Out of the Box

Her parents kept her prisoner in a storage unit, but words set Jodi Jill free.

Unit 151 stands on the northeastern edge of the Loveland Self Storage lot, on the south end of town, near a concrete drainage ditch and a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. The unit is about the size of a one-car garage, ten feet by twenty feet, with cinderblock walls, a concrete floor and a metal roll-up door; it looks just like hundreds of other sheds on the lot. But Jodi Jill sees something very different. Unit 151 was her home -- and her prison.

"I feel like I'm suffocating," she says, standing before the storage shed on a clear autumn morning. "Too many memories. Too many bad memories."

For ten years, Jodi, her parents and her siblings lived inside Unit 151 without running water, windows or much contact with the outside world. For a third of her life, for reasons her parents have never explained, they were hidden away here, living amid other people's junk. Even now, after building a new life, Jodi cannot escape this barren place.

John Johnston
Reading is fundamental: Jodi Jill with one of her sculptures.
John Johnston
Reading is fundamental: Jodi Jill with one of her sculptures.

"It's strange how little has changed," she says, staring down the neat rows of faded yellow buildings. "The silence. The filth. The cold. It was always cold."

They were nomads, moving from town to town and state to state, changing addresses every few months, until finally they settled in the small farming community of Loveland.

Jodi was nine. She remembers arriving in the family's brown '68 Ford station wagon. After years of bedding down in a travel trailer, she was relieved and excited to move into what her parents had promised would be a house. But after her father unloaded their possessions at Loveland Self Storage, she learned the truth. When she asked him why Unit 151 would be their new home, he said: "That's just the way it is." When Jodi asked her mother, she replied, "Because you deserve it."

Jodi, who's now thirty, still doesn't know why her parents chose Loveland, or a storage shed. Her father had worked in an RV factory in the Midwest, she thinks, then hurt his back and became disabled. But whenever the family needed money, there seemed to be cash around. Although her father often walked with a cane, he always seemed to find odd jobs doing clerical work or hauling supplies.

"I don't think there was a struggle for them to find work," Jodi says. "My mom always had twenty or thirty dollars. No, I wouldn't say they were poor."

Her parents weren't driven into hiding by deep religious convictions, either. They weren't running from the law. They weren't battling drugs or alcohol. They weren't chasing romantic notions of life on the road. In retrospect, Jodi thinks it was simply a matter of convenience.

"They were comfortable," she says. "Instead of finding an appropriate way to live, they wanted to do this."

And what they did was slap together a life that, for their children, combined basic survival skills with absolute secrecy.

Their first job was modifying the storage shed. The west wall was fitted with cabinets and a long particle-board shelf that held groceries, medicine and sewing supplies; the east wall was fitted with more cabinets and a long counter that functioned as a kitchen and a desk. On the north wall, Jodi's father built a loft where she, her sister and a brother slept on hard, flat cushions. Near the center of the room, on a throw rug retrieved from the dump, her parents arranged three fold-out RV cushions, where they slept. When more children arrived, one slept on the cushions and the other in a cubbyhole under a shelf. A single lightbulb hanging overhead was fitted with an adapter and two electrical cords that fed, at various times, a crockpot, a hot plate, an alarm clock, a two-inch black-and-white TV and, later, a primitive computer.

Every few days, always at night, the children retrieved water from an outdoor spigot at the north end of the storage yard. They lugged water back to the shed in ten five-gallon pickle buckets, appropriated from the nearby Johnson's Corner truck stop. Even after scrubbing the plastic with bleach, Jodi could still taste vinegar.

Another bucket functioned as a toilet. The family chipped away mortar from a wall of cinderblocks and dug a doorway into an empty, adjoining unit, where Jodi's father configured sheets of wood into a Z-shaped privacy screen. The bucket was emptied once a day, at night, in the concrete ditch that bordered the yard.

Twice a day, never in the morning, the children ate sandwiches, canned fruit and odd concoctions of macaroni, cheese, beans and alfalfa sprouts. Food that wasn't canned or sealed in plastic quickly spoiled; in the winter, they stored catsup, pickles and cheese in the snow. About five years after they moved into the unit, Jodi remembers, her father finally brought home a small refrigerator.

Once a month, the children visited a campground to bathe. Sometimes they showered in the storage shed, using a device designed for camping and catching the dirty water in a large metal trough so they could wash clothes in it later. Still, hygiene was not a priority, Jodi recalls. She had four sets of clothes. She rarely brushed her teeth, seldom combed her hair. Since the shed had no mirror, she had no clue how she looked.

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