It seemed as though they were hitchhiking, or standing out on the sidewalk to be rescued; perhaps it was I who needed help, who had called on them, the dozens and dozens of poets over time I transported in my 1987 Ford Bronco. No one died. No one got left behind. As host to writers coming to Midwest Poets Series in Kansas City, I once in 1999 pulled to the curb on Westport Road in midtown to meet Mark Doty, David Lehman, Colleen J. McElroy, and C.D. Wright, in town at Rockhurst University for a three-day series of lectures, readings, and parties. To get in, they had to step tall and squeeze tight; one by one, the first three tumbled into the back seat, some of the finest poets of our time. So it went, my getting cozy, one, two or more at a time, with over a hundred visiting writers.
For 14 years, I drove that red and white Bronco, which was a truck in the old sense, not an SUV. It had no carpeting; on the overhead of the cab, steel, not velvet. Its transmission was a four-speed manual with “granny gear”—geared so low in first, it crept forward at walking speed. Second gear easily got us going from a stop. I would joke that I used first gear mostly for pulling down houses. I drove the Bronco nearly 200,000 miles and traded it in with its original clutch.
In the passenger seat or in the back—which sat three inches higher than the front seats, like a balcony—in time traveled Yehuda Amichai, Grace Paley, Yusef Komunyakaa, Amiri Baraka, William Stafford, William Matthews, and Miller Williams. Joy Williams literally squealed when she saw the Bronco because she always had wanted one just like it. She and I and Joy’s husband, the fiction editor Rust Hills, “joy rided” around Kansas City—though Rust seemed merely tolerant, good-naturedly, of our enthusiasm.
I placed in peril the life of the poet laureate of the United States Billy Collins with bad brakes on the Bronco. I had noticed the problem, driving I-29 on the way to the airport but ignored it. I had no intention of letting my plans for the evening end up on the side of the road. The decision could only be described as a character flaw, never to be repeated or forgotten. The pads had worn to their metal rivets and gave off a grinding, disgruntled sound that I tried to pretend I didn’t hear. On the way back from the airport to Billy’s hotel, he and I swapped stories of mutual friends, kept the conversation lively and loud, and he, God bless his peripatetic soul, pretended along with me that all was well.
I pressed the brake pedal as lightly as I could, keeping my speed low, edging up to red lights in third or second gear; but not much could quiet the oratorical grindings and vibrations delivered from the front end of the truck. The truck, as it happened, spoke the truth. If I didn’t let on that I was worried, I continued to think, perhaps Collins would trust me. I somehow delivered the poet laureate sound of body to the Plaza’s Fairmont Hotel at 4 p.m. “You get settled,” I said. “I’ll pick you up for dinner at 6.” I drove the Bronco straight to my mechanic and begged a ride to a car-rental agency. On the way to dinner later, in a new Ford Taurus, Billy Collins said, “I was damned relieved to see this car. I thought we were going to die out there.”
“There is no other life,” Gary Snyder has written of “Why Log Truck Drivers Rise Earlier Than Students of Zen.” So it is for the life of a literary impresario and student of writers and poets, of the Zen masters, the essayists. They teach us attentiveness. By acknowledging my error, Billy Collins brought me into his particular state of Zen, free of self-consciousness. For 30 years—through the age of ordinary sedans and into the time of the Bronco and other trucks—I have made it my business to meet personally writers such as those mentioned in this essay.
The best part of their visits, I think most hosts would agree, occurs in the ride from airport to hotel and back, the time Sharon Olds, out of New York City, exclaimed, over and over, “Oh, look,” each time she spotted a red-tailed hawk or bald eagle circling above the great bend of the Missouri River, or when Amy Gerstler, just in from L.A., panicked, as we approached the freeway at 5 p.m. “Oh, no,” she said, “it’s rush hour.”
“Welcome to Kansas City,” I replied; “we don’t have that here.” We do have what everyone has, desire to be moved by a poem, a painting, or dance, beyond rush-hour mechanics, as in Gerstler’s poem “Hymn to the Neck,” where she says, “The throat is the road. Speech is its pilgrim.”
