“About those car deliveries that you do,” my friend Tom said. “How would you like to take me and Marilyn with you on the next one?”
His full name was Thomas M. Disch, and he was a writer and a poet. His friend was Marilyn Hacker, and she was also a poet (eventually, she became a famous one). I had doubts about going coast-to-coast with a couple of poets, especially because they said they would be writing poetry collaboratively along the way. That didn’t exactly sound like a fun road trip. Also, Marilyn could not share the driving, because she had never learned to drive. But I always find it hard to say no. So I said, “Yes.”
This time the car was a Caribbean Blue 1969 Chevelle Malibu hardtop, which we picked up from a multistory garage in Manhattan in May, 1970. Tom drove us out of the New York metropolitan area while I sat beside him trying to give directions from an inadequate map. He was the kind of driver who goes around corners in a series of straight lines, and panics easily. When confronted with a pedestrian stepping onto a crosswalk or a traffic signal turning red, he would jam his foot on the brake and vent a shrill, high-pitched “Oh!” while all the loose stuff in the car slid onto the floor.
After an obligatory Howard Johnson’s roadside dinner in Pennsylvania, Tom suggested that since none of us wanted to see the eastern states, he could continue driving till around 5AM while I slept on the rear seat, after which we’d trade places. I duly passed out in the back, but woke abruptly a couple of hours later, sensing that something was–different. Then I realized that the car wasn’t moving.
Heavy rain was hammering the windshield and the roof. “Where the hell are we?” I asked.
”Interstate 80,” said Tom.
I peered through the side windows. “But you stopped in the fast lane!”
He gestured at the water pouring down the windshield. “Well, no one can possibly be driving in this.”
Tom was a very intelligent person. In fact he wrote a whole book, once, about intelligence. Common sense, however, was another matter. “Get this car onto the shoulder, immediately!” I yelled at him. He muttered and grumbled but did as I asked. Moments later a huge truck roared over the section of asphalt where we had been parked before I woke up.
My traveling companions wrote what they called “stochastic sonnets.” These had fourteen lines in iambic pentameter (the kind of thing that Shakespeare used to write), except that Tom and Marilyn had a modern experimental approach, using chance to create unexpected and sometimes comical juxtapositions. They wrote alternate lines, without revealing what they were writing. They just told each other the grammatical structure. For many miles I sat listening to one poet saying to the other something like, “I have a noun, a transitive verb in the present tense, but no object. Your turn!”
This was really irritating, but I have never enjoyed being a minority of one, so I gave in and asked to participate. After I struggled through my first collaboration with Marilyn, she and Tom praised it in the manner of scientists who were surprised that a chimpanzee could do sign language.
The random combinations of lines had mixed results, but because we were all looking at the same scenery, the poems did contain consistent imagery, in their inimitable fashion. As in, “Jasper and agate, quartz and porphyry / Assault Tom’s senses as he drives the car.” Or, “The baby horses on the barren soil / left beer cans and used condoms by the curb.”
Then there was, “The volatile aroma of Gulftane / Burned all the clotted bird shit off the hood,” memorializing the higher-octane version of Gulf gasoline.
And after Tom and Marilyn stayed up all night in Las Vegas with the help of substances that I declined to share, they wrote: “Fleeing Nevada slightly wired on speed / The car tires fried upon the Interstate.”
Marilyn said she liked the poems so much, she would self-publish them in a limited edition of 900 signed copies. There would be 300 for each of us. The booklet would be called “Highway Sandwiches,” which had been a roadside sign that we saw, but was also a sly reference to the way in which the verses were co-written.
For the cover, I sketched a picture of my view from the car’s passenger seat. Marilyn made the photocopies, and forty years later, Highway Sandwiches has become a collectible item. Inscribed, it sells for $50 or more. I feel a bit stupid for having thrown away most of my copies, but who knew?
Marilyn won a National Book Award a few years after our road trip, and now has an impressive Wikipedia entry. Tom is in Wikipedia too, but he developed a lot of health problems and ended up taking his own life in 2008. Funny how things work out; he might have died a lot earlier, along with myself and Marilyn, if he hadn’t moved our Chevelle out of the fast lane on that night in the Pennsylvania rain storm.