Friday, August 5, 2016

‘Over and under’ – a brief career in trucking

After downing a pot roast and mashed potatoes special with a slice of chocolate cream pie at a diner on U.S. Route 1 in Elizabeth, N.J., my friend Charlie strolled out the door and around back where the trucks were parked. His wasn't there. It never had been.

"My truck has been stolen," he told the cashier. "Can I use your phone to call the police?"

Less than three months after getting into the drayage business as an owner-operator, Charlie was out. He could finally get a decent night's sleep. He was a happy man. He was also a felon.

Charlie and I worked for a company that coated steel utility pipe for use underground. Charlie worked in the yard, loading and unloading the flatbeds. He operated the lifts and cranes and was responsible for their maintenance. It was a demanding job.

Utility pipe coating was a messy business involving hot tar and other kinds of gak. So the work was done on a sprawling property at the edge of the New Jersey Meadowlands, what we used to call swamp, then a convenient place to dump stuff.

Besides the coating sheds and office – where I worked as a clerk – the property included a shack with electricity and running water. That's where Charlie lived.

He had a home with a wife and children in Northwest Jersey, but it was almost two hours away – too far for Charlie. He went home on weekends and lived in the shack during the week.

One day Charlie announced he had a great idea. He would buy an old truck to haul containers out of Port Newark/Elizabeth after work hours. He would take short hauls that allowed him to get a night's sleep. He could fill his idle evenings while enjoying the countryside and making money besides. Brilliant.

So he bought a 1950s B Model Mack with dual transmissions and two shift levers, what they called an over-and-under.

He called in for his first load on a Monday afternoon. By the following Monday, he began to wonder if he had made a mistake. The Monday after that, he was sure.

Yes, there were lots of containers to haul, but first he had to get in and out of the container terminal. Sometimes trucks were lined up to get in. There was an inspection before he could leave. It seemed there was always something wrong, a flat tire, a broken chassis light, whatever. Charlie had to wait his turn for a mechanic. The mechanics were union longshoreman and in no hurry. Just getting out of the yard took hours – hours Charlie had not figured into his brilliant plan.

By the second week, someone had to knock on Charlie's door to wake him up. When he came out, he looked like hell. He fell asleep sitting up at lunch time.

Then there were the repairs. His Mack was old and needed one thing after another, tires, hoses, you-name-it. It ate into the money Charlie thought he would get to keep.

By week three, Charlie knew this was a disaster. But what could he do? He had a regular, paying job, a family to support, and truck payments to make. So he put the Mack up for sale. No one wanted it. The single offer he got didn't come close to what he owed.

The owner-operator business, which had looked golden at the start, was anything but. It was a personal catastrophe, and there seemed no way out.

Charlie kept hauling containers and going sleepless until, another month or so later, he had an idea.

Among the equipment Charlie used at the pipe coating yard was a backhoe. Behind his shack was an expanse of empty property. The answer was suddenly obvious.

One night, instead of hauling a container, Charlie dug a very big hole out back with a slope on one side rather than a wall. It was almost dawn when he drove the old Mack into the hole and covered it up.

The next afternoon, he called the drayage company for a load just to make things look normal. Then a friend – not me – dropped him off at that diner in Elizabeth.

His insurance paid off and life went on, having taught Charlie that being an owner-operator was not as “golden” as it seemed.

No one ever questioned that mound of dirt out back. It was covered by weeds in a short time.