Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Where to Sleep in a Car

In a previous entry, I discussed How to Sleep in a Car—that is, how to physically do it. Now I'll talk about where to sleep in a car—or where to position the car so you are safe during your unconsciousness and won't be disturbed.

The short answer is: You can sleep in a car almost anywhere you would normally feel comfortable parking a car overnight. The primary aim is to not attract attention—from thieves, neighbors, police and security guards.

One of my first experiences in sleeping in the back seat of a car was in Lisbon, Portugal, many years ago. I had rented a car in Madrid—a tiny one—and was touring Iberia, sleeping in hotels and hostels. When I got to Lisbon, I didn't have a place to stay and was totally exhausted from driving, so I parked where I was, on a busy residential street beside a big apartment house. I curled up in the back seat, almost in a fetal position (since it was a very small seat) and went to sleep. It worked! I slept well, and no one interrupted me. All night, people walked by my car, but since I parked in a place where residents commonly park overnight, I was invisible to them. To my knowledge, no one looked inside the car, because they had no reason to.

And what would have happened if someone had looked inside and seen me sleeping? Probably nothing! I wasn't intruding on anyone's space, and no one had any reason to call the police. And if the police had found me, what would they have done? They might have woken me up and asked for identification but probably would have let me stay. I'm a harmless tourist; I don't speak Portuguese, and it's obvious I'm just passing through. What threat am I to anyone?

After this one experience in Portugal, I realized, "Hey, why do I need a hotel at all?" If you have a rental car, you have a hotel!

Almost every city has some sort of ordinance against sleeping in cars on public streets, and most property owners wouldn't want you doing it on their land either—if they knew. The reason, of course, is that if it were allowed, some people would abuse the privilege. They would linger in one neighborhood, be obvious about it and make a nuisance of themselves. No one wants a visibly homeless person living in a car on their street (especially when the observer is slaving to pay for their own home). Our aim, however, is to be completely invisible, which is a whole different game.

Let's say you choose to disobey a local ordinance and sleep in a vehicle where you know it's not allowed. What's the worst that can happen? Will you be arrested, ticketed, fined? Probably not. What is likely to occur is that someone will knock on the window, wake you up, and ask you to move on. That's it!

You judiciously select a parking spot to avoid this inconvenience. If your car is parked in a place where cars are commonly parked for the night, it won't attract attention; no one will bother to look inside, and your sleep won't be interrupted.

Compared to sleeping in a tent or in the open, a car gives you an extra element of security, because no one is going to sneak up on you. If the window is open just a crack, no one can assault you or steal your stuff without making a lot of noise first (by smashing a window). You add another layer of security if you are parked in a busy location with people passing by all night. Any potential thieves will be deterred by the visibility.

I know sleeping in a car may seem to make you vulnerable, but think it through: What are the risks? As long is you park in a relatively busy location and your presence in the car is nearly invisible, there really aren't any.

The key rule to remember is, "Don't park in remote locations." This may seem counterintuitive, because when you want to sleep your tendency is to try to get away from it all. However, if you park on the side of remote road or in an empty parking lot, you are bound to attract attention. Car thieves are going to see this as a prime opportunity, and police and security guards are going to wonder what a car is doing parked way out here. Instead, you want to be in the thick of things, in a relatively busy location where a car parked overnight would be safe and unnoticed.

(The other possibility is to park in an extremely remote location where there is little or no chance of anyone else passing you at night. For example on public land.)

Twice, when sleeping in cars, I have been awoken by people testing the door handles, apparently intending to steal my car. They quickly left, however, when they found me inside it. I have also been awoken by police and security guards. However, in almost all these cases, I was parked in places where wisdom now says I shouldn't have been—where my car stood out like sore thumb. No that I've learned to be discreet, interruptions are rare.

