By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 2/21/2020
Topics/Keywords: #18-Wheeler #BigRigs #Schneider #TruckDriver #TruckDriving Page Views: 258
An entry from Alternate Roads: Paul S. Cilwa's Truck Drivin' Journal

Sunday, November 17, 2002

After a gratefully-accepted three days at home, I returned to my truck with Michael, ex-wife Mary, daughter Karen, and three-year-old grandson Zachary, and all my freshly-cleaned clothes, bags of canned food, and so on. The family helped load the truck; Mary and Karen even made the bunk for me while Michael unloaded the car and passed items to me, and Zachary sat in the driver's seat and pretended to drive. "Papa," he enthused, "I love you truck so much!"

That's because he doesn't have to get it repaired once or more a week.

A driver with another white cab pulled in next to me and began coupling to the trailer there. Mary began chatting with him and I joined her for a moment. Then Zachary wanted to see the back of a trailer and she went with him; Michael joined me with the driver, whose name was Phil. Phil was an owner-operator who had been with Schneider for less time than I, though he'd been driving truck much longer. "Are you married?" he asked suddenly.

I smiled. "Yeah," I said, "but it's a little complicated. That was my ex-wife, Mary, you met a minute ago; and this is my husband, Michael."

His eyes widened a bit, but he grinned and stuck his hand at Michael to shake. "Makes no difference to me," he remarked. "My best pal came up to me a couple years ago and said, 'I've got something to tell you, but it's really difficult.' I said, 'C'mon. Aren't you my best friend? Don't we love each other? Wouldn't we die for each other? What can you possibly tell me that would be so bad as to ruin that?' And he said, 'I'm gay.' And I said, 'So what?'" Phil shrugged. "We're still best friends."

"Sometimes the only ones keeping us from coming out are ourselves," I agreed.

Back in the truck, I turned on the ignition. The Qualcomm unit lit up and indicated it had received new messages. I expected this; it was my newly-assigned load. What I didn't expect was the conflicting messages.

The load was to be picked up in Bellemont, Arizona (just east of Flagstaff) and unloaded in Santa Barbara. That wasn't an issue. Load assignments arrive in a series of messages. There's the shipper message, directions to the shipper, the consignee message, and, sometimes, special instructions. (Directions to the consignee arrive after I let them know I've made it to the shipper.) In this case, the consignee message said, "Consignee requires two lumpers. Call this number to make arrangements 24 hours in advance." The special instructions said, "Schneider does not authorize lumpers for this consignee."

Excuse me? I'm required to have them, but Schneider won't pay for them? Who made that arrangement? If I had to pay for them, I would wind up losing money on this trip. I sent a message back asking for clarification. I then called the number to arrange for the help.

Lumpers, you may recall, are workers who do nothing but unload trucks. They are not employees of the consignee, though they are sometimes related to those employees…which leads to some abuses of the system.

In this case, according to the woman who answered the phone, the lumpers were assigned through an agency. She was the answering service, but she promised to page the head lumper and give him my number to call back.

This was a problem. My cell phone had been disconnected (I had been away when the bill came due) and, though I had paid the bill, they had not yet gotten the thing re-connected. So I gave Michael's number, and delayed leaving so they could call me back.

After an hour, I called again. The woman said she had page the guy, but would do so again.

I waited another hour. Then another.

I had some time to play with, but not a lot. The who trip ran some 700 miles, which meant I couldn't legally do it at one stretch: I had to get in my DOT break along the way. But how could I leave without hiring the lumpers, which was a requirement of the consignee and therefore as much a part of the assignment as picking up the load in Bellemont?

Finally, mid-afternoon, after some additional calls to Verizon, I got my cell phone working. I called the lumper service again, leaving my number for the call back, and headed for Bellemont.

But it was too late. I knew I wasn't going to be able to make Santa Barbara after a DOT break. Grimly, I knew what I had to do: Drive there without a DOT break.

Note to the DOT: Of course, I wouldn't really do this. Ever.

The drive up to Bellemont, bobtailing, was a cinch. At the security shack, the guard invited me in to check my paperwork. She was an out-and-proud lesbian, according to the poster she'd put on the wall. I smiled and told her it was always nice to encounter "family" on the road. That let her know I was gay (or a very butch lesbian), so she gave me an extra warm smile and detailed instructions to the waiting trailer.

