Friday, October 23, 2009

It Takes One to Judge One.



After I had entered the complex and drove around to the back, I dropped my trailer in the crisp predawn of a fall morning. I was by myself until another truck pulled around. He backed into a dock a few doors down from me. We both had to wait for the Receiving Office to open up. I had seen him walking around, he was a big guy. Suddenly, Showtunes burst from his cab. I could hear the unmistakably strains of Broadway belting, thumping through the sheet metal. It is a bit unnerving to think of a big burly truck driver listening to Showtunes. And he was blasting them. I could just see some fan of John Wayne Gacy slipping out of his truck to come see me, [hey, big guy] in a Clown Suit, with a straight razor. I shivered at the thought.

It was about ten 'til five, the guard said that Receiving would be open by now. I climbed down to go inside. About three steps toward Door 43 and I heard another door slam shut. I looked over my shoulder just to make sure there was no clown suit. At the office, the door was still locked.

As the other driver walked up to meet me at the door, he had the lazy back-heal saunter of a dimwit. He made up for this by being twice the size of a normal man. To put a fine edge on it, he was rotund, spherical almost. He looked like the Batman's Penguin, if the Arch Criminal had fallen on hard times. He was in a tshirt and jeans rather than a tux and spats. His tshirt said “American by Birth. Christian by Grace.”

“Yep, after I leave here I go back into Indy and then to Oklahoma,” he said, as if I cared. His hair hung at odd angles, ripped as much as cut in the classic 5 minute Truckstop Barber Style. The sagging unshaven jowls gave him a unkept look that matched his clothes. I had to check if the printing on his shirt was metallic because the next thing he said was “Georgia Pacific, Muskogee, I hate that fuckin' place.” I could swear the moonlight flashed a little on the words “Christian by Grace," but I must have imagined it.

We stood there in uncomfortable silence for a few minutes. He seemed like the kind of guy who would spend a half hour considering what he should say in a given situation. In the end, it would always blurt out, semi-appropriate and uninteresting. His wedge into the greater social world blunter and less effective than he had hoped. I know this to be true because I've often done it myself.

The Rotund One broke back in, “You got a garage door on that trailer?”

I was still a little sleepy that morning; more than I thought. Stunned, I cast a glance at my trailer just 10 feet from the stairs we stood on. Damned if he wasn't right! I had backed in to the dock without opening the doors. If Receiving ever opened, they wouldn't be able to unload me anyway. Who's the Dimwit now?!?!??

I kicked at the chock under my trailer wheel but it wouldn't budge. The trailer would have to be pushed off of it. The Rotund Driver had followed me over. I walked back up front and climbed aboard. As I hooked back to the trailer and gave it shove, the driver leaned over and pulled the chock out for me. When I pulled forward to open the doors, he stepped around behind me and opened them up. I nudged the dock and he stepped up the stairs and into the now opened office. He had done his good deed for the day and I had had a lesson in the futility of prejudging someone. When I got inside, I thanked him.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Lost in the City Requires Peace of Mind

I think it was Robert Pirsig who, while a Technical Writer, collected assembly instructions. He had a badly translated instruction for assembling a Chinese Built BBQ Grill. Apparently, most of the written instructions bordered on useless, but they began with the deeply Eastern “Assembling Barbecue Grill requires Great Peace of Mind.” As the author of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," Pirsig rather liked this though it was likely more accidental than oriental. There are days, many many days, when Trucking requires Great Peace of Mind. And flexibility too, but any arguments of how many, or if any, truckers possess such states of mind is a topic for another day. On a recent trip to Chicago, I had the opportunity to practice my flexibility and had to desperately hang on to the remaining shreds of my Peace of Mind.

I hit Chicago about three in the morning. On the outskirts of town, I did a quick review of the directions I'd been given. Seemed like a straight shot; take the Tri-State up to the Eisenhower, second exit. The details were a little sketchy, but things usually work out OK. The first ebb of a night of evolving assumptions. Chicago, in the middle of the night, is not bad. There is always traffic, but at that hour, never enough to slow me down.

When I got off the Eisenhower, the sketchy details started to fall out of rather than into place. “Exit 13A, E US20. Go one block, proceed East on Lake St.” the directions calmly stated. East US 20, like all U.S. Highways, could be on a funky angle, but East Lake St. should be actually east [First Wrinkle of the Second Assumption]. It must be just off to the right [the rest of the Second Assumption]. Off the highway in the dark, there's a couple railroad overpasses, some tall old industrial buildings. A couple, like grain elevators, loom into the hazy mix of darkness and city lights. I creep along for about a block. There is a road here but it looks more like a driveway. In another block or so, there is a road to the left. “To East IL-67” a sign shouts at my headlights. My directions don't mention IL-67, so I move on [Yet, a Third Assumption].

