There was a time when Time Inc. was flush and when their marquee magazines had baby magazines. And so I was hired as a reporter for Sports Illustrated’s college weekly, SI On Campus. It was an adjustment. My first full-time job had been in the photo department at House & Garden. Nobody face-painted there nor, did they interview humans gesticulating in bear costumes. My second traveling assignment for SIOC was to live in an RV for three weeks with two other reporters—boy reporters—and travel cross-country reveling in March Madness. It is normally a time of year I consider holy, generally because it means I get to sit in a dark bar, mid-day, beer in hand, bracket in the other.
When I tell people (mostly my man-child friends) about this assignment, their eyes gloss over and their lips grow slack.
“That is a job?” they sputter.
“That is something you were paid to do?”
I nod and then explain, “It sounds better than it is.”
After being on an RV with brand new co-workers, both male, and both exceedingly sports-oriented, for 24-hours a day, I finally understood why everyone fights on Real World and Road Rules. Writing daily from the back of a moving vehicle with no shocks, trying to make game time on a highway doing 65 day after day, waiting a half hour for the gas tank to top, and trying to sleep on the icy bench that “converted” into a bed—this is not the stuff of a dream assignment. Small things—showers, say, or standing in one spot on solid ground for more than twenty minutes—became luxuries. We’d either drive through the night or wake up to a mall cop knocking on the windshield, shouting, “There’s no overnight parking here.” We’d end up in Walmart bathrooms brushing our teeth, guzzling bad coffee, bathing with paper towels and picking through freshly stale donuts. This was no way to see the country.
By the middle of the second week, the boys decided I was a terrible driver and forbade me to drive at night, in cities, and between the hours of 8am and 10pm. In other words, never. That was fine. The giant Winnebago made me nervous: I could never get the seat close enough to the steering wheel, the blind spot was as big as cow, and my technique for changing lanes was pretty much based on instinct alone. Small cars would stop, I figured. Sometimes they did. I decided if I wasn’t going to drive, I could sit in front and chat and make sure the on-call driver was peppy and awake and stocked with caffeine, gummy worms and the sweet tunes of FM America.
One night, Boy 1 was driving as we made our way from Montana to Spokane. I was in the front seat, passing time and listening to talk radio, mostly the Jesus stuff. Suddenly flashing red lights pierced the black night. We’d hit a speed trap. Boy 1 was going something like 8 mph over the limit and a cop, lurking in the bushes, had trailed us. How could he not? We were driving a whale that sounded like a construction site. The cop asked his series of standard questions with a leather-bound flip top notepad in front of him. He walked away from the window to consult his fellow officer. Then he came back and asked more serious questions.
Boy 1 and Boy 2 panicked, but I was just tired. It was late and dark. So I decided to try something. In a way, I figured, we were minor celebrities on the road between Missoula and Spokane—insane, sleep-deprived minor celebrities—but celebrities nonetheless. And everyone loves Sports Illustrated swag—that’s why they subscribe, right? So, I leaned over and explained what we were doing and offered him a free T-shirt. He was taken aback. “There’s no way you lot are from Sports Illustrated,” he drawled, and marched back to his car. Boy 1 and Boy 2 were furious. “Great, now we’re going to get arrested for trying to bribe an officer on top of the ticket. You can’t just make a ticket disappear with a T-shirt?! We’re f*cking going to jail!”
I just sat there. The boys didn’t understand the potential charm of our journey, the bags under our eyes, and the love affair that America had with Sports Illustrated, a young man’s bible.
The officer came back with his partner grinning sheepishly. “We can really have a t-shirt?” he asked.
We smiled and started breathing again as we pulled out hats and t-shirts and messenger bags, draping the cops in gear. It had worked like a charm. Then the cop turned serious again and said, “Try and stay under the speed limit from here on out.”
The boys were mute and probably would have rather gone to jail. But I was redeemed!
I still wasn’t allowed to drive.
—Jaime Lowe is the author of DIGGING FOR DIRT: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF ODB (Faber & Faber). She’s got her money on UCLA.