Another driver was hooking up next to me. As he moved between his tractor and the trailer he was coupling to, his effeminate movements made me suspect he was gay, too. In fact, not just gay; this guy was flaming enough to set his rig on fire. I found myself making jokes about it in my mind: His wrist was so limp, he couldn't turn the landing gear crank. I caught myself, wondering that our culture's homophobia could be so deep-rooted that even I could be affected. And then, I thought further, that this guy could be a truck driver and not have been beaten up long ago, suggests that our culture may not be so homophobic, after all—certainly not like it was. That was a good sign for me; but I wondered if the last homophobes left might not be us gay guys, coming down on other gays we perceive as less masculine than ourselves.

He left, and I followed, but found the yard to be very tight. I had to back up several times in order to get around the corner to the exit without running up on the curb. Saying goodbye to the guard, I apologized for taking so long. "Not a problem," she said. "At least you weren't like those Swift guys. They run over bushes, uproot trees, whatever's in the way."

So I left the shipper's and headed on my way, stopping to fuel at the Kingman TA.

But then I started getting sleepy.

I hadn't been driving long, but I had been up and alert since early morning. By now it was 10 o'clock at night, and the road began wobbling before my eyes. I couldn't focus. Again, I knew what I had to do: Take a break. Maybe not a legal DOT break, but a break nonetheless. I pulled over and set my alarm for midnight.

The way humans' sleep patterns work, you can take a 45 minute nap or sleep in 2-hour increments. Anything else will make you groggier than you were before. I crossed my fingers that I would still have time to make my 10 am appointment. My computer showed I could, so I shut my eyes and fell fast asleep.

Monday, November 18, 2002

The alarm went off too soon, of course; but I was up and on the road within minutes. I crossed the California border, but soon my eyes grew heavy again. It was now 4 am and I couldn't go another mile, not safely. Besides, I still hadn't heard from the lumpers. I'd even sent a message to Customer Service explaining the situation; but it was still the weekend and Third Shift Operations is generally pretty useless (probably because they're overworked). So I hadn't gotten a reply and, in my sleepy state, it seemed like I wouldn't be able to unload without the required lumpers, anyway. So I pulled over and took another 45 minute nap.

By 6:30 am I was north of Fontana on I-15 and, once again, too groggy to drive. I sent another round of messages: to my STL, and to Customer Service; set the clock for another 45 minutes and went back to sleep.

I must have slept through the alarm this time, because it was after 8 o'clock when I awoke to find, finally, my messages had been answered. Customer Service had conveniently ignored the one in which I said I was going to sleep for an hour, and simply replied that they had contacted the lumpers and they'd be there waiting for me at 10 am.

But, now I had to contend with L.A. traffic. There was a 28-mile stretch of I-15 under construction; traffic crawled as usual along I-5. The good news was that I made all the intersections correctly and headed for Santa Barbara without incident. The bad news was, there was no way I could get there before noon.

I reported this to Customer Service, who passed it on to the client. I was still pretty bleary-eyed as I made my way west along the coastal Ventura Highway, immortalized for us non-Californians by the soft rock group, America. The day was absolutely perfect, the sun shining on stunningly blue water, phalanxes of surfers riding perfect white curls. Even the traffic had eased as my distance from L.A. increased. I got off the correct exit from US 101. But then my luck changed. The directions stated to go west on Patterson; but Patterson was marked "N" and "S". Which way to go? I picked the wrong one. When I realized it, I had to turn onto another street and then another in an attempt to turn around.

By the time I got to the consignee, it was too late. The dock foreman wasn't angry, but stated in a friendly tone that I would have to come back at 7 in the morning to unload. The two lumpers, who had been waiting there since 10 am, were told to go home and come back in the morning. They weren't angry, either; but they were somewhat nonplussed, as, one said, this had never happened to him before.

The lumpers had surprised me, too. All the lumpers I've dealt with so far have been American-Mexican. I don't know why, but that's what I've observed. These guys were retired surfer dudes, with pony-tailed silver hair and an "Oh, wow, man!" way of speaking in spite of the fact that they were at least sixty years old. I wondered why they weren't out on the waves. "Like, I busted my board, man," the lead lumper said. "I gotta get some bread fer a new one."

"My old lady wants Showtime," the second said.

The first lumper looked at him in surprise. "Bummer," he sympathized.

"You know it," the second agreed, shaking his head sadly.

However, another man in the warehouse wasn't so laid back. "I need thirty cases of napkins tonight or I'm out of a job!" He negotiated with the dock foreman, and I backed up to a dock. They removed the minimum possible so the guy could keep his job, sent the lumpers home for the next day, and told me again to be back in the morning.

By now, of course, I was several hours illegal. I couldn't go far. The dock foreman suggested I drop my trailer in a safe place a block away, and then drive bobtail to the beach a couple miles away, for the night.

