“My lifestyle dissolves fake smiles. It can be heartbreaking if you aren’t ready for it.”
Two or three weeks ago, I entered my apartment around midnight to find the couch occupied by a bearded stranger. He was asleep, sprawled sideways and snoring loudly, and none of my housemates appeared within eyesight. As I reached over his torso to adjust the thermostat, I briefly considered dialing Public Safety. Instead, I located one of my housemates, Carey Gilchrist ’13, and whispered my demand: “Who’s that dude on our couch?”
“Oh, that’s Lina’s friend Riel,” Carey explained. “He sleeps in different places every night or something. So she offered him our couch.” “Oh,” I said. “Wait, that’s pretty awesome. Would he be up for an interview?”
Riel ’14, a junior majoring in Film and Computer Science, was gone from the couch by the time I awoke the next morning, but later in the week I ran into him in Weshop, where he was stocking up on eggs (“I gotta eat at least six a day, need the protein”) and canned beans. He explained that he had adopted something of a vagabond lifestyle at the beginning of the semester, crashing at friends’ places and refusing to make use of his assigned room in 1 Vine. “I’m trying to be the change I need to see,” Riel told me. On most days, he carries around a camping backpack and a sleeping bag. His lifestyle is controversial, but his reasoning has an oddly circuitous logic to it: If he’s already paying all this money for room and board, shouldn’t he be free not to use it?
I asked Riel if he would like to be interviewed for this blog. Sure, he said, just so long as I didn’t publish his last name or a picture of his face. And could he boil some eggs in my stove while we did the interview? I consented to his demands, as he did to mine. This is the conversation that took place.
* * *
Do you have a room on campus?
Yeah, 1 Vine. I haven’t been to it yet. Well, I went to the kitchen to cook eggs once, but I didn’t actually go into the room.
What inspired you to adopt this lifestyle on campus?
I was hitchhiking around Mexico last semester—I ran away. I was really unhappy here. I went to Cuba for two months. Now I’m back and I have assigned housing and I’m trying to be the change I need to see. I’m trying to do what it takes to make myself happy in this environment. It’s sort of a challenge, you know?
When did you first get creative about your living situation on campus?
Last summer I went to summer session here. I didn’t want to pay and I was also really lazy about getting housing. At first I was going to sign up for housing with my friend, but then he got suspended for being a dipshit. I knew it would be warm out. I could sleep outside, I could take showers and keep a locker at Freeman, plus I’d have friends on campus I could chill with and go to in case of an emergency. I didn’t need housing.
Sophomore year I did lots of Adderall and just sat in my room all the time. You know, college is the first time you have a place that’s completely yours and you have complete privacy. And it can get very insular, very isolated. By contrast, this summer was great. I felt very dependent on people. When you’re dependent on people, you really learn you can trust them (or you can’t). When you learn to trust people, you get comfortable. When you get comfortable, you let yourself be vulnerable; you can be who you really are.
Most people at Wesleyan seem to be afraid of trusting each other. It makes us lonely and fake. There’s this parental lifeline that fulfills all of our physical needs and usually brings plenty of luxuries. We don’t need a network of other people to survive and thrive day-to-day. Wesleyan controls what we eat, where we sleep, where we work, where we buy our coffee, where we party, where we watch movies, where we buy our computers. To me, it feels like an oversimplification. I want to depend on people. I would go so far as to say that I need to depend on people.
So you turned it into a personal challenge this semester?
I wouldn’t say it’s a challenge. It’s not, like, some arbitrary personal goal just to be adventurous. Although it does effectively do this. I’m having lots of adventures all the time. Really, it’s a lifestyle choice. When you interact with people during the day, they have time to filter themselves. They go out in the world and they put on their business face. You have a context for what you’re talking about, the class you’re in or the club or the sport, so you never break each other’s comfort zones. When you’re in someone’s living space, they cook around you, and they need you to do things. They poop and they shower and they reveal their disgusting habits. I really like bonding with people so intimately.
