Sunday, January 14, 2007

Work, Work, Stop

I’ve had a lot of jobs in my life.

At 13, I started working as a clerk in a small family-run deli and food market in Wilkinsburg, PA. By the time I left, at 22 I was the manager, opening and closing the store when the owners went on vacation or for weekend trips. During the school year, I worked nights and weekends and during the summers I worked whenever they needed me.

When I began college I got a real, full-time job at the Gas Company where my father worked for his entire adult life. I was what was then called a “casual laborer.” There was nothing “casual” about it.

I was sent out with repair crews to replaced broken or leaking gas supply pipes. My primary job was to dig up the pipes, watch while they were repaired, then back-fill the holes or ditches. Since another one of my responsibilities was to retrieve tools and supplies from the truck, one of the first things I learned was that the distance from the tip of my outstretched pinky finger to the tip of my thumb was 8 ½ inches. That way I could use my hand to gauge the length of short sections of pipe.

My hours were 7 am to 4 pm Monday to Friday at the Gas Company. Then I’d rush home, shower, eat dinner and head to the deli three nights a week. On Saturdays I worked 11 to 7 at the deli and on Sundays I slept. The Gas Company job paid my college tuition and the deli job paid for fun – when I had time for it.

My first job as a real grown-up was at a small radio station in Geneva, New York, in the Finger Lakes region. I was the night DJ, working from 7 pm to sign-off at 12:30 am during one of the most exciting eras in popular music, the mid – 1960’s. I was WGVA’s Nighthawk until 1967.

Since I had a young family, I needed to make more money than a small-town radio station was able to afford. This was well before the age of home computers, so I took my resume to a local printer who also published a weekly newspaper in Seneca Falls, NY. He took one look at my education and work history and offered me a job as manager of the local Chamber of Commerce, a one-man and part-time secretary operation. The money and hours were better, so I changed careers.

By 1969, I actually knew what I was doing in the job and decided that it was time for another change. As the old saying goes, “money talks and bullshit walks,” and I was off to Niagara Falls, NY as Public Relations manager of their C of C. With a great salary, an expense account and a company vehicle it was the best job I’ve ever had. But all good things must come to an end, this one far more quickly that I had hoped for.

In early 1970, the city council voted to cut its Chamber of Commerce subsidy. My job was part of that arrangement and I started looking for a replacement job before I was laid off. Thus, I found one of the worst jobs I’ve ever had. I moved to Binghamton, NY and took a job as Public Relations Director with the Broome County Chamber. The job wasn’t that terrible, but the Executive Vice President who I worked for was a giant asshole. At five feet, five inches tall he was the personification of the “Napoleon complex,” a loud mouthed bully who was never wrong and whose decisions were never to be questioned. After my first wife and I split he fired me because, according to him, he had hired a family man and I no longer fit that description.

So, a series of part-time, flunky jobs followed augmented by a lot of alcoholic consumption. Finally, I got a job through an employment agency as a manager trainee for McDonald’s hamburger chain in Rahway, NJ. It was actually a pretty decent career. The money and benefits were great, but the hours sucked. I stayed in restaurant management until 1988, moving from McDonald’s in NJ to a barbeque start-up in Asheville, NC, a Big Boy restaurant franchise and a seafood restaurant. Then came a brief stint as a cookie salesman and it was back into the food business. I worked as an assistant manager at a theme-restaurant chain in the local shopping mall, then manager of a Mexican restaurant and back to the theme restaurant as the kitchen manager.

In 1985, the manager and I both quit our mall jobs and opened our own place, the Jersey Shore Deli, a 40-seat place north of Asheville. We featured live music on week-ends and business was great! We lasted about a year until my partner snorted up out of business, using the cash register as his own personal bank for buying his coke.

The following two years were split between management jobs at a chicken franchise and a truck stop restaurant. After pulling one too many double shifts in the truck stop kitchen, I left the business for good.

For the next 12 years I worked as a route salesman for three sandwich companies, selling and delivering our products to convenience stores in North and South Carolina. For the final three years of that career, I was a supervisor, supposedly overseeing route operations, but really just running vacation routes and others where a salesman had quit.

Following hip-replacement surgery in 2001, my rheumatoid arthritis became too painful for me to continue a physically demanding job, so I switched careers again. In January, 2002, I attended truck driving school and spent the next two years navigating the country at the wheel of an 18-wheeler, traveling through 47 states and logging over 215,000 miles.

After a freak accident at home, I was forced to go on disability, where I remain. So, after 50 years of hard work, I end up being supported by Uncle Sam. C’est la vie.



Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Shut Down

We had snow yesterday. Not much – about an inch – but it wreaked havoc.

Denver, CO was closed down for days because of snow several weeks ago. But they had several feet of the white stuff. Asheville got 1”. Our local news reported over 200 accidents including 4 school bus incidents. Today, most of the local schools are closed, the rest on 2-hour delays.