Now I'm rolling down a typical Midwest industrial strip. There's a few corporate buildings, a forklift dealer, an auto repair shop, and a couple machine shops. I've gone way more than a block; probably four. Suddenly there is a large parking lot on my right. I step on the brakes, jam through a couple gears and lurch inside.

Its a big city “pay-to-park” lot for semis. If you live nearby, or just do a lot of business nearby, they have semi size spaces for rent. As I lope into the lot, a guard comes out of the office trailer. He trudges down the aluminum steps as I pull to their stop sign. Scanning his clipboard, the guard walks across the front of my tractor. The beam of each headlight swells to a glare on his shoulder and fades away behind him. I roll down my window and raise my voice of the grinding diesel.

“Sorry, I missed a turn back there. Can I just turn around in here?”

Without a word, the guard smiles, spins back around and waves me through. As I pull past him and start a big circle, the guard trudges right back up and into his shack. The lot is in good shape. Mercury lights buzz dimly over a big flat cinder lot. In the vagueness of city night, bright light bursts out of the windows from three sides of the guard shack. The unyielding contrast makes the guard shack like a Dec-O-Rama in a huge Museum of the City. The guard sits at his desk facing a small TV sitting on a file cabinet next to a well used coffee maker. The rigid industrial lines of the desk, the cabinet, the trailer and the parking spaces are mocked by the kinks and wild turns of the unbent coat hanger that has replaced the TV's antenna.

Back on the street, I retrace my steps toward the highway. If I was supposed to Exit on East 20 and then turn East on Lake Street, Lake Street is probably a right turn [recast Second Assumption]. It should have been obvious either way; maybe that driveway looking entrance was the right place [A Fourth Assumption]. Having seen no better alternative, I stopped in the left turn lane, across from the driveway, straining to read the unlit signs crowding the other curb. I flicked the brights on. One hopeful looking sign is completely useless. Eric Hiscock said “Fortune favors the reckless.” So I turned in.

Its definitely industrial. I pass a trucking company at the base of one of the grain elevators. Off to the right is a large cross dock with several semi trailers. That is promising but I can't find a street to get over to it [Fifth Assumption]. Suddenly I'm funneled into short pole building. As I enter, bright lights flash on and the interior explodes into stark detail. I keep rolling slowly through. Without a sound, its dark again. My night vision is shot, but another brightly lit, squat building is just ahead. I pull under a structure like a toll booth. There is a unit like the drive thru bank below my window. I've been transported into some Terry Gilliam Postmodern landscape.

There's a click and the hum of a small room behind an old analog microphone.

“You're lost. Aren't you?” blares a happy voice from the tinny speaker. Central Casting from Gilliam's Brazil couldn't have cast a better, vaguely ethnic, beguilingly cheerful disembodied countenance.

“Yeah, I'm looking for Jewel/Osco but I'm not doing very well. Do you know where they are?”

“Well, this is the railroad. You didn't look like you were headed for the railroad. That might be them over there to your right.” The happy voice oozes with empathy. He's been lost in the city at night too. “Turn left as soon as you leave our exit gate.”

My truck rumbles into the rail yard; another big circle. More post industrial buildings with weird catwalks and railroad sidings. There are monstrous cranes that swallow a whole rail car, lift off the container and then spit the car out again. Guys in yard switcher engines, pickups and, oddly, a Volvo. Hard hats, steel toe boots and worn denim wander everywhere. They all carry a smirk knowing I don't belong here tonight.

Out the exit gate and . . . there is just no way to turn left. Even a small car couldn't turn left. To go left is to climb a concrete barrier, leap to a scale the chain link fence. Then over the razor wire and you're in. I've had enough of this fun and pull over most of the way down the driveway.

The small scale map of Chicago in my Atlas is no help. Not enough detail for the rail yard or even Lake Street. I look at my phone. It can reach the internet, but a detail map on that little screen is like looking at a computer circuit board; lots of unlabeled lines and intersections none of which I can decipher.

Its then when I have a vision. The sun is suddenly shining behind a large cloud. Angels appear from the left and the right. They bend over in unison and put big brass horns to the backs of their robes. In a glorious God calling chord, the cloud shimmies open like a Punch and Judy Stage. Monty Python's Old Man God appears complete with his cut out, nut cracker mouth. His chin slips up and down, just out of sync with the audio and he says, “Viaduct Clearances for Chicago Streets and surrounding neighborhoods.” And with that the vision dissipates into a spray of confetti and a some noise of the bowels. They're all gone, but I'm digging through my truck stuff with a determined grin.

