Sunday, May 31, 2009

Uncle John's Furniture Truck

When I was nineteen, and had been out of high school for about six months, I needed a change. I was living in Michigan with my mother, working at a dead-end job, stuffing advertisements in copies of the “Battle Creek Enquirer and News.” When I got fired for not showing up on time, I saw my chance. I asked my Uncle John, who lived in Southern California, if I could move in with him. Uncle John was thirteen years older than I was, and he had always been my favorite uncle. He was tall, thin and hilariously funny, with a winning personality that charmed everyone he came in contact with. He had studied Karate and been to jail, and he was always quick with a wisecrack. To me, he couldn’t have been cooler.

Uncle John seemed very excited about the idea of me coming to stay with him. “Sure, Bubba Jake, come on out! I’m looking at buying a truck and getting into furniture delivery, and if that doesn’t work out, I always need help with the painting business.” John was, and is, an entrepreneurial spirit, and I looked forward to working for him, not least because I figured that he would take an avuncular pity on me, and not push me too hard. Boy, was I wrong. I got a one-way ticket, and flew to L.A. I had never been south of Chicago, so everything was new to me: the palm trees, the ocean, the city stretching for unbelievable miles across deserts and mountains.

Soon after I arrived, Uncle John picked up his new truck, a 26-foot high-cube bobtail, and we showed up for work at Krause’s Sofa Factory. We were technically contractors, and Uncle John, as owner-operator, was to receive $100 per day, while I, as his helper, would get fifty. Every day, we would show up at the warehouse in Fountain Valley at about 6:00 a.m., get a stack of 18 to 25 orders, with addresses, and plan our route. Uncle John had taken apart a Thomas’ Road Atlas of the whole of Southern California, and he put the pages into a glossy plastic sleeves, which we would mark with a grease pencil. Then, we would locate the furniture in the warehouse with the help of the Filipino dock hands, Telly and Pepe. We loaded everything in the order we had determined, and by 8:00 a.m. we were on the road.

The first day we went out I remember well. I had not yet gotten the commercial endorsement on my driver’s license that was required to drive the truck, but Uncle John was anxious for me to get some practice. Also, the job of the guy who wasn’t driving was to keep up with the route on the many laminated map pages, and to give directions to the driver. Being new to the area, and no great fist at navigation, I think I was slowing things down. So I took the wheel. Within five minutes, as I was turning right out of a cul-de-sac, I cranked the wheel sharply, causing the long body of the truck to cut the corner and travel over the curb, the sidewalk and the patch of well-manicured grass in between, shearing a fire hydrant from its bolts. Uncle John laughed as we waited for the cops to arrive, to whom he swore he was driving. They wrote him a ticket as mist from a 40-foot geyser cooled us in our brown polyester uniforms. I don’t think we got back to the apartment until about 8:00 that night, so tired that we “felt like kickin’ somebody’s dog,” as John said.

We came to expect long days; hot stressful days of at least 12 to 16 hours. We were totally inexperienced at residential delivery. On a typical day during our first couple of weeks, with our truck fully loaded, we would arrive at our first stop, only to have the merchandise refused by a tragically unhappy housewife. We would load the furniture back on the truck and find our way to the next address, a “pick-up” for repair. We quickly learned not to schedule pick-ups in the morning. Our stops would take all day long, and I mean from dark to dark, even if everything went smoothly. Though the job was grueling, it was an ideal way for me, at that age, to see California from Santa Monica to San Diego, Long Beach to Palm Springs, Dusty Hemet, the purple San Gabriel Mountains and the sage-colored hills of Orange County.

It was a bit challenging to deal with bodily functions on a freeway system where public restrooms were few and far between. As we saw it, sometimes we just couldn’t afford to deviate from our rounds to search for facilities. “Damn, I’ve gotta piss,” Uncle John would groan, his knuckles white on the steering wheel, “Give me that orange juice bottle.” I would fish around on the floorboards among the burger wrappers and map pages, finally producing the bottle. “Hold it for me, I’ve gotta steer.”

“No way!” I would yell, throwing it at him.

Our diet was correspondingly grim. Once we were getting lunch at “In-n-out” Burger, and the girl behind the counter was apologetic. “Sorry about the wait,” she said.

“That’s okay. You carry it well,” quipped John. As always, he had a twinkle in his eye that was so disarming that the girl took no offense.

He was also never one to shrink from a fight. Once, when we were in Palos Verdes, driving up a steep, winding road lined with low-hanging tees, our truck knocked down a small branch. “City’s supposed to keep that shit trimmed to fourteen feet,” Uncle John muttered. We continued up, and made our delivery, but on the way back down, a red-faced man who had been watering his lawn was waiting for us in the middle of the road, holding the branch. Bold and rotund, he came angrily up to my window and shoved the branch violently in my face. “Knock down my trees, will you?” he yelled. John exploded out of the truck and chased the man up his driveway and around and around the car that was parked there.

“Where you goin’?” cried Uncle John.

“To get my gun,” panted the man.

“Go get your gun. I’ll shove it up your ass!” Uncle John shouted gleefully.

Finally, after three months of a nightmarish cycle of work and sleep, I had had enough. I told Uncle John, “I’ve gotta do something else.”

“That’s cool, Jake,” he said, I’m gettin’ sick of this, too, and I’m not even making enough money to pay for the truck.”

I went out and found a 9 to 5 job painting signs. Uncle John continued on with his trucking business for a while longer, eventually going back to painting and then to Spanish-language interpreting, but I’ll always remember how he taught me to work. He did it by example. Always, even at 10:00 p.m. with three stops to go, Uncle John carried on with an attitude of humor and resignation. All these years later, when I am weary or frustrated at work, I think back on those days -- it was the hardest job I’ve ever had -- and I have learned that there is always something to laugh about, and there is always a way to find joy in “getting the job done”.

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