Welcome back, my friends, to Tales from the Truckstop.
For those of you just tuning in, and expecting some kind of WoW post, this is another one of my Storytime style posts, where I tell you a tale from my ill spent youth. These are true tales, but since I can’t prove it, hell with it. Call it a ‘no shitter’, if you wish.
This is a tale from my truck driving days that I wasn’t actually ever expecting to post.
You see, I figured if I told this tale, nobody would ever believe it. After all, it’s ludicrous. It’s stupid. Nobody would ever do what I’m gonna describe. The litigation risks alone would mean that I had to be making it up.
But today… today is a different day.
Today, I have a video to show as an example that, yes, this ain’t your normal town. This isn’t your normal place of business. These people… they don’t think like you or I do.
This? This is New York City!
First, the video that made me decide I could tell my story. It’s a video that went viral this morning, you might have already seen it, showing one tow truck trying to drag free a stuck snow mover during the current NYC blizzard dig out. And along the way… well, shenanigans. And some ugly ass legs. Seriously, dude, you couldn’t have edited your ugly legs out of the video first? Or put on some pants?
I ain’t gonna apologize for the quantity of profanity in it, since, first, it’s not me speaking, and second… it’s New York. Profanity is just punctuation in New York, just as it is in Miami, where I grew up, because of the cultural contamination of all the New York snowbirds that flutter down there every winter. Yes, swearing like this is how I and everyone I ever knew (including my mother) spoke. Yes, it is. Except teachers in schools, amusingly enough. Talk about swimming against the tide. I sure do respect teachers in Miami. I have to now, I never showed them any back then. :)
So, now that the video has primed you for reality, lets’ talk about trucking in New York City, shall we?
To recap, back in the day I drove an eighteen wheeler cross-country for Dick Simon Trucking. They specialized in refridgerated loads; almost every trailer was equipped with a diesel-powered chiller (or ‘reefer’) unit.
This meant that I hauled a lot of groceries, food products, vegetables and occasionally flowers all over the continental United States.
Most of my runs would start at one coast, pick stuff up, then begin hauling it across the country, maybe starting in Los Angeles, dropping and picking up a new cargo in St Louis, shipping up to Chicago, darting down and over to Atlanta, and then up to finish in Newport News. Then, time to start working my way back.
I typically didn’t shuffle back and forth between two points much, my dispatcher would route me all the way out, and then bring me all the way back. Their terminal was in Salt Lake City, Utah, so most runs would have me going through there at some point, I do love the mountains between Denver and Salt Lake City, but we had trailer yards and secondary terminals with facilities in Georgia and California as well. I’ve even had the pleasure of being out at the big Coors plant north of Denver, and hauling some silver bullets of beer all over. Good times. Amazingly enough, they didn’t slow me down, either. Imagine that.
One place that I had never been sent into for my entire first year, though, was New York City. For whatever reason, I never got a load that sent me into the Big Apple.
I heard a lot about it from other drivers, but I hadn’t been through there myself.
Some of the advice I was given by other truckers was, first, don’t head solo straight into the city. People hijack trucks running solo into there all the time, with a guy hopping up on your running board and sticking a gun in your face, and then telling you where to take the truck to. Since there are so many narrow streets with sharp corners, there are plenty of places you have to slow waaaay down, plenty of opportunities for a fast guy to get up on your cab. So, what you do is run into one of the big truck stops in Pennsylvania before you head into New Jersey, and hook up with other truckers planning to enter the city, convoy in as a group. Safety in numbers.
Second, you do not, do not want to get into New York City during the day as a trucker. You’re just screwed if you do. You want to be heading in way late at night, like midnight or later, and hope like hell you can have your trailer unloaded and your next load picked up and your ass headed out of town before four AM.
Because people driving in New York City are f’ing insane, that’s why. They do not give a shit what they do, and will go anywhere, dart into any opening, leap into any perceived breach in the logjam snarl of traffic if they think it’ll get them one car length in front of the next asshole in line.
