Monday, October 1, 2007

Life On The Road.


So I was going to tell you about the trials and tribulations of simply paying my phone bill, but I have a way better story than that now.

Jerry Jeff Walker first drove Jimmy Buffett to Key West.

Jerry Jeff has a song called "Life on the Road."

"Let me tell you 'bout the life I lead
It ain't all it's cracked up to be
Of what you been told, 'bout life on the road ."

Of course, Jerry is a traveling troubadour. If you ask a Truck Driver, life on the road is Sex, Drugs & Rock and Roll; just like you hear. That mostly goes on in the minds of truckers. Now real Rock and Rollers, they seem to enjoy the physical manifestations as well.


I was down to one stamp and I hadn't seen a mail box for more than a week anyway. I knew I was overdue to pay my phone bill. Driving through the mountains of West Virginia, I spotted a plaza with a Sprint Store sign. The next exit was only three miles, so I got off eastbound and back on westbound.

I pulled on to shoulder of the exit ramp. You just can't take a semi where only cars were meant to go. I've been in some tight spots and didn't want to push my luck on a plaza built into the side of a mountain. Besides, it had been a few days since I had a good walk. I popped the Four Ways on and locked up the truck.

The walk down the rest of the ramp wasn't bad. I could see that far. I turned up the road toward the plaza. It is really dry in West Virginia. As I crunch through the right of way, hundreds of crickets jump off in all directions. It is almost as if I'm wading through them. Like wading at the beach when you don't care how wet you are, your feet just kick up the splash.

At the entrance of the plaza, I realize this isn't some northern strip mall. The plaza is in four parts up the side of the hill. I really could have changed into some shorts before I started this trek.

The first tier is a rise of 10 or 15 feet above the road. I can see the backs of the stores on the next tier. They must be 40 feet above my head. Starbucks is the only store marked on the back. They even have a drivethrough, but I'm walking.

I cut from the road up an embankment to the first tier. There is a Wild Birds Store, a Quick Med Clinic, a couple empty storefronts and an O'Charley's Resturant. The stores all face the road; no Sprint.

I walk up the access road around the back of the Starbucks Tier. There is another embankment to climb. At the top, I can see that Sprint is not in the Starbucks Strip, but looming on the horizon is the main plaza anchored by a Target and an Office Max. There is Sprint! However, it is on the other side of a huge parking lot. It is real warm now.

As I walk across the steamy tarmac, I plan my next move. I've got a couple bucks in my pocket. I know my phone bill is more than that. I duck into Target in search of an ATM. I haven't seen a bank branches in any of the tiers. The cool air inside the Target washes over me as I enter. It bites on my lower back where I've sweated some moisture into my shirt. Almost too cold. I spot an ATM. Funny, someone has got Stickie Notes all over it. As I walk up to it I realize the Stickies say "Out . . . Of . . . Order." Dog!

The shy girl behind the Service Counter thinks that ATM is the only one in the Plaza. Well, I might as well try Sprint and my Debit Card. The Comdata card that we truckers use isn't a normal Mastercard or Visa Debit Card. Walmart and other stores can take it on their machines. I enter Sprint with my fingers crossed. No such luck. The dudes in football jerseys at Sprint echo the shy girl's ATM story.

Just to make sure, I walk across another steamy tarmac to check at the Home Depot. Also on the third tier but separated by another huge parking lot. Nothing.

The walk back to the truck is downhill and more enjoyable. At least I got some exercise. I resolve to find an ATM and pat that bill. Better than to leave and have to stop again. Back in the truck, I go under the highway to jump back on the eastbound freeway. I had seen some gas stations when I turned around before. I can see a bank south of the highway but it looks pretty cramped for truck space. I head for the highway.

At the next exit, one of the gas stations I thought I saw, is under construction, or perhaps disassembly. There are three or four contractor pickups parked in the lot which is more dirt than pavement. After that there is nothing else that isn't behind tight curbs or some other hazard. Life on the Road. There is just nowhere to go. I head back west on the highway. I'm going to take a closer look at that bank.

