Sunday, August 10, 2008

"You're Doin' A Great Job!"

It wasn't supposed to be like this. It was just a normal load, like hundreds of others I've had. The only thing different about it was that it was going to a little place out on Long Island: West Babylon, New York, about halfway out on the island, 35 or 40 miles from New York City.

Not very many truck drivers like driving around New York City, or over in New Jersey. My biggest concern about this load was that I would get out there, and would have to wait for a while to get my next load. And there just aren't many places a big truck can park up here. And there are so many low bridges and restricted roads that if you make a wrong turn in a truck, sometimes it can be a big problem.

So, yesterday morning, I left the truck stop I'd stayed at Friday night in New Hampshire, and was making good time on my way down to New York. I didn't have any problems getting through the City, and the drive east out across Long Island on the Long Island Expressway was lovely.

Where is this place? From the Long Island Expressway (aka the LIE), my directions were pretty straightforward: get off at exit 51 on State Road 231, go south all the way to the end of the road, and then take the Montauk Highway (State Road 27A) west.

Then all my directions said were: “See facility.”

Well, when I read something like that, it sounds like when I make the turn on to the Montauk Highway, I will see it right away, and it will be something I can see from the road.

According to my GPS, the address for this place was about a mile and a half up the road, so I knew my directions were wrong. So I drove on down the road, paying attention to the addresses so I'd know when I was getting close. When I was in the right block, I couldn't see the place. There was a big shopping center, but there was no “Stop and Shop”, the grocery store where I was delivering this 46,000 pounds of bottled water I'd picked up in Maine on Friday.

I slowed down even more. Where could it be? You can't just hide a grocery store, can you?

I saw an address that was higher than the one I was looking for, and I thought I had passed the place, even though I sure hadn't seen a grocery store.

Things go bad. Just then, I spotted an abandoned car dealership that had a huge, empty lot I could easily turn around in. So I pulled in there, and got turned around. No problems.


I called the number I had for the store, and talked to someone, told them where I was at, and that I thought I had passed their store. I told them I was in an abandoned car dealership parking lot, and that there was a big shopping center with a Big Lots store in it that I had just passed.

“ Oh, you're real close,” she said. I just needed to turn around, and come back down the highway to the next traffic signal, turn there, and they were right there. They were waiting on the water I was bringing, because they would run out of their current stock soon.

Sounds simple. I put the truck in gear, and headed out of the parking lot the same way I had come in – remember, when I'd come in that way, there were no problems. I wasn't expecting any on the way out.

This is a four lane highway, the main highway through West Babylon, so I'm watching the traffic very carefully. Lots of people were out and about, shopping, running errands, whatnot.

When the traffic light just east of me turned red, it cleared the traffic coming from that direction, and there was nothing coming from the west. I look left, right, left, right, still clear.

I start to pull out into the highway, thinking, “Man, I'm almost there. Got it made.”

I was across the first two lanes, and I hear this awful racket and hear something hit the back of my truck, between the truck and trailer.

I looked in my left mirror just in time to see a huge wire come down from the pole.

My thought was that I had snapped the wire, and I needed to get across the road, stop and call the police.

It gets worse. As I'm thinking I need to get across this road, suddenly my trailer brakes lock up, as I am literally straddling across four lanes of this major road, and I can't go forward or backward.

From the time I started pulling into the roadway until my truck lurched to a sudden stop was about five seconds.

Of course, a few seconds later, four lanes of traffic is coming at me, from both directions. And these people can just see this huge orange truck blocking the road.

I soon learned what had happened: somehow, even though I was able to go into the parking lot, coming out, the right corner of my trailer snagged on this huge telephone cable, and pulled it loose, along with it's steel-cable support wire. They both fell between my truck and trailer. The main line (about three inches in diameter, the main telephone and data connection from one side of town to the other) did not break, even though the smaller steel support cable did.

What they did do was fall on my air lines for the trailer brakes, and the big wire went under my right side rear tires, wedging between the brakes and the truck frame. And as it did this, it pulled my brake lines back under the trailer, toward the fifth wheel (the part of the truck the trailer connects to), and they immediately snapped under the pressure, locking the trailer brakes.

