Season Two, Episode 01 – I Saw My Own

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VANESSA VESELKA: The nature of being homeless and living in places where you’re sleeping somewhere different every night, and there’s this combination of everything being different every day and everything being the same every day. Is that time actually doesn’t function very well. Like, you don’t– you can’t map time. You can have an entire huge relationship in this– that is, you know, monumental in the space of a week. And it’d be start to finish. I don’t actually like talking about my life. I don’t mind talking about other things. Things I saw or things or stories about other people, but I actually don’t enjoy it. I’m not very interested in my own life. I have experienced it.

My name is Vanessa Veselka. I’m a writer and a novelist. I wrote a novel called Zazen and I write short stories. I write long form nonfiction. I’m at the McDowell Colony, which is an amazing, amazing place for artists. I’m on a fellowship here for five weeks. This studio is called Mansfield. She’s beautiful. She’s a beautiful little studio surrounded by the names of many great writers.

I come from both sides of the fence in the sense that I came from a great deal of privilege and I came from a great deal of like, not privilege. My mom was a journalist and became very successful and I went from public schools into private schools. And there was a lot of unhappiness in my home. I was very unhappy and I left. And I still think it was a good decision even though it was very, very rough. At that time in my life, the way I experienced the world was that everything hurt.

Everything was was big, and everything hurt. And I was looking for emotional safety. My relationships were sort of– the topography of my emotional relationships were mapped by need for emotional safety. The guy I was with, I didn’t, he didn’t know. I mean, it was clear to me he didn’t know what he was doing, and he was kind of pathetic. I mean, he was definitely an actual street character. It wasn’t like he didn’t know that world. 

PRODUCER: How you met him maybe. 

VANESSA VESELKA: I met him hanging out in the park in New York. He was 21, I was 15, and I was definitely the one driving that show. I was– it was not like he was this predatory 21 year old guy trying to get me in trouble. I was a desperately messed up 15 year old girl trying to get him in trouble. And I succeeded in doing that, pretty profoundly. So. I talked him into leaving town cause I wanted to get out. I wanted to leave home and, and I talked him into going with me. So I left when I was 15 and I hitchhiked, I don’t know about that first year. It was like 10 or 15,000 miles. Which is a lot of hitchhiking.

And I was living in truck stops. So, you know, I didn’t have a lot of stuff. I had a backpack. I remember I had some jewelry in it. I had some notes. I had taken– I don’t remember all what was in there, but I had taken things that like meant something to me. I mean, it was a very sentimental — what I had brought with me was very sentimental and they all had very specific meanings to me. And I had my journal, I had my guitar. That was pretty much it. I didn’t– I had a lousy jacket. Yeah, it was scummy. We were going to New Orleans.

I’d been to New Orleans that summer and I wanted to go to New Orleans. We both got picked up. Some huge rainstorm, like big Mississippi rainstorm going on, and it just like hard and loud rain. The rain was so loud I couldn’t hear anything. And the guy, I was like, what are you hauling? He’s like, gaskets, okay. And he said, we’ll help you. And pull into New Orleans with this total downpour and pull into a funeral home and it’s like, oh, it’s caskets. So we were unloading caskets in this pouring rain for like hours at all these funeral homes, all over New Orleans. And that was my first– I think it’s the first dead body I’d seen.

Because we’re going in the back door. He was an older guy. He was laid out on a table. He was pretty– I guess he had gone through this sort of preparation. So they were probably about to have a service or something. But I remember– what I do remember was the casket name that I was carrying at that time was like Silvery Dough. But that was my first experience coming into New Orleans. There was no money and no ideas. And he had a lot more experience in the street than I did, so he went his own way and. I had to kind of make it up as I went along.

We actually split in a place called Gila Bend, Arizona. Where I went out.– it’s another stupid idea. I was gonna go, I was looking. I had to find a way to survive. So somebody had told us about cotton ginning. We’re like, we’ll go work at this place. Oh, Gila Bend has a cotton gin. So we’re hitchhiking out to Gila Bend, which is in the middle of nowhere. It’s the old Highway 8 in Arizona. It’s one of like the hottest spots in the country. And we get there and get dropped off and the trucker’s like, you sure you wanna get off here?

