The Worst Ever First Day on the Job
Punching In: My Life as A Long Haul Trucker
I’ve lived a good part of my life in an odd netherworld. Working people are suspicious of my diction and demeanor, and white-collar people wonder what a guy like me, who looks and sounds like them, is doing driving a truck and moving furniture for a living. The truth is, I wasn’t brought up to be a long-haul mover. I was raised by conscientious parents, educated by the Catholic Church, and fine-tuned by the sensibilities of a prestigious New England liberal arts college. None of it stuck because Dan Bartoli, the proprietor of Dan’s Service Station in Cos Cob, Connecticut, where I got my first job, nailed me at an impressionable time and introduced me to low company and hard work.
Working at Dan’s blasted me out of the sheltered, church-oriented life I had known. My baptism began the first instant of my first day at the gas station when Dan trotted out his employee orientation speech:
“The middle word of this enterprise is ‘Service,’ and that’s what we give here. The first word of this enterprise is ‘Dan’s,’ that’s me. You give service and remember that this business belongs to me, we’ll get along fine. You got that, you dim fuckin’ peckerwood?”
Before that day I can’t remember ever being sworn at. Before that day I had never heard an adult say the word “fuck.” I was 15 years old. Dan wasn’t kidding about service. You had to wash all the windows, check the oil, the power steering fluid, the brake fluid, and the transmission fluid, wipe off any spilled gas, and chat up the customer about the latest Yankee game or town gossip, all in a fluid motion so as not to waste anyone’s time but still give full value to each customer. Dan was a master. He knew every customer’s name, their kids’ names, and the latest news from the church, firehouse, Rotary meeting, or school. In public, Dan always had the perfectly appropriate response for any social situation. It was an elaborate ritual, and regular customers would stop and get two bucks’ worth of gas just for the experience.
I don’t know why, but I felt right at home. I liked being around machines and being taught how to use them properly. (My father couldn’t distinguish the business end of a screwdriver from the handle.) I liked the responsibility too. It was a huge adolescent passage to be selected to work the night shift, from 6 to 9 pm, because it meant I was a trusted member of the team. In my family, where the term “school night” had a religious ring and all social activities were proscribed, work was the one exception. Since I lived only a few minutes’ walk away and was eager to find some solace from my seven brothers and sisters sequestered in a too-small house ruled by the iron fist of an Irish matriarch, I was a ready candidate for the night shift.
The idea now seems incredible that a lone 15-year-old boy would be placed in a gas station on US Route 1 at night, collecting cash, but it was a more innocent time. Dan’s cash-management protocol was that whenever we had 50 dollars in the till we were to slip 30 into the safe and keep 20 for the bank. His instructions about what to do if we were robbed were unequivocal:
“Give the Bluegum all the money, fill up his stolen car, get the license plate, and call the cops. Even your measly life isn’t worth 20 bucks to me.” I was surprised that in Dan’s world all thieves and drug users were black and from the Bronx. In my admittedly limited experience, theft and drug use were exclusive to Dan’s own employees and the kids from the even more affluent Backcountry, who were all white, privileged denizens of Greenwich, Connecticut.
The other plum shift at Dan’s was any weekday after 4:30. That’s when the movers from Callahan Bros. Moving & Storage, located next door, would walk past the gas island and settle themselves along the steel median fence under the big tree at the far end of Dan’s lot to drink beer after they’d punched out for the day.
All of Dan’s gas jockeys were well acquainted with the Callahan men because we’d see them every day adding to the chain of beer can tops they’d been assembling for years between the trees. Building the chain of beer can tops was a sea change from the more ancient practice of simply throwing the empty cans up onto Dan’s roof, which had been flat with a big lip all around. That tradition ceased when it was time for Dan to replace his roof, and rather than move several thousand beer cans, the roofers just laid new plywood over the cans and made the roof flush with what had been the lip. After this improvement, the cans simply rolled off, so it was time for a new game. That’s when they started building the chain of beer can tops. At the time of my ascension from gas jockey to mover, the chain wound back and forth about six times along a distance of about sixty feet. I’ve no idea how many beers that represented, but I do know it wasn’t a true sampling of consumption, because every once in a while Dan would get pissed off at the movers for pulling some stupid antic and he’d rip down the chain and ban them forever from beer drinking on his property. That meant things would resume their normal tempo the following Monday.
