Saturday, December 31, 2005

James and the Sky Bars

Just before Christmas, I received an e-mail from my old boss, James. It contained a questionnaire designed to “give an insight into the likes and dislikes of your friends.” We’ve all gotten them before. Of the ten or so I’ve received, I’ve answered maybe four.

One of the 38 questions asked, “What’s your favorite candy bar?” The first thing that entered my mind was, “Hershey bar, no nuts – the big ol’ thick kind.”

Of the answers that preceded mine, most said, “Hershey bar.” Then nostalgia kicked in.

The Necco company makes a candy bar that I truly adore. Whenever I see them in a store, I immediately buy 3 or 4 of them, since I never know when I’ll see one again. They are getting rare.

“Sky Bar,” I typed in as my answer. “They’re getting very difficult to find any more.”

This morning a package arrived in the mail from a country store in Vermont. “What the hell is this? A late Christmas present?”

Inside were 12 Sky Bars from James. Faith in the goodness of my fellow man has been restored.



Friday, December 30, 2005

LC and Sir

We have seven – that’s right seven - cats. That’s in addition to a dozen or so goldfish and the dog, Tina Turner. The cats range in age from older than God to our newest addition LC, pictured, who’s about 7 months.

LC, short for Elsie because she looks like a little cow, is primarily a house cat. For the first few months we kept her inside because she wasn’t spayed. Then we kept her inside because it was damned cold outside.

Being cooped up was not sitting well with her. She chased all our other female cats demonically, but got along famously with our only male feline, Sir. Prior to LC’s arrival, it was Sir’s job to keep all the females in line by beating the shit out of them at every opportunity.

Strangely enough, he gets along famously with LC. They play together, and even when she attacks his tail as he strolls past her, he just gives her a look as if to say, “OK. Since it’s you, I’ll let it slide.” They seem to be our most intelligent cats. In fact, my wife insists that they’re not cats at all, but some highly intelligent beings sent here to straighten us out.

Today, LC got out. It was an unseasonably warm day and we were in and out of the house many times. During one of those excursions, she slipped out with us.

I noticed her playing in the back yard, then got involved with a chore and lost track of her. Then I noticed something move on the roof. LC. She had apparently climbed the apple tree next to our front deck and jumped to the roof. We’ve had the same problem with all our other cats. They get up there, then can’t get back down.

I went to the basement, got the ladder and went to the back deck. With a 6-foot ladder I can get high enough to entice a cat to the edge, then reach up and grab it. I’ve done it several other times.

As I reached the top of the ladder, I noticed the apple tree moving. I came down off the ladder and peeked around the side of the house.

There was Sir, leading LC back down the apple tree. Yep. They’re smarter than we give them credit for, and possibly smarter than we are.



Thursday, December 22, 2005

It's Fish Tank Day

Today was fish tank day. That means I drain about 5 gallons of water out of the 55-gallon tank, scrub down the inside tank walls, clean the gravel, clean the outside filter and change the cartridges if needed, then water the house plants with the dirty water and refill the tank with fresh H2O.

Normally a 30-45 minute job with no hassles. Plus it’s kind of relaxing – nothing requiring deep thought or concentration.

After all the steps listed above were completed today, I was left with about ½ gallon of extra water. Normally, that gets thrown off the deck into the back yard, and the plastic buckets are stored outside until the following week.

This afternoon, instead of picking the pail up by its handle, I grabbed the bucket's rim and lifted it off the floor. The next word out of my mouth was, “MOTHERFUCKER,” as the rim broke, the bucket dropped and water poured over the living room’s parquet and white oak floor.

Four old bath towels and much cussing later, the floor was no longer flooded. There’s still a fine sheen of moisture over a 6-foot square area, but heat and air should dry that up in about an hour.

So much for my weekly Zen experience. Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Happy New Year and have a big bang on the 4th.



Friday, December 16, 2005

Dispatchers Strike Again

An ice storm has moved through the South, so it seems like a good day for another post. In keeping with the “lost” theme, today we’re going to the Bronx.