Meeting the nice people of West Babylon, New York. Of course, sitting there in the road, blocking traffic, unable to move, I didn't know what had happened. Only that it was not good.

As quickly as I realized I wasn't going anywhere, I called 911. I told the operator as much as I could – I'm in a truck, knocked a line down (at first I thought it was a power line, and might be live, so I didn't dare get out of the truck to look around), and needed the police right away. No one else involved, no one hurt, but I can't move my truck, and I'm blocking all four lanes of Montauk Highway.

Meanwhile, the people who were blocked, were going around behind me through the abandoned parking lot I'd just come out of.

It only took about five minutes for the Suffok County Police, and the West Babylon Fire Department to show up. A few minutes later, someone from the local electric utility was there.

Later, I found out that it wasn't an electric line that had come down, but a telephone line, so before long, someone from Verizon, the local phone company, was there.

I have to say this: I was amazed at how quickly and efficiently the police got things under control, re-routing traffic, and taking care of things. Of course, the fire department left when they saw everything was as it was – no live wires, no fire, no injuries.

Another thing that struck me about everyone on the scene of this little excitement I had inadvertently created: everyone I dealt with, throughout the entire episode, was nice, professional, courteous, and that made the situation much less stressful for me.

After meeting all these Long Islanders, I might have to re-evaluate my prejudices about how rude people up north are. These kind people were as nice as anyone I have ever dealt with down south.

You have to use someone from our town's list.” Of course, the first thing the officer I initially spoke to wanted to do was to get my truck out of the road. I told him my brakes had locked up, and I couldn't move. We didn't know at that time exactly what had happened.

I told him I'd call my company's maintenance number, and they would send someone out to get the truck moving, or have it towed.

I got on the phone with Schneider Maintenance, told them what happened, and the guy kept me on the phone while he contacted a towing service nearby. The guy from the towing company got on the phone, and he was from a nearby village there on Long Island. He told me something I'd never heard of, couldn't believe: he would not be allowed to come out to help me because his company was not on West Babylon's “tow list.”

Before he would come out, he wanted me to ask the officer about it.

I told the officer what he'd said, and the officer said that was right. Just anyone couldn't come out; it had to be a company from the town's approved list.

I told the guy from Schneider what they said, and told them that the police would call someone out from their list.

Here's the way it works (as I understand it now): every town has a list of approved towing companies who are allowed to respond to accidents and other needs. The towing company pays lots of money to the town for the privilege of being put on the list. And they get a monopoly on providing services.

What this means is obvious: it's like breaking down in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, and there's only one mechanic. You are at their mercy.

So, these towing companies can charge whatever they want for coming out. And, my company, Schneider, who could have called someone else and paid a lot less, gets ripped off.

So, even though everyone was nice, this little incident just reinforced my stereotyped notions about this part of the country. If this isn't a racket, I don't know what is.

Back to our story. So, the police called someone from their approved list, and that was how I met Brad, from Roll Rite Towing. Brad was a big, burly man, tatoos on his huge arms, a thick New York accent, very brusque way of speaking. And one of the nicest people I've ever met.

By the time Brad got there with his huge tow truck, the phone people were there, and I knew a little bit more about what had happened. I knew the cable wasn't broken, but was stuck underneath my truck, and that the brake lines to the trailer had broken.

The phone company guys didn't want to cut the cable because they would knock out phone and data service for several thousand people.

So their plan was to try to get the cable loose from the truck, lift it back up over the truck so I could move, and then restring the cable.

It sounds simple. But it wasn't.

I had pulled the wire down at 12:45 pm. The wire finally got loose from the truck about 5:30 pm. And my truck blocked the road the whole time.

So I got to know those people from the Police Department, the crew from Verizon, and Brad, better than I would have wanted to under these circumstances.

You're doin' agreatjob!” Right across the street from where I had blocked the road was an assisted living center. Looks like a nice place.

