Rolling ‘cross the Country

Second week of January, 2008

Sometimes I think I could cross the country on nothing more than coffee, gas, $9 truck stop showers every other day, and Pop Tarts.

Ninety-nine cents at any gas station in America.

Remember when Pop Tarts were only for breakfast? Now they’re in every convenience store in the country, right next to the Slim Jims. Does anyone really eat the chocolate ones? Gimme strawberry and blueberry.

Get me in the right mood, I will tell the greatest Pop Tart story of all time, one involving a picky eater named Guy Matricciani – if a fly buzzed through the kitchen he’d leave the table — and his mother, the sainted Angie Pompa Matricciani, who one day had had it with her son’s unending culinary complaints.

It’s enough to make an otherwise sane woman hop a Greyhound bus and ride.

On Thursday night, January 10, 2008, I slept on the parking lot of a 24-hour International House of Pancakes (going to bed with grilled cheese, waking up to flapjacks) somewhere between the towns of Benson and Willcox, Arizona, about a half-hour east of Tuscon.

Somewhere, but I’m not sure exactly where. Across an atlas’ worth of road trips that began in 1978 with a drive to Chicago to interview Studs Terkel and see the Rolling Stones at Soldier Field, I have tried to keep as accurate a captain’s log as possible.

To lean on my days at the Sunpapers when — if you forgot the “t” in Presstman Street — a copy desk hawk who drank Prohibition homebrew with Mencken would point out that your fly was open in front of the entire newsroom.

If narrative exactness exists beyond spelling and grammar, it is elusive.

In The Paris Reviewissue No. 191, winter 2009 — Mary Karr observes that “… in the (1940s) memoir was akin to history, which was absolute.

“One reason for [our recent] surge in memoir is the gradual erosion of objective notions of truth … we mistrust the old forms of authority — the church and politicians, even science. The subjective has power now.”

Guilty with explanation: it is difficult to drive and take notes at the same time. The best car I ever had for taking dictation from the muses was an ocean blue, 1999 New Beetle with a dashboard the size of a coffee table.

Mary Karr: "We mistrust the old forms of authority ..."

The week I bought it, I drove from Baltimore to Rhode Island, headed west to Toronto to see the Blue Jays play at the SkyDome, and then to Detroit to spend a few days with a man who once called me friend, the writer Tom Nugent.

Before our communication breakdown, he wrote: “… the brown wren scrabbles in the dust [and] I hope your [grandfather’s] refrigerator is plink-plink-plinking as it madly thaws! You Spanish brigand, you luff-lubbing …”

And has yet to complete the sentence.

The next summer, my son and I drove that Bug 10,000 miles along the perimeter of the lower 48. Baltimore once again to Chicago (this time not to see Mick and Keith but my Aunt Dolores); over to St. Paul, Minnesota to see the house where Fitzgerald once lived; across the Badlands to the Crazy Horse monument; down to Antelope Island, Utah and then San Francisco and Los Angeles before pushing on to Vegas; the two days it always takes to cross Texas; a hop, skip, and a hello to Florida and then up every beach on the east coast to home.

The trip produced a series of articles for the Calvert Street Circular – collected in the Storyteller anthology — as well as an essay for the defunct arts journal called LINK.

Were my motoring notes more accurate a decade ago in the Volkswagen than the ones scribbled in 2008 in the Toyota Tacoma? The Caballo Blanco’s dashboard is narrow, curved, and cramped, without a plastic steering column vase, the perfect mobile pencil holder.

The highway signs rush by, and you grab the closest blank surface while looking for a pen that works — anything to capture the thought before it flies away.

Fair game: the inside covers of books bought at the last off-the-Interstate thrift store or yard sale – Call It Sleep by Henry Roth picked up for a buck in Van Horn, Texas back in 2004 ; receipts for coffee and cheeseburgers; and the stray greasy napkin.

There is also the duel between journals. What is closer at hand — one of the half-used Reporter’s Notebooks manufactured by Stationers, Inc., of Richmond, Virginia., and left on Macon Street by Joe Mathews before he quit the Sunpapers?

Or the more formal log collected in that year’s marbled composition book?

All while straddling Interstate 10 from the 10th to the 15th of January, 2008 like Slim Pickens riding THE BOMB.

[We will meet again, Dame Vera; and when we do I will make the facts and figures of our slumber in the truck jibe with your recollections. One artist’s memoir, another one’s myth.]

Rafael Alvarez can be reached via