After picking up pasta north of Des Moines, IA, I headed east toward the “Big Apple.” Once again, I had “excellent” directions from my dispatcher. They were, verbatim, as follows:


Not knowing if there would be any parking spots near my drop, and not wanting to drive around the Bronx until my 10 am delivery time, I waited until about 7 am to head across the bridge.

I crossed the GW, got off at Webster Avenue and followed it to Fordham Road. As instructed, I took a left on Fordham and started my trek through da Bronx. Block after block and still no Amoco gas station.

I crossed the Deegan Expressway and could see the Hudson River in the distance. I assumed that Fordham would end there. Another obstacle loomed in the closer distance – a low-clearance underpass.

A Hess gas station appeared on my right, so I pulled to the curb, set my brakes, pulled on my flashers, locked my truck and headed inside. I asked the clerk where Arthur Street was.

I assumed that he gave me excellent directions because he went on for about three minutes, complete with hand gestures. You can always tell good directions – they include many gestures and lots of pointing.

They may have been excellent, but I didn’t understand a single word he said. The only thing I got during that three minute monologue was that he kept pointing back in the direction from which I had just come. Not Good.

Luckily Fordham Road, while heavily traveled and congested, is a wide thorofare. Plenty wide enough to swing a 70-foot tractor and trailer around. My mind was racing. I could theoretically swing a U-turn, but there was so damned much traffic.

Fuck it! Let’s go for it. I hit my left turn signal and merged into traffic. Then I inched the nose of my truck into the next lane, blocking all traffic headed East. Amid blaring horns and angry gestures from the New York drivers, I swung the truck across the road and executed a perfect, if not highly illegal U-turn.

Back up Fordham Road. All of a sudden, Fordham disappeared. I was now on E 188th Street. Great!

I pulled into a “BUS ONLY” parking place, pulled on the brakes and flashers once again and headed to a pay phone.

“How do I get to where you are from where I am,” was the gist of my question. “Where the hell are you?” was the reply from the deliveree. “How the fuck did you get there?” followed my answer to his question.

“Man, you should have taken a right on Fordham, not a left. Go to the next light and take a left. Then at the next light, take a right on Fordham. Arthur is only a few blocks from there.”

Sure enough, once I crossed Webster Avenue, there was Arthur Street. Had I turned right instead of left on Fordham, I would have been there in 5 minutes, not the hour it actually took.

Dispatchers strike again!



Friday, December 09, 2005

Just Plain Lost

While I was driving, I spent a good portion of my time lost. Dispatcher directions are not the best in the world. That’s probably because none of them can read a map.

I’ve been lost in LA, lost in Chicago, lost in the Bronx, lost in Laredo. You name a city that I drove to, and I’ve probably been lost in it.

Chicago can be a real bitch for a truck driver. Heavy traffic, narrow streets and the fact that it has countless low overpasses add up to driving nightmares.

In October, 2002, I got a two-drop load from Massachusetts to Illinois. I had three sets of directions to this place, a specialty foods retail outlet in Downers Grove, IL, west of Chicago. One set of directions came from my office, one set came from a driver at my pickup location in Taunton and one was gleaned by yours truly from my Atlas. The set from the other driver contained too many toll roads, so I held them for an emergency. The set that I got from my Atlas looked too simple, given the complexity of the other two. I went with my office directions.

My directions took me north on I-55 to its junction with I-90/94 north. I was to get off at exit 50 onto Ogden Avenue, west – the street my drop was on. I was to follow Ogden Avenue 4½ miles and the store would be in a little strip mall on the right. The mileage total was right at 60 miles.

I followed the directions, missing only one turn which cost me about ten miles. I found exit 50, got off onto Ogden Avenue and into a pretty run-down neighborhood just west of downtown Chicago. About three miles after I left the interstate, I encountered something Chicago and Boston are both famous for in the trucking world – a low-clearance underpass. It was 13 feet on one side and 12 ½ feet on the other. My truck was 13’6” tall.

