Monday, May 24, 2010

a guide to coming a truck driver, part two. how.

Even though I explained how unnecessary and monotonous a full-time-job-life can be in my last post, many people still want this kind of life.  People want stability, extra things, something constant. This dream has been the reality of the Baby Boomer generation. They wanted work, they got work. They got a stable job, a steady income, the promise of money to live on and health care during retirement.

The generations following the Baby Boomers, well, we aren't so lucky.  Many people who want the same job for the rest of their life can't get it. That is why we must become resilient, creative, and think outside of the parameters defined by our parents' generation for what consists of a successful and productive life. I did this, and decided the only way to get this life is to temporarily become a truck driver.

Here's how.

My search began on the internet - jobs websites, craigslist, etc. However, much of what is found on the internet is impersonal and often lacking details.  Whenever I really want something done, I find a way to talk to a person. That's when Alex and I found ourselves in the Tuolumne County employment office.  We met with Pat, a rosy-cheeked plump woman with bright, beady eyes and a wonderfully sympathetic affect. Like a female Santa Claus with the disposition of a caring social worker. We came in with questions, explained our situation, interests, needs. Together, we worked out a plan.

Lucky us, there was a job that would fit us perfectly. Let us travel, be together, save loads of money, and the training would be paid for by the government (who is spending in an effort to re-train people to bolster employment). It was trucking.

The only catch? We had to fill out a personality questionnaire which told the employment office that we were the type of people who would do well at this job. They needed to know that they were giving the money to people who wouldn't freak out at the sight of a shock absorber.

Now, this was a $10,000 test, so we had better get it right.  Our training would cost five grand each, plus a few hundred extra the employment office would give us for commuting the 100 miles each day.  So, we buckled down, and answered each of the personality questions with the mind of a trucker.

Do I like to work with machines? Sure. Do I like creative writing? No, no.  Do I enjoy working alone? Yep. Do I feel comfortable in a leadership position? Never.

I had to lie, be somebody else, plunge myself into a career that is deeply opposed to all that I believe in, all in the service of a higher good, a larger plan, a deep wisdom about the state of my future.

Pat went through our tests with an amazed bewilderment. "It's almost like you guys knew what to answer, because, I mean, gee, you got the answers just right." That's right, Pat, we knew what to answer. We just smiled and nodded and with a vaguely surprised look Alex faintly muttered "that's neat." With that we moved a step closer to our ten grand in tuition and on towards our fiscally-secure future.

There are two truck schools the employment office contracts out with, the least bad of all of the seedy, nasty truck schools that exist in the area, and we chose to apply to the closer one as we waited to hear back from Pat's boss if our funding would be granted.

We went into the school and met with Jeannie, an older latino woman who put extra emphasis on the second-to-last syllable of every phrase she uttered.

How aaaaare you? 
Welcome to Western Pacific Truuuuck School.
So good to meeeeeeet you.

Already falling in love with this little present of Americana, she introduced us to Bianca, the campus' recruiter. Bianca is tall and busty, very pretty with dark eyes and long black hair.  She was dressed in things Elaine Benis from Seinfeld would wear - long floral-patterned skirts or black leather jackets or chunky-heeled boots, but around this office she was clearly the pinnacle of style and grace. She was wildly effusive and bubbly, giving us the quick pitch on trucking and her school. It was lost on us, we already had our minds made up, and could usually see very quickly through sales pitches. So we just sat and stared at the strange subculture we were now immersing ourselves in.

The whole thing was so ethnic, so American. It is illuminating to be away from home, seeing these other cultures from a distance and studying them. Like the different mannerisms in places. In India, for example, people nod yes not by shaking their head up and down as we do, but by tilting it slightly forward and to the right and back and forth like that. It is the sum of these mannerisms that make up a culture, that make the people and their habits part of something larger, some meaningful identity that is probably unknown to them until they go outside of it and see that someone else doesn't nod like they do.

So, being back here I am seeing again and possibly for the first time those things that are uniquely American. The coffee mug on the desk with pens in it. The overly-firm handshake. The usually very loud introductions. Fake plants. Sign-in sheets. Excessive brochures. and business cards. So many business cards.

