Photo: Syda Productions/Shutterstock

What #Vanlife Was Like in the '60S

by Mary Sojourner Sep 16, 2017

I DIDN’t START painting the food co-op van until I’d come home from my job at the nursing home and cooked dinner for our commune. We were an urban agrarian anarchist collection of women, men, and kids, age thirty-four to in utero, three of the kids, Denny, Sunny, and Max, mine.

We nine had found an old house on the edge of a dying neighborhood in Upstate New York. We cleaned out at least thirty years of tenant trash, painted the walls either rainbow or black and white (depending on the politics or spirituality of the person who would live there), dug raised-bed garden plots in the backyard, and settled in to change the world.

I dumped the rest of the tuna casserole into a bowl, covered it, left my old man Michael (Sixties counter-culture for lover) and two of the kids washing the dishes, and went out to our dark blue ’66 Chevy panel van. There was just enough light left to work. I dipped my brush into a can of orange acrylic paint and finished off the tail end of a giant carrot that lay on its side the full length of the van. Then, I went to work on the feathery leaves. My youngest kid, Max, came out and watched me start in on the lettering. “Can I help?” I handed him a brush and white paint and boosted him up. F, he painted, R I E N D L Y.  

“I can’t spell vegetable,” he said.

“That’s okay. I’ll help.” It was dark by the time we were finished. Max had painted a goofy smile on the carrot. Our words read, “Friendly Vegetable Food CoopOrder Here” along with our phone number. My old man Michael and the rest of the commune came out and sat on the porch steps in the soft summer twilight.

“Outrageous,” one of the other chicks said. “Now, we’re in business.” We all booed. She grinned.

“Now we’re going to knock that asshole grocer out of the water.” The guy who owned the store let neighborhood people charge their groceries till payday or Social Security checks came in — everything at almost twice the cost of food in the big supermarkets miles away in the suburbs. In some ways, his late sixties business practices were ahead of his time — and the impetus for the founding of The Friendly Vegetable Co-op.

We took orders from our neighbors and a few suburban supporters for the fresh squash, peaches, potatoes, lettuces, and Greek olives we bought in bulk at the city’s one farmers’ market; the whole-grain bread Sue baked, and the fresh yogurt our resident Trade Union organizer brewed up on Friday nights. On Saturdays, we headed out to the market at 6 AM, shopped, and were back by noon to unload the Friendly Vegetable. We filled boxes with just-picked corn, candy-sweet tomatoes, pesticide-free baby peas, bread, olives, and if we’d gotten lucky at the market, fresh-pressed cider.

The Friendly Vegetable stayed alive for a couple years. Then, Michael and I decided we wanted a place of our own and moved into the country. The folks we left behind worked with people who were renovating an old neighborhood and after a few years, The Friendly Vegetable had morphed into a big food co-op — with memberships, computerized work charts, upscale organic produce and meat, and eventually, craft beers. Michael and I kept the van. We painted over the phone numbers, left the grinning carrot in place, put a kitchen box and full-size mattress in the back and the van became The Vegetable.

We took off on weekends to car-camp in the state parks and forests that lay within a half-day’s drive of the city. Michael and I slept outside. The kids slept in the van. We got pulled over a half dozen times on the country roads by cops who figured that our Get Out of Viet Nam bumper stickers told them exactly what kind of “friendly vegetable” we were hauling. Every now and then, we’d meet another van family, congregate at a waterfall or a lakefront campground. We’d make pot-luck dinners and tell stories by our fire late into the night, while the kids chased fireflies, booby-trapped the parking lot with roasted marshmallows, and raced up to the fire, giggling wildly. “Hey. Everybody. Look. That guys trying to scrape marshmallow off his foot.”

I went to college. Michael built up his own offset print shop. We saved a few coins and bought an old farm-house and four acres in the state’s far north. We told ourselves that we’d get a garden in, go up on weekends to farm, and start restoring the ramshackle house. One bright February day we drove north to start in on the restoration. We didn’t bother to check the weather. There were two woodstoves in the farmhouse so we figured we’d be fine.

By the time we pulled into the edge of a little town a few miles from the farmhouse, the snow was less weather than a full-on assault. The van’s heater seemed to be in the throes of a potentially fatal asthma attack. The kids were piled under every coat, sleeping bag, and comforter we’d packed. We found a diner and thawed out with home-made gringo chili, hot chocolate, and coffee.

The snow kept falling. The Vegetable began to look like a big white buffalo. “What do you think?” Michael said. “Should we bail and head home?”

Max, Denny, and Sunny gasped. Max put down his spoon. “No. The Vegetable battled the storm. You can’t let it think it’s been defeated.” Michael looked at me. I looked at Max. “To live by the van could be to die by the van, Max, but you’re right.”

I climbed in the back of The Vegetable with the kids. Michael cranked the engine and we crept off. The blizzard slammed the van on all sides. I was glad there were no windows in the back so I could pretend everything was cool. The kids burrowed into my sides and started giggling. “You guys are crazy,” I said. “Right on,” Max said. “It’s cooler that way.”

After what seemed like weeks, I felt the van skid to a stop. The wind had died. We all climbed out into a black night scattered with stars. Michael and I dug a path through four feet of snow up to the house. The kids hauled in the mattress and bedding. Michael built a fire in the old wood stove. I made up the bed. Later that night, we all snuggled on the mattress and listened to the beautiful sounds of the fire crackling and snow whispering against the windows.

“What if?” Denny said. “What if we didn’t have The Vegetable? What kind of family would we be?”

This article originally appeared on Sonderers and is republished here with permission.

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