Back over on Exit 18, and under the highway again. The good news is the cross road is a WV state highway. It will be legal for me to drive on and big enough for the truck. I slow to look at the bank. It is a left turn onto a small road. I can't see very far. I'm pretty sure I can't drive through and there isn't room to turn around. As I consider my next move, cars begin to pile up behind me. I decide to bail. I drive down WV-60; this is the same road that comes out at the next exit where I've been turning around.

Further down this road is a credit union. Back in the day, to get a fresh 6 pack and some ice, truckers would pull into the left hand turn lane,. hit the Four Ways, jump out and run into the liquor store. I borrow the maneuver.

After my hike up the hill to the plaza, I know I can get the truck up there. It'll be slow; I'm carrying 38,000 lbs of springs. I jump back on the highway one more time westbound. Hit the exit, turn up the hill and then into the plaza. At the first tier, by O'Charley's, the access road is marked for deliveries. As I approach the corner, some high school couple pull into the left turn lane. I need to go over them. I creep forward right at them.

Junior gets paranoid about his little rice burner dolled up like a drift racer. He throws it in reverse to get out of my way; narrowly missing mom and half the soccer team in a minivan. The truck groans up the hill. I circle around in the empty edge of Target's lot and pick an escape route.

I trudge across the tarmac and pay the damn phone bill. I am hot and thirsty. Tucking into Target again, I feel the cool blast. At the snack bar, there is a huge line of Moms and kids. I'm not staying for that. High maintenance soccer moms. They order yogurt smoothies and soft pretzels with the same customization as a Latte. "For Marlee's pretzel, could you scrape off some of the salt? And she wants cheese, but I don't like her to have much dairy. Could you just dab a little on it? And Bobbie wants his with chocolate and coconut. And the baby can't have anything with wheat . . . ." If I was at a Walmart, it would go fast. Redneck mothers order in bulk. "7 corndogs, a bag of Cheese Popcorn - SHUT UP, BILLY - and a 64 oz. Pepsi with eight straws."

My only other choice is Starbucks. That Rasberry Green Tea Frappacino something or other sounds good, but I haven't been in a Starbucks in months. And I don't really want to spend four bucks on a cold drink. Time to leave West Virginia.

And that was the easy part.

I was headed to Newark, NJ. The directions were good, so I had no trouble getting there. You come in past Newark International and enter a zone that is one part ghetto and two parts Industrial Park. This plant has an infamous dock. To get to their dock, you have to turn up a side street that I thought was tight [just you wait, dear reader]. Down at the end of the street, you pull into their back lot, then back across the street into an alley to turn around. This would be routine but the alley is offset from the drive. So you kind of waggle through a serpentine turn into the alley. Also, everyone on the street is on lock down, so the drive has a gate and concrete barricades to protect the fence. Heading back out the street, you can now back into their dock on your sight side rather than your blind side. Another gate, more barricades and on the other side of the street a curb, four feet of sidewalk, a fence and a building.

I wiggled into the alley and got set up for their dock. I got so close to the neighbors building across the street that a couple manager types decided to discuss something right out on the sidewalk. I managed to back in almost square.

Looking around the neighborhood, I imagine places like Beirut or Gaza must be worse, but it is hard to imagine how. The plant I've delivered to is an old block building. The loading dock was an afterthought. The lift driver has to drive up a ramp on the inside to reach dock height. The dock juts out from the building; tacked on. There are four or five ancient transformers behind a board and batten fence. The crumbling corrugated metal roof reveals some very old looking insulators and wiring. I walk around the fence, but they don't seem to be connected anymore.

This lot has the traditional three strands of barbed wire angled with brackets on top of the fence. The uniform service across the street has razor wire across theirs. The street has a half dozen businesses; all like armed camps.

At the end of the street and across the main drag is a bus stop. Some of the people look like they're having trouble making their way. Others are having their way, making trouble. Some are on their way to work. Some just hanging around. Another is like a half crazy street preacher. He talks to almost everyone, but gesticulates the most when he wanders off by himself. Behind the bus stop is a large old building. It must have been a school or a hospital. There is a large chimney from the old boiler and some men bricking in the first floor windows.

I get unloaded and my next dispatch is into the city. Thee city. New York City. The borough of Long Island City. This will be fun. I call for help on directions. My dispatch shows that I should head north in Jersey to the George Washington Bridge and then head south into New York. That just doesn't make sense.