After a week or so we got word that our funding had been granted, so I put away my tall leather boots and took out some raggedy t-shirts to get ready for my first day of school. Our class was surprisingly diverse, which really made me happy. There's nothing worse for me than spending my time with a handful of low-class white people. They're usually so angry and I just don't feel like listening to them spew hatred.  There were a couple of them in the class, but they kept their voices down as there were too many different kinds of people who would be offended by their ravings.
There were a couple of black guys, a middle eastern guy from Jordan, many Mexican-Americans, a couple of angry white guys and one upper-middle class white guy, plus my teacher was a woman (not all of them are pictured here, obviously). We first had to take a written test to get our permits, which would allow us to drive the truck on the street with an instructor. We basically spent a week memorizing the DMV's Commerical Driver Handbook - something that would have probably taken me an afternoon of full concentration.

We then took the test at the DMV, blew the examiner's mind with our scores (Alex and I are a little too competitive when it comes to one-upping each other on these kinds of things), and were ready to get behind the wheel of a truck for the first time.

Alex and I spent the next six weeks in separate small groups (one or two other students and an instructor) learning how to drive the truck. We learned shifting on isolated country roads (where I kept getting distracted by the endless sea of central valley almond blossoms), and moved onto busier roads, city driving, difficult turns, freeways, emergencies.

We memorized the DMV-approved pre-trip inspection that every truck driver is supposed to do each time before they begin driving their truck for the day. Alternator belt, pitman arm, tie rod, u-joints, castle nuts and cotter pins.  I now know the names of things I will never again see, but feel empowered by the knowledge.

We learned backing skills, including parallel parking the truck, backing at a 90 degree angle, and stopping our rear bumper (which is nearly 60 feet away from where we sit in the driver's seat) directly above a painted white line on the asphalt.

Testing day came and we demonstrated these skills for out DMV tester. We did a pre-trip inspection, drove the truck to a backing skills site, demonstrated backing, then drove back to the DMV. My tester mostly just asked me about my life, and sat in amazement, as most people do who hear our story, as I told him that he should really take some time to visit Egypt.

I would get my Commercial Driver's License in the mail within the next two weeks.

Now, to get a job.  While we were in school, I spent time voraciously researching every moderate to large sized trucking company in existence, calling them, and hassling their recruiting department to see if they would hire us. Our most limiting factor at this point was that we had no experience.  Many, many companies do not hire people just out of school due to the extremely high liability, so that would be the first question I asked.

There were companies recruiting at our school, but they seemed to us to be like army recruiters who come into schools and give sales pitches to entice poorly-educated people into a job that may not be the best one available to them.  Plus, these companies hired people with DUI's and felonies, so we thought we could use our much-cleaner records to our advantage.

I just determined that if there were a better paying job out there hiring students, I would find it. Otherwise, we would take one of these crappy jobs and get 6 months of experience and then jump on with another company. The companies recruiting at my school were offering something like .28 to .32 cents per mile, one company even quoted something like .22 cents per mile.  So when I called Con-way for the first time and they told me they hired students (only if they were a couple and wanted to drive team), and they paid .44 cents per mile, I was so shocked I had to re-ask them the question. Yep. .44 cents, plus an extra .05 every time you go into the Northeast, and extra .03 if you carry any HazMat loads, and a .01 safety bonus on all of your miles every quarter that you don't have any accidents.

Okay, so we have to work for this company. We put in our applications a week or so before the end of school, and found out on, ahem, 'graduation' day that we got hired. This was it. At the same time this happened, we were experiencing a whole different side-drama about graduate school which I won't get into right now, but the moment we found out about being hired on to this company, it was like the Sisyphean task of making a secure future was over. No more struggle over very-slowly dwindling bank accounts, no more fear of a life in an office, no more uncertainty about being able to provide for ourselves a home, some land and a future.

It was a feeling of rapturous independence. After only a year or so of working, we would have made for ourselves a small dowry with which to begin a future. I can endure anything for a year. Anything to even slightly lift the burden of financial chains we all live so constantly under.

