…There’s a strict hierarchy of drivers, depending on what they haul and how they’re paid. The most common are the freighthaulers. They’re the guys who pull box trailers with any kind of commodity inside. We movers are called bedbuggers, and our trucks are called roach coaches. Other specialties are the car haulers (parking lot attendants), flatbedders (skateboarders), animal transporters (chicken chokers), refrigerated food haulers (reefers), chemical haulers (thermos bottle holders), and hazmat haulers (suicide jockeys). Bedbuggers are shunned by other truckers. We will generally not be included in conversations around the truckstop coffee counter or in the driver’s lounge. In fact, I pointedly avoid coffee counters, when there is one, mainly because I don’t have time to waste, but also because I don’t buy into the trucker myth that most drivers espouse. I don’t wear a cowboy hat, Tony Lama snakeskin boots, or a belt buckle doing free advertising for Peterbilt or Harley-Davidson. My driving uniform is a three-button company polo shirt, lightweight black cotton pants, black sneakers, black socks, and a cloth belt. My moving uniform is a black cotton jumpsuit.
I’m not from the South and don’t talk as if I were. Most telling, and the other guys can sense this somehow, I do not for a moment think I’m a symbol of some bygone ideal of Wild West American freedom or any other half-mythic, half-menacing nugget of folk nonsense.
Putting myth and hierarchy aside, I will admit to being immensely proud of my truck-driving skills, the real freedom I do have, and the certain knowledge that I make more money in a month than many of the guys around the coffee counter make in a year. The freighthaulers all know this, of course, and that’s one reason bedbuggers aren’t part of the brotherhood. It even trickles down to waitresses and cashiers. A mover waits longer for coffee, longer in the service bays, longer for showers, longer at the fuel desk, longer everywhere in the world of trucks than the freighthauler. It’s because we’re unknown. We don’t have standard routes, so we can’t be relied on for the pie slice and the big tip every Tuesday at ten thirty. We’re OK with being outside the fellowship because we know we’re at the apex of the pyramid. In or out of the trucking world, there are very few people who have what it takes to be a long-haul mover.
A typical day may have me in a leafy suburban cul-de-sac where landscapers have trouble operating a riding lawn mower, much less a 70-foot tractor-trailer. Another day may put me in the West Village of Manhattan navigating one-way streets laid out in the eighteenth century. Long-haul movers don’t live in the rarified world of broad interstate highways with sixty-acre terminals purpose-built for large vehicles. We’ve got to know how to back up just as well blind-side as driver-side; we’ve got to know to the millimeter how close we can U-turn the rig; and we’ve really got to know that when we go in somewhere we can get out again. A mundane morning’s backup into a residence for a mover will often require more skill, finesse, and balls than most freighthaulers might call upon in a year.
Since I now work for a boutique van line doing high-end executive moves, all of my work is what we call pack and load. That means I’m responsible for the job from beginning to end. My crew and I will pack every carton and load every piece. On a full-service pack and load, the shipper will do nothing. I had one last summer that was more or less typical: The shipper was a mining executive moving from Connecticut to Vancouver. I showed up in the morning with my crew of five veteran movers; the shipper said hello, finished his coffee, loaded his family into a limousine, and left for the airport. My crew then washed the breakfast dishes and spent the next seventeen hours packing everything in the house into cartons and loading the truck. At destination, another crew unpacked all the cartons and placed everything where the shipper wanted it, including dishes and stemware back into the breakfront. We even made the beds. We’re paid to do all this, of course, and this guy’s move cost his company $60,000. That move filled up my entire trailer and included his car. It was all I could do to fit the whole load on without leaving anything behind, but I managed it. I do remember having to put a stack of pads and a couple of dollies in my sleeper, though.
How well a truck is loaded is the acid test of a mover. I can look at any driver’s load and tell at a glance if he’s any good at all.
* * *
Padding furniture with rubber bands is a working-class art form.
Drivers are always comparing themselves to other drivers and always learning new tricks from each other. Often when sitting around over coffee or beers, preferably not at a truckstop, we’ll talk loading technique into the wee hours.