I knew John Callahan, owner of Callahan Bros., because every morning he would park his car at Dan’s gas pump for one of us to fill the tank and check the oil. John would leave a quarter on the dashboard as a tip to whoever got to the car first. This would be, to my certain knowledge, the only Callahan Bros. vehicle whose oil level was ever regularly checked. The quarter was always an incentive for someone to stub out his smoke and service John’s car. John’s quarter wasn’t nearly as big an incentive as the crisp new dollar bill that Griff Harris, the insurance man and former mayor, left on the steering wheel, though. Griff Harris always had the newest-model Cadillac Eldorado, and the gas jockeys would often fight to get to it more for the privilege of driving his car the 50 feet to his parking space than for the dollar. Griff’s office was around the corner, and he and John Callahan constituted the summit of local royalty by being the only two people in Cos Cob who could drive up to the gas pumps and leave their car unattended without provoking a cataclysmic conniption from Dan.
Dan’s gas jockeys were ardent observers of the Callahan men and their habits. As I got a little older and saw the movers crossing the gas island over to the tree, their green T-shirts soaking wet with sweat or brine-encrusted with dried sweat, pounding beers in the late-summer sun, telling their stories of hard work done well, hard work done poorly, road trips, good moves, horrendous moves, my interest intensified. The gas jockeys were part of their scene in a distant kind of way, but it was abundantly clear we were not part of their world. Like the Post Road in front, and Dan’s next door, the gas jockeys were background music for the movers. We were younger, for one thing, and we didn’t do the same kind of work, for another. Especially that kind of work which was a source of pride for them and awe for us. Lots of people simply can’t do that kind of work, and we all wondered, if the day ever came, whether we would measure up and be dubbed “a good worker” or fail and be permanently dismissed as “candy-ass office muck.” We could see the scars, smell the sweat, and translate the banter. This was tough work for tough men. Because of that, no gas jockey would have dreamed of approaching the movers, initiating a conversation, or commenting on anything said, still less to helping himself to one of those frosty Schaefer cans peeking suggestively through the ice cubes in the coolers under the tree. On the other hand, the Callahan men could call a gas jockey over at any time and grill him for the entertainment of the other movers—on his sex life (nonexistent, if you don’t count masturbation), on how much pubic hair he had (also nonexistent for a late-blooming Celt), or on why he’s working for such a maniac (Dan) in such a chickenshit job (pumping gas).
For me, these periodic grillings were just another lesson in hierarchy similar to countless others I’d been subjected to at school, church, and home. It started to creep over me that maybe pumping gas wasn’t the right career for me. I’d had enough of dirty magazines, cheap talk, cigarettes, and Dan’s mercurial moods. Dan was bored, and like a caged tiger pacing all day in a circle, he exhausted his active mind with irrational acts of willfulness and racist screeds to pass the time. Dan had ended up on the wrong treadmill, and he hated that. By the time I was 17 I knew I had to get out of there. Lucky for me, for the first and only time in my life I knew exactly where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do.
I wanted, in the worst way, to exchange my light blue polyester Mobil shirt with the red Pegasus on it for the green cotton sweat-stained T-shirt festooned with the white Callahan Bros.
Moving & Storage logo and the little North American Van Lines tractor-trailer. Sweat was manhood. Sitting and drinking with the boys after work and sharing the secrets of their underworld looked like a brotherhood. My American Dream was to earn one of those shirts. I wanted the right to walk up to the tree, open a beer, casually hook the top onto the unbroken chain, and be at home and relaxed; to be in the cradle, so to speak. I wanted to be in some hierarchy where I wasn’t at the bottom. Looking back on it now, I must have started out pretty low to think that being accepted as an equal by a small group of working-class drunks was a move up, but there you are. It’s the truth no matter how pathetic it sounds.
My 18th birthday was May 22, 1976, and that afternoon, after school, I walked into the Callahan Bros. office, filled out an application, and was hired. When I told Dan I was going to work for Callahan, he shrugged and wished me luck. I wasn’t the first or the last guy to leave Dan to go over to the movers.
