He sets a clear plastic cup half-filled with water on the dashboard. The cup sits in a molded holster. “If any water spills, the interview’s over,” he tells me and buckles up. I believe him. He’s already had me inspect the truck’s tires, headlights, blinkers, horn, then scan the exterior paintjob for dings and scratches. If there’s one thing I know about this man from the first half of my formal interview—he’s completely serious about what’ll happen if water spills from the cup. But I like challenges and try to focus. I buckle up and crank the motor, a low steady rumble that can be heard a quarter-mile down the road, a sound online shoppers know and love. The slider doors are open and cool air sweeps inside the cab as soon as I let off on the clutch and bear down on the accelerator.
The truck is empty, pulled off-line for my road test, and feels surprisingly light and agile without any packages weighing it down. I head out of the parking lot, moving from first to second to third then down-shifting to a red light. I figured the truck would’ve been harder to drive but already I’m familiar with the release point of the clutch and the sensitivity of the brakes. I feel like a real man in this cab, much stronger and older than my twenty-one-year-old image reflecting in the glare of the massive windshield. I study the tight knot of my tie until I’m instructed to shift into neutral and pull the parking brake. I do as I’m told. The truck idles, rattling the steel and fiberglass “van” as my interviewer calls it—one of the larger vans in the fleet, with a big rear-end extending beyond the dually tires—and I feel as hot and alive as the motor, cranking, firing, at work.
“Why do you think I told you to do that?” I look over at him, dressed in his browns, strapped into the fold-down passenger jumpseat, and catch a green light replace the red in my peripheral. I don’t know whether to move or answer his question. “Because,” he says, “the two or three extra seconds it takes to release the parking brake and shift into first could save you from getting clobbered by some knucklehead running a red light.” I wonder why no one has ever told me this before; the logic makes perfect sense. I nod and feel the green light burning. “Go ahead. Turn left on Hagenburger and stay in the middle lane until I tell you otherwise.” At the next stoplight, when I shift into neutral and pull the brake, he says, “Good.”
The half-filled cup ripples, reminding me to be smooth and gradual with everything I do. I fret about potholes and steep inclines and idiot drivers cutting me off—circumstances out of my control—because I have no idea what I’ll do if water spills from the cup. Everything in my life has been pushed on the backburner for the possibility of this entry-level career—the only one I can find offering decent pay and benefits—and I try not to think about my parents, who, every day, pray I’ll transfer into a four-year university. The light turns green. But it’s impossible to push their voices out of my head. I hear them as the wheels drone over the asphalt—the teaming voice of disapproval, reminding me that they’re worried about me taking shortcuts and traveling dead-end roads, but I can’t seem to find a way to tell them I’m still figuring myself out.
This interview, this job, this career path, is just one of two-dozen occupations I’ve looked into since finishing my two-year degree at community college, all of them blue-collar. I know my parents want to grab me by the shoulders, shake me, and make me see things their way. But everything’s slightly out of focus; I only see the windows and windshields of the buildings and cars we pass on Hagenburger, just the slabs and panes of glass, nothing beyond the glinting surfaces, leaving me to wonder and speculate about the interiority of other people’s occupations and lives.
I push down on the gas to climb an overpass spanning I-880 and trade glances between my speedometer and the concrete Coliseum, home to the Raiders and Athletics, which grows in size on my left as we cross over and dip back down. I watch the cup—which comes into focus as I squeeze the brakes to keep the truck from surging forward—and the speedometer and the congested road ahead.
Oakland opens up to us once we cut across San Leandro Street and Hagenburger turns into 73rd Avenue. The neighborhood deteriorates as we head into its heart. Everywhere I look: storefronts and homes with security bars bolted over the windows and doors; cracked stucco walls and blistered siding; streets seemingly void of trees or shrubs to soften the concrete edges or shield constant advertising. But 73rd becomes more of a thoroughfare to where he tells me we’re heading—the Oakland Hills. Ten minutes later, we zig-zag up and down narrow tree-lined streets with multi-million dollar homes. I’m climbing a steep hill when he instructs me to pull to over and parallel park. “Nice job angling the front tires into the curb,” he says, checking off something on his clipboard. “Now grab those wedges at the base of your seat and follow me.”