What happens when the police find you sleeping in a car? They may ask for I.D., run it through their database and ask you a few questions. Then they make ask you to move on or they may let you stay. (When they've asked me to move, they've usually told me where I can move to.) What happens when you're woken by security guards? They simply ask you to move off their property. Private security guards don't have the power to demand I.D. Given my choice, I prefer security guards, because the encounter is much less intrusive. Also: Whenever you have contact with police, it creates a local contact record that could conceivably be used against you later. They may let you off with a warning the first time but give you a ticket the second.

If you are driving cross-country, where is the best place to park? Well, you could try the Evil Mega-Mart™. Many EMMs are open 24 hours, and there are usually restrooms just inside the front door. EMM is also a food source if you need it, and a source of cheap sleeping bags, pillows and other camping supplies. In rural areas, EMM is very tolerant of RV's parking overnight in their parking lots, almost encouraging it, so a car parking overnight should be no problem. In urban areas, however, the EMM lots are often posted with "No Overnight Parking" signs, and you are probably best to respect it, because there is usually an active security patrol (the little Parking Nazi in his pickup truck with the flashing light). If you are not sure whether to park there, the key criteria is the presence of overnight RVs, usually in a distant corner of the lot.

Other parking lots are okay if cars are parked there overnight. Truck stops are fine, and certain shopping center parking lots may work. As with urban camping, a site that is secure and comfortable at night may not be during the day (or vice versa), so you may need to clear out of some sites before dawn. (You need an alarm clock to assure this.)

But the most reliable places to park on a cross-country trip are highway rest areas. Here there are free restrooms. There's usually at lot of traffic, which deters random crime, and some Interstate rest areas have active security patrols at night (not usually concerned with busting sleepers). A few rest areas, like many in Texas and Iowa, have free WiFi™.

I've slept in a lot of rest areas, even those marked "No Camping" and "No Overnight Parking" or "Use Limited to 4 Hours." Look around you: You see those big 18-wheelers on one side of the rest area? They are parked for the night, with the driver sleeping in the box behind the cab. Truckers often sleep in rest areas or along the side of highway access ramps, regardless of the posted signs, so wherever you find them, you can usually feel comfortable doing the same. You figure that the authorities won't dislodge you unless they are prepared to wake all the sleeping truckers and ask them to move also.

For example, here's a sign in a rest area on I-95 in northern Florida...


But that doesn't prevent truckers from parking here for the night. (Photo below taken at dusk, and both they and the author remained here all night.)


This illustrates a phenomenon you see throughout society: The law as it is written and posted can be significantly different from what is actually enforced. Often signs and laws are just there for political reasons, to control the dumb mass of humanity or address some grievous abuse in the past. They are tools that law enforcement can use if someone becomes obnoxious, but they may not pay much attention unless someone is complaining. After all, police usually have better things to do than bust illegal sleepers!

Only once have I been woken by a police officer at a rest area. It was in a zone marked "Parking Limited To 4 Hours." The officer simply asked me if I was okay, and that's it. No request for I.D. or anything. I had been there well over four hours at the time, but that didn't seem to be an issue. (On an 8-hour shift, a state trooper doesn't have a lot of opportunity to determine whether you have exceeded the limit.)

Consider the sign shown at the top of this entry, from a Interstate 40 rest area in Iowa. Item #2 says "Overnight Camping" is prohibited. On first glance, that would seem to mean you can't sleep in a car. But now look at #3: You can't stay at the rest area for more than 24 hours. That implies that you CAN stay for 23 hours, which entails sleep. And look: You can stay for more than 24 hours if you have a legitimate need to, like "need for rest." All the sign is really saying is that they don't want you living in the rest area like you owned the place. What does "camping" mean? Let the lawyers argue over it. If you have a legitimate "need for rest," just do it! Isn't that what "rest areas" are for?

When I first started sleeping in cars, I used to hunt all over for the "perfect" place to park, only to have people waking me up and telling me to move. Turns out the perfect place was usually just under my nose: some busy and unromantic parking lot or street side where my car would not be noticed.

Two things that may complicate the parking equation are rain and mosquitoes. Both might require you to drape something over the breathing crack in your window (fabric or plastic). This, in turn, might attract attention to your vehicle. This is something you'll have to work out based on the circumstances and opportunities you encounter. (More than once, I have spend a rainy night under the awning of an abandoned gas station.)