The basic unit of loading a moving van is called a tier. A tier is a wall of household goods assembled inside the van. My 53-foot moving van contains 4,200 cubic feet of space. Household goods average 7 pounds a cubic foot, so my truck can hold over 30,000 pounds. A standard tier is about 2 feet deep and goes across the truck 9 feet and up to the ceiling 10 ten feet, so a tier takes up 160 cubic feet. In a fully loaded van there will be twenty-five tiers each weighing 1,100 pounds, more or less.
When I arrive at a residence to begin a move, assuming I’ve gotten into the driveway and close to the house, the first thing I’ll do is prep the residence. My crew and I will lay pads and then Masonite on any wood floors, carpets will be covered with a sticky durable film that gets rolled out, and we’ll lay out neoprene runners throughout the house. Banisters and doorways will be padded with special gripping pads. Anything in the house that might get rubbed, scratched, banged, dented, or soiled is covered. Next, we’ll go around with the shipper to see exactly what is going and what is staying. Then we’ll pack everything in the house into cartons. I don’t love packing; it’s inside work and mostly tedious. I do enjoy packing stemware, china, sculpture, and fine art, but that stuff is getting rarer in American households. Books are completely disappearing. (Remember in Fahrenheit 451 where the fireman’s wife was addicted to interactive television and they sent fireman crews out to burn books? That mission has been largely accomplished in middle-class America, and they didn’t need the firemen. The interactive electronics took care of it without the violence.)
After packing, which usually takes at least a full day on a full load, I’ll write up an inventory where I put numbered stickers on everything that’s moving and jot a short description on printed sheets. The numbers all get checked off at destination so we know everything we loaded has been delivered. The inventory includes not only a description of the item but also its condition and any marks or damage. It’s essential for me to catalog the origin condition of an item in the event a shipper files a damage claim. A lot of criticism about movers has to do with how claims are handled. Moving companies require considerable documentation before paying a claim. Do you know why? It’s because so many people file bogus claims. Lots of folks want to get the moving company to pay for a refinishing job on Aunt Tillie’s antique vanity. Guess what? The moving company doesn’t pay these types of claims, nor does some nameless insurance company. The driver pays them. Me, personally, out of pocket. My deductible is $1,600 per move. That’s one reason why I’m going to be careful with your stuff, and it’s also why I’m going to write up an accurate inventory.
After prep and packing, the crew will break down beds, unbolt legs from tabletops, and basically take anything apart that comes apart. Next we’ll bring in stacks of moving pads and large rubber bands, and cover all the furniture. Padding furniture with rubber bands is a working-class art form. The bands are made by cutting up truck tire tubes into circles. Down south I’ll often see an old black man sitting on a bench at a truckstop cutting up tubes with his knife and putting them into piles. Fifty bands go for five dollars.
Upholstered pieces like sofas will be padded and then shrinkwrapped. Nothing on any of my jobs will ever leave the residence unpadded. The whole point is to minimize the potential for damage, thereby minimizing the potential for a claim. Movers don’t like claims. We don’t like to get them, we don’t like to deal with them, and we certainly don’t like to pay them.
After all this preparation, I’ll have a very clear idea how I’m going to load my truck. Smart drivers will always load problem pieces, called chowder, first. Chowder slows you down, takes up too much room, and is usually lightweight for the amount of space it takes up. Chowder also has a greater potential to damage goods loaded around it. Obviously I wouldn’t load a leather sofa next to a barbecue grill. All drivers hate chowder, but it’s a fact of life, and how you handle it is one of the things that separate good drivers from bad. The general loading rule is chowder first, cartons last.
Now I’m ready to start loading. I’ll start my tier with base pieces like a dresser and file cabinets. On top of the base I’ll load nightstands, small desks, and maybe an air conditioner. Now the tier is about eye level, with two rows of furniture going all the way across. The next level I’ll load end tables, small bookcases, and maybe a few cartons to keep it all tight. The next level I’ll lay some dining room chairs on their backs, starting with the armchairs and then interlocking the other chairs. Any open space in the tier gets filled with chowder like wastebaskets and small, light cartons. Now the tier is about eight feet high, and I’ll be up on a ladder. The next level will be light, bulky things such as laundry hampers, cushions, and plant racks. At this point there will be a few inches open to the roof, and I’ll finish the tier with maybe an ironing board and any other flat and light stuff I can find, like bed rails. When I’m finished I should have a uniform and neat tier from floor to ceiling with no gaps or open spaces anywhere.