I pulled to the curb, set my brakes, definitely locked my doors and headed to a Burger King across the street. Normally, fast food workers are not the best at giving directions – or even knowing where they are at any given moment - but I lucked out. A Cook County Sheriff’s Deputy was standing in line. I apologized for bothering him while he was on break, and asked him where Downers Grove was. “Let’s see,” he said. “From here you’re about 25 miles from there. You drivin’ that semi?” I assured him that I was indeed driving that red monster. “You’ll never get under that bridge,” he informed me.

“Yeah, I realize that. How do I get to Downers Grove if I can’t go that way,” I asked? “You got me, man. You better call and find out.”

Great idea, but I did not have their number and they weren’t listed in the Chicago book. I was just preparing to go back to my truck, release the brakes and lay down under the trailer tandems, when a black man coming out of the burger joint asked, “Where ya lookin’ to get to, driver?” I told him. “Shit – take a right at this light, go to 31st Street and hook a right, go to California Avenue and take a left – there’s a sign for 55. That’ll put you on 55 south. Go to Route 83 north – it’ll take you right into Downers Grove.”

I should have figured that. Those were the directions I had taken from my Atlas, and would have saved me 40 miles and a ton of aggravation. I followed his directions, sort of. Someone had removed the sign for I-55 at the intersection of 31st and California. I couldn’t see the street sign until it was too late to make my turn, so I headed further down 31st to find a place to turn around.

All the side streets were too narrow for me to loop around with right or left turns, so I kept going. Needless to say, that was not where I wanted to be. I passed through a large
Hispanic/Asian neighborhood and ended up at Cicero Avenue. To my right was a large vacant, gravel lot, used as a flea market/farm market during the warmer months. That day, it was vacant.

I made a right onto Cicero and swung into the lot. There was plenty of room to turn around, but getting back out onto Cicero and into the left turn lane was a bitch. Chicago has almost as many drivers as LA.

I finally got out into traffic, made my turn, found California Avenue, I-55, I-83 and Ogden Avenue in Downers Grove.

I located the drop, and pulled behind their strip mall. I was two hours late and expected to get some shit about it, but everyone was cool. A young fellow came out through the back door with a hand-operated pallet jack, and we proceeded to unload half my trailer – about 10,000 pounds. When we finished, I reaffirmed my directions to their Glenview location, and hit the road.

About five blocks down the street, just before I was to get back on highway 83, my truck lurched and I heard a loud “whooshing” sound. An air-line on my trailer had blown, locking down one set of trailer wheels. I pulled slowly into a parking lot, located the line that was leaking by the sound of escaping air, shut the air off to my trailer brakes and messaged road service.

Four hours later I was back on the road, already four hours late for my delivery, with an hour’s drive ahead of me. It took about five minutes to repair the air line, but the service man had gotten lost. It must be something about Chicago.

I arrived at the second drop at 2330, expecting to pull behind their store and sleep until they arrived the next morning. Believe it or not they were waiting for me. It seemed road service had called them, and after explaining my plight, they had agreed to wait until midnight for me, “but not a minute later.” We had the other 10,000 pounds of foodstuffs off-loaded by 0030, and I was on my way back to our drop yard. It turned out to be a 23-hour day, but my log only showed 8¼ hours of it. I made it to the bunk and don’t even remember hitting the pillow.

Next up – Lost in da Bronx. Stay tuned.


Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Still Lost in East LA

Why is it that chicken plants have the smallest loading docks in the world? I’d been to several chicken suppliers in the past (I was driving a for a refrigerated carrier) and every single one of them had been the tightest docks I’d ever seen.

The first drop on this load was located off an alley in East LA. That section of the City does not have the best reputation in the world. Remember Cheech Marin’s song, “Born in East LA?”

I found the street and turned into the alley that housed the warehouse. Four other trucks were parked on the narrow street.

I went into the office, checked in with the Hispanic dock workers and went back outside since I was told, “It will be long time we get to you.”