Sure, sleeping in a car is kind of creepy and takes some getting used to, but if you have the skills to sleep anywhere, it can greatly streamline your travels, not to mention saving you a boatload of money.

30 comments:

  1. Having a legal defensive handgun would improve my slumber in a car.

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  2. Uh, I guess. I'm terrified of the things myself, and from a practical standpoint, they're a huge burden. You can't get on planes with them, can't go to Europe with them, got to figure out the local regulations when you cross state lines. If you have a gun, it means you're trapped on the ground, determined not to go very far.

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  3. Indeed they do have their problems. In the times we live in today, I feel I must pack my .45 everywhere I legally can. My U.S. Army service 1969-1975 taught me not to fear firearms of any kind. About 5% of the adults here in Oklahoma are carrying a legally concealed weapon. Bad guys eventually choose the wrong victim.

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  4. Not to mention the fact that confrontations by police go much more smoothly if you are not armed, legally or illegally. Sleeping in your car with a gun is suspicious, even if you have benign intentions. Rightly or wrongly, it just gives the authorities another reason to think you're up to no good.

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  5. I'm glad you mentioned what u did about the rest stops. I need a place to sleep for the foreseeable short future. A rest stop for a night I thought was a good idea. Until I saw all the NO Camping signs.
    But your right, there was another sign stating you could remain there for not longer than 24 hours. Lol turns out the only rest stop I could find is across from a Highway Patrol.
    After reading your post I felt confident enough to go into the CHP and just say hey I've been driving it's late I'm tired it ok to sleep at that rest area across the street right?
    The officer said yes it's fine as long as you aren't there over day. She said of course you can sleep there that's what it's for.
    Normally I wouldn't ever make myself known to any law enforcement agency but with no one else at the extremely well lit rest stop I thought that better. Since I was gonna stick out, I thought at least they would not need to bang on my window to find out.

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  6. Hey Glenn, Nice blog! I'm looking for someplace near La Jolla Shores to sleep in my car for one night. The parking lot there says it closes at 10pm. Is that one of those REAL rules, or one of those everybody-does-it rules? Do you know? If not there, any other ideas?

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  7. PS - I'm a girl, not a real scaredy-cat type, but it would be nice to feel a bit safe.

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  8. You don't need to overthink it. Just sleep anywhere you would park a car overnight. e.g. a residential street, a light industrial area, a supermarket parking lot. If you look for the perfect place, you'll never find it, but if you pull over wherever you happen to be, you'll do fine.

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  9. I used to sleep in my car every night for 6 or 7 months in Huntington Beach CA and NEVER had anyone even take notice of what I was doing. A car with dark tented windows (especially the rear windows) is great for back seat sleeping. As mentioned above just park where you would normally feel comfortable leaving your car over night. I usually picked out neighborhoods with condos or apartments that had street parking that allowed my car to just blend in. I had about 7 neighborhoods that I would switch between so that it was less likely to stand out.
    Extra tip for Beach towns: They almost always have showers right on the beach. Go to the beach in your swim suit, wash up and no one will ever know your not just another beach goer.

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  10. have a question,I am a homeless person and i park a a 24 hr store, meijer. There is another guy who Iv seen parked there many times as I go there every night and leave in ther morning. Last night i seen a cop over by his car and they talked and looked at his id and than left while the cop waited to make sure he left. My question is im not bothering any one and there is other cars that park there is safe to sleep there i seen that happen and got scared so i moved. I feel like going to the police asking were can a homeless person park there car at night without worry of being bothered. Criminals get better treatment. Now im really worried cause what happen to that guy and the cop saw my car and im sure alot of people see it so kinda wonder. thank you

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  11. If I ever do this in the future I will make some curtains or just cardboard covers for the windowglass to block the light--i prefer real dark when sleeping.

    Second best is a headband that goes over the eyes to block light from your eyes. I have always used or improvised something like that in those kinds of situations.