At the rear of the truck, he tells me what to do, then stands back to watch. It’s the easiest part of the road-test thus far—kicking heavy rubber wedges before and after one side of the rear tires. Right after I set them in place, he tells me to remove them and returns to the truck. Back inside, I buckle up, crank the motor, and wait for instructions. “If you roll back, the interview’s over,” he says. This news elevates my heart rate. We’re tilted back at enough of an incline so that it feels like we’re locked into a rollercoaster car, climbing up to a gut-wrenching drop, and the water in the cup mimics the slope of the hill. “What are you going to do to make sure you don’t roll back?” I tell him I’ll keep the parking brake engaged while I work the clutch and throttle the gas, then pop the brake when I’ve got the truck lurching. He nods and says, “Go ahead then.” I do all of this without rolling back or spilling water, which seems to make him happy enough to tell me it’s time to return to the yard.
We descend from the hills, back into the flatlands. He seems to have loosened up some and rests his pen on his clipboard. I keep the needle on the appropriate speed limits. People zoom around and cut us off whenever possible, because the truck is big enough to obstruct their views, because I’m slowing them down. I don’t mind as long as the water stays in the cup. But then, climbing back over I-880, he tells me to tap my horn at a man walking along the shoulder in the opposite direction. When I hesitate, he says, “Your horn is the best tool you have. Don’t trust that he sees us. Let him know we’re approaching.” I push too hard and the horn blasts as we come within a hundred feet of the pedestrian. I wave afterward, along with my interviewer, to let him know it was meant to be friendly. But he curses and spits at us. He throws up a hand, a straight-arm, and flips us the bird. I can still see it as we roar past, flying high in my sideview mirror.
I felt like a loner my senior year in high school. I had great friends, a lot of them, but they seemed to be part of some upper-class machine—top-notch grades, half-a-dozen big name university applications pending, unemployed, free of responsibilities, trusting to find their true talents and vocations in the next four years. I took ROP classes (California’s Regional Occupational Program, also known as technical job training) my senior year—drafting and an auto machinist course—and traded varsity baseball for men’s city-league softball, which was more fun and less time consuming. And I worked weekends painting houses around the Bay Area with my dad, a licensed contractor who worked a 9-5 job buying hardwoods for a large lumber company during the week, but made ends meet and combated California’s high cost of living slinging paint on weekends with a brush and roller and steady word-of-mouth clientele.
I’d been working with my dad since I was fifteen, but my hours seemed to double during my senior year. It was a conscious choice. I loved painting. I loved tools. I loved ripping apart engines in my auto machinist class (I was also nearly finished rebuilding an old longbed pickup that had passed from my grandpa to my dad and down to me). I hated math but loved tape measures. I had the toughest time taking Algebra or History tests but could watch my dad or another tradesman do something with their hands and mimic their actions in no time.
By the time graduation rolled around, I was two years into learning a trade, setting aside chunks of money—much more than any of my friends. And I was on the road to becoming an expert. My friend’s dads started asking me questions about paint brands and products, and my dad’s requests for estimates soon doubled. With every paint job tackled, my overall knowledge and skill-level increased, and the work seemed to be there, waiting for us, stacking up, so that we could pick and choose what suited us best.
