Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The fat of the land (and other random thoughts)

As I’ve mentioned, being a trucker in training is not really about learning the road but more about learning the survival skills needed to be a trucker and if I have the stomach to handle the trucker lifestyle.

I’ve always loved traveling and moving around. I have no affinity to setting up shop somewhere and never moving again. I’ve always liked the “clean slate” feeling of moving somewhere and being the new kid in town. I have no problem making friends or socializing. I attribute my social skills (being able to conversate with anyone) to my 19 years in the cab. If you want to make any money (tips), you have to be able to talk about anything because you have less than 10 minutes to make an impression. There’s no room to be shy and you have to know a little bit about everything.

So, the traveling part – I sincerely love. Every day is a history lesson or an opportunity to stimulate my inner student. Having the internet and a laptop at my disposal allows me to google what I have immediate questions about. I’m learning geography, national cultural differences and regional cuisine preferences.

Just for the record – there are not a lot of Italians in Arkansas – just sayin’.


Since Aboy has been driving over the road for some time, he’s found some tricks of the trade for maximizing space and cutting costs. I like to call it living off the fat of the land. If you want to make any money in the industry – eating out and sleeping in hotels has to be avoided. Using the amenities available at truck stops is in a trucker’s benefit to saving money while they’re earning money.

Space on the truck is limited too. There are 2 bunk beds.  The top bunk is the size of a cot, the bottom bunk has a twin size mattress on it.  There’s a closet that’s about the length of a long-sleeved shirt. Above the closet is a cabinet that holds a TV with a space for a DVD player underneath it. Some cubby holes above the dashboard where we stow fresh fruit, instant coffee and napkins and stuff. There are also some small cabinets where I keep my laptop while it’s not in use – so it doesn’t get bounced around.  It’s a tight fit, but very efficient.

There are 12 volt sockets (like car lighters) throughout the truck and there are things that truckers can purchase that have a “car charger” socket to plug in. Over the years Aboy has had an electric cooler, crock pot, electric frying pan and hot pot – all powered with the socket that looks like your cell phone’s car charger. Aboy also has an inverter – so I can plug my laptop plug in – and it “inverts” the car charger into a house outlet.  I plugged my flat iron into it.  Let’s just say it didn’t work out favorably. It can handle some smaller items like a cell phone house charger and rechargeable car vacuum, though.

Since space is limited and the type of over the road driving Aboy has been doing is limited to 1 to 3 day ventures, he is using a cooler (that requires ice). Once you put the ice in… you lose some real estate for storing things. We keep some juices in it, cold cuts, whatever dinner is for the night (there are microwaves in the truck stops), and some snacks like yogurt, cheese and stuff. It’s cheaper to go into a grocery store and purchase grocery items than it is to go to a fast food joint everyday (and much healthier).

There is no room in the truck to store salt & pepper shakers, a bottle of ketchup, mustard or hot sauce. Keeping a canister of sugar or anything like that – that you may store in your cabinets at home – is out of the question… so we make use of things like packets of splenda, creamer, ketchup and hot sauce. They take up less space, are included in the meal (or coffee) costs when you make a purchase and keep nicely in a zip lock bag. I like to drink coffee all day – so to cut back on $10 a day in coffee, we bought a canister of instant coffee and when we stop at a truck stop – hot water is free and we have all the stuff needed. $60 a week in coffee (plus add in eating out costs) can defeat the purpose of earning a living on the road.

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I guess once we take our show on the road, we will really try our hand at investing in items that in the long run will save on operational costs. I just wish someone would invent a flat iron that can work with an inverter!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Assumed understanding

As I mentioned earlier, we have to revisit my past – so you can understand how I got here. You all ready know – I drove a cab and I’m currently a Software Consultant… but I have also worked in the transportation industry (not just as a cab driver). I have been a Data Analyst, Shipping Supervisor, and Night Operations Manager in a distribution environment.  I’m not coming into the Trucker in Training program completely green.

Plus, I’m an inquiring mind – I ask a lot of questions. I used to go to work with my Dad. He drove a truck for Coca-Cola from the time I was 8 years old - literally till the day he passed away. I would ask things about “Why can’t you drive on the Southern State?” and “Why don’t you use the clutch when you get out of 1st gear?” Plus, I’d get to change the gears, lift or latch up the tailgate and roll CO2 tanks into fast food joints. My Dad also used to drive a tow-truck on the weekends, part-time and I would get to sit on his lap to help him back it up to a car and get to work the levers and crawl under the car to help hook up the “J-Hooks”. My grandfather owned a land clearing business in Bay Shore. I used to ride with Daddy when he’d take the bulldozer out or drove one of Pop Pop’s dump trucks, too. I told you – I was the only son my father raised.

