Once Upon a Time Part One - And Safely Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire Part Two
If truck driving was a fairytale and drivers valiant princes, wise kings, industrious dwarfs, handsome woodsmen or hunters, beautiful princesses and even a few regal queens, The Bronx, New York would be the deep, dark woods, the place where lost children hopelessly wander only to be eaten by wicked witches, where hideous minions of the dark stump about like soulless zombies in a twilight world, where the sun's warmth cannot penetrate the dense canopy of trees.
After a few days off, my first since I left for Lisa Motor Lines in early March, I was concerned about how soon I would get a load call that would put me on the road again. Truckers don't make money if the wheels aren't turning, so we are always waiting for that message over the Qualcomm telling us we're 'under load' once again.
I was surprised when I received a phone call instead of a Qualcomm message. The dispatcher, one in Fort Worth I had not met, sounded a little desperate; wanted to know exactly where I was, did I already have a load and how soon could I be ready to go. Her urgency excited me, so I assured her I was all set to take on the load.
Upside: the load was currently heading my way from Illinois, the driver could not take the load all the way to its destination, so I would 're-power' the load meaning I would take it off his hands and to its final destination. Hooray for the home team!
Downside: the load had to go to The Bronx, New York! As much as I like driving and New York City, I've never wanted to mix the two! The only vehicle I want to ride in is a limo through Central Park on its way to The Plaza Hotel!
During Lisa's orientation I sat through a safety lecture designed to elicit proper comportment from its drivers. The Bronx was used as a cudgel, like "...or you'll go to the Bronx," or, "...this could happen to you if you ever go to The Bronx." I was waiting for "...and your nose will grow" or "...the zombies will pluck your eyes out," or, "you'll grow hair all over your body and howl at the moon." Each threat ended with "if you go to The Bronx."
In reality the threat was a little more down to earth, but no more comforting. "The biggest problem you'll face in The Bronx is getting lost," our Safety Officer said. "It's no big deal if you get lost. Just call 911," (Really? You call 911? You don't just call Triple A?). "It's no big deal," he said, but repeated, "just call 911." Then another show-stopper: "and watch out for low bridges. New York has lots of low bridges. You don't want to hit a low bridge. It would be...bad," then added "Call 911 - and stay in your truck."
I was supposed to be at my destination by 7:00 a.m. At 5:00 I arrived at my final fuel stop before driving into New York. "How long does it take to drive to The Bronx from here?" I asked the woman at the fuel desk inside the truck stop.
"You want any cash?" she asked. I told her 'no' and she closed out my bill. "A couple of hours," she said. I told her I needed to be there by 7:00 and she said, "You'll never make it - traffic."
I called Lisa's dispatch office to advise I might be late. I confessed I was pretty nervous about driving into The Bronx and the young woman on the other end of the phone said, "Why does everybody make such a big deal about driving into The Bronx? It's no big deal!"
"Really?" I said.
"Really!" she assured. "Just keep your doors locked, don't open them for anybody and keep your windows rolled up. Don't stop. If anybody climbs up on your truck ignore them. Don't talk to them and don't role down your windows. You'll be fine!"
"Yeah!" she continued. "My dad used to drive down there."
"Oh, okay," I said feeling a little relief.
"Yeah. He was robbed once and stabbed twice." (I am not making this up!) She said this so calmly she could have been polishing her fingernails at the same time.
"Yeah, in the leg. He shouldn't have opened the door! But that was a long time ago. I'm sure it's changed. You'll be fine. Just don't open your doors for anybody."
To be continued...
SAFELY OUT OF THE FRYING PAN AND INTO THE FIRE
Just follow the directions. Get on the New Jersey Turnpike to the 'GWB'..." my dispatcher said.
Suddenly I received one of those 'Will Robinson/Lost In Space' kind of a warnings: DANGER! DANGER! TURNPIKE AHEAD!"
"Yeah," she said. "The Jersey Turnpike."
Turnpikes mean tolls and tolls mean cash. I had about fifty bucks with me, that was all. I never thought about needing cash. "I only have about $50.00 with me," I said.
Long silence. "Oh, you'll probably be all right. You have plenty for the Jersey Turnpike, probably enough for the GWB."