When you drive a truck, you ain’t driving a Ford GT or a nimble minx of a Mini. You’re a land whale worse than any Cadillac, and all you’ve got in your favor is the fear you inspire in people who care about their cars getting crushed.
New Yorkers HAVE NO FEAR, apparently their balls are just too damn big to allow any fear, and thus lies the core of the problem. They honestly drive like they cannot believe you would dare to mess with their car.
Yeah, so, I get a load of something heading out of the Purina plant in central Pennsylvania near Allentown, destination: New York City. WOOT!
Just call me Mr Big Time.
I then promptly proceed to blow off all advice, because while that shit may apply to other people, well, I’m me. I’m cool. Water off a duck’s back, man, I’ll experience no problems. Zero defects. Right?
Anyway, New York City! And after I drop off there and pick up my next load, they’re sending my ass to Niagara Falls in upstate New York! Are you shitting me? How cool is that!
It was news to me that there was a city there. Somehow, I always pictured Niagara Falls as being remote… inaccessible. Because all honeymoon destinations require a sherpa and pack mules, apparently. Yes, sometimes I’m an idiot.
“Niagara Falls at last! Slowly I turned, step by step, inch by inch… and then? I let him have it!”
Sorry, my favorite Three Stooges bit, there. Flashbacks. My bad. And on the topic… isn’t it insane what you can find on Wikipedia?
So I blow through Pennsylvania all night, and enter New York City first thing in the morning, bright eyed and bushy tailed after driving all night, my hands wet on the wheel. Or, well, not so much. More like eyes burning as two glowing pits of fire in my skull. Cities on flame with rock and roll, man.
There are only so many things Mountain Dew can take you through, and driving through eastern Pennsylvania all night leaving you eager and alert for the Big Apple ain’t one of them.
Yep, that’s me, right on time for the rush hour influx early in a weekday morning, I enter New York City.
I’m not completely stupid, so I’ve sat in a truck stop poring over my trucker’s edition massive map of the country, analyzing my optimum route through the city, eyeing height restrictions, one way roads, construction updates and toll bridges. This is long before GPS devices and cell phones in cabs, sadly. I had a paper map and my Qualcomm satellite keyboard to ask questions of my dispatcher, who, sitting in Salt Lake City, knew exactly jack and shit about driving anywhere.
But here we go, crawling carefully along my pre-planned route in New York City.
I’ve gotta admit, it was exciting. It was thrilling! Baby, if you can drive a truck here, you can drive a truck anywhere. This is the big time.
As I neared my destination, guess what happens?
If you guessed a jackass jumped up on my running board and stuck a gun in my face, why, you’d be right!
I had my window down, because weather permitting, I always rolled with my window down. I always do, even now. I love redneck driving; dead of winter, heater on full blast on my feet and my window open gusting frigid air in my face. I’ve always loved it.
I’ll drive with the rain pouring down and my side window open, and move rear windows up or down to get the perfect side draft suction so as to pull the rain away and back so it doesn’t get in my face too much.
My wife, bless her, hates having the windows open because it messes up her hair. Sigh.
So yeah, my window is wide open, and this dude jumps up on my running board and sticks a gun in my face. Was he a mob guy? A goombah? A mafiosa? No idea. they don’t carry cards, all I know is, dude was white, looked like a dirtbag, and had a shiny metal thingie with a barrel pointed in an uncomfortable direction for about a millisecond.
And I had a completely awesome knife stuck, sheath down, in the handle pouch of my door.
As Emo Philips might say, I juxtaposed the two.
It was an awesome knife, I really loved that thing. It was one of those Hibben designs I love so much (yes, that link is actually to the knife design I had, by the way, the Double Shadow), as a former knife collector and maker. Totally impractical for knife fighting, but from a fantasy and science fiction reader’s point of view, freaking cool looking. I’d bought it in a truck stop somewhere along the line, along with a gorgeous real meerschaum pipe carved in the shape of a saber toothed tiger’s head (which I still have), and kept it in the cab of my truck with me.