Naturally, I was facing in the wrong direction. If I tried to get into the dock from where my truck was parked, it would be a blindside backing maneuver, not good even where you have enough room. I went down a few blocks and circled around so that I was facing the right way.

About two hours later, after about five attempts getting into their dock, I was unloaded and on my way to drop number 2.

Following directions from the first stop, I crossed 4th Street, went up to the first stop sign, turned right and then right again at the next street. Sure enough, it was Utah Street. I cruised down slowly, but all I saw were two abandoned apartment houses on the left and some single-family dwellings on the right. None had the street number that I needed.

I went around the block. My directions said Utah Street, but they also mentioned Second Street. As I crept down the street behind Utah, I spotted Second and started to pull in. “No”, I thought luckily, “let’s see what’s down there first.” It was a dead-end alley! There was an empty and gated parking lot, but nothing that looked like a warehouse. It was almost midnight and I couldn’t see shit in the dark.

Back onto Utah Street – park – go to sleep and see what the situation looks like in the morning light. At 0530, I arose and cruised around the block again. I found a warehouse with an open door and a refrigerated truck sitting outside. That might be the place. “No,” said the Vietnamese man inside. “It around corner behind toy store.”

Back to where I was the night before. I got to Second Street, parked the truck and walked down the dead-end alley again. Now, instead of being empty, the small parking lot had a BMW and a Honda parked in it. There was also an open doorway. It had the Utah Street address that I was looking for. But, that wasn’t Utah Street. For some reason they didn’t use the Utah side of the building, just the back half on the alley.

I squeezed my rig into that small lot. Then I helped a very nice Mexican man unload 15,000 pounds of chicken and left. They did help me out by opening a gate so that I could pull straight out onto another side street. Otherwise, I’d probably still be there.

The third drop on that load was a ball-buster, too. The directions to Garden Grove were fine until I got off the Freeway. They directed me to follow Euclid Street past the intersection of Westminster. The Vietnamese Trading Company would be on the right.

When I passed Westminster, all I saw was a car wash and then a row of houses on the right. Well, maybe they meant on the left. I made a U-turn. Nope - nothing but houses and apartments. I knew some of these little businesses could operate out of almost any structure, but these people were getting 4,000 pounds of chicken. The place had to be larger than an apartment.

After three more illegal U-turns, going up and down Euclid Street, I spotted a local cop. I pulled over into the slow lane, put on my flashers, set my brake and got out to ask directions.

He was not very helpful. He did tell me I was in the right area, judging by the street address, but he had never heard of the company. Since I was already illegally parked and the cop didn’t seem to mind, I ran over to a pay phone and called the customer.

In very broken English, she told me to go south to a business park and then take quite a few turns. I couldn’t understand which way to turn, but at least I would be closer and maybe could get help from some of their business neighbors.

I pulled into the business center, and it was a combination shopping center, business park and storage unit facility with very narrow, curving streets. I parked the truck in a tow-away zone. I figured that by the time they got something big enough to tow an 80,000-pound semi out of there, I’d be back. I wandered around on foot until I found an Asian man on a forklift moving produce into one of the larger storage units. He pointed me right to where I needed to be. Of course, with the narrow, curving streets it was a bitch getting the truck in. I also had to block a street while they unloaded me, but no one seemed to care.

After I was unloaded, I headed to our terminal in Mira Loma to wash the stale chicken blood and the foul stench that it produced out of my trailer. Then I sat and waited for my next load.

I had several more trips to Southern California in general and LA in particular, but none were as confusing as that one.

More later,


Friday, December 02, 2005

California - Here I Come

California. What a great place to send a newbie driver – especially on one of his first trips. I had been there twice before with my trainers, but this was a solo experience.

I picked up a load of chicken in Kentucky and headed to LA. There were three drops on this load, two in LA and one in Garden Grove which is south of LA, on the way to San Diego. My first drop was on Sunday night, the second early Monday morning and the third on Monday afternoon.