Howard Nemerov never knew the Bronco almost ran him down in St. Louis one Saturday afternoon, as I was jamming gears on South Brentwood Boulevard near Shaw Park. I looked up in time to swerve around a man crossing, mid block, into downtown Clayton and realized, Hey, that’s Howard Nemerov. I almost got him. On he strode, loftily, metrically. I had no time to honk or shout lines from his poem “Mannequins”:
Movers will come by night
And load you all into trucks
And take you away to the Camps,
Where soldiers, or the State Police,
Will use you as targets.
I am from St. Louis, myself, and everyone I know there jaywalks. We consider it safer and more lovely than corner crossings, where a car can turn onto you without warning. Jaywalking gives a person the wide view, the open space to pace himself and whistle a tune. This remained with me long after the event, the poet like a daydream. He might also have been a dreamer, but more important was the daydream he became, as Gaston Bachelard once wrote, a mind shaken from the right angles and verticality of conventional plot. “They are very pure,” Bachelard said of such dreams, “since they have no use.” Nemerov by then had lived in my home town long enough to learn a few things like that.
I grew up the son of a member of Plumbers’ Union Local 35, with its union hall down on Elizabeth Avenue, in those days, where my father, who became a business agent for the union, would sell my book of poems to the rank and file. The book, Plumbers, really was about being an apprentice for the union and later a laborer for the St. Louis Metropolitan Sewer District. My affinity for trucks started on the job—a new bank building in Clayton and a swimming pool construction in St. Ann—where the plumbers and carpenters arrived in their pickups and seemed to park them anywhere they chose, in the dirt, in open fields, up on curbs, and no one bothered them. I liked that. A truck is a kind of jaywalker.
Moving vans in Greece carry the word “Metaphora,” to transport or carry over, which means truck to me. I used the Bronco for all workloads, for bricks and bags of sand, tree trimmings, a chest of drawers hauled back to my son across state, Quikrete concrete mix for setting posts, and five-gallon cans of paint. Things move forward and create change, and often I am changed.
The Bronco sat at the curb at Kansas City’s airport when a revolutionary, a poet I admired and came to care deeply about tore into white America’s consciousness in the form of one, dazzled skycap. After Amiri Baraka had dutifully stood in line on the sidewalk, waiting for the skycap to check his bag for departure, a limo pulled up on the other side of the street, and the skycap—a young, white, six-foot-two fellow—ran immediately to serve them, leaving one of the county’s most vociferous, fiercest fighters for black rights, the author of plays such as The Baptism and The Toilet, standing alone, himself, like an abandoned bag.
I had been gone into the terminal to check the flight schedule—in the days when you could leave a vehicle sitting a moment at the curb, unattended— and came out to see Baraka verbally shortening that skycap inch by inch.
“Did you not see me?” Baraka screamed at him. “Did you not see me standing there?”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” the skycap repeated, slumping more at each apology, toward head height of his castigator. “I’m so sorry.”
Baraka turned in a small circle, at one point, in front of the man, like a hurricane building momentum, then slamming back, verbally, to batter him again. I felt responsible. I did not know the cause of his anger at first, not noticing, as Baraka described later, “the rich, white couple,” and, as Baraka described it, the skycap sprinting to get their bags. “He just ran off, man.”
I assumed some culpability for this, commiserating with Baraka in mutual outrage, yet capable, as I likely was, of no less a blunder, and knowing, as perhaps Baraka knew, I am not immune. I come from a world more the skycap’s than Baraka’s, and because of that felt privileged, odd as that sounds, to be thus a witness, immersed a moment among blindedness and the fury at blindedness, given into those churning waters in the shadow of the Bronco, a baptism.
I had just spent three days hosting the man, interviewing him, and dining with him. I had read his plays in college, which shook my consciousness with their revolutionary rage; and, finally, I had invoked the privilege of being a literary impresario and made it my business to meet him in person. This was the fall of 1996, and folks kept telling me Baraka would be a no show. He flew in from L.A., where he was working on the movie Bulworth, and the first thing he said to me in the Bronco was, “Warren Beatty told me I shouldn’t come here.” Beatty was directing Bulworth and could not comprehend anyone leaving the set to give a poetry reading.
