How a 'creepy' white van became internet famous

Image source, Ron Jacobs
Image caption,
The Free Candy Van that turned Ron Jacobs into a minor internet celebrity.

An Australian man whose "creepy" van became an internet meme speaks to Royce Kurmelovs.

In August 2015, children in a sleepy suburban neighbourhood of the Californian city of Sacramento noticed a white, windowless van parked on their street.

Across the side of the vehicle, someone had painted the words "Free Candy" in a bloody shade of red. A cluster of handprints were smeared nearby, suggesting that some candy-seekers may have come to the wrong kind of sticky ending.

A 12-year-old named Lawrence Bellow uploaded a photo that began to spread around the internet. Soon local news stations were interviewing local parents about the "suspicious van" rolling through town.

"It just felt like they were trying to attract kids, and it just gave me a creepy feeling," Lawrence's mum told the local KOVR TV station.

The van's driver was Australian Ron Jacobs, 28, who had stopped overnight on his way to Burning Man, the month-long music festival in the middle of the Nevada desert.

By the time he arrived his van had already gained internet fame.

"I was just living in the van and I was just hearing it explode all around me," Jacobs said. "I woke up one morning, some guy just screams out, 'I saw you on the internet, I love your van!'"

Embracing creepiness

Since then the "Free Candy Van", which does actually give out free candy, hasn't stopped getting attention.

Image source, Ron Jacobs
Image caption,
"I keep it weird": Ron Jacobs peers through the back of the Free Candy Van

Jacobs said the idea for the van came after his life in Perth fell apart "in a whole bunch of ways".

"Life. Work. Family. The whole shebang," he said. "All at the same time ... I ended up picking up my savings and chasing my dreams."

Those dreams involved a "big international adventure", so he left to travel the American southwest and camp out while skydiving, windsurfing and attending music festivals.

Rather than live in a tent, Jacobs decided it would be better to buy a second-hand van, but knew he was trading comfort for the stigma associated with being a strange man in a white, windowless van.

Instead of shying away from the image, he decided to play up to it by going over the top.

"I was just kind of thinking, like most things in life that you can't change ... what you can do is embrace it and celebrate it," Jacobs said.

Image source, Ron Jacobs
Image caption,
Jacobs is selling the van and all associated intellectual property at an auction in San Francisco

Jacobs, an engineer who spent a year studying at Penn State University, has since given out $1500 (£1500) of free candy.

He said most of his interactions with other people involved a "rollercoaster" of reactions, starting with horror before moving to a sense of relief, and even delight.

Jacobs has been stopped by police eight times while driving the van. A friend from Perth who borrowed the van for three weeks was stopped seven times.

"I consider this van a mirror of American society," Mr Jacobs said. "The whole experience I've had has just been me, a tourist, living American everyday life as their... public enemy number one, and it's just been such an experience.

"It's all just the epitome of absurd."

Bad romance

Image source, Ron Jacobs
Image caption,
Lisa Howard fell in love with Ron Jacobs despite his unique mode of transport

The van even played a role in bringing together Jacobs and his girlfriend, Lisa Howard.

After spending her first night at Jacobs' apartment, Howard asked him for a lift home. The first thing she noticed upon reaching the street was the van.

Jacobs unlocked the doors and told her this was their ride.

"Her face just dropped," he said.

The pair climbed into the van and passed 20 seconds in silence before they both burst out laughing.

They have been together ever since, and Howard has taken over running the Facebook and Instagram accounts for the Free Candy Van.

But Jacobs needs to return to Australia, so the couple sold the van and all intellectual property associated with it at an auction in San Francisco last weekend.

Jacobs said parting with the van was sad, but would give him time to work on other, bigger ideas. For instance, he says he wants to organise a raffle at Burning Man to raise $100,000 USD, which he would use to send someone on a private space shuttle.

"I keep it weird, that's the only way I can explain it," Jacobs said.

Royce Kurmelovs is a freelance writer based in Adelaide.

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