But working full-time as a painter after high school wasn’t what my mom or dad had in mind for me; it was looked at as something to fall back on in tough times or as supplemental income via side-work, which greatly confused me. My dad was a licensed contractor with thirty-plus years of experience under his belt, but he’d also earned his bachelor’s degree at SFSU and worked his way up the ranks to a white-collar job in the hardwood industry. And although my mom had gone to community college, it was her technical training as a registered dental assistant that’d brought her steady work throughout her life. Most of my confusion about my own future seemed to stem from my parents lifelong ties to technical industries. Even my dad’s white-collar job, buying hardwoods from all over the world, was linked to a very blue-collar distribution of cabinet and furniture makers in and around California. Why wasn’t similar work good enough for me?
I wondered if my parent’s insistence on me going to college came from pressures surrounding the upper-class machine where I grew up—a safe, idyllic town within spitting distance of the Silicon Valley and all the high-paying jobs surrounding the tech industry. My parents’ home had more than quadrupled in value since they’d bought it—the same year I was born—and was continuing to skyrocket. I know they must’ve asked themselves, how will he ever be able to afford a house and raise a family in the Bay Area without breaking down his body as painting contractor? It was a question I’d asked myself often. Even as a kid, I wanted a fixer-upper and a family. Painting seemed the fastest way to get those things, but I’d worked enough jobs to know the toll it took on my back and neck and joints. It was tough to weigh the pros and cons. I’m sure many of my friends and their parents asked similar questions, connecting dots between degrees and corporate ladders and raking in big salaries, but it felt like I was the only one veering off course, picking up splinters as I lumbered against the grain.
It’s Friday night, almost five o’clock, and I’m the last one stuck in the training room within the massive Oakland warehouse that houses nearly a hundred trucks and contains huge horseshoe shaped conveyor ramps fed by an intricate chute and slide system. I’m taking yet another test. All of my classmates drove thirty miles or more from their base yards to be trained here. They’re all part-time package handlers and drivers’ helpers, and they’ll continue working part-time, making Saturday deliveries and filling in for sick calls until routes open up. I’m the only one scheduled to start driving full-time come Monday. And I’m the last one left, taking my final exam in front of a computer screen.
My instructor, an ex-driver, is so overweight that it’s nearly impossible to picture him once shifting gears or hustling up porch steps with packages wedged under his arms. Over the past five days of training, I’ve realized he must’ve put the weight on after having swapped delivering packages for pushing papers. He waits for me, telling me to relax and answer the questions carefully, but I’ve never felt quite as stressed, pushed down to the wire. It’s how I often felt in high school, the last one in the classroom still taking a test, everyone waiting for me to hurry up and finish.
I go with my gut and click the mouse. Another question pops up on the screen about the handheld computer/scanner I’ll be married to on the job—my time card, route planner, package scanner, signature taker, break monitor—which will also disclose every move I make back to the warehouse. It’s a complicated little device, one that I know I’ll need to hold and use in real life to grow comfortable and proficient. I click the mouse again. Another handheld computer question. There’ve been over a dozen questions on the device and I’m worried another dozen are waiting in cue. The clock on the wall behind the instructor reads 16:49. My mind starts to race.
Why can’t there be more questions about driving? That’s what most of the five days of training dealt with—an in-depth crash course of driver’s education. There’s also been non-stop talk of properly using your body to lift packages as well as vital time management skills, my favorite example being that sliding your van keys in and out of your pant pockets wastes too much time—almost ten extra minutes in one day of delivering—and we’re instructed to keep the keys glued to our right hands whenever pulled out of the ignition, with a large split key ring slid around our ring fingers like jewelry.
The clock reads 16:54. I have six minutes to pass or fail, no exceptions. This reality makes it difficult to focus. I think of my mother, who, I’m sure, is beside herself that I might get pistol-whipped while delivering. I made the mistake of telling my parents this happened to some drivers, years back when the company had them carrying cash for transactions. Every night on my parents’ TV it seems that someone’s getting murdered in Oakland or Richmond, two of three cities the Oakland warehouse feeds. San Leandro is the third city, by far the safest option, and, luckily for me, the yard most in need. I’ve already talked with my San Leandro yard supervisor to be. I’ve already been sized up and given several sets of browns. I’ve already thrown down good money on brown boots at Sears. I click the mouse again and the page refreshes. No more questions. Just green printed words telling me I’ve passed.
