After a string of low-paying, highly stressful, soul-sucking, and often dangerous jobs, in September of 2006 I had made the decision to sign up for a month-long course at a Pontiac, Michigan truck driving school. For the price of tuition the school guaranteed that not only would I be offered a job from at least one reputable trucking company almost immediately after my first class, and that the school would offer job-placement counseling for life, but they also offered the comforting assurance that for no extra charge, the school would work with me for as long as it took to pass the state’s CDL test.Of course, 99% of CDL students would find this last assurance unnecessary; truck driving school is actually fairly easy. It’s the first few weeks of driving at your first trucking company that is the challenging part.
Most new truck drivers begin their career with a national company, driving over-the-road (48 states), with a mentor, or trainer driver. The time a new driver would spend with this trainer before he or she would be assigned his own truck could be anywhere from around five to eight weeks. The two drivers would work as a team, each driving for approximately 10 hours each, in approximately 12-14 hour shifts, until either the trainee successfully completes the required amount of driving hours in order to be approved to drive solo, or he decides that driving a truck is a dumb idea. There are other possibilities of course; the trainee could crash while the trainer is in the sleeper bunk sleeping, killing them both. Either the trainer or trainee could go stir-crazy from spending weeks alone in a truck with a stranger. The possibilities are endless, and to succeed during this period, the driver trainee would be best off not dwelling upon them. Any reputable company has a team of people that are a phone call away if, for example, your trainer turns out to be a sociopath.
My first trainer, coincidentally, was in fact probably a sociopath. I don’t make that claim lightly. I don’t make light of mental illness, or make fun of people that suffer from this horrible disease. All I know, is that from day one on his truck, when he was supposed to be in the passenger seat giving me driving instructions, he sat half naked in the sleeper bunk, watching “Conan the Barbarian” on TV with the volume as high as it would go, and literally screaming angry instructions from right behind my head. On the second day, he told me a story about how a man on a bicycle once accidentally ran into his truck while he was stopped at a red light, getting seriously injured. He laughed at this story like it was the funniest thing he had ever heard.
I had no intention of giving up during my first week, throwing away the month at school getting my CDL, not to mention the tuition money, but by day three I made the call to my company and asked for a new trainer. My company’s representative was far more understanding and accommodating than I had feared, and had me on another truck within 12 hours. That’s when it occurred to me that my company had nothing to gain by losing a driver, or worse, having one murdered in his sleep by a crazed lunatic trainer.
Since I began my training in early November, the rest of my training was split up into three periods, each with a different trainer, as my education was interrupted by time at home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. My second and third trainers were exceptional. Neither were without their quirks; trainer #2 would park the truck and leave me for two or three days as he visited one of several girlfriends he had around the eastern seaboard (yes, he was married). Trainer #3 was an extremely conscientious teacher in every way imaginable. Unfortunately, after hours of discussing the news of the day, it also became apparent that he was a racist, albeit a non-violent, polite one.
My fourth and final trainer, whom I shall henceforth refer to as Jeff, would be the one I would depend upon to sign off and give approval for me to become a solo company driver, and he was altogether unique still. He was friendly enough, and had many years’ experience in safely driving a truck, but he posed problems, the first of which was that he smoked. My company worked hard to match non-smoking trainees with non-smoking mentors, but mine had recently fallen off of the wagon, so to speak. I am vehemently anti-smoking, but also had too much time invested in my training at this point to risk any more delays. I spent the next two weeks with a violent headache and smelling like hell.
Jeff had other problems. In spite of his many years of driving 48 states, he didn’t seem to understand how time zones worked. He also might have suffered from Attention Deficit Disorder, because oftentimes, after I awoke during my ten-hour break, I would find that we had only progressed 120 miles towards our destination, because Jeff got into a long conversation with the Verizon representative at a truck stop. I often began my shifts with a conversation with my dispatcher who would ask me to try to keep Jeff focused. After a long discussion where I tried, almost successfully, to explain why we actually had one less hour to get to Indianapolis on time because we were in the Central Time Zone, and Indy was in the Eastern Time Zone, when it occurred to me that my company made Jeff a trainer simply to have somebody in the truck to keep him on the road and in line.
Once while driving into Texas, Jeff noticed the “home of President George W. Bush” sign, and proudly repeated something that he thought he heard on NPR (the only radio stations I listen to) the day before.
“Did you hear that a girl is going to run for president?”
“Do you mean Senator Hillary Clinton?”, I asked.