I-40 to I-15 then onto I-10 to I-5 to exit 4. Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? But traffic into LA on a Sunday evening is not an experience that I want to repeat any time soon. Six lanes heading west, all packed with speeding vehicles. Plus, someone had removed the sign signaling the entrance to I-5. I happened to guess where it should have been, but was headed in the wrong direction.

I realized there was a problem when a sign sprang up in front of me that read, “Wilsher Boulevard – Next Right.” That and the facts that three more lanes were merging in from the San Bernadino Freeway, there was a three-lane exit ahead and I was surrounded by what appeared to be downtown Los Angeles.

It was panic time! I slid my truck into the “V” between the Freeway I was on and the exit ramp, pulled on my flashers and set the brakes. With three lanes of fast-moving exit traffic on my right and the six-lane freeway on my left, I realized that even if I discovered a route to my delivery point, there was no way to get out of my “safe harbor” without killing someone.

My immediate solution was to light up a cigarette. “When in doubt, smoke.” I checked my Atlas, but the city map for LA was rather sketchy, so I had no real clue where my exit was in relation to my position. I tried my CB, but I had seen no other trucks since stopping – another indication that I was probably somewhere that I shouldn’t be.

Next, I took some pictures. I figured I wouldn’t be back there again so I might as well immortalize the moment. Then I had another smoke, thinking about Cris Rea’s late 1980’s song, “The Road to Hell.” One line in particular kept running through my mind:

“On your journey ‘cross the wilderness
from the desert to the well
you have strayed upon the motorway to hell.”

In my mind, the wilderness was Oklahoma, the desert was Arizona and the well was the Pacific Ocean. It all made perfect sense at the time.

My rationale was, if I sat there long enough a cop would stop. I mean, here sat this 70-foot long tractor-trailer in the middle of a busy Interstate with its flashers on and its driver chain-smoking cigarettes and looking bewildered. Somebody had to notice.

So I sat – and smoked – and smoked – and cussed – and sat some more. And smoked some more. And cussed a whole lot more. Nothing! I ended up sitting there for about two hours chain-smoking and cussing watching sheriff’s cars go by.

At about 2000 hours, I glanced in my mirror just in time to see an LAPD car slip in behind my truck with its flashing lights on. Since I was very close to the road on the driver’s side, I slid over to the right-hand seat and rolled down my window. A cop was actually coming up beside my truck and his ticket book was not in his hand. Maybe I wouldn’t get a littering citation for the pile of cigarette butts beside my truck or for being an eyesore on the chic LA landscape.

“What’s the problem,” he said when he reached my window.

“Well,” I said, “At first my problem was that I was lost. Now it’s not only that I’m lost, but also I couldn’t get out of here even if I knew where I was going. If I pull out to the right, I’ll lose sight of traffic and probably kill somebody when they run under my truck at 70 miles an hour. If I pull out to the left I’ll probably kill myself because there hasn’t been a break in that traffic for two hours.”

“OK”’ he said. “Let’s start by getting you unlost. Where is it you need to go?” I told him. “You didn’t miss it by much. Your turnoff is only about a mile from here. The problem is to get there you need to be going the other way.”

He proceeded to give me directions on where to turn around at an exit about three miles down the road. “Thanks”, I said. “Now, how do I get there without killing a dozen motorists?”

The next thing I knew, he was on his shoulder microphone. “Escort - what’s your 20? OK. I need you to slow traffic up here so I can get a big-rig back on the road. How long ‘till you can get here?” Then to me he said, “Be an officer here to assist in about three minutes. I’m going back by my car and wait. When you see my flashlight shine in your driver-side mirror, haul it out of here.”

Within three or four minutes, I saw his flashlight reflect in my mirrors. I looked in my right-side mirror and to my delight and amazement, there was nothing - no traffic at all. Those two cops had completely stopped traffic on a busy section of LA freeway, and I was outta there – fast.

Believe it or not, I was still early for my appointment. But the adventure had just begun.

More on the LA saga soon.