Community college was cheap, flexible, and bought me time to figure out what I really wanted to do with my life while also making my parents happy. I took general education classes Mondays through Thursdays and worked painting jobs most three-day weekends. My dad had me managing smaller jobs on my own, start to finish, though I still worked under his guidance. By the end of my first year, I’d saved up a big down payment for a new truck to better haul my painting equipment—a Ford F-150. I paid it off in eleven months, living at home with my folks, with minimal expenses and responsibilities.
Then, halfway through the end of my second year of community college, my new F-150 developed a leak between the engine and transmission, and I scheduled an appointment at the nearest Ford dealership honoring my warranty. The fix took longer than expected, and over the course of several days I got to know some of the service and parts department reps as well as a few mechanics. I learned that almost all the reps were ex-mechanics, tired of beating up their bodies, who transferred to less physical departments when opportunities arose, even though they were pretty much dead-end jobs. For the first time in a long time I didn’t feel quite so alone. But it made me more depressed about my future than ever, sympathizing with the ex-mechanic’s experiences at the Ford dealership, while simultaneously hearing my parent’s warnings about blue-collar life.
It’s the start of my second day delivering and already my supervisor wants to ditch me. “You got this,” he says and pats my back, to which I reply, “I’m pretty sure I don’t. It’s just a bullshit sales pitch to get rid of me—him talking me up. Another route needs filling this morning, and it’s clear he wants to pass me off, even though we both know I’m too green to venture out on my own. I’m nervous and sweaty. I’m one of the last drivers left in the warehouse with a truck so stuffed to the gills, that there’s no alley between shelving units in back to sort or find packages.
My supervisor is supposed to spend three-to-five full days driving around with me, pointing out my route and setting me up for success. But after one day officially working for the company, it’s clear the San Leandro yard is struggling. My task today is simple: struggle along with them. He grabs my handheld computer, tells me I’ll need to go out of order in my route to make some space in the truck, clearing 115 packages at one commercial stop before delivering my overnight packages with 10:30 delivery guarantees. I look at my wristwatch: 09:11. There’s no way. My route, which I hardly know, begins ten miles from the warehouse. I have to drop off 115 packages to carve out a walkway. I have twenty-two overnight packages to deliver. And I have seventy-nine minutes to accomplish everything, before my regular deliveries and pickups.
I haul out of the warehouse and speed down Doolittle to the start of my route, which is half commercial, half residential. Because the company doesn’t use maps—it relies on the logic and mapping of the handheld computers, which is meant to link you, stop to stop, start to finish—I’ve brought along several fold-out maps, to orient myself and find streets that don’t link up logically. I use my maps to find the first stop, an electrical supply distributer, and tap my horn as I back up against the dock. Because I can’t go through the truck, I walk around, climb the dock, and heave open the rollup door. The first hundred packages are easy enough to find and scan but I have to search the truck for the other fifteen. By the time I crank the engine and shoot off to start my overnight deliveries, I have less than thirty minutes to make the 10:30 cutoff.
An hour later my supervisor calls my cell phone and asks how I’m doing. I tell him I still have overnight packages to deliver. I’m not sure if he even expected me to make the cutoff or not. “You’re going to have to pick up the pace,” he says. I tell him I haven’t stopped hustling and running but barely know the route. I tell him I’ve been backtracking and pulling over to study my maps. I tell him there are too many gaps in the handheld computer’s logic. “Try and find a way to make up some lost time,” he says, not listening. I remind him that it’s my second day delivering. I remind him that I was supposed to have someone helping me along.