In the Seventeenth month of my tenure, I have yet to touch a map that I was given at orientation. Miraculously, the map is called “Viaduct Clearances for Chicago Streets and surrounding neighborhoods.” In the chaotic world of freight shippers in the Chicago Area, you cannot cut across town on the surface streets without checking for low bridges. However, I have never had to cut across town in this manner and have yet to even unfold that nearly forgotten map. The very map I was now clawing open.

The Front side of the map is all downtown City of Chicago in close detail. With a sigh of relief, the back side is “surrounding neighborhoods.” There's Lake Street! It _is_ IL-67!! That changes everything. Scanning the map for my next assumptions [Sixth] I see that IL-67 is the Northern border of Melrose Park, my destination. The sketchy details in the second half of my directions are “Take Lake St. East to 15th Ave. Proceed past first stop sign. Jog and continue to second stop sign. Turn left on Armitage. Jewel/Osco is on the right.

The Trucker Logic goes if IL-67 is the Northern Border of Melrose Park, the destination. Then traveling East to get there, I must turn right (south) to get to Jewel/ Osco Receiving [where was I?, seventh! Seventh Assumption]. With a new confidence, I exit the rail yard, find the loud “To IL-67” sign and turn left. At IL-67/Lake Street, I turn East (right). Whoever looked up these directions on Google Maps must have thought that you could easily take Exit 13A to East US20 and “Proceed to East Lake St.” However, not being from Chicago, not knowing IL-67 _was_ Lake Street, . . . I was lost and in the dark in more ways than one.

Cruising down Lake Street, I crossed 35th Avenue. Twenty blocks to go. Then there was 25th Ave.; right on time. There was a big Jewel/Osco logo on the left. WHAT!?! Rolling past in the dim light of dawn, I watch the Jewel/Osco facility move by. There is a sign I can't quite make out by a truck size driveway. Several Potential Assumptions flip through my caffeine addled brain. Did Jewel/Osco move and my directions are still to the old location? Is that the dry goods warehouse and perishables is down 15th Ave.? Should I keep moving or stop and ask? Should I join the circus? Where is my other blue sock? Oh, never mind.

I've pulled a semi through lots of cities, including New York City, the Big Apple, where I once parked tractor and half a trailer, illegally, on the sidewalk for four hours while being loaded. My big city instincts have me pulling to the left without really thinking. The place to be for a confused truck driver, in the big city, as the morning traffic is about to start, is the left turn lane, mid block. Safely in the center, I pull on the four way flashers, set the brakes and stop to think; or find a stiff drink.

I can see 15th Avenue, a block or so up the street. Craning my shoulders, I can see back toward Jewel/Osco. Their logo and color scheme is orange. I can see orange trimmed buildings, behind the stores on the street, coming most of the way up toward me. There is a big facility back there. There is also no good reason to have dry goods and perishables several blocks apart. In the liquid logic of suburban boundaries, Jewel/Osco is on the North side of IL-67. This puts them outside the primary color shading of Melrose Park on my map, but apparently inside the actual boundaries of the town in real life. The unspecified turn on 15th Avenue must therefore be left or North [the Final Assumption?]

The smoke test will be the two stop signs and the jog. If I turn left and see them right away, I've made the right guess. If not, I'll need another large space to turn around in a big circle and a new assumption.

Before I even complete the turn, I can see two stop signs, askew. I'm on the right path. From completely lost to making the delivery, I ended up only twelve minutes late. Another nearly Zen night on the American Byways.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Snapping Turtle That Ate Milwaukee!



It was a classic Monster Movie motif; big city traffic jam confronted by raging prehistoric monster. South of Milwaukee, I was diverted off the highway and straight into its path. But no screaming pedestrians, no thump thump thump of police helicopters, no city bus lifted to the monster's bloodshot eye. Just an ancient Snapping Turtle lumbering across the pavement.

He was huge for a turtle. In each cautious step, a foot would stretch forward, almost pointing the toe and then drop to the ground. Each stride just less than the reach of his toe, oddly mimicking the strut of a majorette. In a panic, his neck stretched impossibly far out of his shell, like he was taking turtle enhancement supplements. Yet he stared straight ahead and strode on like a general into battle. Rather than medals, he wore a shawl of moss. It looked less like a turtle shell than an old stump crawling out of the swamp.

The detour had taken me off the highway. The road widened into two lanes just as I spotted the majestic turtle. I made an exaggerated arc into the left lane and around him. The first several cars behind me caught my drift and followed me around him. It was a good start. I hope he made it.