A well-built tier is a beautiful thing to see and lots of fun to make. It’s basically a real-life, giant Tetris game with profound physical exertion incorporated into the mix. When I’m loading I go into a sort of trance because I’m totally focused on visualizing everything in the house and mentally building tiers. This is one of the sweet spots where—as anyone who has done repetitive manual labor understands—the single-minded focus, concentration, and hard physical work combine to form a sort of temporary nirvana. Helpers who regularly work with the same driver will anticipate what piece the driver wants next before he even asks for it, and furniture will disappear into a tier the instant it’s brought out. This makes loading go very quickly, and it resembles nothing so much as an elegant, intimate dance between crew and driver. Because I have a picture of everything in the house in my head, I’ll often leave the truck to fetch a particular piece for a particular spot.
It’s hard work. On a standard loading day I’ll spend ten to fourteen hours either carrying something heavy, running laps up and down stairs to grab items, carrying furniture and cartons between the house and the trailer, and hopping up and down a double-sided stepladder building my tiers.
In addition to the mental and physical strain of packing, loading, and keeping my crew motivated, there is also the presence of the shipper. Shippers are frequently not at their best on moving day. They are, after all, leaving their home and consigning all their possessions over to strangers. Shippers can be testy, upset, suspicious, downright hostile, and occasionally pleasant and relaxed. It’s the driver’s job, in addition to loading and carrying, to make sure everything and everybody runs smoothly.
To put it all in a nutshell, the long-haul driver is responsible for legal documents, inventory, packing cartons, loading, claim prevention, unpacking, unloading, diplomacy, human resources, and customer service. The job requires an enormous amount of physical stamina, specialized knowledge, and tact. I am, as John McPhee called it, the undisputed admiral of my fleet of one.
My share of that Vancouver job came to around $30,000 for ten days’ work. I had to pay the labor, of course, and my fuel and food. Still, I netted more than $20,000. A first-year freighthauler for an outfit like Swift or Werner won’t make that in a year.
I guess that’s worth being insulted in the mountains by my brethren.
* * *
The whalemen spend several days cleaning the ship and themselves, from the bilges to the top of the mainmast.
Truckers aren’t generally travelers on their off-time. The mundane domestic things that often annoy regular people are cherished by people like me. I love cleaning my little house, even the bathroom. Straightening out my garage or sorting odd socks will have me whistling with pleasure. We also do this with our trucks. It’s a rare long-haul mover who doesn’t keep his cab and trailer pristine and completely organized. I suppose it’s a psychological reaction to the mess most of us have in our lives outside the truck.
One day not long ago, Willie had me run empty to Denver after a particularly lucrative quick turn to British Columbia. I got that one because I was the only driver in the fleet with a valid passport. I was annoyed to be deadheading fifteen hundred miles. Vancouver to Denver is the same mileage as Boston to Miami, but Boston to Miami is flat all the way. From Vancouver I get to experience the full catastrophe of American mountain driving. First is Snoqualmie Pass out of Seattle, and then there’s the great granddaddy of all hills, called Cabbage, heading east out of Pendleton, Oregon. After that there are various bumps all the way to Fort Collins, Colorado, any of which would have an East Coast driver reaching for his Valium.
After I arrived at the Joyce terminal in Erie, outside Denver, I knew why they’d sent me. Terminal is not quite the word for the Joyce facility there. It’s actually a two-acre parking lot. There’s no office or staff. It’s there to spot or drop trailers and to arrange origin or destination services for drivers coming through. When there’s action in the Denver metro area, they call me to arrange help and keep the place in order. That’s fine when I’m there, but when I’m out on the road I have to do it remotely. It’s not a problem, because I have good help in Denver. But the helpers can’t drive trailers.