On the appointed day I left my house at 7:30 am for the ten-minute walk to Callahan Bros. It was humid and hot; one of those June days when the early morning temperature is hovering around 85, giving you a slapping reminder of the brutal summer weather on the way. I hadn’t slept much the night before because I didn’t want to be late for my first day as a mover.
I arrived at Callahan’s at twenty to eight, and though I was early, Bobby Rich, one of the regular guys, was already there. He said, “Hi, Murph,” and looked me over as I tentatively hovered near the time clock. He asked me if I was there to service John’s car, and I swelled with pride and said no, I was coming to work for Callahan’s. Bobby nodded, showed me how to punch in, including how to hit the punch button before the ten-minute click so I’d be paid from 7:50 instead of 8 pm, and led me downstairs to the employee room. It was a humble place permeated with the smell of cardboard boxes, which I’ll take to my dying day. There was a ten-seat poker table in the corner with a Masonite cover topped with porn magazines and ashtrays. Everybody smoked. Bobby sat at the table, and when I went to sit down next to him he directed me to the sprung sofa against the wall. I may have been wearing a Callahan shirt, but I hadn’t earned a place at the big table.
The guys began to trickle in, and I could hear the thump of work boots and the click of the time clock as each worker came through the door upstairs. Down they came: Little Al, the resident Mephistopheles; Ralph, the laziest drunk in southeastern Connecticut; Cuzzie, a teetotal cousin of John’s from Stamford; Billy Belcher, called Bull; Richie, a huge taciturn kid they called the Gentle Giant; Jimmy, the policeman, who could drink more beer than any three men; Howard and Joe, the two black men; David, the overweight son of the boss, christened by Little Al as the Incredible Bulk; and a couple of other part-timers. All the regulars, including Howard and Joe, sat at the poker table.
In addition to me there was another new guy that day: a seven-foot two-inch colossus named Gary Rogers. I knew Gary vaguely from Little League, where he had been the home run king. When I looked at Gary I realized how little I was bringing to this moving game. I was small for my age, chicken-chested, and scared. Gary was massive and confident. He was from a posh family in Old Greenwich, and everything he’d ever done in life had been a rousing success.
TC Almy, the Callahan dispatcher, came down promptly at eight to hand out work assignments. Each assignment was on a clipboard attached to a vinyl case containing basic tools. On top was the bill of lading, which contained the vital information for the job: the address of the shipper, a listing of who was on the crew, the hourly billing rate, the destination address, and an estimate of how much time the move should take.
Moving companies like Callahan’s perform four categories of moving work: local, commercial, long-distance, and international. Callahan’s work was mostly local moving, which entails loading up someone’s house in the morning and then unloading in the afternoon at the new house. It takes the greatest toll on the body because you are handling stuff every working day. Long-haul drivers get plenty of days when they’re just sitting and driving; international moves are almost never time-sensitive, so the pace is easier; and commercial jobs—moving offices around—are mostly done with dollies and elevators. It’s the local stuff that eventually kills you or drives you to drink; more commonly, both.
I was assigned that first morning to work in Little Al’s crew and take part in a big commercial job moving a company from the second floor of a house in Stamford to an office building in Greenwich. The company was called International Aviation, and whatever they did required a lot of paperwork, because they had 45 lateral file cabinets, all of them full. At a guess I’d say each one weighed 400 pounds.
We arrived at the job late because Little Al had gotten the address wrong. He had extremely poor eyesight but out of misplaced vanity he refused to wear glasses. At five feet five, with a massive beer belly and weighing over 220, he was strange-looking in an off-balance sort of way, like maybe he’d had glandular problems as a kid. He had long mutton-chop sideburns, oiled hair going straight back, and a permanent wad of Copenhagen in his lip. Glasses wouldn’t have made much difference to the overall impression he created, which was that of a genial circus dwarf with more than a touch of malice. Little Al’s standard procedure when driving to a shipper’s house was to hand the bill of lading to the guy in the shotgun seat and ask him to read off the address. This usually worked pretty well, except in this case Joe was sitting shotgun. Joe wasn’t much of a reader, so when he read the street address of International Aviation, 2002 Summer Street, he told Al it was “two hundred two.” Half an hour later, when we were sitting in front of the triple-decker tenement at 202 Summer Street, Little Al insisted on looking at the bill of lading. He shed out the glasses he kept for emergencies, read the number 2002, and said, “Joe, what number did you say the shipper was at?”