I want to say, I did not keep that knife for personal protection. Not hardly. I bought it and kept it because it was cool.
For personal protection, I had a tire thumper. What that is, is simply a wooden handle with a steel head on the end that you use to ‘thump’ all eighteen of your tires to check that they’ve got air pressure. You spend so much time dropping off and picking up trailers, that you’re all the time checking to see if some jerk dropped a truck off with a flat tire and left it for some other guy to deal with. So, you hook up to the trailer, hop out and thump the tires to check ‘em for pressure by sound and the feel of the impact.
They may be meant for thumping tires, but I’ve found in my experience that there are lots of other things you can thump with them, too. Pro tip; Thumping non-tire objects does not void the warranty on a piece of steel-reinforced pine.
I also sometimes tucked a tire iron alongside my seat, but hey… that’s traditional, you know?
So, back to the guy.
The flow went exactly like this, and about this fast.
I’m driving, I slow to make a right turn, I’m looking in the direction of the turn, a guy jumps on my running board on my left, grabs my rearview mirror with one hand, sticks a gun in my face with the other, my left hand drops down, grabs the Hibben knife, comes straight up and then straight out, sticking the knife out the window in his face, and bam, he’s no longer on my truck.
That’s about it.
When my hand went out, it had a knife in it.
When my hand came back in, it didn’t.
Before you ask, no, I did not stop and turn around to ask if the kind man would help me find it.
Um, no. No, I kept on trucking, my friend. I kept on trucking and I didn’t look back.
Let me check… uh huh, yep, been over fifteen years, pretty sure nobody is gonna call the cops on me for an unsolved crime for reading the post. It’s not exactly as though the knife would have been hard to track, anyway… screw DNA, it had my fingerprints all over the damn thing. As I said, not meant to be a weapon… it was just for fun.
So, after that, I was wide awake. Oh, yeah. Let me tell you, adrenaline is a mighty fine thing to get pumping, AFTER all the damn excitement is over and done with.
I continued on, made my delivery, went on a little further to make pickup, and then prepared to get my ass out of the city before something else happened. Like, I don’t know, Godzilla attacked or something. Martians, maybe.
I mean, it happened that morning. I can sit here NOW and know it’s been over fifteen years, or more actually, but back then, it was hours away, and I did not want to explain to some mildly pissed polive officer why he had to fill out paperwork because my knife ended up, well, wherever the heck it ended up.
You know, it’s another funny thing. You can tell yourself that there is no way anyone could know it was you what did it, but in the end, your gut tells you that someone somewhere had a video camera, you dropped your wallet at the scene, or a grandma wrote down your license plate number just in case some nice gentleman from the police ever asked her if she remembered a truck with, oh I dunno, a 5 foot tall, totally inconspicuous SKUNK waving a skull and crossbones flag painted on the side of it?
I picked up my cargo and made a beeline for freedom… or for New Jersey, anyway.
New Jersey… the garden state. You know your life has taken a turn when you find yourself praying you make it to Jersey, don’t you?
I made my way at top speed for the border for all of, oh, ten minutes, when I hit, guess what?
That’s right, my failure to take trucker advice number two, the traffic. And the New York drivers.
These people are bug shit insane.
The roads are mostly one way in the sections I’m driving through. They are packed in like sardines. There is simply no room. No gaps. it’s a flood of lemmings, landlocked between canyons of glass and steel.
I’ve got my route planned in advance, because the very last thing I ever, ever want to be doing is driving in the downtown of a big city, moving a massive piece of steel on eighteen wheels through the sea of teeny tiny breakable smooshable cars, while trying to read a map to figure out my next turn. I did that once in Chicago, and the experience still leaves me shivering.
Here we go. I approach an intersection where I’m going to have to make a tight right hand turn to catch my next street.
I have planned this route in advance, so I knew I was going to be turning right. I made sure I’d moved over very early into the right most lane. I am prepared!
But there are two obstacles approaching that threaten to harsh my mellow.
The first obstacle is geographical features. The second is physics.