After I'd been there about two hours, I was standing on the sidewalk, watching everyone work, waiting on hold to talk with someone at Schneider on my cell phone. From the assisted living center, I noticed this really elderly lady with a walker – she must have been in her mid-80's at least – slowly shuffling up the sidewalk toward where I was standing. Behind her was a slightly younger woman, walking slowly.

As they came near, I moved off the sidewalk on to the grass so they could get by more easily.

I learned from hearing their conversation that they were going to the bank that was right next door.

As the second lady passed me, she broke off her conversation with the lady using the walker, looked over at me, beamed a huge smile at me, and in a sweet, thick New York accent, told me: “You're doin' a great job!”

That was all. Then she went back to her conversation with the first lady.

I was still on hold with Schneider, but I couldn't help it: I laughed out loud.

That lady had no idea who I was, what I was doing, had no idea I was the truck driver who had caused all this mess. But I guess I looked official standing there with my phone, so she figured I must be in charge of getting everything straightened out.

It was hilarious, and it made my day. It made this very stressful situation much less so. I told all the other guys working what had happened, and we all laughed about it.

Finally! After over five hours of hard work by the police officers, the crew from the phone company, and Brad from the towing company, the phone cable was extricated from my truck, my brakes were fixed, and I was free!

I wasn't sure whether the officer would give me a citation or not. But he didn't.

I was told during the day that the same thing had happened not long ago. I was also told several times by several people that the wire was too low, that it wasn't at its legally required height, that if it had been, this wouldn't have happened.

What I still haven't puzzled out is why there was no problem at all when I went into the parking lot. It's almost like someone lowered the wire while I was turning around.

What's even worse is that I hadn't passed the place I was going to in the first place, and if I'd had accurate directions, I would have been able to get to the place I was going – less than two blocks further up the road. It wasn't directly on the street, but sat away from the road several hundred yards.

I had talked to the store manager several times during the afternoon to let him know what was going on.

I had also talked to more people at Schneider and officials from Suffolk County than I can count from memory, repeating the same story over and over, adding details as I found out more about what had happened.

And everyone I spoke to was nice.

Out to see the show. Not long after I saw the lady with the walker and her friend who thought I was doing such a great job, one of the guys from the phone crew who was up in a bucket trying to get the cable loose from the truck yelled out to everyone to look across the street.

Over there at the assisted living facility, lined up out front watching everything going on were eight or nine people in wheelchairs or other chairs like they were in front row seats at a huge concert, or in courtside seats at a basketball game, or prime box seats at the opera. They were just smiling, watching, being entertained.

We all laughed and remarked about how it was probably the most excitement they'd had in years.

But it was so sweet to see them all sitting out there. My heart felt better just seeing all of them sitting out there. And it got my mind off myself and my thoughts about this whole situation.

In the end. As I said, the cable finally got untangled, my truck got loose. I didn't get a ticket from the officers.

Brad's company got a check from Schneider for – unbelievable -- $3200.

When I drove back through there early this morning, the road was open, the cable was up – higher, I noticed – and things were back to normal. There was no one sitting in front of the assisted living center.

I finally made it to the grocery store, they got me unloaded, and they were nice enough to let me take my break right there, so I didn't have to find a place to park.

Brad. The tow truck driver. The one whose company (it wasn't him personally) ripped off my company just because they could. We had talked all day, shooting the breeze, talking about trucking, life, and we had gotten to know each other a little bit.

About 9:30 last night, after I was unloaded, and about to lay down to sleep (you can imagine how tired I was after all that excitement), this car comes to the back of the store and pulls up beside my truck.

Who could this be? Some security guy trying to run me off? But the manager said it was okay for me to stay here.

It was Brad. And his wife. He came over to the truck.

“ Just checking on you,” he said. “Making sure you're okay. You need anything?”

“ No. I'm good,” I told him. I thanked him for his help, told him it was real nice meeting him.

We shook hands. He said good night, got in his car. As they pulled away, he and his wife both waved at me.

Next time I talk about how rude northerners are, will you remind me about Brad? And the Suffolk County Police? The Verizon guys? And a little old lady who had said, “You're doin' a great job!”

Until next time . . . keep the wheels rollin' . . . and keep “doin' a great job” . . .


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