And this wouldn't even be so bad. It may even be a little fun. Maybe I'll get audiobooks and listen to Crime and Punishment and Anna Karenina and Moby Dick and the Jungle and Notes from the Underground. Maybe I'll listen to tapes and really learn Italian. Maybe I'll get to visit my family more. Maybe I'll explore the country. Or take my time off each month in a different city. Or maybe I'll just keep going back to New York, drinking in the culture and the museums and the ravenous movement of the city. I have always wanted to be young and free in New York City.

It was all there before me at once. The endless possibilities of the American landscape and hope for my future and culture and nature and salvation. All of this in a truck.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

a guide to becoming a truck driver, part one. why.

We are all struggling to exist. To find a way to provide ourselves with basic needs, and if we're lucky enough, more than just the basic necessities.

Finding a balance in this struggle is I think where most of us get caught up.  Some of us have too little, some have too much. Some of us choose to spend all of our time working with no time in life to really take pleasure in our own existence. Some of us work too little and lose the appreciation of simple pleasures by indulging in them incessantly.

Now, maintaining this balance must also fit into larger time-of-life planning.  For example, I plan to begin having children no later than my early thirties, so I have to think about my necessities now, and how they will change, and how to maintain order in all of this.

I have personally made the choice to be physically around my children while I am raising them, so I cannot have a career or any sort of employment for more than part-time hours.  Since this will translate into less money, I have to be able to provide for myself things that I would have bought with money but can produce using another resource I will have: time.  I must learn to grow food, mend clothing, milk animal(s), preserve food, cook, plan, cut wood, etc.

This comes back to a basic point that I have been thinking about a lot lately - the idea that you have to have a job where you get paid and work 40 hours a week and commute and wear a blouse and heels is a lie. You don't have to have a job your whole life. No one is making you work.

Work equals money which equals groceries, clothes, rent, cars, vacations, jewelry, etc. Everyone has the ability to strip their lives of all unnecessary things, learn to provide themselves with a good chunk of their own necessities for living, and then work very little or barter for the rest. Why more people don't choose this life is a whole other sociological/anthropological can of worms.  Suffice it to say here that it is a possibility, a life choice.

It became clear to me, however, that in order for this existence to go along as planned, I must first have a home and some land on which to carry out this little pastoral fantasy. And unfortunately this is not the old country where parents passed on a dowry or some land onto their children which they use to begin their life. This is America. Each of us must make our own way. So, I've gotta find the capital to procure this most basic of necessities, a roof over my head.

Again, let me emphasize that taking out debt in order to get a mortgage is not an option in my scenario. I do not want to be forced to work when I could be spending time with my children or tending my garden, so I will not be a slave to a bank, who could force me to do just that. I must own land and a home outright for my life to be what I consider balanced.

So that puts me here, in a truck stop in El Paso, TX, feeling the hum of the engine, crouching on the top bunk of my trainer's truck, musing about the necessities of balance and order in life. This is where I begin my ravenous scrounging for savings that I can put towards my idyllic creation. Working now so I don't have to later.

Now that's the why. Next time on the how.

riff-raff in southeastern missouri

Our nomadic existence won't be completely lost. We are signing up to be truck drivers, after all.

Staring out the window as we ride to the airport, I am getting that feeling again. Like floating in the sea, facing toward the shore, and a swell comes and sweeps you up from behind and just for a moment you lose it all - your stomach drops out beneath you and you forget where you're from and what you're doing here. You lose the sense of yourself and think only of the movement of the waves and how your body feels in that intangible transience. That sweeping charge of reality in the monotonous dream of life.

From tiny plane to tinier plane to greyhound bus. My day was filled with the least-exotic names of any of my journeys: Sacramento, Salt Lake City, Tulsa, Joplin. Okay. This is my new life, I had better make the best of it.

Having studied the cultures and civilizations all over the world, it was time to delve into my own. Now, for me, Americans are scary.  In other places, people speak to one another and since I can't understand them, I just go along happily thinking that they are saying wonderful and deep things to one another.  It's a sort of unique traveller's delusion. But here, oh boy, I get to hear all of the folksiest riff-raff that's ever been said. I get to wade into the very unique psyche of the American people. This is going to be interesting, and probably terrible.