Monday, August 12, 2013

From the Driver's Seat: New York City

Wendell was driving and I was navigating as we came into New Jersey.  We had two delivery stops of auto windshields in the trailer.  The first delivery was going to New Jersey and then we would jump over the river, via the George Washington Bridge, into Bronx with the second delivery.  It seemed simple enough.  After all, together we probably had at least three months total combined experience with maneuvering a tractor trailer around the forty-eight states.  This was the first time for both of us into New Jersey and New York though.

Needless to say, we were in for a few problems.  With Midwestern-grown boys going into the big city for the first time, there is a pretty good probability of some awe and confusion on their part.  Send those same two country boys into the city with sixty-two feet of tractor and trailer combination and there won’t be much opportunity for awe because they’re going to be, pretty much, full-time confused.

I had the route to the deliveries mapped out.  That was the strength that I brought to the team.  Wendell was a better driver than I was in tight spaces.  You see, he was a Missouri farm boy and I swear that he could back a tractor trailer serpentine through a row of fence posts if he had to.  Anyway, Wendell trusted me for directions.  I had it all figured out that we could jump onto the Garden State Parkway and head south for few miles.  Then we’d get off and make a couple of turns to be right at the customer’s front door and on time for our 8:00 AM appointment.

The first problem came while Wendell was making our entrance onto the Garden State Parkway.  You see, about a hundred feet into that git-on ramp there was a sign that said, “NO TRUCKS ALLOWED ON THE GARDEN STATE PARKWAY.”  Now right off the bat I had to wonder about the common sense of the folks that put that sign up.  They clearly had never driven sixty-two feet of tractor or they would have known that one hundred feet into the git-on ramp is a little late to be putting up a sign telling the driver of a sixty-two foot long tractor trailer that he wasn't supposed to be there.

Wendell was pretty good at staying calm in these situations as long as he could depend on me to keep navigating for him.  I told Wendell to keep going down the Garden State Parkway to the very next exit and get off there if the cops didn't stop him first.  It seemed like miles and miles to the next exit.  When Wendell got to the end of the git-off ramp there was a toll booth.  This tiny white-haired lady was there waiting.  She wasn't much bigger than loading dock tall.  I think that Wendell could have swung his door open without ever touching her or a white hair of her head as she stood beside the truck looking up at him and chewing him out.

She was madder than a farm hen that had waited all day for her turn with the rooster only to find him too plumb wore out to give her service.  She was bent on telling Wendell that he wasn't supposed to be on the Garden State Parkway with a sixty-two foot long tractor trailer.  I guess it didn't occur to her that even though we found that out a little late, we did know it or why else would we be at the toll gate of her git-off ramp?  I was thinking that maybe the state of New Jersey had things a little backward because if they had put this lady guarding the git-on ramp instead of the git-off ramp it’s not likely that any sixty-two foot long tractor trailers would ever get onto the Garden State Parkway.

The lady finally calmed down enough that Wendell could ask her for help to find our delivery location.  As it turned out this was the perfect git-off ramp for us to take except that we shouldn't have been on the Garden State Parkway in the first place.  We just had to turn left from the toll gate, go down to the bottom of the hill and turn right.   There was the customer a little way down the street on the right.

It was one lucky thing that day that Wendell could back up a tractor trailer so well.  For some reason they had put some houses directly across the street from the warehouse that we had to back the trailer into.  You can probably imagine that trying to back sixty-two feet of tractor trailer into warehouse off of a street that was less than forty feet wide was no easy task.  Wendell was up to it though.  It took him a little while but he got it done and he didn't even break a curbstone.  As a matter of fact, he only left a couple of tire tracks in the front lawn of the house across the street from the receiving dock.  They got all of the windshields off of the truck that belonged in New Jersey and we headed for the big city across the river with the rest.  We stayed off of the Garden State Parkway this time.

We got across the George Washington Bridge and I pointed Wendell to his first turn.  Across the intersection from us was a smaller tractor trailer combination that was stuck between two concrete barriers on either side of it because of trying to turn too short.  We had sixty-two feet of tractor trailer, while he only had about forty-eight feet of tractor trailer.  It wasn't like we were feeling over confident about going into the city. If we had been, however, then seeing the trouble that this guy was in would have cured our overconfidence real fast.