    I once camped for 4 nights on different adjacent residential streets on the outskirts of Montreal to save cash while "vacationing". I parked around 11 pm and left in the early morning after going for a walk and discretely relieving myself--a couple of early morning neighborhood dogwalkers were totally friendly with me.

    it was a weird vacation.

    By and large, if you aren't a creep, you won't be perceived as a creep.

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  12. As to someone making noise before getting in the car, realistically, if someone has bad intent you have next to no protection in a car. Side window glass will shatter instantly when struck with any fairly dense, pointed object--such as a thrown sparkplug. You have exactly 0.2 seconds to realize what's going on and react. In other words, no time. I've been in a building when someone broke the front glass 20 feet away and the experience made me realize that--if he had wanted to come get me I would have had about 3 seconds tops before he physically reached me. And if he did that he probably also had a strategy and a plan of what to do when he got to me--which I didn't.

    If you're really worried about that kind of stuff, don't sleep in your car.

    I would have to call such a scenario highly unlikely, however. How many homicidal freaks are there out there who are going to see you and decide "that is the guy I am going to roll over/mess up?"

    The truth is, 99.999% of people's reaction to a sleeping person is "respect them and leave them alone, they are sleeping." It's deeply ingrained.

    As to weapons, a short crowbar or hammer out of sight under the driver's seat isn't a terrible idea, though you'll probably never use it for anything interpersonal.

    Keep a key in the ignition and a spare on you.

    If someone starts lurking around the car you will, in all likelihood, sense it unless you are completely asleep. This has never, however, happened to me so I can't speak from experience.

    I have always felt perfectly safe (if on generally heightened awareness) wherever I have slept in my car. And would move the vehicle if I felt otherwise. Which never happened.

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  13. When my seven year old son and I spent a week in San Diego, my place of choice was a hotel parking lot, pretending to be staying in the motel. I felt safe there. The back of my honda minivan was just the right size for us, and I am 6'5". Saved me 4-500.00 dollars on our trip from canada.

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  14. I'm in the planning stages of a cross country road trip vlog, but with low funds I wasn't sure what to do. Now I plan to sleep in my car, can't wait to start. Thank you for posting this.

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  15. unless posted, and i've never seen it posted, u can camp at any rest stop out in the open. it's just people are too scared. they just need cheerleaders, you, to break the ice and set them free.

    but more than everything else, we shouldn't have to pay to live on the planet we were born on. this is our planet and we can live anywhere we want on it, though we might be outnumbered by unconscious people at the moment. this is changing now. whee! :)

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  16. Thanks Glen! I found a nice dark place on a residential street near a popular surf spot (mimi: i.e. NOT LJ shores parking lot ;)).
    I wasn't sure where to go and appreciate your no-nonsense suggestions. I didn't have any problems at all.

    Two comments:
    One. My car is not new (1999 4runner) but is clean. I realized that if you want to blend in and avoid suspicion, start by washing your car. Gas station or self serve car wash will be fine.
    Two. I kept a surfboard in my car as a prop. If anyone looked in, I was just there to surf (I wasn't) and won't be there long. Plus, I laid it over the top of the seats which helped conceal me and blocked out a bit more light.
    To do this:
    1. Keep passenger's side rear seat UP.
    2. Remove passenger side front and back headrests.
    3. Lay surfboard (or other camouflaging device in non-beach enviros) over the seats.
    4. Fold down driver side back seat was down to sleep on flat surface.

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  17. Great tips. I am an avid cross country skier and winter car-sleep in Canada where there are no rest areas. I follow your advice and find the diesel station with the most trucks. Works like a charm. This also gets me closer to free wireless, restaurants, etc.

    Probably your best tip is to segregate sleeping from other activities. I don't think I would have done this without your advice.

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  18. Great Post, Glen. One very important piece of equipment worth mentioning: earplugs. With good earplugs you'll sleep so well you'll be astonished when you wake up in the morning having forgotten that "no, you're not at the Ritz, but cramped in the back of an econobox in a public parking lot (ha, ha.)."