The person who answers the phone sounds vaguely Indian. He passes me to someone who works there but lives in Jersey and sounds like it.

"Nah, that's crazy," he reacts to my directions. "You want to go south on the Jersey Turnpike to Exit 13. Take that across Staten Island and then the Verrazano Bridge and get on the BQE." "HEY FRANK, doesn't he want the BQE?" he shouts away from the phone. "Yeah, take that to the Van Dam exit. Turn right on 47th Ave. We're right here at 32nd Place."

"32nd Place?"

"Yeah, 32nd," he says. His voice says "Everybody knows its 32nd Place. Whaddya talkin' about?"

"Alright?" he asks. Then click, he's gone.

OK, then. I scroll around on Google Local on my phone. I find Van Dam St. Comparing that to my Atlas, I see he didn't tell me I need to get on 495. There is I-495 the Long Island Expressway and what looks like NY-495 going west. I need NY-495. So I trek off toward Exit 13.

The Jersey Turnpike has this annoying habit of numbering exits the same number but adding A or B or even EX. I pause by 13A but flinch and go on in search of just 13. A guy behind me smokes his tires to avoid me. Yeah, well, he was way back there.

I-278 is the Staten Island Expressway. Crossing over the Gothals Bridge there are lots of ships and port activities. But crossing the Verrazano Bridge from Staten Island to Brooklyn, my heart soars! I'm looking out over the Atlantic!! Mother Ocean! I'm high enough above the water, individual waves are indistinct. The ocean has a texture though. You can sense the gentle roll. And it just stretches out across the horizon. A flat line from north to south. You can't get that accept at sea. None of the rest of the day can take this joy. And I'm going to need it. Read On.

I-278 nicks the western edge of Brooklyn and runs up toward the bridges to southern Manhattan. Mostly residential scenes and then some industrial areas until I get north of the Prospect Parkway that head over to Prospect Park; the Central Park of Brooklyn.

Moving through northern Brooklyn toward Queens, the highway is at 2nd and 3rd floor level of the surrounding buildings. My eyes are assaulted by color and signs and neighborhoods. I just want to stop and walk around. There are resturants and bars, a myriad of languages, even a large Auto Shop plastered with Chinese. But the shop is a Registered New York State Emissions Inspection Station for both Cars and Big Trucks. The official New York State signs are the only English on the building. An awning and patio tops a building with an Italian Restaurant on the street. It looks as if they took an old awning from the restaurant to use over their patio. There is patio furniture and lots of plants. But for the noise of the highway, it must be quite an escape.

There are several buildings with two faces. One on the ground level to cater to the neighborhood and another on the third or fourth floor. This second one is angled toward the highway to sell to commuters. This creates some funny looking buildings. There was a huge futon store aimed at the highway.

I see the sign for I-495. I'm looking for NY-495, I think. A couple exits later, I realize that I must have missed something. Now I have to turn the truck around somewhere in the city. Moments later, I have no choice the highway takes me to cross the Triborough Bridge; so named because it connects Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. Driving across the bridge and wrestling with the Atlas, the new plan is to take I-87 right after the bridge to I-95 east to I-895 and back to I-287 and the Triboro Bridge. No turning around in the city, just exploring a lot of its highways. It is getting late. I have to pick up before 4:00 pm.

Cutting across the western edge of the Bronx, the river and Manhattan are on my left. Yankee Stadium is on the right. I notice a lot of cars parked willy nilly around the stadium, but there is crazy parking all over the city. Back in Brooklyn or Queens, I had to leave the highway because of construction and cut through a neighborhood. Between construction barriers and cars parked by the retarded, I could barely get my truck through. A couple times I was only "pretty sure" the trailer would follow me safely. I just eased on through and tried not to watch in the mirror. If I was wrong, the sound would be bad enough. I didn't want to have to watch it happen too. The crazy parking around Yankee Stadium will come back to haunt me.

I made my first turn on the new plan. Right away on I-95, I see a sign that Wide Loads are not allowed further on The Bronx Expressway. Wide Loads must go south on I-87 with an arrow pointed up an exit ramp. I'm not a Wide Load [shut up] but South on I-87 would save me all the I-95 to I-895 to I-287 shuck and jive. That would take me right back how I came. Surely, I can make it through where they are directing Wide Loads.