And it’s like, there’s nothing around. And I was like, yeah, and walk over to the find the cotton gin. And it’s like– and then the word seasonal comes into my mind. And I’m like, of course it’s cotton, it’s seasonal. Like it had never entered my mind that we were on a stupid mission. So you’re standing there looking at a closed cotton gin and what do you do? You just have to figure out the next thing.

I did a couple of weeks dig digging irrigation ditches. And there was a place that was owned by like carneys that had these three big tigers and like a hundred cats in a sandbox. And it was all, but it was all like meth head carney. People think, oh, carnival, it’s like, no carnival. Like it’s, it’s a really rough show. These were, they’d gone to retire in the desert and it was– so they rented out this place that had been an old whore house from like the turn of the century when the miners were around. And for like four bucks a night. And it was deadly scary really when you looked at who was staying there.

For runaway kids or for any situation like that, you really felt like you were– in every town that you were in that you could live or die, and it just wasn’t really noticed. But there was a freedom in that. And then there was also a horror in that. And there was hopelessness in many, many ways. And a sense that, again, this actually goes in and no one’s watching. Nobody cares. It’s a freedom and it’s a curse. Those sort of dilapidated downtown cores and the way that people live when there’s no one watching. This is something that’s radically different than it was 20 years ago. Because of our invasion of public space with phones and with internet and with all these other things, is that there’s always a witness somewhere.

But when I was on the road I was like, everything –there was, there is no rest. It’s always this mix of like no privacy and all privacy. Cuz they sort of exist in anonymity next to each other. One of the horrors of it is there’s a lot of violence. There’s a lot of other things that go on. And you end up in the periphery of– almost everybody ends up in the periphery of sexuality. Like you’re selling it or you’re hooked up with somebody who’s selling it. Or you’re working at a place that has to do with it.

It is the underworld a little bit. And so there was a boy whose story I heard. He left home when he was 11 or 12. He left from Canada. He had to go to Baja or something to try to find his dad. He was trying to find his real dad and he left and he was hitchhiking. There’s only one way an 11 year old boy gets from go Baja to Canada or vice versa. Right. Meaning he’s gonna end up dealing with sexual stuff all the way down. That’s the only way. Everybody else takes you to the police station, right? So if he’s got from Canada down to Baja, as an 11 year old boy, there’s only one way to do that. So that’s in so much of homeless culture and so much of the sort of posturing of how you talk about different things.

Like, I never did this, I never did that, and half the time that’s a lie. But there’s still this identity around it that gets– so it’s almost always there in some ways. And this, truthfully, this goes for boys as much as girls. But once you’re in a truck, and the way I did it later is it was all on the CB. You would come in and you would get the trucker you were with to help you find a ride.

There’s no, I think to this day, there’s no word for woman on the CB. It’s still beaver,. And so it’s like– there’s no way to even– your voice on the CB is basically saying you’re a prostitute. Unless you’re a– you’ll hear some female truckers and there are more, a lot more female truckers now. So a lot of that’s shifted. Some. If you imagine the most crass, misogynist stuff you’ve ever heard. With a sort of internet comment board mentality. And you put them together. This is what happens every time you get on a CB. Yeah, I got a beaver going down to Milwaukee, who’s, gonna meet her. Her aunt doesn’t want any trouble. Just trying to get from here to there, which one of yahoos is gonna do it?

There was always a story that you had to have about why you were there. You had to have something that made people think you were worth trying to protect. Or you were worth trying to take. And , so, people take advantage of that. And it’s easy for somebody with that job to take advantage of it. Because it’s still a really big problem for law. Because first of all, they’re in places where people mostly don’t care. And they can pick someone up anywhere and drop ’em off in any state, and there’s no way to even process a missing persons across state lines until it’s already kind of too late. And then you’re not really sure.

