When I was in college, I decided to pursue one of my greatest passions: creative writing. Princeton has a very rigorous program with all-star authors, like Joyce Carol Oates, Edmund White, and John McPhee amongst a plethora of others. Students had to apply every semester to remain in the program, and apply once more if they wanted to be eligible to write a senior thesis within the program.
I was really happy to get into Princeton, but very disappointed that I was rejected from the Creative Writing program that accompanied my application. I had worked very hard my senior year working with a writing coach at school and was convinced that this was the path I was going to take. I re-applied after the end of my first semester and this time, I was accepted. From that point forward, I decided that I would go to great lengths to ensure that I could have a spot within the program.
When it came time to write my senior thesis, I decided to write a set of short stories with the title “How Boys Learn.” All of the stories were inspired by something or other in my life – one story, which I later got to review with John Irving (with the help of my advisor, Edmund White), was about a wrestler. Another story was about an all boys high school. And yet another was about a boy trying to ask a girl on a date. I could relate to all of these things.
But one such story was something I really had no firsthand experience with. For some reason, I became interested in truck driving. I didn’t know much about truck drivers, but I imagined that they had great stories to tell, and I wondered if I could try to help tell their story through my thesis. The problem was – as I said – that I knew nothing about truck driving, so I had to do some research so that I could properly tell the story that I wanted to tell.
After doing some research online, I came across a man named Hervy who had started a website about truck driving. He had considered truck driving to be a lucky break for him in life and he wanted to build a site that helped educate prospective truck drivers to understand the various pros and cons to the life of a truck driver, and the various steps needed to get involved within the industry. I decided to reach out to Hervy to see if he would be willing to help me understand what his life was like.
Though I was nervous to be reaching out to a complete stranger with such a random request, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Hervy was flattered to be hearing from me. It felt prestigious to him that a student at Princeton wanted to talk to him, spend the time to learn about his lifestyle, and turn it all into a story. It was the first time that someone had reached out to him to gather the facts for the sake of listening and understanding and not for the interest of getting into the industry, and that made him feel like what he was doing was important.
In the ensuing months, I learned a lot about truck driving. I learned how difficult it is to break into the industry and the financial concepts that determine which freight drivers want to carry and not carry. I learned about legislation that dictates how long drivers can be on the road, where drivers sleep, what they eat, and who they associate with. By the end of my conversations with Hervy, I felt like I knew everything I needed if I ever wanted to go ahead and be a truck driver myself.
But what made my conversations with Hervy really interesting was that he was a passionate guy with a lot to say about everything. I had preconceived notions and stereotypes about what a truck driver should be like because of the way they are depicted in pop culture, and even more so because I had never spoken to one before. Hervy erased those notions. We often went back and forth amidst our various dialogues chatting about race relations, politics, people, education, and all sorts of topics. There was never a dull moment because Hervy had seen a lot of things driving all over the country and he had a lot to share. The irony was, he had this notion that I was this smart kid from Princeton who had all of the experience, but the reality was that whatever education I was receiving paled in a big way to his real life experiences.
Every now and then, we would reach out to one another just to say hello or see how things were going. In the truest sense of the word, we basically became penpals. Smartphones were just becoming a thing back then, so I would hear from Hervy intermittently to respond to my questions or a conversation we were having about something or other. At one point, he was actually driving through New Jersey and we almost linked up in person for a coffee. Some of my family and friends told me this was starting to become a little creepy, but I looked at it then and still look at it today as two strangers talking to one another and becoming friends.
What made it all the more exciting was how unlikely it was. Hervy and I were different in almost every way. We were different races, we were vastly different ages. I was pursuing a liberal arts education, he had gone down the path of a practical skill. Pursuing my kind of path never felt like an option for him, and pursuing his path never felt like it was on my radar, either. We were two people who, on paper, probably had little in common and very little reason to meet, but through the course of conversing over several months, became great friends.
Eventually, I finished my story. Hervy had told me that he liked truck driving but had wanted to use it as a steppingstone to something greater. So I made the story loosely about him. It was about a truck driver who traveled all over the country and had various encounters, but was always friendly and extroverted in his encounters. Much of the story has no particular rhyme or reason – it’s a story filled with stories and is unclear how it is going to end.
Along the way, our protagonist meets a radio broadcaster somewhere in the middle of nowhere, while at a diner. The two get to talking. The broadcaster explains to our protagonist that he would like to get up and leave his job someday but can never bring himself to do it. He becomes inspired when he realizes that the truck driver has the same ambitions and hopes to parlay his current career into something he truly desires.
We seem to have forgotten about this encounter until the end of the story, when the protagonist is driving through the same area where the radio broadcaster works. Remembering this, he turns on the radio and dials into the frequency where he can hear his one-time companion. He is in the midst of giving toasts to people. “Here’s to you…” for this and “here’s to you,” for that. The protagonist nearly swerves to the side of the road when he hears that the final toast is actually for him – the truck driver that the broadcaster had met some time ago in the diner. The final toast is followed by the sound of a chair hitting the ground, footsteps racing to a door, and a door slamming shut. The inference is that the radio broadcaster has up and quit his job as promised, but only through the inspiration he received years ago when meeting the truck driver.
That story actually never made it into my thesis, unfortunately, but I like it because in many ways it mirrors the story of how I met Hervy: two people who were in the right place at the right time and who had an indelible impact on one another.
Making friends is easier than you think. You just need to be willing to take the risk and try, even if it is finding them in the unlikeliest of places.
Maybe someday I’ll find Hervy and shake his hand for his help, his advice, and his friendship.