When I pulled into the yard I saw there were nine trailers dropped willy-nilly, all facing in different directions. All of them, I knew, would be full of empty cartons, garbage, and unfolded moving pads. The cleanup would be a massive job that reminded me of that chapter in Moby-Dick after a whale has been caught and killed and the oil has been boiled off. The whalemen spend several days cleaning the ship and themselves, from the bilges to the top of the mainmast. Once they’re done, or sometimes in the middle of the job, they spot another whale and start the process all over again. Cleaning up a previously fully loaded trailer takes two men almost a full day. There are a couple hundred pads to fold, tape to take off, cartons to empty of paper, and trash to haul. Then it’s off to the recycling center to dump the cardboard. If I have time, I’ll hose out the trailers. It’s hard to believe how filthy trailers can get hauling household goods. Not as bad as a chicken choker, but bad enough.
I called Julio and Carlos and told them we had a week’s worth of cleanup. They weren’t thrilled. First, I’d need to put some order in the lot, which meant I had to put the trailers in a line. I started with the one hooked to my tractor. I backed it onto the property line, set the brakes, laid down a sheet of plywood, and went around to the far side and cranked the trailer landing gear onto the plywood. I’ve set trailers down on dirt before, and sometimes the landing gear sinks down a couple of feet so the trailer looks like a cat stretching itself with forepaws low and ass in the air. (You need a heavy forklift or a tow truck to get the thing high enough to slip a tractor under when that happens.) After the landing gear was down I pulled off the gladhands that hold the service and brake hoses, and disconnected the electrical cord. Then I reached under and pulled the fifth-wheel lever, releasing the kingpin. (The fifth wheel is the roundish flat metal plate on the tractor that the trailer sits on. The kingpin is the rod that sticks down from the trailer that fits into a slot on the fifth wheel and locks the apparatus together.) Next, I climbed into the cab, released the air ride bags, thereby lowering my tractor, disengaged the air brake, and slid off the trailer. Now I was a bobtail tractor looking for a trailer. I backed up to another one to the point where my fifth wheel was just under the trailer. I set my brakes and hopped out to eyeball the levels to be sure they were about even. If I was too high, my fifth wheel would bang into the trailer body and damage it. If I was too low, the kingpin would bypass the fifth wheel, and my trailer would hit the back of my tractor and damage that. If I was only a little too low or a little too high, the fifth wheel hook wouldn’t engage, so when I pulled away the trailer would drop onto the ground.
I’ve done this twice and it’s horrible. The first time was on the Post Road in Cos Cob in my early days. I didn’t check the coupling, and when I made the hard left from Cross Lane onto the main road the trailer slipped off, breaking the hoses and blocking all lanes of traffic. I’m very lucky I didn’t kill anyone. The idea of traveling down a highway and watching the trailer slide away into an oncoming lane of traffic gives me nightmares even now. Especially now. Anyhow, when I dropped that one, John Callahan came out with a forklift and an extra set of hoses. He replaced the hoses, lifted the trailer with the forklift, and had Little Al slide the tractor underneath and hook up. An operation like that takes about twenty minutes, provided you have the forklift and hoses to hand.
The second time I did it was relatively recently, when a driver dropped a trailer at residence and I was to take it away. I checked the coupling and the hook was engaged, but when I started moving I could see the trailer sliding off in my mirror. I didn’t bust the hoses that time, but I did have to spend a half hour cranking the landing gear all the way from the bottom. Nowadays I always have a flashlight with me, and once I hook up I go underneath the trailer and visually inspect the coupling. After that I set my trailer brake, put the tractor into low low gear, and engage the clutch. If the tractor doesn’t move, I’m locked in, probably. I’m never 100 percent sure until I make a turn. It’s nerve-racking.
After hooking up the next trailer, I lined it up next to mine, about a foot away. I needed to make this line tight. I did this eight more times, and I had a neat row of trailers. It took about two hours. It wasn’t real moving work, like lifting pianos up staircases, but wasn’t sipping coffee at the truckstop either. Nine times cranking up the landing gear, nine times cranking down the gear, thirty-six times into and out of the tractor, eighteen times coupling hoses, eighteen times connecting and disconnecting the gladhands, and nine times pulling fifth-wheel pins. And I hadn’t started the day’s work yet.
Since I had a whole week, I was going to wash out the trailers. I pulled the first one out of the line and opened all the doors.
* * *
Call me a sentimental old mover.
