Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Hundred billion bottles, washed up on the shore

I spent the last 6 days driving on the road alone, as a real trucker. No instructor, no road trainer, no co-driver. Just me.

This is the truck I'm driving:

It's a 2010 Freightliner Century Class, and like most Freightliners, she's a pretty bare-bones truck. She has a small engine and isn't the smoothest ride. Every crack or bump in the road makes the cab rattle and shake, and going over railroad tracks is like being inside a 9-ton maraca. I do wonder sometimes if a bad pothole will bring the ol' gal down. But she turns really well and has a fairly forgiving clutch. When I first got her, I had it in my mind to call her "Black Beauty," but now that I've driven her a couple thousand miles, I'm just thinking that the old gray mare just ain't what she used to be. But she gets the job done, I suppose. She and I delivered huge rolls of paper and also big loads of general retail merchandise.

Anyway, while driving the Old Gray Mare this past week, I ran into a number of very sticky situations, including but not limited to being 22 hours late for a delivery, mistakenly pulling onto a road forbidden to trucks, losing my momentum and coming to a dead stop three times while pulling a heavy load up a hillbilly mountain road, almost fading my brakes while coming down the same mountain road (because I couldn't see the extent of the upgrade or downgrade of said mountain in the total darkness of night), backing into a telephone pole and denting my drive axle bumper, being forced to go over my hours-of-service limit due to mechanical issues with my trailer release handle, being led into dangerous situations and to wrong locations by the truck's built-in navigation system, having Officer Not-So-Friendly flat out refuse to help me, and running out of weekly hours and having to take a 34-hour break at a truck stop. All things that a good trucker should never let happen.

Nice job, Nostril Queen.

All of these problems were in addition to the everyday obstacles and stressors I and all drivers face, such as snow, ice, construction, traffic jams, loading docks from hell, 11th-hour delivery rescheduling, burdensome paperwork, and the daily dirt and grease inherent in managing a big beast of a truck.

The sad part is that all of my particularly bad situations came up at night when no one competent at my trucking company (let's call it "Safety Cone Trucking Company") was available to get my S.O.S. Now, Safety Cone told me a million times that should I ever get into any trouble or have any questions, to call them right away. And what happened when I phoned them with distress signals 3 times this past week? I was greeted by an automated voice that wasted 15-20 minutes of precious time directing me to press 2 for this, press 9 for that, and to please hold because all representatives were currently assisting other callers. Then I was on hold for another 20 minutes until finally someone picked up. I explained the situation, but they didn't know what to do, so they transferred me to the manager. I was on hold again for several minutes. The manager said it wasn't his job to solve my problem, so he transferred me to someone else. I was on hold again. Someone else picked up the phone. I explained my situation a third time. They said it wasn't their job to help me, then transferred me back to dispatch. I was on hold again. I looked at the call timer on my phone and saw I'd been on the phone for a full half hour and had gotten absolutely nowhere. I was still in my urgent situation, holding up traffic, parked in a dangerous place, lost, couldn't get turned around, or whatever, and I was nervous and scared and had exhausted all my other options and didn't know what else to do. I was transferred twice more, forced to explain my situation yet again, I expressed my frustration over being transferred so many times, the person apologized but said they couldn't help me unless they transferred me, and then I was transferred back to the original number I called to begin with, and then the call was dropped. Either the connection was lost or they hung up on me, and I'd just wasted an entire hour, which could have instead been spent getting out of the bad situation I was calling for help with.

That's what it's like to call the Safety Cone Trucking Company emergency help line. You might as well be calling your cell phone company for all the runaround and fucking apathetic corporate bullshit you get.

It's just really frightening, is all. To be out in Bumfuck, Nowhere, in the middle of the night at the helm of an 80,000-lb truck, with no experience and little training, where you can only go down certain roads and during certain hours, and you can't just back up, turn around, or back-track if you make a wrong turn. Where there are so many more laws, rules, and restrictions, and one little mistake can go on your permanent driving record, cost you your license, cause millions of dollars of damage, or kill someone. And to have all of this on your shoulders and to realize that your employer doesn't have a decent 24-hour support system for drivers who need assistance. If you need help at night, you're on your own, bud.