In New York, each corner is fairly sharp. They’re not exactly pointed corners with a sharp 90° angle, but they come damn close. On this particular corner was a lamp post with walk signs and street name signs and other stuffs, right on up there near that point. That’s the geographical feature.
The second obstacle is the physics of turns and angles, specifically the fact that the tires on the back of a trailer do not actually follow the curve the tires on the front of the truck make when taking a turn. They instead cut across the angle in the direction of the turn.
If a truck with a long trailer were to make a sharp right hand turn, what you would see is the front wheels and even the rear wheels of the tractor make the turn just fine, but the rear most wheels of the trailer will cut across the corner instead of continuing on in the original direction first.
You can adjust how sharp the trailer cuts the corner by sliding the trailer wheels forward or back. Most trailer wheels are on sliding racks with a pin to hold them in position. No kidding. You can balance the weight of your trailer’s load on the wheels in this way, by sliding the trailer forward or back on the wheels. It’s easy to adjust; you just pull the pin to unlock, engage the trailer brake, and then move the truck forward or back. The rear tires stay in position while the trailer slides forward or back on the rack. Once you’ve got the trailer where you want it on the wheels, you jump out of your truck and walk back to slide the pin into place. Most truckers use it for load balancing across axles for weigh station scales. You’ve got to make sure no single axle is too heavily laden; it’s worth a ticket.
But there are limits. The fifth wheel provides a pivot point that no amount of sliding can eliminate.
When faced with a sharp turn, and especially one with objects on the corner, such as, oh, a big f’ing lamp post, what truckers use is the manuever called the fishhook turn.
This is also physics. You move the line of the front tires that the trailer tires will be following out away from the corner, so that by the time they begin cutting that corner, they’ve gotten a lead out in front.
Here’s how it works, and it’s dead simple. The truck approaching the turn, in this case a right turn, starts out going straight ahead. Then, before you reach the turn, you swerve out to the left. How far varies depending on the position of the rear wheels and the sharpness of the turn, but generally you’ll go halfway into the left lane next to you for proper positioning on a sharp turn.
Then, once the front wheels of your tractor are actually past the corner and halfway into that left lane, you make your sharp right turn, completing a full, wide curve that eventually brings your cab into the lane heading right… but your rear trailer tires, trying to follow your original wide curve, son’t begin cutting the corner until they’re already a bit past. When done right, The tractor itself swerves out to the left before darting back in to the right, and the trailer swerves out to the left but just closes the corner, the rear wheels brushing but never coming onto the curb.
It’s called a fishhook because it looks like one… a straight, then a loop around ending with the point going the new direction.
End result; no run over corners, or destroyed lamp posts.
The one downside? For a brief moment, while your tractor is making the hook part of the curve, there is a small gap between the center of your truck and the corner of the curb.
One brief, fate filled moment.
I am fearful of this approaching corner.
I’ve got to swerve out into the left lane to begin my turn, and there are cars there. There are cars everywhere!
And, omigod, there’s a cop car just two spaces behind me, behind that crappy green BMW! OH SHIT!!!!
Why, lord? Why me? I know instant karma is a bastard, but really?
I reach down, grab a pair and make sure they’re still with me, and begin to make the fishhook.
I swerve oh so gently into the left lane as I pass the right corner, making DAMN sure I am following the precise line, to the inch, to be able to clear the corner with my trailer but NOT touch the car in the left lane.
I am a freaking master. I’ve got this shit nailed.
As my trailer follows the line of the truck, and pulls away from the right hand curb., leaving that little gap of daylight for the split second before my cab blocks it off… the little son of a bitch in the shiny new BMW that is behind me jinks AROUND my trailer on the right between me and the sidewalk, making a mad dash for the corner, for all of four feet before I have the corner blocked off with, you know, my truck making the turn, and my trailer tires close the gap of behind him.
I now have a BMW cradled in the small gap formed by the angle of my tractor and trailer making a turn.
That son of a bitch.