I grew up in Pittsburgh, then lived for another 10 years in upstate New York and New Jersey. Snow? Fuck it – just another day. You shoveled it, drove in it and played in it. I don’t remember a single “snow day” while I was in school.

In the south – and this isn’t even the deep south – everyone races to the super market when there’s even a hint of snow in the forecast. The store shelves are cleared of bread and milk in minutes. Once the snow hits – if it hits – people hole up in their homes like hermits. Schools close, businesses shut down and the area goes into hibernation.

Several years ago, all the weather prognosticators were calling for a major snowfall. They showed charts and graphs of the storm heading this way from the most dangerous of locations – the Gulf of Mexico. They promised that the snowfall would hit overnight and be measured in feet, not inches.

All the school systems the area cancelled classes before a single flake hit the ground. Super markets sold out of all the food staples in hours. When the sun came up the morning of the promised storm – nothing! The front had bypassed up and left us with a warm, sunny day.

We do have the other extreme though.

Those hearty souls with 4-wheel drive vehicles come out of the woodwork to play in the snow. The problem is most of them don’t have a clue what they’re doing. They believe that 4-wheel drive will not only let them go in the snow, but that it will help them stop too. Don’t even ask how that works out. They also think that their 4-wheelers will go on ice.

It’s great to live in the south.



Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Wind and Fire

The Santa Ana winds are kickin’ up again in California. On the news this morning there was film of several multi-million dollar home going up in flames.

In January of 2003, I was headed from LA to Yuma, Arizona. My trip took me down I-5 to San Diego where I connected with I-8 for the trip east. The whole way south on the 5, forest fires whipped by the Santa Ana winds had firefighters and forestry workers stretched to their limits. Fire trucks lined the road’s shoulders. Smoke and flames were all I could see along the roadside.

As I got closer to San Diego, less smoke blackened the sky, but the winds were still strong. I found my connection with I-8 and started east.

Just east of San Diego a flashing sign informed me:


About ten miles further down the road at the exit for Alpine, CA, orange cones cut the Interstate down to one lane. A larger sign flashed:


A CHiP officer was in the middle of the roadway directing all trucks, vans and campers off the highway. Another ChiP was blocking the re-entry ramp so that no one got the bright idea to make a run for it. At the top of the ramp was a small, dirt parking area with about five other trucks parked in it. I joined the group just in time, because within 30 minutes the lot was full, and trucks were jockeying for positions along the roadway itself. That filled very quickly, so trucks started parking on the exit ramp. When that filled up back to the Interstate, the ChiP started directing traffic to the north side of the Interstate and into town where parking would really be a nightmare. We even had a TV camera crew out there – “film at 11.”

The bear blocking the interstate ramp was talking to all of us through the driver of a truck at the front of the parking area. He relayed information to the rest of us over his CB radio. The first tidbit was that the winds were sustained at 50 mph, with gusts recorded at over 70. That would roll almost any truck over. They had closed the interstate after several trucks were blown over earlier that morning. He also relayed that we could leave when the cop left – not before.

We sat and blew back and forth with the wind gusts for almost three hours. Then the driver in the lead truck got on his CB. “Hang on drivers. A DOT guy just pulled up and is walking over to my truck. Be back on in a minute.”

What happened next amazed everyone, especially the Highway Patrolman.

“OK guys. The DOT man just wrote out some instructions for us. There’s a two-lane that sits down in the valley and parallels I-8. It’s the long way, but it doesn’t cross the mountain or the bridge like the interstate does, and it beats the shit out of sitting here. You’re supposed to follow me and we’re not to get back on the 8 until the directions tell us to. Make sure everybody’s awake, ‘cause we’re heading out now.”

And head out we did, single file and onto the entrance ramp. The next voice we heard over our radios was the CHiP. “Where the hell you guys on the entrance ramp going?”

The lead driver in our convoy responded. “The DOT man gave us directions around the interstate and told us we could go.” The DOT man broke in with, “That’s right. I told them to follow the two-lane and gave them directions on where to get back on the 8 where it’s safe. Any problems?”

As we pulled onto the interstate, the CHiP and the DOT official were nose-to-nose, having a rather heated discussion. I’m not sure who outranked whom, but I would like to have heard what went on after we left.

We entered the interstate, went about three miles, and got off at the next exit. The two- lane that we traveled for about 20 miles didn’t even show up in my Atlas, but it paralleled the Mexican border through some very small towns. One driver in our convoy commented, “The only reason they let us go and sent us this way was, if we blow over we won’t block their damned Interstate.”

