Monday, March 31, 2008

P's and Q's

My truck school buddy S recently told me he was a little upset when he originally learned I'd be in his group. "I didn't want a girl in the truck with me," he said. "Nothing against you specifically, I just didn't want to have to mind my P's and Q's all the time." This was before he learned that I was virtually unoffendable. He's gotten over it by now, obviously, since he can tell me this and we can laugh about it, but it makes me wonder about the impact of such an attitude.

I've been lucky so far, and haven't run into the "girls can't drive trucks" attitude. Then again, I'm in northern California, at a school staffed largely by women, and it's the 21st freaking century when some national companies have hair salons in their terminals. My classmate's comments are making me realize that the lack of obvious opposition to women being in this industry does not necessarily mean acceptance. They may not question the legitimacy of my presence in the driver's seat, but they will curb their behavior when I'm around.

The upside is that I'll hear fewer farts and stupid jokes. But the downside strikes me as a dangerous sort of social inequality. Many male drivers, I realize now, will put on their best face when talking to me, and will therefore fail to be frank. In a way, this subtle double standard is harder to handle than a "girls can't drive trucks" attitude: I can't just put on my best scowl and flex my arm in Rosie the Riveter fashion and let them choke on my exhaust as I drive away, I need to instead spend a few weeks side by side with them to prove I am an equal, like what it took with S.

I don't much care what anyone thinks of me, but my concern here is the authenticity of experience - I am doing this for the sake of writing about it, after all. And just knowing that there may be an undercurrent of manner-minding behind any given conversation is pretty aggravating to me.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


I haven't talked much about the logistics of what I'm doing with my days, or the plans already laid for the next several months, so here's an attempt to fill in the blanks.

About half of my truck school class time is spent driving around town, getting used to handling various road situations in a big truck. I'm getting much better at shifting and double clutching. (You can't just change gears in one motion in a truck: instead, you clutch it into neutral, let up on the clutch, rev up the RPMs, then clutch it into gear, ideally in the same amount of time you'd change gears in a car.) Lemme tell ya: you have no idea how much of a scare you can give people on the road until you barrel past them in a semi with a truck school's logo emblazoned all over it. If they don't give you wide berth, you can be sure they are Darwin Award candidates.

The hard part, really, is maneuvering the truck. This is the practice that takes place in our school yard, spitting distance from Highway 99 on the industrial side of town. We do a lot of backing up in a straight line, turning around obstacles without knocking them over, parallel parking, and backing up at a 90-degree angle - which is also called alley docking, and is by far the hardest maneuver, and one that's most commonly required in the real world, like at loading docks and parking spaces.

Honestly, I am having so much fun with all of this, even if alley docking makes me want to pull my hair out sometimes. I live in jeans and t-shirts and my ancient Docs, I have dirt under my fingernails. The feeling of doom, of creative depression, that I could barely ever shake off while employed in the news biz, is simply gone. I'm well aware that trucking is hard work with long hours, but I'm also pretty sure it's less stressful than working for assholes and writing crap I don't care about.

This is week six of a seven-week course. Next week, we go to the DMV and test. I am taking the following week off, then going down to Fontana, CA, for Werner training on Monday, April 14. The training will start with a two-day orientation at the company terminal. Then I will hang out in Fontana for a couple days (in a motel room paid for by the company) until they find me a trainer.

I will spend the next two months or so as an apprentice in someone else's truck. I requested that my trainer be female, which may prolong the time I have to wait around in Fontana, which is fine because the motel has internet and a pool. After apprenticing, I go home for five days. After that, I will be issued my own truck so I can hit the road for real.

I am excited and scared. Trying to take it day by day.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Consequence and heartache

I feel the weight of my own heart, my flawed and possibly misguided gypsy heart, too heavy right now, the magnitude of my decisions dragging like an anchor.

Several days ago I had a crisis of faith, where an evening of writer's block spurred on a full-blown attack of self-doubt - the "Dear god, am I absolutely insane to have done this?" flavor of self-doubt. I've managed to avoid this flavor in any significant dosage so far, which is surprising, because it should theoretically, and according to many others, be my bread and butter these days. But this is when it caught up with me, halfway through truck school, in the airlock between where I've been and where I'm going.

In a grasp for assuredness, I called my future employer the next day and set up my start date - April 14, a week after I finish school (more on this later). I made the call after getting home from class, and hung up the phone in the stillness of the afternoon, alone in the house, and sat listening to my own breath for a few minutes. Then I went out and scrubbed my car clean, and went grocery shopping to fill my mind with the home-cooked meals I will no longer be able to make on the road.

Walked out of the store in twilight, gulping down the promises of springtime air. In the softness of gathering dark I could feel my heart breaking; worse yet, I could feel someone else's heart breaking along with mine, and I dreaded telling him the finality of my departure date.