Two hours later my phone rings again. I’m backed up at a loading dock, searching for a package in back, when I trip over a long box and bang my head into another on my way to retrieving the phone from a cup holder in the cab. It’s my supervisor. He’s at the warehouse, tracking my moves. He tells me I’m only averaging fifteen stops an hour and that I should’ve taken my lunch an hour ago. “And by now you should be finished with your commercial stops and on to residential.” The line goes silent. I don’t know what to say. My shirtsleeves are soaked from mopping up the sweat dripping down my face. “I don’t have time to eat,” I say, before my voice uncontrollably rises. “There are too many boxes.”
My supervisor finds me at a stop thirty minutes later, pulling up in a company mini-van with a supervisor from another yard. Together they take over my truck and computer. I’m pushed out, down on the asphalt, to watch them shift and organize and scan packages with an extra computer. They each have one in hand and talk streets and addresses, trying to come up with a plan. Then they chuck thirty or forty boxes down to me to load in the mini-van, followed by my reprogrammed computer and the keys to the mom mobile. “Take your lunch, then head back to the warehouse after delivering those packages,” my supervisor says. “We’ll start fresh tomorrow.”
My truck speeds out of the parking lot, manned by two supervisors teaming together to clean up my mess. My embarrassment only increases as I crawl inside the mini-van and putter down the road towards a Mexican restaurant I noticed earlier. I’m so upset at the thought of my truck buzzing around without me that I hardly register my surroundings. All my friends and family know me as a tough, hard-worker. But it feels like I’ve been stripped, cut down to nothing.
After one week of training and two weeks of delivering, I decided to send out an application to a small university just outside of Portland, Oregon, in the Willamette Valley, the same school my sister attended. I’d visited a few times, and the charm of the place rubbed off on me. Just three weeks on the job, and finishing college didn’t seem like the worst thing anymore. I’d missed the application deadline, but the bubbly girl I’d called in the admissions department allowed me an extension. So I wrote an essay and stuffed it in a manila envelope along with my transcripts, and I dropped it off at the post office for someone else to deliver.
“I’m done,” my package handler mumbles. He’s the biggest sloth I’ve ever met, a forty-something man working half-days loading trucks for meager pay and benefits, with zero ambition to transfer into a full-time position. “No one else has to load this many,” he adds. Which is true. And no one else has to deliver as many packages. My route is the least envied in the yard. Every day feels like the busy Christmas season, but it’s only the second week of May. The truck’s nearly full, yet over a hundred boxes wait on the conveyor ramp. And my loader walks away, done for the day. I stare at the boxes while all the other drivers speed out of the warehouse. Then I see my supervisor in the distance and flag him down.
“It’s not the first time he’s done this,” he says about my loader. He explains that the company can’t hire enough quality people to get the job done right, so management lets the guy slink and slide by so long as he shows up on time. “Just try to make up lost time,” he adds, to which I respond, “You know I’ll never be able to deliver my overnights on time with this mess.” The company rides us about making the 10:30 time commitments, and I want my supervisor to have my back for once. All he does is pat my back and run off to something more pressing, leaving me to my truck, my route, and a sea of packages.
Most of the boxes go to the same address, which is now my first stop, so I chuck them in my walkway in rapid succession until I can’t see through the truck, until I can barely roll down the door. Then I’m gone, the truck weighed down so heavy I have to hammer the accelerator between shifts to keep it rolling. The truck and I push on together, my undershirt soaking up sweat, the engine screaming as I stretch gears to their limits. But the truck gets lighter and eventually I catch up. Despite the setback, I surprise myself by nearly making all of my overnight drop-offs on time. I take a ten-minute break for tots and Gatorade at a food truck. I find a clean restroom at one of my stops to wash my face. And I chat with an easygoing warehouse manager, kneeling down to scratch behind his Labrador’s ears, as we talk about the weather.