We drove through Pine Valley, Boulevard, Buckhead Springs and Jacumba, CA on highways 80 and 94. People were actually coming out on their front lawns to watch all these big trucks go by. They probably hadn’t seen any of us down there since the Interstate was built. I can see it now – some enterprising soul seeing all these trucks going past and thinking, “Hey, maybe we could use a truck stop down here.” A Sonic Drive-in and a Wal-Mart wouldn’t be far behind.

After an hour of this adventure, we re-entered the Interstate at Ocotillo and the convoy spread out. We were still the only big trucks on the interstate in either direction, and about ten miles further east, we saw where all the westbound trucks had been stopped, still sitting and waiting.



Friday, January 05, 2007

Black Friday

I know we just had this nation’s flags at half mast in honor of the late Gerald Ford, but I really think they need to be dropped again. Maybe not across the entire country, but at least in the city of Pittsburgh, PA – my hometown.

Bill Cower, 15-year coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, announced his retirement today. He led the team to 10 playoffs during his tenure as coach along with two trips to the Super Bowl. The Steelers’ fifth Super Bowl win came last February with an unspectacular win over the Seattle Seahawks.

Cower was only the second Steeler head coach in over 30 years. I was devastated when Chuck Noll left the job in the early 90’s. I thought nobody could replace him and I was wrong. Who’s next?

Will the Steelers go for an established coach or revert to the strategy that worked for them the last time – hiring an inexperienced man with excellent leadership skills to guide the team? I guess we’ll know soon enough.

Bill Cower – along with the city of Pittsburgh, I wish you the best of luck in the future and say “thank you” for the past 15 years.



Tuesday, January 02, 2007

On the Road

I drove a truck for two years, through 47 states and over 215,000 miles. And before there are any comments in reference to yesterday’s post, I never drank when I was on the road.

The money was decent and there were times I felt like I was being paid to see the country. Actually, I saw every state except South Dakota. I spent a lot of time in California, Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, New York and Pennsylvania.

I now have a much better sense of geography, and understand our country’s Interstate system. I should – I’ve been on most of them. When I see on the news that a major accident happened on a super highway somewhere, I know where it is. Normally, when they mention a small town in Texas, Oklahoma or Arkansas, I’ve been through it. I’ve even been to Evening Shade.

Trucking is a hard job. Sure, you’re sitting down for most of it, but there is a lot of stress involved. Most of that comes from getting lost or being late for a delivery or pickup. The hours are horrendous – 12 to 14 hours a day until you hit your maximum of 80 for the week. And that’s only if you’re honest about your log book – most truckers aren’t. There are a lot of ways to shave your hours, and truckers know all of them.

So, do me a favor – be careful around big trucks. If you’re gonna pass one – do it! Don’t get beside him then chicken out and hang there for 5 miles. Don’t ride on their asses trying to make them go faster. They probably can’t plus they can’t see you.

For the most part, truckers are still good drivers, friendly and courteous. They take their jobs seriously and know the dangers that are inherent to the industry. There are a few assholes out there, but they are the minority.

Basically, just be safe out on the highways. You really don’t want to end up under a trailer.



Monday, January 01, 2007


See – I told you. Ain’t nothin’ different today. Same ol’ shit as yesterday. The only thing that’s changed is the year’s last decimal. Oh yeah – and many of you may still be hung over from last night.

When I was younger I avoided going out on New Year’s Eve because I considered it amateur night. All the people who never drank picked New Year’s Eve to get loaded, normally on three drinks. Then they’d get in their cars and try to drive home.

I figured that with my luck, I’d be the one they’d hit head-on and kill. So, I stayed home. Besides, it was just another day. I had 364 other nights to go out and get drunk and the odds were better that I’d get home without another drunk killing me or getting stopped by the cops.

After I left my first wife, I went hog wild – bought a sports car and partied hardy. The car was a 5-year old MGB. Not the fastest car in the world, but it cornered well and would get up to 115. And it got up to 115 every night on my way home.

One night, or actually early one morning, I had dropped my girlfriend off at her place and headed home. When I hit the main road, I cranked it up to 65, 10 over the speed limit, and settled in. On the way to the interstate entrance the speed limit dropped from 55 to 45 then to 35. Screw it – I was on a roll and kept it at 65 all the way.

About ½ mile from the entrance ramp I saw the flashing red light behind me. I downshifted from 4th to 3rd then into 2nd and pulled onto the ramp’s shoulder. When the cop finally pulled in behind me, I already had my license and registration out. He walked up to my door, took the documents from my outstretched hand and walked back to his cruiser. Not a word was uttered.

A few minutes later he brought back my paperwork, including a speeding ticket, and started back to his car. He went about 5 steps, then turned around and came back to my door. “Wanna know how fast you were going?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said.

“I clocked you at 62.”

Smart-ass that I am, I looked up at him and said, “My speedometer must be off – it read 65.”

He turned, walked back to his cruiser and made a U-turn to go back to his speed trap.

I got on I-81 and cranked that bitch up to 115.