Thanks, Safety Cone.

So I guess the moral of the story is, don't drive at night when your manager isn't available to help you. Or when your manager has a day off. Or is on vacation. Or is in a meeting. Or is out to lunch.

It was seriously one of the worst weeks of my life. It may have even surpassed my first few weeks of grad school in horribleness, if you can imagine that.

And let's be clear: I didn't sign up to be a trucker because I had any delusions about it being a glamorous or romantic job. I knew it would be hard, filthy work, I knew I wouldn't get rich from it, and I didn't think I'd get to see any touristy places. I signed up for it because I was desperately broke and it was the only full-time job I could find. I signed up because I had no other options. And I have to stick with it now, because I'm still desperately broke and there are still no other jobs and I still have no other options.

But I had hoped that it would be okay, at least. Like, tolerable. Everything went so well in trucking school, and during advanced driver training, and when I was out making deliveries with my road trainer for a week. But once I was on my own, man, the shit really hit the fan. The shit hit the fan and spat all across the house and shattered windows and blinded several people and knocked the dog unconscious.

I don't feel that my training prepared me very well at all for the things I've encountered on the road. We never went over 90-degree backing in school, for one, or night driving, or decision-making, or proper planning for rest stops, for example. And these are the things that are giving me the most problems.

Judging from this first nightmarish week, trucking is definitely the most dangerous, stressful, mind-numbing job I've ever had. I completely understand now why most truckers look like death warmed over--why they look stringy and weathered, with bags under their eyes and their faces pinched in agony, and they sound irritated and grumpy and mean. That's how I've looked and felt and sounded this past week. And why wouldn't we look and feel and sound that way, when we have one of the worst jobs out there and our companies ignore our calls for help, but there are no other jobs and we have bills to pay? Life gets real ugly real fast when you're trapped with no options.

This week from hell was exacerbated by the fact that two days before I went on the road, I finally had some of my worst teeth taken care of. And by "taken care of," I mean "pulled out," because I couldn't afford, and never will be able to afford, root canals, which are $2,500 per tooth (and extractions are less than $200). So my face was grotesquely swollen my entire first week of trucking--while I was signing in at loading docks and dealing with security guards and yard jockeys. I was (and still am) in a lot of physical pain. Ibuprofen is my new candy, foo'.

 My maxillofacial swelling brings all the boys to the yard.

I'll probably have two more pulled soon, and that sucks, because then I won't have any teeth left on the upper left side of my mouth. When I smile, people will be able to see that I'm missing several teeth. It's like that bad dream that everyone has where their teeth are loose, breaking apart, falling out, or being pulled out. Except that for me, it's not a dream, but reality. 

Tooth #29 and #15, post-exploratory drilling.
Periodontal ligaments still attached.

When I shake them in my hand like Yahtzee dice, they sound like glass beads clinking together.

I've always wanted a great smile, and I've put a lot of effort and expense into achieving that over the years, but I just can't win. I've kept my teeth clean, I've gone to the dentist for regular cleanings, checkups, and x-rays, I've whitened my teeth, I've had braces, and still I'm losing teeth left and right. Several of my relatives on my mom's side are missing teeth, because they're poor too, and here I am, going on 31 this summer, and by then 8 of my 32 adult teeth will be missing. But maybe then I'll qualify for the state's "free dentures" program. Yay...?


I don't really even care anymore. It seems like the more I try to fix the problems in my life, and the harder I try to improve my situation and plan good things for my future, I take one step forward and three steps back. Why even bother anymore, you know? Why bother trying to look nice, or make money, or build better friendships, or do anything good in the world? All efforts will be undone almost immediately by more powerful and destructive forces. Everything is so fucking pointless.

I used to be so motivated and optimistic, and now I just...kind of wish I was an alcoholic.

This thorn in my side
This thorn in my side is from the tree
This thorn in my side is from the tree I planted