spun up and so worried about money, my present iteration of a flaming garage, that I panicked in a way I couldn’t stop. But the fact that I’m panicking more like 10 percent than 100 percent of the time amidst the terror of poverty feels like a mastery of this trust fall I’m in with authentic existence. Feels like some RV Jedi shit. In a few weeks, the guy who’s installing my Pacific Northwest-proof roof is coming, at which point I’ll owe him $5,700 I absolutely do not possess. “That sounds scary,” someone said, visibly spooked, when I told him I was living off credit card debt, and I recognized how the specter used to spook me, too, and while I have stressed moments, I also started giggling when I wrote the previous sentence about how I don’t have any of the dollars I’m about to “pay” this roofer.

This morning, I went to the store to pick up food, and saw a new (to me) dark-chocolate ice cream made out of avocados. Earlier this week, I bought groceries and realized my EBT card was empty, already out of funds two weeks before my benefits replenish, and so I put all that on a credit card, too. When I got home, I took a nap and dreamed that I was on the phone with my father, telling him I needed ten thousand dollars, or at least eighty-five hundred, to fix what I needed to fix in my home. While we were talking amicably, like we used to several times a week, I realized that (just like in real life) he knew I told everyone what he did, and I knew he denied it by calling me pitiably insane, but we’d decided to hold it like some sort of political dispute and talk anyway. There was a long, long pause in the dream conversation—there has been a six-year pause in our actual conversation, since I sat on a park bench and told him that he had to acknowledge what happened or we had no relationship, and he’d responded, coolly: “Well I guess that’s it then.” The silence in the dream went on so long that I eventually broke it by scowling at my phone and saying: “What the fuck, Dad?”

“I’m just over here doing some banking,” he said, gently. He was moving the money into my account, he said, and something melted inside me, tears flowing as I cried to him that I’d hoped I would never in my whole life get so close to being without food or shelter, grateful that he was catching me in that way. Catching me even though I’ve been honest.

That’s a dream world. I promise that if I made that phone call, his only concern would be getting me to recant. When I woke up, I thought about calling him anyway, thought about how I could hold the truth for both of us—I do hold the truth, for both of us.—so I could still have a father. I wept in real life like I’d wept in the dream, only not from relief, not here in this world, not yet, from grief or scarcity. Those, I move through a little bit at a time. One crying spell—or a whole day of being crippled by it, like yesterday unable to get up until dinnertime—at once.

Today, soon after I stopped crying, I remembered the dark-chocolate ice cream. I opened my freezer (which is in a truck! “‘I have ice cream in my truck,’” one of my friends said of me once, “is such a vibe”) and opened the pint and stuck a spoon in it and put it in my mouth and it was so, so good, rich and airy and delightful in a way so unexpected (this kind, because far be it from me to deprive anyone) that I burst out laughing. Tomorrow, I have a date. My singular plans until then are to work on a puzzle I’ll need to glue together before I can drive my house (and the kitchen table holding the puzzle in it) to get there, and to repaint my nails. One errand, one prayer, one pleasure, one continually unfolding experience, one ever-more-embodied moment apiece. More gradually accrued faith, that the garage door comes open at the right time.

Photo: A man in a magenta ruffled dress and oversize black straw hat holds a hose outside an RV.