“Blow it off,” Beatty had told Baraka. “We’re making a movie here.”
Baraka blew off Beatty, instead, for which I always have been grateful, and finished the movie after that. “I made a commitment to you, man,” he said to me, as we drove toward his hotel. I believed immediately, and believe to this day, he was talking to me as he would to his oldest son. This is what conviction looks like.
While in town, I took Baraka to a jazz club called Jardine’s, where I had hoped to show off some Kansas City jazz. We drank a beer and listened to a woman I did not know sing tunes I’d heard done well in the past. These were Ida McBeth tunes, “Sweet Inspiration,” “World of Troubles,” but this woman was not Ida McBeth. Even I could tell she was terrible, and there I was, sitting with one of the great jazz poets and author of Blues People: Negro Music in White America, and Digging, and I am terribly, terribly quiet. Each time I looked at Baraka, his forehead had sunk closer to the table top. He was shaking his head, like “no, no, no.” Finally, he swiveled his neck, head just an inch above the table, his eyes now, sorrowfully looking at me. “She’s killing me, man,” he said.
All of this might seem parochial in the wider world of art and culture, but I was, in retrospect, testing myself, my place in that world. I could, furthermore, see who sat at the table near the bar, waiting to perform—Myra Taylor, before she needed her wheelchair, and when she could still dance, if she wanted—and I hoped to keep Baraka here a bit longer, and, sure enough, Baraka allowed me time until his torture ended, and Taylor took the mic and sang “My Night to Dream,” and Baraka leaned back, softened, said, “Now, this is more like it,” and we stayed a long time at the club that night.
The Bronco had a way of not wanting to fire up in wet weather, and one misty morning, Gerald Stern and I rode through off-and-on showers, a little late for the plane he was to catch, because the humidity already had required me to get a jump from my neighbor. At the terminal, I stupidly turned off the engine, to give my guest a proper goodbye on the sidewalk. When I got back in to leave, with Gerald Stern standing nearby, the engine just cranked and cranked, the pointless spin of the starter.
“Everything will be all right,” Stern said, now beside the driver door. “I can’t help you.”
He offered the tough words of the father in a poem by Rumi. “He scolds,” says Rumi, “But eventually / leads you into the open.” Gerald Stern, as if to nail the deal shut, said again, “You have to handle this. I have to go,” and walked into the terminal. My memory of the day ends at that moment, so convincing was he that I was on my own and could handle this. It changed me. I wanted what he had: first, faith, then to be on my way— to be in motion. All of the visitors I have met and shuttled in the Bronco over the years suffer in some way, no doubt, but not here, not with me; here, they all have been immune to the daily annoyances of groundedness.
So it was I invited to town a poet from the Western plains, Adrian C. Louis, who, in poems and in life, confronted coyotes on a night in the South Dakota hills when his car had a blow out, and drove the car, anyway, into town. “It runs pretty good,” he wrote, “on three tires.” He once sat in a sweat lodge to sober up and ended the poem back in a bar, listening to Jimmy Hendrix on the juke box; this man slumped down in the passenger seat of the Bronco, as we drove the highway toward Kansas City, and said to me, “Is there a hospital near the hotel? I think I’m having a heart attack.”
I had thought we’d buy a bottle, get some food, tear this town apart with our teeth, and enter the auditorium though the crowd like boxers approaching a ring. In my imagination, lines from his poems streamered off the door handles of the truck, From the sleep hills of horror / the thunderbird screamed / at your graveyard of dreams.
“I might be dying,” he said, his breath shallow, head agitating like a three-cycle washer.
I laughed. At the time, I was in my mid 40s and had seen this panic among my male friends many times; I, myself, nearly collapsed under its pressure, precociously, at age 27. Anxiety, hypochondria, who, among us boys in America didn’t grow up with worry of being failures, or small, domesticated animals, heart attacks waiting to happen?
“All my men friends think they’re dying,” I said. “Let’s get a drink.”
“I won’t be doing a reading tonight until I’ve had an EKG,” he said, sweating heavier.