There’s a large set of double doors on the driver side and four sets of doors on the shotgun side. I parked next to the loading dock, and we tossed all the pads and cartons and garbage onto the dock. Julio had a pressure hose, and he started at the front washing out the ceiling, walls, and floor. A moving trailer has slotted sides, and you wouldn’t believe the stuff that gets in there. Food, dust, dead mice, dirt, more food, and more dust. He moved the hose down the fifty-three feet and stopped at the end with his pile of yuck. We dumped it into a dumpster, and I drove the trailer around the block to dry it off. In the Colorado summer it takes about ten minutes for a trailer to dry out. Then the pads will be folded, the equipment stowed, and the cartons flattened for recycling. While the boys did that I performed a complete trailer inspection, starting on the ground with a mechanic’s creeper to check the brake adjustments. Each trailer brake has an arm that engages the brake. The play in the arm shouldn’t be more than an eighth of an inch. If it’s too much or too little, I adjust them with a 7/16 wrench. Brake arms are touchy little buggers, and they have a tendency to lock up in cold weather. I’ve spent many an early morning underneath my trailer in the snow thawing frozen brake arms with a safety flare.
Next, I checked the trailer bubble, which is a small plastic compartment at the front of the trailer, for a current registration, current DOT inspection, and current insurance card. I took my tire wear gauge and checked the tread depth on all eight skins. I took my tire buddy, a wooden dowel with a metal handle (it makes a great weapon), and banged all the tires to check inflation. I can feel if a tire is flat or soft, and if it is, I make a note to inflate or replace it at the next truckstop. Then I checked all the doors for locks and made sure the locks were lubricated and all had the same key.
We could do two of these trailers in one long day, and I had ten to do.
I’m going into all of this in detail not just to sing my song about the work but to let shippers out there know what it entails to get a truck to your front door. If any of the things I’m checking needs attention, it’s more work, time, and money. A new tire is $400 at the truckstop and a lot more if you’re out on the Big Slab, plus hours of wasted time. A DOT inspection is $150 and at least a day if there’s nothing that needs fixing, and something always needs fixing. It costs $125 to register the trailer, $1,000 to insure it, not including cargo, and $20,000 to properly equip it. My tractor costs $3,500 to register, $10,000 to insure, and $125,000 to replace. Everything requires an army of office workers doing accounting, insurance, and federal compliance in fuel taxes, registrations, logbooks, driver certification, drug testing, and DOT physical exams. Any compliance violation results in a shutdown of the vehicle.
After I’d finished with the trailers I was going to air out the mattresses in my sleeper, wash and vacuum the tractor interior, and stock the fridge with Gatorade and water. I do all this ahead of time so I don’t get delayed getting to your job.
By Friday night I’d gotten the ten trailers and my tractor cleaned and ready. Call me a sentimental old mover, but after Carlos and Julio left at 9 p.m. it was still light out, so I cracked open a beer, unlocked each trailer, and looked inside to enjoy the handiwork. Rows and rows of clean, perfectly folded pads. Belly boxes filled with cargo bars and plywood of various widths. Equipment boxes with floor runners, straps, car tie-downs, bungee cords, shrink-wrap, door pads, and humpstraps. Each trailer was perfect, and I was ready to mess them up all over again.
I ran out of room in the lot for trailer number ten, but I was loading it the next day in Littleton for San Diego, so I parked it out on the street. That night a mini tornado howled through Erie and blew the rig over onto its side. I got a call from the state police at 11 p.m. asking if there was anybody inside. I told them no and went over to supervise the two tow trucks I hired to put the tractor-trailer back on its sneakers. I have a video of the truck being upended. It cost $2,000, and one of the tow trucks took my tractor to the shop. The whole left side had been crushed. No mirrors, no windows, no lights. The trailer doors had been sprung and the landing gear destroyed. That trailer never went back out on the road.
I got to bed at 1 a.m. and was up at 4 for the trip to Penske Truck Rental in Aurora. I arrived at 6, picked up a rental tractor, drove to Erie, hooked up another trailer, and arrived with my crew at the residence in Littleton at 8:30. As I walked up to the shipper, holding my card in my hand and a smile on my face, he looked at me and said:
* * *
Selected from The Long Haul by Finn Murphy, Copyright © 2017 by Finn Murphy. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.