It was a bitch. And quit calling me Shirley.

I climbed up into the city from I-95. There was a sign directing Wide Load traffic to the left. There is also several steel columns for the elevated train all over the road. There must also be a school because backpack toting pedestrians are everywhere. In front of me is a street; two traffic lanes and a left turn center lane. The steel columns are on either side of the center lane making it a tunnel. While the light is still red, I scan the scene calculating if I should angle through the center lane into the far right or if I should go all the way through the intersection and make the full turn.

Normally a left turn is much preferred to a right turn in a semi. Your trailer will 'off-track' as you pull it through the corner. This causes the trailer to turn further inside the corner than you and the cab do. A left turn gives you the whole road to work with. A right turn is tight. Trucks will take out stop signs, light poles and pedestrians if the driver is not careful. The steel columns in the middle of traffic pretty much make this left more like a right turn.

Times Up!! The light is green. On impulse, I take the full turn. I pushed my luck enough back in the construction zone. Halfway through the turn, I am way too close to one of the steel columns. I turn wider and ride the curb with my right hand steer tire. We just make it through. The next light is a right turn back to the highway. I am taking this turn very wide too. On the entrance ramp, there is one of those little triangular island curbs to ease the flow around the curve and separate the traffic coming straight across from the left. The backpack toting crowd all jostle to a halt as I go right up and over the island. My diesel tanks are just 8" above the ground. Luckily the curb is quite low. No sense in having a HazMat spill in the city. Whew, I am back on the highway and headed to my pickup. How the hell would a Wide Load get through there?

I get back to the the area around I-495 and realize the exit goes both east and west. I don't know why the Atlas uses different shields for the two roads. I quickly find Van Dam and exit again. Another tight street in the city. I have to turn right up Van Dam with a building right out into the corner. I see 48th Ave and soon come to 47th. Another right turn but a little easier. The first light on 47th is 32nd Place. Here I am! There is nowhere to go. Here is nowhere. I am at a stop light at 47th and 32nd Place in Long Island City. All the streets around me are narrow. The buildings all come right to the sidewalk; only occasionally interupted by an alley or the next street. There is an international vitamin distributor to my left. To the right is a building with a 'space for rent' sign. There is a Prius parked illegally across the street and to the right. In front of it is a dumpster along the far curb. There are several pallets of small boxes or maybe bricks behind the dumpster. They are lined up against the building on the sidewalk. Beyond these skids, a garage door is open and a delivery truck is parked. All the other parking spaces on the street are parked in. The next building down the street has a marble facade. Used to be someone's World Headquarters I imagine. Now its a t-shirt company.

I call my pickup again. I tell them I'm outside with nowhere to go. He gives me the idea those pallets are mine. He's going to send one of his guys out. I literally can't make a move. I'm sitting in the street at a stop light. I've sat here through 3 or 4 cycles of the light already. A few tentative honks have already sounded from the cars behind me. I hit the Four Ways and pull the air brakes. My leg is tired! Now the honking starts in earnest.

After several cars rush by me in the other lane; gesturing with a particular digit, my favorite moment sitting there is a the Chinese Delivery Van. This van pulled out from behind me and sped to make the light. Going by me, the Chinese guy in the passenger seat craned his head and shoulders all the way around to glare at me. He gave me the quintessential NYC WTF look. The kind of look you would expect from a guy named Vinnie or Victor. The International Language of New York City Traffic. The Pa Nang Noodle Company Van disappeared around the next corner.

10 minutes later, I'm still sitting there at the light; still listening to honks and smiling at people past their finger. Some guys start to mill around outside the open garage door moving about frantically. They scurry like ants do if you stomp on the ground right next to an ant hill. A young oriental kid in a "I Heart NY" t-shirt comes jogging over. He asks if I can park where the delivery truck is if they move it. My trailer is longer than that truck let alone my whole rig. "OK," he says, "we'll move it and then see what we can do."

While they are scurrying around and moving the truck, I see an opening on the side street and begin my turn. A short blast on the horn and some eye contact shoo away a Cuban woman and her young son. I'm making another right turn and chances are I need their sidewalk. I can just barely get around because of the illegally parked Prius right on the corner. As I pass it, I notice the Prius has "Official" license plates. Some fool bureaucrat parked there. Around the corner and parked next to the dumpster, I can see 4 or 5 empty parking spaces up the road. I should insist they let me park up there and drive the skids down the block.