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  19. Nice blog Glenn, also the name of my favorite character in The Walking Dead. Haha Anyhow, just to add for more convenient, I usually park in or around 24hr fitness area. If you fortunate enough to be one of their member. You get hot shower, swim, steamroom, and sauna. Hehehe

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  20. Nice blog Glenn, also the name of my favorite character in The Walking Dead. Haha Anyhow, just to add for more convenient, I usually park in or around 24hr fitness area. If you fortunate enough to be one of their member. You get hot shower, swim, steamroom, and sauna. Hehehe

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  21. Hi Glenn! I've been sleeping in my car for quite a while now following your advice and all was just fine...till last night when a guy (obviously a thief) tried to get in. How? You might never guess! Well I've been leaving my windows just a little open (between half an inch and an inch) and it's been like this al summer. It's hot, I can hardly sleep in there! So this morning aroound 4:00am some noise woke me up and I see this guy with its fingers stuck in teh crack and grunting and panting trying to pull the window open! Yeah, can you believe it?! I admit I got scared like never before cuz I had a few times guys trying out the handles and leaving quickly which didn't botehr me at all. But now this was different because hte guy was strong and if it wasn't for me trying to pull up the window with my feet (it was the window at the side of my feet)the guy would have made it!!) I was shocked! Obviously he had no idea I was inside. So when I managed to close the window, he was suprised and tried the otehr one at my head which I closed easily with my hands but he even used a stick which got broken. Then he must have realized tehre was someone inside (or maybe not?!) and he left. Now I am afraid to get back to sleep there. I am afraid he might come back with some boddies of his and try to do something major. Even the idea of them setting the car on fire occrred to me. Do you think my fears are justified? What do you sugest in such situations?

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  22. Oh so true. But be careful in sleeping in you car in a public place if your car is with a good model like stanley chevrolet buick gmc from gatesville. That's too risky.lol

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  23. About car safety... I live nomadically with my dog and a minimum of gear. When we're asleep, we're below the window line of the car. You'd have to be right up on us to know we're there, so usually we have a policy of "hiding in plain sight."

    Don't sweat defense / violence stuff. Your best defenses is to pick the right parking spot to begin with. If your Spider Senses is tingling, move on, even if that means leaving the entire city. Got creeped out too many places in Jacksonville FL a few days ago and left.

    You don't have much chance if someone really wants to hurt you. They will use a gun, fire first from outside your car, and likely kill you as you are waking up. Even having a gun doesn't give you good odds against that. Happened to some guy in West Ashley just west of Charleston SC in the past year. Hm actually I think they robbed him first, then shot him for spite, so maybe a gun would have helped in that case. Whatever. Pick a better place to park.

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  24. Rest areas, truck stops, superstore parking lots, residential neighborhoods... these are all good ideas. Let me add another. When I was homeless in Las Vegas a few years ago, I slept in a hospital parking lot, not too far from the emergency area so I'd have access to a bathroom. There were brick walls surrounding the parking lot, so I simply backed into a spot and slept like a baby. No one ever noticed me and I felt safe. I did that for about three weeks, and I was woken by an ambulance maybe two or three times the whole time I was there. So, I suggest you consider a hospital parking lot, too. I am about to be homeless again, but not in Vegas. I intend to travel around the USA and look for work before my Unemployment checks run out. I've got my Pilot coffee card and will probably sleep and gas up at those truck stops on my journey. I have no fear. Hunger and frustration at this country's job situation trump all fear! This is the new America, folks. We are hunter/gatherers again.

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  25. Thanks for the post Glen.

    I'm new to this game, and last night (first night out) had a couple cops wake me up about an hour into my snooze!...man, I must admit, it was a little embarrassing... I work part time... enough to pay my bills and debt, but not enough for San Diego (north county) rent right now... so it's to the road I go!

    And yes, I got woke up after picking the "perfect secluded spot"... and then went to another spot at the end of a sleepy residential neighborhood and had no issues...