I mean it– there’s a whole bunch of systemic problems that make that difficult. But mostly that stuff just goes on all the time and nobody does anything. Anyway, I just wrote this piece recently called Green Screen, which was about the lack of female road narratives and why they matter. And it was– and in part it was like guys didn’t have to have those stories, but you do as a woman. Because there are already narratives about men on the road. Whether they’re dangerous or whether it’s like they’re on some adventure or whether or not they’re just like looking for a new place to find.

They don’t have to have that. But for a woman, it’s, you had to have that story of like, how– how you were there, not by choice. You had to– and you were going somewhere safe and it had to be completely sanitized and had to be completely asexual. And had to be completely– like that was the only way through. So one of the things is that a lot of truckers can’t read. Now, this has probably changed some, but I’m sure it still exists. And so they’re navigating by color and shape and street. But when they get into a town, they’re screwed because the street signs can get– like it’s a lot easier for them to get exits numbers basically.

They can usually read a few things, but when it’s like, Forchette Avenue or something like that, sometimes, they can’t navigate in the city in the same way. One of the reasons you would get a ride other than like sort of sexual harassment was so you could read. Right? So you’d be reading the signs to navigate. It’s really necessary for somebody who’s got that job and who has issues with literacy.

I had left home at 15 and I was hitchhiking around and I was very sleep deprived and I was living largely in truck stops, and I met and got away from this guy I always thought was a serial killer. I mean, I had a good reason to think he was, I had been in a truck stop where there was a body found. He seemed to reference that body. When he picked me up two days later, there were– he pulled a knife on me. He pulled over the side of the road. The profiler told me, the FBI profiler, said, a gun is about control and a knife is personal. There were a lot of features of it that felt psychopathic rather than violence.

I had started interviewing people who were working on the case of this guy named Robert Ben Rhodes. Who was a serial killer– is a serial killer doing time. Who would pick up mostly young runaways and he would chain them in the back of his cab for two to three weeks and torture them horribly before killing them. And he often photographed them. And when he was arrested, killing one to three women a month. There’s really big differences over the numbers of people he killed. Because the profilers think he killed way, way, way more people.

AUDIO CLIP: Inside the truck. They found a gruesome array of torture tools, chains that attached to rings welded to the back of the sleeper compartment.

VANESSA VESELKA: His truck logs show him in the range of about 50 killings in the 10 years before he, or five years before he was caught. Some people think he killed up upwards of 50 women. And there are reasons to think that he could have killed that many. 

AUDIO CLIP: Fish hooks, bloody towel. And a briefcase filled with the implements of a sexual sadist.

VANESSA VESELKA: I met with FBI folks at Texas and then I ended up going back to all these truck stops. Cause part of it was, I couldn’t remember where I was cuz I was really sleep deprived. I was having trouble finding out where it was. So it ended up being part, me trying to find out more about him to see if I could understand if it was this same guy. And then also going back through these truck stops. And then I began to get the stories of the women that he had murdered and looked at their police reports and learning more about them. 

AUDIO CLIP: Sexual predators will pick victims that they consider the forgotten people, their banking on that element that law enforcement and society doesn’t really care about hitchhikers or the less established folks.

VANESSA VESELKA: So here’s one of the things that having traveled a lot and been around a lot of dicey people gave me. They were like the sudden mood switches, the change in power you know what I mean? Like these were things that I had seen in more than one person. And there was this moment I was reading on this– reading this really trashy true crime book about Rhodes. And it had a letter that he had written to his wife. And in the letter it said run. Like it kept saying that you got three options, play, pass, and run. I always told you you could run.

And it just kept saying that in the letter, which was of course, what the guys said to me was he looked at me and said, run. And Rhodes was into psychological games. That was a lot of his orientation of how he sees himself. As this like master psychological game player. He’s not, he’s not that bright. When I was trying to narrow it down in the Pennsylvania, Virginia, along 70 area, I’m like, okay, who’s working in the mid eighties? Who’s a serial killer? Who picks up this kind of women? And I got to like 25 and had to stop. And I was like, just east of the Mississippi in this area, in the mid eighties.