Instead they ask if I can pull up on the sidewalk near where the delivery van was. I shouldn't but who else can say they parallel parked a semi on the sidewalk in Long Island City? I'm game! As you can see in my Whacky Photo Gallery [page 2], I didn't really _parallel_ park. I got the tractor and a lot of the trailer over the sidewalk with the tail hanging in the parking spot formerly held by the delivery truck. They just don't pay me enough.

It was an international crew. There were two elder statesmen characters; one Black and the other Indian. They both excelled at observing; supervising without committing themselves to any particular action plan. The young oriental guy seemed to be in charge but not everyone was behind him. There were several younger guys; an Italian, a Puerto Rican, another Indian, and a Black guy driving the lift. A Jewish looking younger guy came out a few times sporadically. He carried the air of the owner's son.

They put a pallet jack in my trailer. The older Indian guy took a position in the trailer at the door. He didn't move much other than to gingerly act as if he was helping the Puerto Rican get a skid moving each time one had been lifted in. The guy on the lift either wasn't very experienced or he had made everyone else nervous somehow. Every 8" the lift moved, someone would call out with a better angle he should take. The oriental supervisor was especially bad about this. Lurch. Halt. Listen. Correct. Lurch. Halt. Listen. Correct. It was going to take forever this way. Then, incredibly, someone walked up from the street with an urgent question for the lift driver. The whole operation ground to a halt while the driver listened, scrunched his face to ponder, answer and then furrow his brow and clarify.

Then it began again. Lurch. Halt. Listen. Correct. Lurch. Halt. Listen. Correct.

I could have loaded the truck faster by myself. Pallet jack a skid to the curb. Climb onto the lift and set the skid in the trailer. Climb into the trailer. Pallet jack the skid into the nose of the trailer. Climb down. Start over again.

I had pulled up onto the sidewalk and behind some parked cars. There was a minivan that I was practically over. See the Whacky Gallery again. During the load process, the van driver left. I was surprised I didn't hear about how close I had come, but then again this is New York. It was going to be easier to get out without the van there. As the afternoon wore on, a woman, who had come out of the Ad Agency across the street, complimented me on my fine parking job. I told her to wait until I had managed to back out again.

The Oriental kid and another watched for me as I backed out. I had scoped out the next intersection for turning radius. It was still tight, but I made it out. It was getting late. From New York City, the nearest place to park a semi for the night was on the border with New Jersey and Pennsylvania. I had a couple hours to go, at least.

Back on the BQE, traffic was snarled. Tomorrow the UN General Assembly opens. Bush is in town. Amadinejad is in town. So was everyone else. There were limos and shuttle vans all over. I got back across the Triboro; this time on purpose. Traffic came to a stop.

30 minutes later, I passed the snarl. A four wheeler (a car) must have made a quick lane change without a second look. He ended up wedged under a semi trailer. Traffic was moving again . . . and then it stopped. All those cars I half noticed around Yankee Stadium were now merging into my lane. The game just got over! For the next hour and a half, I never got higher than third gear. Sixth gear is only 30 mph. I sat and waited, then ambled forward several feet and then waited; ambled; waited; ambled; waited. In two and a half hours, I drove 45 miles. But now I was in Jersey again. We were moving along quite well. The sun had gotten low enough it was no longer frying my eyeballs. This was better. And then we stopped again.

I thought I had survived the Yankee fans and rush hour that started just as the game got out. I had made it far enough into Jersey to pickup the last remnants of those brave souls who commute from Pennsylvania and Western New Jersey. All through New Jersey on I-80, there just aren't many rest stops or truckstops. I was going to try and get 100 miiles or so into Pennsylvania before stopping for the night. Finally a place to stop came by. I took a much needed bathroom break and bought a pop.

The day was almost done. Another 100 miles, some sleep, and tomorrow will be a better day. I climbed into the cab, took a deep breath and opened my pop. It fizzed all over my hand, the steering wheel and on to the floor. Just a reminder it wasn't tomorrow yet. Life on the road.

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