    So here's the list I've got so far... 24 hr fitness lot, Wal Mart lots, truck stops (especially where 18 wheelers are parked), somewhat busy residential streets, somewhat busy parking lots, rest areas, condos/apartment lots, hotel parking lots... did I miss any?

    I'm also trying this strategy... making a folding bed frame (from 1" smooth plywood)... I have a Prius and I'm 6'6" (I actually fit quite well)...if you're just getting started and you have a couple hundred bucks check out a folding foam mattress online (I'm making my own from latex mattress toppers...still trying to be green)... dark sheets, dark blankets... or instead of dark blankets, just throw on some heavy dark clothes if it gets cold... crack the window (it almost never rains in SD May-Oct)... and say a prayer to Jesus and it's lights out. Speaking of Jesus, if I remember right, Jesus Himself was a good bit of a wanderer when He was about His ministry... so don't beat yourself up if you find yourself in this situation... perhaps you too are following Jesus?...

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  26. This gal has been sleeping in her van for well over a year with no trouble from anyone for it. I believe she stays mostly in residential neighborhoods and emphasizes stealth. www.livinginmyvan.com

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  27. Hi, thanks everyone for the great advice. I recently had to drop my son off in Washington DC for a summer internship. I really didn't feel like spending $150 for a room, so I had the idea to sleep in the car. I was a little hesitant, even with some of these ideas.

    However, I was in DC all day Sunday, and needed a place to stay and get on the Metro on Monday to help my son find his way around. I decided to park the car at Reagan National airport...cost $22 for 24 hours. Chose the daily, because it's a deck, as it turned out it rained so that worked out. I liked the security of a paid lot. Best of all, woke up at 5:00 am, went into the airport with my bag (actually I could have slept in the terminal as there were quite a few people there, and it was nice and cool), cleaned up in the terminal restroom, on to the Metro stop at the airport and downtown DC.

    As it turns out, I unexpectedly stayed the day in DC...picked up the car at 9:00 pm, and started the 7 hour drive home. A little too ambitious, as I started to tire after two hours. I stopped at a rest stop on I-81, it was well lit, and many signs saying that the rest area was monitored by state police and open 24 hours. Felt comfortable, crawled in the back of the car and slept. Woke up at 2:00 am, to find about 25 cars parked in the lot!

    So, I would definitely do again, probably plan my travel around airport parking. And a big thumbs up to the VA rest stops!

    Good travelling, all!

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  28. Love your posts and philosophy, but your lack of caution with carbon monoxide scares me. It only takes one car with a leak to allow this odorless invisible gas to leave you dead or maybe worse physically and mentally crippled for life.

    A portable detector is cheap insurance if you sleep in running vehicles.

    Irene Jennings (Used Cars DFW)

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  29. I live and work downtown San Diego, and have a monthly parking pass in a gated hotel parking structure. Always wondered if I could do the whole living in my car thing (if just for a few months) and save a few thousand bucks in the meantime...maybe people can check to see if parking lots have 24 hour access like mine....

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  30. Regarding apartment complex parking lots: I chose a big complex, parked in what I thought would be close enough to not look suspicious, and started snoozin'. I was awakened as if someone were shaking me. No, thieves were shaking my car, as they were prying parts off of it. Imagine THEIR surprise when I got out of the car to ask them what's going on.

    That's when I noticed there were three of them, each with a tool like a large wrench, and me, still groggy. OK. One complimented my car (gee, thanks, guess that's why you were attracted to it in the first place, huh?). One asked me why I was sleeping in my car (I lied, said the wife kicked me out for the night - sort of letting them know I live there so ... I don't know what advantage that was supposed to confer).

    I could see one of my fog lights dangling and, either stupidly or bravely asked if I could borrow a wrench as, "One of my fog lights seems to have come loose." Another compliment, "Those are nice fog lights!"

    As you might imagine, the whole thing could have gone very differently.

    I love some of the other ideas here - but I'm a bit leery of apartment complex lots.

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