And that's what I did. It still being warm in the cab from all the Southern California sunshine, I decided not to try to actually sleep until sundown (which wasn't far off by now). I went for a wade in the Pacific, arranged the stuff in my truck (I hadn't actually packed since we loaded the truck the day before), took a very bracing cold shower, watched the sun set over the water, then got into my bunk and slept for twelve hours.

Tuesday, November 19, 2002

I awoke about 5 am to the sound of the surf smashing into the beach and the smell of salt water. The air was cold but I was snug in my blankets and dozed lightly until the alarm went off at 6. I started the engine to warm it and the cab up a little, got dressed, and returned to where I'd left the trailer. It was re-coupled in minutes and I appeared at the consignee's a few minutes early.

As I was backing in, another driver walked up and began directing me. I didn't pay too much attention, since I was doing fine; but the gesture was nice and I appreciated it. When I was lined up, I got out to open the trailer doors. He nodded as I approached and grinned ruefully at me. "You mean, I've got to back into that little hole?"

"Or one like it," I shrugged. "But you think this is little? You haven't been to Oakland, yet." Actually, this loading area was nicely arranged, with plenty of room; and there was room on each side of the loading docks for maneuvering.

"Not yet," he admitted. "Do you know where we check in?" I told him, and completed backing in while he trotted off to let the receiving office know he was here.

When I was done, and the lumpers had started unloading (I could tell, because I could feel the movements of the trailer as the forklift rode in and out), I wandered over to where my new friend was trying to back in to his assigned dock. "Would you mind helping?" he called. I gave him a thumbs up and took position near the rear of his tractor. He had to pull up several times, turning his steering wheel the wrong way, then over-correcting. But finally he was in place. "Whew!" he breathed. "Thanks a million."

"How long have you been driving?" I asked.

"Three weeks," he admitted. "I'm not sure how this is going to work out. I just wanted to raise enough money to open my own hair salon." At this point I spotted the gay pride flag on his window. I felt an inward recoil at the stereotype of the gay hairdresser, even though this guy wasn't at all swishy.

I was wearing a cap with a stylized rainbow triangle on it; but it is so subtle that a lot of times its message isn't grasped. This driver didn't seem to spot it, and I was trying to figure out a non-blatant way of letting him know I was "family" too, when a woman walked by carrying two pints of strawberries. "Oh, those look good!" he called.

She turned and smiled at us. "They're leftovers. Would you like a pint?" My new friend nodded, and she left him with a container of ripe, juicy-looking strawberries.

"Have some!" he invited.

I took a couple, and said, "That's something I don't seem to have developed that knack for."

"What's that?"

I nodded at the strawberries. "Picking up fruit along the highway."

He laughed, seeming to get the double-entendre but acting as if he didn't realize I did. I gave up, waved, and went inside the warehouse to check on the unloading.

I found one of the lumpers laboring alone. "How's it going?" I asked.

He put down the box he'd been carrying. "It's going," he replied. The boxes of paper napkins had been palletized: That is, they'd been stacked on wooden pallets and wrapped in plastic to hold them steady. But the stacks on the pallets were just a little too high for the dock bay door. So the lumpers had to open te plastic wrapping, remove the top layer or two of boxes, put them on pallets, then reseal the remaining boxes on the original pallets. It was tedious work, though not terribly exhausting.

I was glad I didn't have to do it. "Where's the other guy?" I asked.

"He got a call on his cell phone. Surf's up at Carpenteria."

"Dude! Let's go!" I cried, kidding.

"Don't worry. He'll be back."

"How do you know?"

"He rode in with me this morning. His old lady's got his car."

I returned to my truck. I rested. I wrote. I ate breakfast—a banana from the warehouse lounge, offered to me by one of the friendly workers. I rested some more. Finally, six hours after I docked, the two lumpers tapped on my door. "Dude, will you sign our time sheets?" the leader asked, handing me two sheets of paper. I signed them, and the second lumper, the one who'd missed out on surfing Carpenteria, scurried off to the car. The first held back a moment.

"That's an awesome cap you've got," he said. "Where'd you get it?"

I'd forgotten I still had it on. "Key West," I replied.

He nodded. "Pride cap?"

"Yup. You noticed!"

He glanced back to make sure his coworker was still at his car. "I wish I could wear one."

"You're gay?"

He nodded, blushing just a bit. It was peculiar; I'd never seen a sixty-year-old blush before. "I just can't take the chance," he said.

"You work as a lumper, and surf the rest of the time, I gather," I said. "What're you afraid of?"