“Two hundred two.”
“Is this the number?”
“You call this number two hundred two?”
“Al, don’t you know nothing? Don’t blame me ’cause you’re blind. Two zero zero is two hundred, right?”
“So two zero zero two is two hundred and two.”
“OK, Joe. Never mind.”
So we were a little late arriving. It was only 8:30, but it was going to be a scorching hot day when everything shimmers in the distance and dogs and cats find a shady corner somewhere to wait it out. Al handed out work assignments, and, seeing as how the whole crew had known me for years as one of Dan’s candy-ass gas jockeys, I was assigned to the file room. Such work I never imagined. I carried the first lateral file with Bobby Rich. Bobby was short, thick, and about 55 years old, and he’d been a mover his whole life.
The file room was in a second-floor office, and the egress was down a winding staircase far too narrow to even consider using a hand truck. Bobby and I handled the first lateral down fairly smoothly, but there was no place to really grab the piece, and our sweaty forearms and hands made the seamless metal slippery. I couldn’t believe two guys were lifting something this heavy, this bulky, this slippery, down and around a flight of stairs. I was on the bottom, of course. Bobby might have taken me under his wing, but he wasn’t going to make things easy for me. Any giving way on the piece going down would have been instant death. We’d only just started, and already my arms were in agony. I was scared, and we had 44 more laterals to bring down. I dropped the second lateral just before we got to the lip of the stairs, and the metal edge carved a crimson serpent down the inside of my forearm. First blood, I remember thinking, as Bobby whisked me to the men’s room to stanch the bleeding. Little Al grabbed some paper towels and tried to wipe the blood off the carpet. At this, the boys took pity on me, or more likely didn’t want any more blood sprayed over the shipper’s office, so they assigned me to lug banker’s boxes from the top of the stairs out to the truck.
My equally green colleague Gary Rogers was with me, and we commiserated together on how different this was from what we had expected. There were still 43 more lateral files to be brought down, and my overriding thought was that they would be brought down. Everyone on the crew realized that this job was a bitch, but nobody ever considered not doing it. When you hired movers, they moved it. Execution was the imperative. This unequivocation was very attractive to me then, as it is now.
We finished loading at noon, piled into the truck, and drove over to Billy Graves’s West End Tavern on Fairfield Avenue for lunch. The boys ate at Billy’s whenever they were in Stamford because the beers were cheap, the service fast, and there was a big fenced-in parking lot in the back so John Callahan wouldn’t see the truck if he happened to be driving around. It had recently become a dismissible offense to drink on the job at Callahan’s. This constituted a huge break in tradition. The shift had been caused by the workers’ vote to join the Teamsters Union a few months before; John Callahan felt betrayed, and since there was already language in the Teamster contract about alcohol use on the clock, John decided to enforce it verbatim. From one day to the next, anyone caught drinking would be immediately fired. This didn’t change anything really. Everyone drank just as much and just as often, but now they had to hide their beers and find lunch taverns with enclosed parking lots.
In the preunion days, lunch would always be at a bar. On particularly tough jobs, John Callahan himself was known to show up late in the day with a case of beer for the crew. On road trips, it was the job of the guy in the shotgun seat to prepare a thermos of cocktails for the driver. At the end of a move, the shipper always offered us beer. Often our work would take us into New York City, which required a 7 am start. At 7:20 we’d get off I-95 in Pelham and stop at Arthur’s Bar and drink a couple or three screwdrivers before heading into Manhattan. As far as I could tell, the moving business floated on an ocean of alcohol.
Lunch at Billy Graves’s was a frenetic affair. I had a bag of chips and kept drinking the beers that appeared in front of me. I was pretty shell-shocked by the morning’s work, so I didn’t really register the orgy of engorgement some of my colleagues were engaged in. It was as if someone had set a stopwatch and said, “OK, guys, you have 30 minutes, so get her done!” Jimmy ate nothing but drank at least seven beers. Richie ordered three calzones and drank four beers while waiting for them, drank two more beers while wolfing them down, and then drank two beers for dessert. Everyone else dined in a similar manner.
Someone had evidently told TC that maybe I’d better take it easy in the afternoon, because after lunch I was sent with Billy Belcher, Gary, and Ralph to work a small local job. Billy knew it was my first day and that the temperature was above 90, so he sent me up to the attic to clean out chowder.