The sea of traffic immediately inches forward, preventing any possibility that anyone in the entire universe is going to be backing up any time soon.
I… I am screwed.
Oh God, am I screwed.
I am now stuck, immobile, in the heart of New York City, with a sea of traffic around me, no room to manuever, wrapped around a corner, the cab of my truck in the cross street, my trailer in the street I was leaving, with a shiny new BMW tucked damn near under my trailer.
That son of a bitch tried to dart into the opening my trailer made, not realizing I was turning. You know, because the HUGE BLINKING TURN SIGNAL DIDN’T GIVE IT AWAY.
And right behind the BMW… a New York City police officer.
And my knife is probably sticking in some guys’ face on the other side of town.
Oh man, am I screwed. I can’t even believe this.
I wish, at this moment, that I had a beer in the truck. If you’re gonna go down, might as well go big, right?
The cop, I shit you not, turns his blue flashers on.
Where, exactly, am I supposed to go? Are you kidding me? Really? WTF was that supposed to accomplish?
It’s not like anyone behind him is going to come barreling down the road.
The cop gets out of his car. I can clearly see this from out my right side window, which is how I saw the moron in the BMW cut inside my line in the first place.
I get out of the truck myself, and come around the right side to try and fiture out how to dig my way out of this landslide. Ticket? Hell, I’m hoping to avoid jail time. Who knows how the hell they treat truck drivers with salt lake City driver’s licences in NYC? you hear things, ya know? Rubber hoses and stuff, man.
The cop walks up to the front of the BMW and gazes in, then looks at where the truck is, and I’ll be blunt, the expression on his face is one of total disgust at the sight of the BMW with it’s front end tucked into the underside of my trailer.
I almost get up to where he’s standing when he looks up at me and sticks his hand up in a big palm out ‘stop’ signal, and yells at me, saying “Get yuor ass back in your truck and get moving.”
I, having a stupid moment, keep coming, trying to figure out what I’m going to say to get my ass out of this. I can’t see how there was anything else I could do, but I’m blocking the entire street in the middle of downtown New York City. My ass, by definition, is grass.
The cop actually yells even louder, pissed this time, saying, “Get your ass back in your truck and get your ass moving, now!”
I look at the car, I look at my truck, I look at the trailer and the corner and the surrounding traffic. If I move forward so much as a foot, my rear tires are going to drive OVER the BMW.
Oh damn, the cop wants me to complete the turn, driving over the BMW. But… shouldn’t we wait for a tow truck? I look at the lamp post and the traffic… there is simply no way I can see to get the BMW out of the way. The cop is right. I’ve got no choice.
I’ve got to drive over the BMW. Oh my God, I am sooo screwed.
I get back into the cab of my truck, I release my brakes, I rev the shit out of the engine, and then I pop the clutch and, well, I complete my turn.
As the truck moves forward, I drag the fully laden trailer forward, the tires move forward…. meet the side of the BMW right behind the wheel well, touch the side of the BMW… crunch INTO the side of the BMW… rise up ONTO the hood of the BMW, crushing the shit out of it… and then fall off the other side of the now fully crushed BMW hood, with the rear trailer steel crossbeam that serves as a bumper making a final ripping gut wrenching tearing sound as it comes down into the sheet metal. I move forward a little more to get out of the way and fully pull over to the side, completing my turn, and then park and get out to pay the price.
I swing down out of the cab, and head towards the cop, my heart heavy with foreboding. The cop sees me coming, and with serious anger in his voice now, he says, “I told you to get your ASS back in the TRUCK, and get it the FUCK out of here. NOW!”
I stop dead, and my brain shuts off. I turn my ass around, veritably leaping into the cab. I rev that sucker up, and pop the clutch. The last thing I see, as I ride off into the sunset, is the cop standing next to the BMW, pulling a ticket book out of his back pocket, and lifting one foot to plant it firmly on the crushed right fender of the BMW as he began to write the driver a ticket.
I got the hell out of there, and never looked back until I reached Jersey, what the hell do you think I did?