When I was homeless I realized so much of my personal identity was wrapped in routine. It had very little to do with me and had more to do with this routine I’d set up for myself. When you’re traveling around and you don’t have that agenda, you’re living in the moment. Everything’s fresh and everything’s improvised. You sort of isolate what’s really you from what’s your routine, your environment.
Where have you slept for the past five nights?
I slept in the lobby of 156 High for two of them. On a public couch. Also two different friends’ rooms. It’s mostly friends’ floors, beds, and couches. People are pretty down to cuddle up, you know? People like the comfort and the company.
How do you typically approach people about sleeping over?
I try not to force it on people. I try to make it really explicit that if you’d like to have me over, it’d be a good time, I’d really appreciate it, but it’s not an obligation. I have a lot of different options every night. I don’t want anyone to feel like there’s some moral obligation to have me over when they’re actually annoyed or inconvenienced. If someone feels like I’m encroaching on their space, it defeats the point. I try to do people favors when they have me over. I like washing dishes. I don’t disrespect their space or make a mess or take things.
Where else do you sleep?
In the summer I slept in Beta a lot. I walked in behind this guy, he typed in the code, and I was like, “Wow, that’s stupidly easy to remember.” So I just slept on the couches a lot and they were very chill. I also found a bed on the fourth floor of Clark. It was just in the hallway. I pushed it around the corner so P-Safe couldn’t see me. I slept outside sometimes. That tower over Jackson Field is really fun to hang out in. I also slept in the library once, which was a really funny story. I climbed the wall and got into a thesis carrel and when I went outside to throw something away, I set off a silent alarm and the police came. They were knocking on every door and stopped right before they got to mine. I was terrified to leave the carrel after that. I had to pee, so I ended up peeing in several discarded food bags that I had.
Of course I don’t get into those sorts of shenanigans anymore, just peoples’ rooms.
I’ll start sleeping outside again as soon as it warms up. I have a toasty-ass sleeping bag.
Where do you shower?
Friends places’ and Freeman mostly. The first floor of Allbritton has showers in it. Also, the basement of Exley. I use those from time to time.
How has this affected your social life?
Every night is a party. I can’t really avoid it. I used to be very reclusive, but now I’m sort of forced to go with the flow. I’m getting to know a lot more people than ever before. I’ve met tons of really fun, interesting, kind people who are just too shy or reclusive or busy to meet at parties. I find the same people who averted their eyes from me in public making me breakfast when they find me passed out in their common room. In that way it’s strengthened my faith in the kindness of strangers and the inherent goodness of humanity. Of course, there’s a handful of people who are cold towards me, who look down on me or show me selfishness in a time of need. When it comes down to it, those aren’t the people I want to spend my time with anyways. My lifestyle dissolves fake smiles. It can be heartbreaking if you aren’t ready for it.
Has anyone gotten suspicious of you?
I am careful not to do things that are malicious, illegal, or troublesome. A clean conscience will often neutralize suspicion.
But I do get a decent amount of contempt from some students when I tell them about my situation or when they discover me doing homeless person things (sleeping in public, having a sleeping bag, eating discarded food). Just students, though. I still haven’t had any problems with P-Safe, the police, or anyone in town. One time I was walking into WestCo and I asked a girl to hold the door for me, and she got real snotty. She asked for my ID and interrogated me for a solid five minutes. Once she convinced herself that I was a homeless dude from Middletown, she started talking about me to her friend as if I wasn’t there.
The dissonance between Wesleyan students and the town we live in is kind of ludicrous. I grew up being friends with a lot of homeless people and university students. I wouldn’t say that the students were more interesting, smarter, safer. I wouldn’t say that they were more trustworthy or honest or fun to be around. I really hate the word “Townie,” and I think it carries a lot of negative connotations. So what if I was from Middletown?
How do your parents feel about your lifestyle?
They’re a little unhappy with it, but they’ve accepted it. My dad is pissed to be paying for residence when I’m not using it. I am, too. I tried to marry out of it, but it didn’t work out. Long story. The university makes it very difficult. My parents also think it’s gonna fuck with my academic output, which has yet to be determined. I’ve been the happiest and most productive I’ve been my whole life.