Now I grew up in an old Victorian house. It didn’t have an attic. I’d never even seen an attic, certainly never been in one, and definitely never been in one in the middle of a hot day, after a morning of killing work, after drinking four beers at lunch on an empty stomach, and after being gently hazed by a bunch of work-worn movers, most of whom knew me as one of the skinny, hollow-chested, wise-asses from Dan’s. So I didn’t know there was only Sheetrock between the rafters in an attic.
I grabbed one of those plastic clothes storage hanger things to bring downstairs, stepped between the rafters, heard a crash, and opened my eyes to find myself lying on the king-size master bed one floor below clutching the clothes hanger in a tight embrace. Looking up I could see in the sheetrock the jagged outline of a human form in free fall. Billy Belcher heard the crash and came running upstairs to the attic. He couldn’t find me and came down and saw me lying on the bed, fully involved with the clothes hanger, and observed: “Good thing these people are moving out and not in.” Gary Rogers went up to finish the attic. Billy went to call the office.
We finished loading and stopped at the warehouse, where I cowered in the truck trying to make myself invisible. Billy Belcher came back from a brief conclave with management and told me everything was going to be ok, but I needed to relax and slow down. We then drove over to the shipper’s destination house to unload. Billy told me to open the truck’s side doors to get a little air into the hot truck. I went around to the side and studied the door latch for a long time. Slow down. Relax. I figured out the door latch and opened the side door an inch or two. I had the matter well in hand. It was only a matter of applied main force to get some air to my sweating comrades. I pulled the door a little harder and it gave a little more. That’s the ticket, I thought, and I yanked hard. The door had given way another eight inches or so when someone yelled, “Stop!” I stopped. As is standard procedure, Billy Belcher had secured all the paintings and mirrors tightly together against the truck wall, using the strap and clip that fits into grooves along the sides. One of the clips was attached to the side door. By pulling on the door I had tightened the strap against all of the glass. By yanking on the door I had broken three mirrors, four picture frames, and the top of an antique vanity.
Billy told me to take it easy, smoke a cigarette, and fold some moving pads. Gary Rogers cleaned up the broken glass while Ralph scowled at me. Taking it easy, folding pads, and smoking cigarettes was evidently his job. Billy went to make another phone call.
John Callahan came out in his car to survey the damage and then drove me back to the warehouse. It was a long, quiet ride, though comfortable because John had the AC cranked up high. In fact it was the coolest I’d been all day. John was pensive and silent. We drove into the warehouse yard, and he told me to park his car and then collapse the empty moving cartons on the loading dock and put them in the dumpster. This I accomplished without incident, and frankly, I was rather proud of myself.
When 4:30 rolled around and the boys began to return from their various jobs, we saw a plume of smoke rising at the far end of the yard. John Callahan’s car, idling in the sun since 2:30, with the AC turned up full in the heat of a 90-degree day, was peacefully melting down in the sunlit corner where I’d parked it two hours before. I had neglected to shut off the engine.
I wanted to run away. I never wanted to look at any of these people again, and I knew what I was going to do. I’d quit before I was fired. Bobby Rich came over, looked at me, and quietly said, “Let’s go punch out, Murph.” I went into the foyer where the time clock was, grabbed my virgin time card, slunk into the office, and laid it on John’s desk. “I won’t need this anymore. Please don’t pay me for today either. I must have cost you more money today than any ten guys.”
John looked up from his pile of claim forms, eyed me narrowly, paused a moment, and handed the time card back to me. “Go punch out. You’ll need this card tomorrow. Don’t be late, we’ve got a busy day.”
I heard the next day that my exploits were subject number one under the tree at Dan’s that afternoon. I didn’t attend, needless to say, but I received the distinct impression that the general view was that I had demonstrated a lot of pluck carrying the lateral files in the morning, which showed promise, and that I was such a fuckup the boys couldn’t wait to see what I’d do next and was therefore welcome.
The next morning I punched in seconds before the clock ticked ten to eight. I waited and looked for Gary Rogers, but I found out later he had called in sick.
The job was obviously too much for him.
Excerpted from THE LONG HAUL: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road by Finn Murphy. Copyright (C) 2017 by Finn Murphy. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.