There’s a minor heatwave in Boston—according to my weather app, a high of 50 degrees and a low of 40. But I’m not convinced. I’m wearing a t-shirt, a sweatshirt, a light coat, a heavy coat, a scarf, a blanket, and a sleeping bag, but I’m so cold that my hands and nose are bright red, and I can’t read for class tomorrow because I’m too busy looking up the symptoms of hypothermia on WebMD.
WebMD tells me hypothermia starts when the core body temperature cools to 95 degrees, and while I wish a thermometer would suddenly materialize into my right hand, I hear the sloppy footsteps and laughter of drunk college students. I look out of the tiny window on my tiny door and see three girls and one guy walking down South Street having what seems to be a good time.
They walk past The Advocate’s parking lot, where I am stationed, and one of them sees me. “OMG, guys! What is that!” She points at what looks like from a distance a lime green, oversized coffin. However, it is not a coffin but a house—the self-described “World’s Smallest House”—and it is not lime green, but, according to its owner, "chromicky green." And I am inside it.
“What the fuck!” screams one of the friends as the rest laugh in unison. “What is that?”
They stumble towards me, clumsy from their inebriation and giggling. I stare at them as they approach, nervous they might try to topple over the house—like some version of cow-tipping—or worse: try and enter it. All of my limbs are asleep because I’ve contorted my body into a ball to be my own source of heat. I am defenseless.
As the bravest girl approaches the electric green structure, we lock eyes—the only visible part of my body because my scarf is wrapped around my mouth and head and my body is buried under fluffy coat and blankets.
“Holy shit, someone’s in there! Run!”
They run away, giggling wildly. I feel like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, but instead of living in a palatial Gothic cathedral in Paris, I am squatting inside an offensively green box—eight feet long and four feet wide, four feet high—on wheels in an empty parking lot.
I can already see the headlines on CNN and MSNBC: “Small Student Dies of Hypothermia in Small House.” Or maybe: “Big Cold Kills Small Girl Sleeping in the Smallest House.”
The house fits inside the van of Jeff W. Smith, the artist who built it. You can rent the house on Airbnb for the low, low price of $55 a night, and Smith will load it onto his van and deliver it wherever you request. His only rule: You can’t park it in his driveway.
It looks more like a dinghy than a house. Smith’s friend once suggested he add some flotation device to the bottom so it could be the Smallest House in the World that Floats. When I tell Smith he could make the World’s Smallest Boat, he furrows his brows in confusion. He asks me what the point would be: “Boats are already small.”
The house is on wheels and lighter than it looks—it’s made of recycled wood panels and only furnished with a makeshift sink and stove—so Smith easily pushes it from Memorial Hall, across Harvard Yard, down Dunster Street, and to The Advocate parking lot—the only place on campus willing to accommodate my lodgings.
While rolling the house through the yard, Smith has me pose for photos in front of the freshmen dorms. I stand on top of the house in a bizarre twist on the parental “Off to college!” pictures—celebrating not the student but the house. Tourists stare and, while I try to disappear, I glance around to see if any of my professors or acquaintances are watching. I start to resent the house, which does not feel very small at all.
In The Advocate parking lot, Smith places a big rock under the house’s back left wheel to make sure it’s level, which apparently affects the quality of sleep you get while in the house. Though that’s the only thing keeping me from rolling away overnight, he insists on pointing out the lock—as if locking me into an easily portable box would somehow make me safer.
I have two pressing problems: I need to pee very badly, and the batteries of my laptop and phone are dying.
The house technically has a toilet towards the back, though terms like “back” and “front” lose meaning in a building this small. It’s a neatly-cut hole in the floor with a litter box underneath. The toilet cover is a navy blue Frisbee. Smith warns against using the toilet, and, already sleeping one foot above the parking lot gravel in an uninsulated, unheated box, I do not want to add the lingering odor of my own urine.
While the house sort of has a bathroom, there are definitely no outlets. I need to finish a homework assignment and use my phone as an alarm for the morning. Smith built the house not as a place to live or even as an art project, but as an “experiment” to see how cramped a room could be before becoming uninhabitable. But the outlets are a deal-breaker.
I pack up my belongings, which takes 10 minutes—even though the house is small enough that my feet and arms, when stretched out, can cover the entire floor surface—because I somehow lose my phone and the keys Smith gave me. I find them both under my sleeping bag, which is under my legs, and head to Kirkland to charge my electronics for 45 minutes.
A Kirkland security guard walks through the junior common room. The sound of his clomping boots wakes me up. I sit up quickly to find my book on the floor, my computer freshly charged, and coat and scarf strewn on the couch. The guard whisper-yells, “Don’t worry, it’s not the morning yet!”
I need to go home, I think to myself. While walking out of Kirkland I realize that the home I am thinking of is the Smallest House in the World.
I wake up, my left cheek smushed against the red carpet. How did I end up on a boat? I sit up to inspect this mysterious white-paneled interior I’ve somehow ended up in. But, as I roll onto my back, I remember where I am. It feels more private waking up in this box than it did to wake up in Kirkland—even though I’m basically camping in public, the hard green shell is protecting me.
I grab my phone to check the time and find five texts from my mother, three from my sister, and two from my brother.
Mom: Jensen, I saw on Instagram that you’re sleeping in a box outside? Very worried, please text so I know you’re O.K.
Mom: It’s winter, please don’t sleep outside.
Sister: mom says ur staging a political protest by sleeping outside. i mean u do u but that sounds dangerous, lmk ur safe
Brother: don’t be an idiot, don’t sleep outside, and text mom back, she’s freaking out
Before I fall back asleep, I take a selfie and send it to my mom so she knows I am safe.
The sun, soft and bright, shines through the six Pyrex pie dishes that serve as windows and gently wakes me up. The house feels warmer, and though I know the temperature rose about six degrees since the night, I chalk this up to my acclimation to the weather.
I sit up and curl my legs underneath me while I play music and check my emails. A Ford drives into the lot and parks across from the house. A woman wearing a camel coat emerges from the car and, as she walks to the back seat to grab her purse, catches my house out of the corner of her eye. She does a double-take and just stands, her arms dangling by her sides, gawking at my portable home.
I am outraged. This woman, with her heated car seat and fossil fuel-guzzling station wagon is the weird one, not me. There’s nothing crazy about this: I’m just a small girl in a small house. So I gawk back.
Smith explained that he once did the calculations and figured out that “the house is more famous, per square foot, than the Taj Mahal.” As the woman retreats under my unrelenting gaze, I think about this. That’s right, you heat-dilettante, this famous and lovely house and I will not quail under the scorn that comes with your normal-sized belongings.
After rolling the house up a small sloped driveway, holding it in place while Smith moves his van towards the base of the hill, and then guiding it up the makeshift ramp into the van, the Smallest House in the World and I officially part ways.
I walk to class, wearing the leggings and t-shirt I slept in, my hair visibly uncombed. Despite my disheveled appearance, I walk with the confidence of someone who is one of five people to have slept in the Smallest House in the World.
I slide my left hand into my pocket, like I see the cool people in movies do, and feel something hard and metal. It’s the key to my house.