“No, I heard that President Bush’s wife was running.”
The fact that Jeff would have to sign the papers to get me out of the truck and on my own was the only thing keeping my eyes from rolling right out of my head.
Shortly after New Years’ Day, and after several tough days driving through snowstorms from New Mexico to Oklahoma, we were sent to an industrial warehouse just outside of Los Angeles. Thinking that we might be able to get unloaded and onto our next load sooner, we arrived a day early. We were not unloaded early, but I used the time to explore the city. While Jeff slept, I called the local transit authority and mapped out a path to Long Beach, so I could get some real food and see the ocean. I bought a day pass, which allowed me to ride any LA bus or subway (yes, Los Angeles has subways!) and head out.
The time away from the truck exploring someplace new was exhilarating. I had never been to California, much less LA, and had a blast being by myself for the first time in a long time. I browsed the Borders book store in Long Beach, walked the docks, watched the boats, and had a picnic on the beach.
When I got back to the truck and told Jeff about my day, he wanted to go too. He bought a day pass, and head back out, except this time, Jeff wanted to go downtown, to Ventura Blvd. That was fine by me, I hadn’t been there, and had only known the street from the Sheryl Crow song, “All I wanna do”.
Jeff and I got off of the subway, went up to the street, and looked at all of the skyscrapers. While I was enjoying the architecture, Jeff looked disappointed. He was looking for the Hollywood sign. I reminded him that we were in LA, and that the Hollywood sign was in Hollywood, which is a whole other city. I got out the transit map, and plotted a path to our new destination.
Hollywood, like Las Vegas, have never been on my short list of places to visit. I love to travel, and I love to explore nearly any place my job sends me to, but I’ve never been one to be star-struck by Hollywood glitz. Still, I couldn’t help get a kick out of walking down the Walk of Fame, reading all of the stars’ names, a surprising number of which I didn’t even recognize.
When I came across one that I recognized, Britney Spears, I looked up to point it out to Jeff. It was only then that I realized that I had walked the whole block with my head down, and had lost track of Jeff. I worried for about one second. Then I realized that not only did I, unlike Jeff, possess the ability to read a map and find my way back to the truck, but I had the key. If Jeff wandered off, that was going to be his problem, not mine.
After a quick stop inside of a tacky souvenir shop to buy gifts for the kids, I came out to notice something I hadn’t seen all day. A bus was stopped , and the driver had turned completely around in his seat, and appeared to be impatiently explaining something to a passenger. I thought about all of the times throughout the day I saw one driver after another speeding off from stops as would-be riders, barely missing the bus, screamed at the driver to stop, but to no avail. Clearly, something was keeping this driver from doing the same.
As I got closer, I saw the problem. Jeff, sitting in a nearly empty bus in the fifth row, was arguing with the driver.
“Sir, I understand what you are saying”, said the increasingly angry driver, “but I will need to actually see your day pass before you can ride!”
“I’m sorry sir, let me handle this”, I told the driver as I stepped on. “Jeff, please show the bus driver your day pass.”
After he found the pass in one of his pockets, I showed it to the driver.
“Jeff,”, I asked, “where are you going?”
“I want to see the Hollywood sign. You got to go to the beach, all I want to do is see the Hollywood sign.”
“Do you know where this bus goes? Do you even know what bus number this is?”
At this point, I noticed that the driver is still facing us, not moving the bus, and is mesmerized by this conversation.
Jeff then picked out a number he found at random on the wall of the bus, a long numerical series, which may or may not have been the bus manufacture model number, but not the route number.
“No Jeff, I’m asking you for the bus route number. Do you know where the Hollywood sign is, or if this bus will even take us where we can see it?”
He did not.
“I’ll tell you what, Jeff”, I told him, in the most patient voice I could muster, in a tone I hadn’t used since my kids were very, very small, “let’s take this bus two blocks to see where it goes, but if it doesn’t look like it’s going in the right direction, we’ll have to get off and walk back, ok?”
Jeff agreed, and I nodded to the bus driver, who was almost smiling now.
As the bus began to move, a woman wearing what looked like a nurse’s uniform and an identification badge poked me on the shoulder, and quietly asked me a question.
“Do you work for the county?”
Apparently, she thought that I was a social worker, and that Jeff was somehow in my care.
Too tired at this point to laugh, I could only smile and provide the only answer that made sense at the moment.
“No m’am, we’re truck drivers.”
The nurse looked blankly for a beat, and then seemed satisfied, as if my answer made perfect sense.