By this time, I could see on a hill in the downtown skyline Truman Medical Center. The Bronco parallel parked near the hospital entrance, and I put my poet in line with inmates from the city jail, in for their physicals. Through wire-woven glass windows, I could watch the poet sitting along the wall in his little white gown, open in the back. Then I crossed the hall and slumped into a vinyl-cushioned chair in the lounge to alternately watch the muted TV and the clock. Every ten minutes, I jumped up to pace the hall, like an expectant father before the days of birthing rooms, no cigars to hand out, no one to call or tell to get ready. Finally, during one pacing episode, when all the patients seemed to have vanished, I looked to the front door and saw my man outside on the sidewalk, near the drop-off entrance.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
“I’m smoking aren’t I?” he said. Yes, he was, and not saying much, either— sound of heart, breathing better. That’s the tough son of a bitch I was hoping to meet. We rode on, windows down in the Bronco, laughing at the great father, laughing at fear.
“Let’s eat,” I said.
No. He would not eat in public for a while, he said. No whiskey, either. He had new teeth and was not comfortable using them in public.
One might see Adrian Louis as an ordinary sort of person after all, even frail and self-conscious. That would be wrong. Not only did his poems that evening transform people in the room in unexpected ways, but by being in his presence, I began to see my job in a new way. He demonstrated that day the surge of affirmation equal to his physical challenges, which seems to me the core of the creative act. He kept going, and that’s what counts.
Until I packed Colleen J. McElroy, Mark Doty, David Lehman, and C. D. Wright into the Bronco with me at one time, I never had met any of them. When I eased up to them on the street, where they could size up the vehicle they were expected to edge into, I could see on each of their faces that a decision was being made to be gracious, good natured, even jovial. I knew I was pushing my luck, but whom would I deny a ride in the Bronco, the hard-shifting, gear-grinding life of an events promoter, such as I? Which one of those four, all giants to my eyes, would I consign to a volunteer’s Ford Escort?
I had wanted a Bronco for a long time, and frustrated many used-car sellers by taking them on test drives of Broncos I could not afford. The one I found belonged to a fellow who had lost his job, had a new baby, and needed money; so, by trailing the fortunes of another, I found my chance. I found, also, the most basic style of Bronco, absent the console of more expensive models, allowing for a wide space between the two front seats, like a hallway. When my son was 8 or 10, he often unbuckled from the front seat and walked down this hallway into the back, where he would sit and read awhile before coming back up front, as if this were a split-level house or a mountain filled with caverns, rolling down the highway.
Across that space between seats one evening, I heard the poet Linda Gregg whisper just above her breath, “I am already dead.” We were driving from the hotel to her reading in Massman Art Gallery on the Rockhurst University campus in midtown Kansas City. She said it again: “I am already dead.” I pulled the truck to the curb. “When I get nervous,” she said, “Jack [Gilbert] told me the Buddhists use this refrain to remind them to let go of outward concerns.”
Since that time, the late 1980s, rappers have reset the phrase to a fatalistic bravado, “Put a bullet in my head, yo.” Linda Gregg had another sort of peace in mind, found in the Zen writings of R.H. Blyth and the Anthology of Passages from the Forests of Zen: “We sleep with both legs outstretched / free of the true, free of the false.” I might add, free of fear. Linda Gregg’s hope, as I understand it, was to get out of the way of herself, to take pleasure in her reading without expecting anything from it.
I have seen it as my job to honor writers for who they are, and not burden them with my expectations. They have their spirit, and the spirit is what I invite. A sixth-century Welsh poet, Taliessin, has written, “The wind without flesh, without bone, without veins, without feet, is strong.” I admit, a poem is strong without steel and tire treads to haul it here and there; for us of flesh and bones, however, the truck carries us and contains our story. After trading in the Bronco, I began driving a sleek, Chevy Silverado pickup with extended cab, and one day pulled it into a hotel drive to pick up the writer Charles Baxter for dinner. We had known each other many years earlier, before the age of the Bronco, so this was kind of a reunion. I swung the truck around in the lot, and Charlie stood in the drive waiting. “I saw that truck turn in,” he said. “I was hoping it was yours.”