Not only do I ask questions – I listen. When the drivers that I used to supervise would walk in telling their “war stories”, I would pay attention. I tend to learn a lot of things the hard way – but I am a true believer in paying attention to other’s trials as to not reinvent the wheel when deemed unnecessary.

I know what a 5th wheel is, landing gear and the difference between a van (53 foot trailer) and a pup (24 foot trailer). I know the difference between pallet loaded and floor loaded. I can read a log book. I know a parkway is for cars and an expressway is truck friendly.  So, some of this stuff will be review for me.  I’m studying now to understand air brakes and weight regulations.  Most of my studying is just a brush-up though.

 Aboy is not the most patient teacher.  I am probably an annoying student. It makes for some pretty colorful dialogue when I’m asking 20 questions and he’s trying to concentrate on the task at hand.  If he was a little more forthcoming about what he was doing – prior to doing it, I could watch and learn. But, for some reason – he feels the need to keep things a surprise and I have the need to aggravate the shit out of him until he tells me what he’s trying to accomplish.

Me: “Why don’t you pull up and do a U-turn?”
Aboy: “Shut it up Boo, all right?”

Me: “Why don’t you back it in – wouldn’t it be easier to get it out?”
Aboy: “Shut it up Boo, all right?”

Me: “I think you should put another strap on there – it looks like it’s going to shift while we’re driving.”
Aboy: “Shut it up Boo, all right?”

So as you can see, the educational exchange is not conducive to learning. I’m probably going to have to back into some shit before he tells me the right way to do things. Call me psychic – but that’s my prediction.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Ready, set…

We met up with Aboy’s cousin and her husband. It was nice to see a familiar face. We caught up on life, had some lunch and parted ways. The truck was being loaded while we were visiting and by time they were ready to leave, the truck was done and we were ready to go too. We had been in Houston for close to 5 or 6 hours… it was now rush hour.

It’s a 4 hour (or so) ride from Houston to Dallas. Any major metro you go to in the nation – you’re going to hit traffic. Add in people that stop in the fast lane because someone is trying to merge onto the interstate in the right lane – makes a new breed of clusterfuck. I give Aboy a lot of credit – he only blew his horn 3 times, cursed out 2 people and flipped the bird, once. Not bad – considering, I probably would have ran someone off the road. 

People in cars have the need to jump out in front of an 80,000 pound vehicle and then slow down.  It takes a little extra time for a tractor trailer to stop – but, they don’t teach you that when you take your road test around orange cones.  When we pass the culprits – I just look down in their vehicle and shake my head (the look on my face  is screaming “You’re a dumbass!”) I would make some Italian hand gestures – but Houston does have a gang problem and they may think I’m throwing up gang signs or something.

We got past the traffic. Aboy asked me did I want to drive.  What the hell, right?  So, with the truck in cruise control, Aboy stood up and I scooted in the seat. He set it for 65 mph and all I really had to do was keep his big ass truck between the lines. Not so hard. 

I drove for about 30 minutes. Aboy drives a flatbed, meaning the load is open and held down with straps. There are a lot more things to worry about with a flatbed than there is when you’re pulling a 53 foot box (correct industry term: Van).  You have to make sure the straps are not flapping around, shit is not hanging off the edges and the load stays stable (open loads tip easier). I think I did well.  I didn’t lose the load and I stayed between the lines – that’s most of the battle right there!

It is a different feeling driving a tractor trailer than driving a car. First, the view is different. You’re sitting about 10 feet in the air. Not only can you see for miles in front of you – you can look in people’s cars. Second, you can feel the power of the truck and the weight of the load you’re pulling. Third, the load is attached by a hinge (correct industry term: 5th wheel). If you’ve ever pulled a boat or a small trailer, you know if you jerk the wheel, it will make what you’re towing, sway. Finally, you’re always in “pay attention” mode. Staying in lane is harder than you think!

Once I do get my CDL, I think I’ll save all the hard stuff for Aboy.  He’s an expert at backing up. He’s an expert at traffic. I’m very competitive by nature but don’t have to prove anything when I have someone that’s riding with me that can handle all the stuff that can cause agita[i]. Besides, I think I look kind of cute sitting in the passenger seat playing on my laptop J

[i] Origin of AGITA

S Italian dialect pronunciation of Italian acido, literally, heartburn, acid, from Latin acidus
A feeling of anxiety or agitation.
Sounds like: Ahh - Jih - Tuh

Speaking of driving…

Years ago in Bay Shore, before it got over-developed and over-populated, it was fun to do donuts in the mall parking lot or at the Jr. High, when it snowed. I remember going with my Dad to the mall doing spin outs and screaming and laughing with fear and excitement. 