There’s redhead murders, there’s Ohio prostitute killers, Gobel, there’s, you know what I mean? And those are the ones we know about. And so you just get to the point where people go, was it Rhodes? And it’s like that question lost its meaning in the middle. It got to the point where like that question no longer had any meaning. Was it Rhodes? It could have been him. It could have been someone else. I mean, it was like, there’s so many– there’s 200 of these guys on a watch list now. So I came out of it going was it Rhodes? I’m like, probably not and people were like, how could you say that? I’m like, well, I don’t see enough evidence that it’s him versus 150 other guys.

Particularly because I have kind of a exotic sounding or romantic sounding story, I find that it’s infuriating to try to break through people’s mythology around it. somebody asks you a question and they’re– you’re just dealing with their contending with their mythology of something. And like even if you give them an authentic answer, they don’t really hear it. It just stays in the mythology of like, oh, you’re a person who does this. 60 minutes, Today Show, a bunch of other things that approached, 48 hours. It was all gonna be– how’d it feel to be in the truck? Do you think it was the guy, that’s all it was gonna be?

Like, it wasn’t gonna be about these women on the road. It wasn’t gonna be about anything else. It was gonna be about that. And I don’t crave notoriety that way. I wanna make my living. I wanna do my work. But I don’t actually want, or like that kind of attention all that much. And if you’re a woman and you’re on any kind of news television or you’re on television. Again, going back to the comment train and misogyny and putting ’em together, like you were asking for an enormous amount of like death threats.

I’m gonna come fuck your daughter, I’m gonna rape you. And I mean, like that’s just normal. That’s normal for any woman who goes on television. To just get fucking stacks of that shit. I stay away from, I stay– I don’t read reviews. And I don’t read comments. And because I just get too, I have, don’t have a thick skin, you know, when something comes out, I put a, put a big helmet on and I just kind of wait till it goes away.

I had a lot of, I was like, oh, this is what it looks like to be away from home. I think, getting my first tattoo was a moment of that. Was like, wow, I’m– this is permanent. Like a really, really pathetic like, very sort of run in the mill biker butterfly. I was like very old school tattoo people. It was just biker scene, New Orleans biker scene. It was what I could get for 15 bucks. That had made guns out of like a G-string from guitars and eight track cassette motors. So those were moments that I sort of felt like, well, you can never re-enter the world now. I think there is a sense, I think the reason we sort of look for those moments is because we’re constructing a narrative arc.

You know, kind of in a way when we’re doing that, we’re saying, we came from here, we’re going there. How do I wanna be remembered? Well, let me think for a second, as a kind person. I actually hold that as a primary value. There are people who manage to live even in the decline of anything with incredible grace and joy. And I wish I was one of those people. I wish I was more like that.

Every story’s freaking horrible. But at the same time, when you’re in a place where everybody has that story, it means something different than when you’re the only one in the room who has that story. And so there’s freedom and there’s horror, that they go together in that. The one thing is I wish I had done was I look back now and I– like if I had known there were teenagers in squats, going to Krishna feeds, all kind of living together. I would’ve gone and done that. But I didn’t know anything about that. So I was around people twice my age who were just out of jail. Some of whom could read, some of who couldn’t.

It was a very different group, so I didn’t have any kind of teenage subculture. Feeling a region or feeling an area– like I remember coming down– being in Topanga Canyon and getting picked up and somebody handing me like a six pack of California coolers. And drinking them all and coming to the ocean and getting dropped off by the ocean and it was kind of warm. And it was that California– it was this combination of like seediness and ease that was so California. And that sense of California has stayed with me to this day.

Like that just combination of like, it’s all kind of easy. It’s all kind of seedy and it’s like, It’s– there’s just all these combinations, but that tone of it. And I believed I was gonna– like the California coolers convinced me in that moment that this was gonna be a good day, and yet it, it wasn’t really probably gonna be a good day. It was just like, that feels like.