He held his hands up as if to ward off the evil eye. "Dude, you have no idea what a surfer can do to you if he gets pissed off enough. You can die, and it will look like just another surfing accident."

"Surfers are that bigoted?"

He started to insist they are, then his shoulders drooped. "I don't know. They make a lot of jokes. Surfing's a pretty macho profession, you know."

I raised an eyebrow. "Like trucking isn't?"

"Truckers get all over. They see the world. Most surfers, we find a beach and stick to it. We'd like to travel the world, but most of us can't afford it. So we tend to get pretty insular. Most surfers don't think they've ever met a gay dude."

"Everything you just said, I used to say about truckers. But my experience has been the opposite. Everyone I've come out to has been…totally cool."

He nodded in the direction of my window. "But you don't have a Pride flag on your truck," he noted. "Just a cap that most people wouldn't even notice."

"I don't own the truck," I said, as if that explained why I didn't have a Pride flag on it. The fact was, I could put one on the window but I hadn't gotten around to buying it, yet.

"Yeah. Well. See you 'round, dude. Thanks," he added, waving the time sheet.

I spent the afternoon driving through the beautiful farm country east of Santa Barbara, then on I-5 and Highway 99 to Delano, where my next load was. After picking it up I found myself driving California Highway 58 beneath a brilliant full moon. There had been a lunar eclipse earlier, visible from the East Coast but it was over before the moon rose for the Western states. Still, the globe was as full and bright as possible, and now that I was clear of the fog in the San Joaquin valley, it outlined the hills, ironically giving them a lunar appearance.

I am well aware that this time driving truck is a personal journey for me. The people I meet and experiences I have each seem to illuminate some factor of my own life. I thought about the people I'd met in the past few days: The lesbian security guard with the Lesbian Pride poster; the effeminate truck driver who had made me uncomfortable just by being there. The truck driver who wanted to open a hair salon. The closeted gay surfer.

There is probably nothing that is a more essential part of a person's identity than his or her sexuality. Some folks insist it isn't so important to them, and maybe for them it isn't. But I wonder if, when a person is heterosexual, it just doesn't seem so important. After all, every aspect of our society quietly accepts heterosexuality and all it implies. It's like air: Easy to ignore, easy to take for granted…until you find yourself without it.

I've been asked, before, why gay folks bother to put rainbow flags on their cars or shirts or whatever. I usually reply that it's the same as someone of Irish extraction putting an Eire flag on their car, or someone else putting an Italian or Swedish or Jamaican flag there. And that is probably the truth. No one made a person Irish or Italian or gay; but there's a lot to be said for finding the self-esteem to shout, "Hey, world! I'm Irish and I'm proud of that!" Or Italian. Or gay.

But there's another element. Many heterosexuals do think they've never met a gay person. And there are people out there right now, viciously trying to block the civil rights of gays. It's easy to take a neutral stance on an issue you don't think affects anyone you know. The more of us who announce our presence with rainbow flags or triangles or just by coming out to our friends, the harder it will be for the non-gay folks in our lives to support legislation that denies us basic civil rights like the right to marry or to be with our loved one if he or she is hospitalized.

And the people who most need to be shown that it's all right to be gay, are ourselves. Gay kids grow up under the secret burden of knowing they are the ones the jokes are about. By the time we reach adulthood, no one wishes we weren't gay more than we do. The irony is, most other people don't even care whether we're gay or not. It's our own issue. The urgency is to come out to ourselves. We have to unconditionally accept ourselves, before we can unconditionally accept others.

The effeminate trucker and the hair salon guy gave me a chance to see I have not yet unconditionally accepted myself. The guard, and the hair salon guy both made me realize I should have a rainbow flag on my window—and prompted me to ask why, really, I don't? And the surfer dude gave me a clue where to start looking for the answers: my own idea of the non-accepting nature of others, which is merely my own lack of self-acceptance misdirected outward.

We are communicating beings. We are here to speak our own truths and tell our own stories, to each other and to ourselves and to the Spirit of the Universe that created us to discover these truths. We tell these stories in our own ways. I like to write. Some others might pass them on in dinner conversation or compose music. But we also tell our own stories in the way we live each day. We can tell a story of kindness or of harshness. We can tell a story of inclusion or exclusion. And we can tell a story of healthy self-esteem by being open about who we are, or one of guilt and shame by hiding who we are.

God doesn't make a crappy product. Every one of us is made of star stuff. No one should feel guilt or shame in what they are. Everyone deserves a flag, and the courage and joy to put it on their windows.