We made the right turn according to our directions and we were watching for Jerome Street where we needed to turn right again to get the customer.  The next thing that got our attention, however, was a big black on yellow diamond-shaped sign that was on the railroad overpass in front of us.  The black numbering read 12’ 6” on that big yellow sign.  Any truck driver worth two drips off of an oily dipstick knows that means that there is only twelve and one-half feet of clearance from the pavement to the bottom of that overpass.  That’s not a problem if you’re cruising through New York City with Volkswagen minibus that you brought with you from the nineteen-sixties.  However, if you happened to be driving sixty-two feet of tractor trailer with big numbers on the corner of the trailer that read 13’ 6” then you have to know that you’re about to be in a tight spot.

You don’t have a lot of choices in a situation like this with cars and pedestrians all around you.  You can’t back up.  You can’t swing a U-turn.  Well, I had to wonder because right about then another truck came under that overpass from the other direction with no problem at all.  So, I crawled out of the window and hooked my left boot into the grab handle on the inside of the door and put my right boot through vent window as I eased my butt onto the top of the right-side rearview mirror frame.  I held onto to the air horn with one hand and a clearance light with the other so that I could size up the situation from an improved vantage point.  I thought that we must have been some spectacle to the city people but they didn't seem to notice. Back home the scene would have drawn more attention than a Main Street parade on Veteran's Day.

I told Wendell to ease on forward.  As the truck came close the overpass I could see that it would just barely fit under.  I said to Wendell that he could continue slowly.  When the back of the trailer came through we could hear the rivets on the trailer clicking against the overpass beam but we made it.  We were relieved.  That is, until we saw another sign that read NO TRUCKS.

Right away I thought of a couple of things.  First, the same folks that decide where to put up signs in New Jersey must also decide where to put them up in New York.  We were already where they didn't want us to be so it’s too late to tell us that we shouldn't be here.  The next thought that I had was that it was probably lucky for us that the little white-haired lady had her hands full in New Jersey with guarding the Garden State Parkway and all.  There was no doubt in my mind that if she had been in New York on that street right then she wouldn't have let us through a second time.

Wendell kept driving down that street and with every cross street I was checking the street signs in a relentless effort to find Jerome Street.  We eventually passed a park on the left and then I really started to wonder if we had missed Jerome Street altogether somehow.  I studied my New York City map and I could see from the cross streets going by that we were about to come up on a freeway and I told Wendell to get onto it.

I have told this story a few times over the years and to this day I couldn't tell you what freeway we were on or how we ended up back in New Jersey.  We did stay off of the Garden State Parkway though.  All I know is that we got turned around and went right back over the George Washington Bridge and into Bronx to look for Jerome Street again.  This time we found it.

As it turned out, when we were focused on the yellow diamond sign that read 12” 6” we missed the sign that read “Jerome St.”  This railroad overpass ran parallel to and above Jerome Street.  Wendell turned the truck under the tracks and onto Jerome Street.  We thought that we were home free until the truck straightened up on Jerome Street and I looked ahead and saw another yellow diamond sign.

This one read 11’ 5”.  We thought that we were in a tight spot before!  This time we had no doubt.  This was a narrow side street and the ceiling was about to get closer to the ground.  So far, the New York City population that was going about their business kept on going about their business.  That changed when we faced the 11’ 5” sign.  Now a few people came out from the sidewalks on each side to reiterate the obvious to us.  We were about to get stuck between high pavement and low tracks.

Then a guy came running out from one of the shops and said to Wendell, “Stop right there!”

Wendell looked at the 11’ 5” sign, looked at me in disbelief and then turned back to the man who had called out to us.

“Okay,” Wendell looked back at me again, still in disbelief.  It wasn't like we had two three or other obvious choices at the time.

While we sat there wondering where the receiving dock was and how we could possibly back into it off of this narrow street the guy ran around to all of the nearby shops telling people to move their cars off of the street.  Seeing that, now we were looking around for the high rise parking garage that surely had to be nearby.  Not so.

People starting coming out of shops like fire ants going after corn chip crumbs spilled on their anthill.  They moved all of the cars on the left side of the street up onto to the sidewalk until there was enough room to park a sixty-two tractor trailer on the left side of that narrow street.  Then the guys in the window shop pulled the pallets of auto windshields to the back of the trailer with a forklift and a chain and carried them into their shop with the forklift.  We were unloaded in no time, even without a receiving dock.

The last thing for us to do was to check around to make sure that we weren't leaving anything behind that we might have to come back for.  Two trips into Bronx in one day were plenty enough for Wendell and me.  The man that had run out to stop Wendell turned out to be a real nice guy.  He walked ahead of us as for a way as we were leaving to make sure that we got out without running into that 11’ 5” overpass.  He even walked with us a little farther so that we found our way back to the main artery without coming against another low overpass.

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