Mander, whose middle initial is A, making his name Sal A. Mander (he had it legally changed after a friend jokingly gave him the nickname on a camping trip) is a 41-year-old jazz drummer, who stands extra tall at six-foot-six and sports a shaggy, sandy-colored ponytail. He doesn’t live in the van right now, but he did for three years. A visit from his nephew about a year and a half ago sparked the need for a lodging upgrade, and afterwards it stuck — he’s now in a small studio in Greenpoint. The way he figures it, the white 1993 Chevy G20 he paid just $2,800 for in 2008 is actually worth $35,000. And that’s before factoring in the money he’s made from Man with a Van gigs (which he still does if you’re planning a move). “I didn’t intend on staying in it for that long. But if you just think of the rent I saved over three years, it adds up,” he said.
The only reason Mander agreed to be interviewed, and he made this clear, is because he’s worried for ill-fated millennials, who he sees as doomed. “Your whole life is paying back your student loans,” he said with a sigh. “And then, you have to pay rent on top of that. The whole system is keeping housing really unaffordable for our generation. . . . So, I recommend the lifestyle of finding ways not to pay rent.” Like, living in a van, for instance.
And what exactly was that lifestyle like for Mander? Well, parking, for one, was to be carefully considered, both for weather and safety reasons. Sleeping in the van in the summer, according to Mander, was the worst. “Until two or three in the morning, the van would still have the heat from the day soaked into all the upholstery, carpet, and metal; so, you weren’t able to actually fall asleep until three in the morning.” Bringing to mind the myth of Sisyphus, he continued, “And then the sun would start in all over again at nine or ten!”
Most nights, Mander would park on Driggs Avenue in Greenpoint, or he might stay near a building he was associated with, like the bar where he hosted a weekly jazz jam (the now extinct North 4th Bar), or the music studio where he rented a room. “That’s another thing,” he added. “When you’re choosing where to park, you got to look and see how much glass is [on the ground]. Like, Berry in the industrial area before those new apartments went up, every time I’d walk by, there’d be fresh glass broken, so . . . that’s why I liked to park in more residential areas.”
By day, Mander would “tidy his place up” by folding his memory foam mattress and stuffing it between the driver and passenger seats. The only other things he kept in his van were clothes, and sometimes his drum kit. He added, “Once I had a little propane gas grill, too, but that only lasted six months before I could afford to eat out.” For those first six months and many subsequent meals Mander counted on oatmeal, canned beans, and a staple he called buinoa, which consists of a can of beans, water, and quinoa. For showers, he joined the Metropolitan Recreation Center on Metropolitan and Bedford Avenues. “I didn’t look like a homeless person,” he offered with confidence. “All my friends had apartments and would have me over for dinner and everything,” he added, beaming.
Mander knows this couldn’t happen just anywhere. “In New York, it’s cool because people aren’t territorial of the streets. They’re used to minding their own business.” Pausing, as if to see if there were any struggling millennials nearby to hear this, he said, “You couldn’t live in Pleasantville in your van. But in New York, people should do it if they need to, at least to get their feet on the ground!”