On the Big Road

The life and times of a truck-driving poet

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

THERE'S a drop lot off Ballard Street in Worcester, Massachusetts, where Proline Carriers used to keep some trailers, and that's where my trainer, Ed Cooney, and I grabbed an empty to run up to Wakefield, where we got a load of cardboard packaging bound for Kettering, Ohio. I had graduated from the College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester, in May of 1995. It was now October 10. In the intervening months I had gone to trucking school, gotten my commercial driver's license, and found a job. I had already completed the two-week orientation in Nashville, Tennessee, and would have been put with a trainer there, but I had to fly home for my niece's christening. I met up with Ed Cooney at a truck stop in Mansfield; we drove trailerless to Worcester to get an empty, and thus the mighty coincidence of beginning my trucking career in the shadow of my alma mater.

It was a beautiful fall day, and Holy Cross shone atop Mount Saint James. I could see the brick academic buildings, and the dorms where some of my friends lived. After ten days with Ed (who suffered from some kind of sleep apnea, and kept me awake every night in the truck) I would get a road test in Nashville and be assigned my own truck. My oft-ridiculed plan, conceived that spring, was falling into place.

Spring semester of senior year I didn't quite have my act together. I wanted to go to graduate school and get a master of fine arts in poetry, but around March I realized that I had missed the deadlines. I figured I could work at some kind of job for a year and then apply, but I wasn't going to move back home, to Scituate, and I didn't want to spend all my money on some ridiculous rent in Boston. Somehow I came up with the idea of driving a truck. Trucking school would cost about $3,800, but that was less than rent somewhere for a year, and I knew that truckers made good money, and I had loans to pay down, and I liked to drive, and I'd have time to think.

IT was March of 1996, and I was in the TV room of a truck stop in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. I was the only one in the room, typing out poems on an electric typewriter so that I could send in my application to the M.F.A. program at the University of Alabama. A driver walked in, a black guy in his fifties, and sat down in front of the TV. There was a football game on.

"I hope the typewriter doesn't bother you," I said to him. "I'm about done."

"Naw, it won't bother me. What you typing, anyway?"

I thought about lying, but I told him. "A bunch of poems. I'm applying to graduate school in creative writing."

"You a driver?"

"Yeah, I drive for Proline."

"Graduate school. That means you went to college, got a degree, now you're driving a truck, and you're gonna go back? How can you afford all that?"

"If I get in, they'll have me teach freshman English, but I won't have to pay tuition and I'll get paid enough to live on."

"Well, there you go," he said, laughing. "Beats the hell out of driving a truck, don't it?"

THE trucks are on CB channel 19. When there's a lot of CB traffic, you might be able to hear and be heard for only about a mile or two in each direction. Late at night you'll get a little more range. Most of the talk is about business: eastbounders asking westbounders where the cops are, how the weather is behind them, how traffic is rolling through town. If you want to shoot the breeze with someone about life in general, good form dictates that you take it to another channel after a couple of minutes. But late at night nobody much minds that kind of conversation.

The CB is like weather, each radio putting out a cloud of conversation, or maybe keeping silent like a patch of blue sky. Conversations build like storms, dissipating when the energy is talked out of them. If you're rolling the same way as the conversation, you'll be with it for a while -- hundreds of miles sometimes. But if a bunch of eastbounders are talking and you're westbound, you'll hear only a few minutes of it; then you'll blow through it as if it were a squall line.

A movie like Smokey and the Bandit would have you believe that all truckers talk in numbers, in an obscure code that takes years to master. Not so. There are a few operative numbers, but trucker talk is more thesaural than codified, privileging euphemism over shorthand. To talk like a trucker you need to acquire the art of understatement. You need to have several ways of saying the same thing without using the literal description.

First off, you need to know how to address other drivers. "Driver" is the preferred term. "Hand" is acceptable. "Good buddy" is not. "Good buddy" is an insult, implying that someone is a good buddy. Save that for when a driver gobbles up half your lane while he's trying to pass you around a curve and when you ask him if he's all right, he says, "You just mind yourself, driver." Tell him, "Well, you just keep on truckin' there, good buddy." That'll burn him up.

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