"The bridge? That's a toll road, too? Does it take IPASS? (the automatic toll payment gizmo on the windshield where you don't have to pay cash, you just drive thru).
"No," she said. "but you should have enough money," and added, "I think." Then she said, "I gotta go. Good luck out there and be safe!" Abandonment never sounded so cheery!
Be safe, fat chance! I thought of the woman at the fuel desk, the one who asked me if I needed cash. I went back inside. "Can I get that cash after all?" I asked.
"Not for two hours," she said. "It's for your own protection." I didn't have two hours to spare waiting around for more cash. This whole 'for-my-protection' thing was shaping up to be my undoing!
A subtext was chattering in my brain as I drove north: 'how bad could it be?-what if I don't have enough money for the bridge, what are they going to do, throw me off?- Call 911, borrow another fifty bucks from a cop-RIGHT!-don't open the doors-watch out for the low bridges, why am I here?-I'm not a trucker!"
I hung on to the steering wheel like it was a life preserver and navigated the last few miles of the Jersey Turnpike still working on my plan of attack; pathos, I thought. I had a full set of directions (personally hand written) pinched between my forefinger and thumb. With every new maneuver I read the direction aloud so that my brain was certain my body had heard and understood.
Then I saw my salvation, albeit momentary: IPASS! I crossed the bridge like I had a "Get Out of Jail Free" card and was now safely out of the frying pan and descending rapidly into the fire!
Crossing the George Washington Bridge was surreal. With New York's lights as the backdrop and the lights of the bridge lofting into the darkness I couldn't tell if I was entering the Emerald City or Dante's Inferno. I maneuvered through traffic and negotiated turns not designed for a huge truck and trailer. I dropped off highway into the underworld of The Bronx. Beneath me was pavement pitted and scarred so badly my truck bucked like a rank horse, above me a low ceiling of cement highway roofed in my nearly fourteen-foot tall trailer. It felt like a fun house ride gone bad. "Turn here - stay left at the 'Y' - stay right - stay left!'
The roof got lower and lower, the traffic around me more intense, more aggressive. People darted across busy streets, a man washed windshields unasked and there was a constant clamor coming from all sides. Then a sign leaped out of the darkness "CLEARANCE 10' 6". My stomach knotted as my eyes raced over the directions, "bear right at low clearance sign." I swerved and was into a new area where the ceiling lifted enough for me to get through.
It appeared before me, my 'left turn,' the one that would take me out from under the highway. But the directions failed to say, "an impossibly tight left turn around a cement pilaster in the right of way waiting to rip the aluminum skin off the side of your trailer like it is living flesh."
I got the green arrow and pulled my truck into the intersection. The green light went instantly yellow. I couldn't stop now! I had to keep going! The light went red and there was a symphony of car horns! A black BMW pulled in front of my bumper menacingly. My trailer drifted closer and closer to the pillar. I'd never get through the intersection, not unless I drove like - a New Yorker!
I pulled the nose of my truck toward the black sedan. I needed that space if I was going to get around the corner. Besides, I was driving a truck, a big truck that I didn't even own. What was he going to do? The car honked and honked the closer I got. The guy was yelling and waving at me, but I kept creeping forward. I needed that space! Desperately the guy swerved around the grill of my truck to avoid being hit and was gone. I pulled into his space and my trailer cleared the post by less than an inch. By now the light was in my favor again and I pulled through the intersection and into a street that opened to the sky above.
I was hardly home free, but after my trials getting there, encountering New York 'friendliness' didn't phase me a bit. I scraped up enough money to pay the lumpers, got my paperwork signed and back into its envelope, gulped a bowl of cereal aboard my truck while the lumpers unloaded my trailer and then I GOT OUT OF THERE!
My departure from The Bronx was easier since I was continuing on to Boston. 'Boston,' I thought. 'How bad could that be?' But that's another story for another day.
And if there were such a fantasy place of werewolves and woodsmen, kings and queens, dwarves and witches, there would also be a Medal of Honor, the highest honor in the land. Truck air horns crossed over a cobalt blue field of tire tracks rampant with oilcan clusters and five lug nuts in gold and silver - and I would be wearing it, a memento from my adventures in The Bronx.
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