I got my permit when I was 16. My Dad had the papers waiting for me when I got home from school that day.  It was against my mother’s wishes, but I was the only son my father had.  My practice usually came from me being the designated driver. My grandfather (Dad’s Dad), lived on Brook Avenue on the Southside of Sunrise Hwy. We lived on the Northside of Sunrise behind the Jr. High. We would go to Pop Pop’s house, Daddy would get crocked… and I got to drive home. 

It had snowed a few weeks before my road test and Daddy thought it was the appropriate time to teach me how to drive in the snow. We took his car (he always had a hunk a junk) and went to the Jr. High parking lot.  The snow hadn’t been plowed yet and there was ice under the new snow from a previous storm. Daddy made me put on my seat belt, floor it, then jam on the brakes. The lesson that was supposed to be taught was how to “react” to what the car would do under those conditions. We did it for about an hour and tried different scenarios like turning while braking, driving out of a skid and then we got to do donuts – as the finale.

Nothing replaces experience. Having a good teacher (my Dad) helped me understand the road, how to drive defensively and practicing under different conditions (weather, traffic, time of day). It gave me confidence to be a good driver (and borrowing the car – without permission - from time to time helped too!). I learned that a car should be treated with respect, but not feared.

NY’ers get a bum rap on a lot of things. Driving is one of them. I have lived in 5 states and have traveled up and down I-95 and as far west as Vegas… NY’ers CAN drive, it’s the rest of the nation that can’t.  NY’ers understand things like the far left lane is the fast lane, what a merge lane is used for and that you don’t have to plan for, schedule and send a memo - to make a right turn (you just do it – from as far right as you can get off the roadway, so you don’t interrupt traffic flow).

We also know that when you are on an expressway (parkway, interstate, etc) – there are no STOP lights for a reason – the idea is to GO! There is no need to tap your brakes when you are cruising in the left lane because someone in the far right lane put on their blinker to get off on an exit ramp.  We don’t have to look at people picking up trash on the highway. We don’t have to slow down because someone is trying to merge into traffic – it’s called the “right of way” for a reason. If you’re driving and have the “right of way” the merge lane was developed so people trying to enter the traffic lane can adjust their speed and fall in line (and maintain the flow of traffic).

People develop road rage because of individuals that took a road test around cones.  The testing instructor didn’t actually make them get into traffic, parallel park with cars coming in both directions in a space that’s big enough for a Chevette (but you brought Daddy’s Caddie to the road test) or had to make a right hand turn around a snow bank that jutted into the driving lane.  If people had to take a road test, like they do in NY, the roadways would be clear of idiots that are only able to drive when there are no other cars around them.


Challenge #2: If someone cuts me off while I’m driving an 80,000 pound vehicle – will I be able to resist the urge and possess any remorse if I just run them over with the truck?

I think as part of my trucker in training curriculum, I’ll need to add in road rage anger management. I know I have boasted and bragged about the fact that I don’t have a “better than” attitude, but when it comes to driving there is some common sense involved – and more often than not, people earned their license – not based on their ability to make a split second decision, but because they were able to navigate past an orange cone without knocking it over.      

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Important things I'm learning

Some of you may follow my journey and make a life changing career decision based on my findings.  Most of you won’t.  This profession is not for the meek, that’s for sure. You have to deal with things like a sore ass, poor selection of radio stations for long stretches, and the truck doesn’t have enough electricity to push a flat iron (I know because I fried Aboy’s inverter).

You have to find clever ways of being a woman and not cross the line of appearing busted. There’s not a lot of time to be feminine because you have destinations to get to and usually there is a deadline to get there. You can wake up in Virginia and go to sleep in Arkansas. It’s like being a modern day gypsy.

I have to be honest, I’m not really learning a lot about driving.  I’ve been driving (professionally) since I was 19 years old.  I understand the road, having close to 700,000 miles under my belt. This is more like training to be able to handle the daily 12-14 hours cooped up in a truck with someone that likes to fart and wait till I smell it to admit he did it. I have to admit – eating truck stop food makes for good revenge and my timing is usually better.  I also have a poker face.  It’s become quite the game.