The actual in-person breaking of news was too painful to discuss. In the quiet following the tears, I can feel the weight gathering around me, and I know it's here to stay. There are consequences of falling in love with a gypsy heart. Please forgive me for breaking yours along with my own.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Why wooden sticks do not make for effective fuel gauges.

The school truck ran out of fuel today, way out in the country like a campy B-grade horror flick. Ever since late last week or so, my classmates and I have been eyeing the fuel gauge cautiously each time we turned on the truck and telling our instructor that maybe we should get some fuel sometime soon since the needle keeps dipping further and further below E.

In response, the crotchety old man instructor would grab a wooden stick or tree branch, hobble over to the tank, dip the stick into it, and show us we didn't really need fuel because the stick had come up wet with diesel. Then he'd throw the torch-in-the-making away and we'd be on our merry way.

I was the last to drive today, after both my classmates eyed the fuel gauge and asked if the instructor was sure we didn't need more fuel. Driving through the country, orchard trees bare next to lots housing rusty machinery, the gas pedal just got more and more sluggish. My foot had to hit the floor before the engine even responded.

Somehow me made it to a fuel station, where we had to wait for the campus manager to come meet us so we could put 230 gallons (!!!) of diesel on the school's fuel card. There was a rusty old boat sitting on the ground on top of a hill by the station, possibly waiting for the valley to flood. Over the fence, black cows grazed on rich springtime grass. The wind blowing through, dust gritty on my teeth. The instructor standing next to the pump scratching his head, saying, "I thought we had more fuel in there. Guess I was wrong."

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The lesson behind the dust cloud

The wind picks while we're standing at the side of the truck yard, smoking and talking before class starts. The wind blows in the same direction as the highway goes, just there over the fence from the yard, southward. It picks up the dust, all the fine dust that turns to mud in the rain, spins it until it looks like a sand storm then sends it blowing in our direction. We duck behind cars until it passes, trying not to laugh as we shield our eyes and mouths.

I watch it pass and I wonder how I can ever quantify the lessons I've learned from wind and dust in my face. It is spring now, the air is fresh even when carrying dust and full of that intangible possibility not yet bogged down by the realities of summer heat. Last year around this time, I was skating with the wind in my face on broken asphalt, falling and getting back up again and again, the wind blowing soft through that park with fog rolling into the nearby soccer fields. Two years ago, I felt my own mortality pulsing around me in a gravel lot in New Mexico, desert wind washing me clean.

"You are alive," the wind tells me as it blows past on its way to other lands. And I hear it, I hear it, and laugh with a mouthful of dust.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Hardly working

I got a letter today from Werner Enterprises, a nationwide trucking company that's pretty much my top choice for post-truck-school employment, telling me that my pre-application has been pre-approved. This means I have a job waiting for me provided I can pass the Cali commercial driver's license test. The job in question would have me gallivanting all over the United States and Canada in a big ol' truck.

Here's the part that gets me: the minimum wage for a first-year long haul Werner driver is exactly the same as what I used to make at The Wreck (the newspaper where I worked before enrolling in truck school). And Werner's wages are actually lower on the scale than some other companies, though I have my reasons for preferring them, and chances are that I'll make more than the minimum amount, depending on how much gallivanting I want to do.

To put it a different way, I went to college for five years, did several unpaid internships, then spent several years working my way up the ladder to get to The Wreck's salary bracket. Then I quit, enrolled in a six-week course, and at the end of it will make the same amount of money. I'm not sure whether to be amused, depressed, or both.

But hey, I got a job!

Sunday, March 2, 2008

More thoughts on respect

A continuation on my last post:

It's Friday and my classmates and I are taking turns at the wheel, lurching down the wide streets of the industrial side of town. J is driving, the instructor in the passenger seat, and S and I are in the back so we start talking. He tells me about growing up dirt poor in a wide spot in the road in central Cali, about getting into gangs just so he could get out of town, see Los Angeles, about getting out of gangs and working hard and buying a nice house so his kids have a better life.

He's had a job since he was 12, he says, and I say I've had a job since I was 14, because I have, because the middle class status for me was only based on education and vocabulary and industry, never economics -- I am an immigrant after all, which is something I forget sometimes when I get too wrapped up in What I'm Doing With My Life.

The longer we talk, the more I am tempted to just tell the truth about who I am and what I am doing here, so finally I say that I've been a news reporter for the past few years. S just looks at me hard and nods slowly. "You're going to write a book about this. I can feel it. It's going to be big," he says. Nods again, appreciatively. "Yeah, it all makes sense now. You're going to be sitting in your truck writing all night. I can't wait to read your book."

In that last post, I said that I feared I was "slumming." Let me clarify: I know that I'm not doing that, but I fear that my actions could be interpreted as slumming, and I want to avoid the inherent connotation of disrespect. This fear has now been dispelled: the first time I decide to open up about who I am to a classmate, I am rewarded with understanding and respect.

Reminder to self: have more faith, especially in the knowledge that you're doing the right thing. Respect begets respect.