When I return to the warehouse, I’m the last one back as usual, but I feel good about all I accomplished today. But I can’t clock out yet. It’s just after seven o’clock. The horseshoe shaped conveyor ramp has trucks backed up against both sides and there’s not enough room at my stall—just yellow lines, like a parking spot, painted on the concrete with a number in front—to wiggle in. There never is. I pull into the middle of the horseshoe, pass my stall by a good ten feet, then pull the brake and hop out. In order to make room I have to move the other trucks closer, within inches of each other, passing between the open doors of the cabs, pulling out then angling the wheels slightly and reversing again. By inching five trucks closer to the left of my stall and five trucks to the right of it, I can finally back up against the conveyor ramp. It’s a fifteen point turn at best, and I have to squeeze and shimmy between trucks to make it out into the middle of the horseshoe.
That’s when my supervisor appears out of nowhere. “I need you to make a special pickup,” he says. “At the embroidery stop on your route, scheduled for nine o’clock, and you’ll need to take a second lunch to stay legal.” The only thing that softens the blow of extending my already ten-hour day is that he says I can drive the new truck from the Oakland yard, the biggest truck in the fleet—nearly the size and length of semi-truck hauling a short load and one of the only trucks equipped with an automatic transmission (yesterday, after scribbling numbers on a piece of paper, I figured out that I average just seventy miles per day but shift gears well over 1,500 times with all my stopping and going and backing up, and my achilles tendon on my clutch leg aches from the abuse), which waits for me at the mouth of the warehouse. He points at it and tosses me the keys.
My second lunch is a waste of an hour spent in a well-lit Taco Bell parking lot. I lock myself in the back of the truck and try to nap on one of the steel shelves, my jacket rolled up under my head, my cheap radio broadcasting the Giants game on KNBR. I’d rather be at home, lying on the couch, full from my mom’s cooking instead of cheap fast food, watching the Giants on TV. But the break recharges me enough to want to make my way over to the embroidery stop—a sweat shop—ahead of schedule in the hopes that they’ve finished packing up early.
I roll up my door and bang on their dock door. As it lifts, several pallets stacked with large boxes come into view. They’re all heavy, I know, weighed down with folded golf shirts and the likes. No wonder my supervisor wanted me to drive the biggest truck in the fleet. There are rows of tables in the warehouse lined with sewing machines and Asian woman behind each one. I never thought sewing could make so much noise. I never thought such a nondescript warehouse in the Bay Area would house two twelve-hour shifts of women sewing labels and logos on shirts and garments. At least I don’t have to wait around, I think, until the supervisor on duty tells me they’re running behind, that they still need to box and stack two more pallets worth of shirts for me to load and haul away. The news makes me want to slam my fist through one of their boxes, but then I notice how hard and fast the women are working, all of them standing and sweating over their machines, and realize they’d probably trade places in a heartbeat.
Quitting was almost too easy. My one and only university application was accepted, and my dad had become flooded with enough painting estimates to keep me more than busy, full-time, all summer. I had more momentum in leaving the company than sticking with it. Despite all this, I hated leaving. I hated closing the door on something so quickly—just a handful of weeks. I’ve never been a quitter, and I felt like one.
Doubt hung over me all summer. Painting gave me too much time to think. Part of me wished I could fast-forward to see if two more years of college would be worth all the time and money. I wanted to know where I’d end up living, what I would end up doing for work. I wanted to know who I’d end up with and the kind of fixer-upper we’d be able to afford.
But if I hadn’t stopped delivering—if I hadn’t chosen school—I never would’ve taken a creative writing class that fall, which changed my trajectory forever. I never would’ve finished college near the start of The Great Recession and stumbled blindly into the airline industry as a flight attendant, a flexible job which allowed ample time to write and paint on the side. If I hadn’t stopped delivering, I never would’ve gone to graduate school—where I met my wife, a girl from small-town Idaho. And If I hadn’t stopped delivering, I never would’ve bought a fixer-upper in Boise, and I wouldn’t have been able to write this story. So many boxes, shipped out in due time—the result of my letting go and reaching out—delivered right to my doorstep.