Wet wipes have become a staple in my beauty arsenal. We take a shower at night at the truck stop. Aboy wakes up way too early for me to go into the truck stop and act like I have any good sense – so, I just go in to use the bathroom and come right back out to the truck. I let him take care of all the important things like making coffee and any other important trucker shit. I’m usually ready to get my act together by time we make our first potty stop.

I have found that a lot of these truck stop parking lots smell like a subway station.  The piss smell is magnified by the engines idling.  I have a pair of flip flops that are exclusive truck stop shoes and once I get back in the truck, they get cleaned off with a clorox wipe, tucked under my seat and I wash my feet off with a wet wipe. I also use my hand sanitizer on my feet – one can never be too careful!!

At a previous job, Aboy said he had rode with an old guy and his truck smelled funny. Come to find out when he rode with another guy from the same company – the old guy used to poop in a bucket in his truck because he didn’t like to poop in public. So you can imagine some of the stuff that these truckers do. Needless to say when I heard this story – I gagged. Another time, we were riding through the truck stop and there was a full bottle of soda in the parking lot – I said, “Oh, man! Someone dropped their soda!”… Aboy said – “that’s a bottle of piss”. ILK!!!! 

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That’s one side of being a trucker – I don’t need to learn about!!!

Time to face the music

We got to our destination in Houston just before lunch time.  I never paid too much attention before (because I’m usually the one doing it), but drivers (in cars) are very inconsiderate of truck drivers.  Aboy had to back 70 + feet of vehicle into a gate big enough for a car to get through – across 4 lanes of traffic.  I mean, don’t get me wrong – Aboy showed his ass (he is after all, a NY’er), and blew his horn, flipped the bird and called some individuals out their name, but you’d think people would give him a break – he’s just trying to earn a living. A fellow trucker (that’s what we call each other), helped hold up traffic, so some dumbass didn’t creep up on the side of Aboy when he had to pull up to straighten out the trailer, to finish backing in. Aboy returned the favor when it was the other trucker’s turn to back in.

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I texted Aboy’s cousin and told her we had arrived. She texted me back to let me know her husband was getting dressed and she would text me when they were leaving their house. We were in downtown Houston – at the place where they had the NCAA Men’s Final Four. She said she lived about 20 minutes away.

Aboy had got the truck situated. I was on my laptop uploading all the pictures from Aboy’s fabulous skills getting his big ass truck in the small ass entrance.

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I was pretty impressed. This is, after all - the same man that is not allowed to touch things that can cause sparks or fire and has broken all the lug nuts off my tire – trying to change it  (another flaw – action & consequence).

As I finished uploading – Aboy was trying to lay down in the bunk. I announced “I have to use the bathroom”. Aboy said, “it’s inside to the right”. Now you know, he’s not getting off that easy.  I am not walking inside, by myself. I am a female getting out of a tractor trailer…. I need a male escort. So, begrudgingly, he got his shoes on.  I asked “where’s the toothpaste?”.  The time has come – I might as well get it over with.

I drove a cab for Tommy’s Taxi on and off for 19 years.  I wasn’t your typical cab driver.  I took a shower every day.  I wore make-up, perfume, I tanned, had acrylic nails and I used hair styling products. My shirts were pressed (we wore uniforms in the summer). I would make frequent trips home during the day to refresh myself. My cab was spotless, inside and out. Like I’ve said – I know that the visual perception people have is how they judge you and it was very important that I present myself in a way I felt about myself. I mean – I was driving a cab for cripes sake, I wasn’t digging cesspools for a living.

It used to amaze me the types of shit people will do in front of complete strangers.  I’d have customers get in the cab stinkin’, belching, farting, and I even had 1 guy throw up out of my window. Some people just don’t give a fuck, I guess. I try to hold myself to a higher standard.  Maybe it falls in line with the “high maintenance” thing, but farting or throwing up in front of a stranger is a real stretch for me. I guess that’s why I battle with this idea of brushing my teeth in public.

Aboy walked with me into the convention center.  He directed me to the ladies room, which was immaculate. The part of the convention center that we were in – was more for special events and staging equipment and there’s not a lot of women that work in that area. This public restroom obviously didn’t see a lot of traffic.

I brought my essentials – including the toothbrush.

After I used the bathroom, I washed my hands.  I gave myself a mental pep talk. I put the toothpaste on my toothbrush, closed my eyes, said an “Our Father” and put it in my mouth. Not so bad.  Not so good either. I think I’m more thankful no one walked in while I was brushing.  I mean it could be worse and I guess after a few times, it won’t be as bad. I don’t think it will ever be something I’m completely comfortable with, though.