Saturday, July 24, 2010

Reversing and more reversing.

Oof, tired, it’s been a long week. It looks as though we will be hitting the highway and crossing the border soon, but the remainder of week involved a lot more driving round in small circles. The new cab, you see. These people know a thing or two about getting you up and running and independent. The smaller wheelbase on the daycab was perfect for learning a bit about the tight spaces for manoeuvring in at all of the local plants, but once in a highway cab they had to be learned all over again.

The space taken up at the back of a long haul tractor by the bunks and living area adds several feet to the overall length of the truck. The two pivot points of steering axle and fifth wheel are further apart, things happen differently. So, I have had three days unlearning everything I learned on Luis’ daycab and relearning how to get into each dock with the bigger truck.

We have spent a lot of time reversing. I don’t mind admitting it is a weak point. It always was a challenge but with the passage of time and a good deal of confidence-losing it has become a bit of a nightmare. Driving forwards is easy enough but reversing is vital for getting the job done. Most warehouses have a line of docks for loading and unloading. They are exactly trailer-sized, with just enough room from one to the next for someone to walk between the docked trailers and mess about with stuff. A few feet at most. If the trailer can’t be wiggled onto the dock, inch-perfect and straight, the forklift won’t be driving into it to shift stuff about.

All of Linamar’s plants are in small spaces, the docks are round the back, through car parks full of vehicles owned by people who clearly trust truckers to miss them on the way round. Some of them have room for a nice easy ‘set-up’ to reverse in a straight line, most of them don’t. One has its docks angled deceptively up a hill, another parks skips and dumpsters where you want your turning circle to be. One of them has its dock at 90 degrees to a busy road, down between two buildings with propane storage on your blind corner. Orientation involves picking up and delivering at every plant until you can do all the docks without incident. I have managed them all, more or less, with a little advice and gesticulating from my latest trainer. My set-ups aren’t perfect yet, but I’ve learned to notice a problem early enough and fix it fast enough that there is less chance of me smacking anything 75 feet behind me if left to my own devices.

It is therefore official now, we are finally ready for the border. It can’t come soon enough for me, I don’t mind hard work but 12 hours of manoeuvring round in circles in an Ontario humid summer has had me more than a little exhausted. Hammering down an Interstate with the a/c on and the radio playing will be an easy day in comparison.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Thoroughly oriented...

Another company, another orientation day. Odd how the work can be so much the same and so different. Although some things are bound to have changed in the 18 months I’ve been trying to get fit enough (and employable enough) to climb back into the cab. And of course some things have been, well, to be brutally honest, sort of forgotten.

It took a full day to learn Linamar ways. They are not Challenger ways but that’s fine, much will be simpler. Challenger was a freight company with a wide portfolio of different clients, we were hauling chicken soup one day, sofas the next, followed by beer and then auto parts…but mainly mail. Linamar is a manufacturing corporation with a freight transport wing, mostly shifting its own products. This will make the paperwork simpler. No FDA documents, meat certificates, alcohol clearances, just a bill of lading that says ‘auto parts’ or possibly ‘dunnage’.

Simpler is good, but some things have got more complex. The US has discovered terrorists, as we all know, but it took a few years for the discovery to become a new regulation. Time was when the only things anyone smuggled from Canada to the US were drugs, and the only things that the US smuggled into Canada were firearms. Well, there were a good few illegal migrants travelling north as well, but Canada doesn't seem to mind that very much. It’s probably still the same, but CNN, Fox News et al have convinced Americans that Canada is a breeding ground for terrorists, therefore homeland security must be seen to act.

There is a fancy new 17 point anti-terrorist check that must be performed every time you leave the rig unattended on its way to the border. That’s every pop-in for a coffee, and every re-pop-in for a wee. In my case, the aging bladder will necessitate a good few terrorist hunts. In practice of course, it’s not going to make a huge amount of difference. It’s always been wise to jog round the rig whenever you get out, checking for strange occurrences; damaged tyres, duff clearance lights, packages strapped to stuff and a sneakily pulled ‘pin’. The pin pull is a particularly high risk stunt for female drivers, so I’m told. This is the release catch for the fifth wheel, which holds the trailer in place. If someone yanks it open while you aren’t looking, you will drive off leaving the trailer behind without its landing gear down. It falls on its nose, much broken stuff, winches are required, jobs are lost.

Why are women prone to this little trick? Well we are allegedly unpopular with Lot Lizards; ladies of the oldest profession who consider a truckstop to be their personal turf. Despite the fact that none of us are remotely interested in their line of work, we are deemed to be a threat to business. A pin-pull takes a matter of seconds and can cost you your job, so I am a fanatical checker-around anyway. The main difference will be remembering to write it down.

Next in the orientation whirligig; a day or two with a local driver, learning where places are and getting my hands dirty again. My left knee has had a bit of a workout. All the plants, 20 or so, are located within a couple of miles of each other in the North end of Guelph, Ontario. Since they are all Linamar owned, everyone knows everyone and the atmosphere is positively friendly, unlike the frostiness I got used to at Challenger pick-ups, where drivers were the lowest form of life. But, running bits of this and that here and there all day within a tight radius was hard work. Much traffic, a lot of tight turns, way too much reversing for my liking and a whole lot of climbing up and down and in and out of stuff. There are things I had forgotten. Like the difference between driving a light and a heavy load. At least it was a familiar gearbox, so as soon as I'd recalled that you need to start in a different gear for each weight it all came flooding back.

It was a little tractor too, no accommodation unit behind you to extend the wheelbase so everything moved differently. My first reverse was a disaster. My charming companion, guide and trainer, Luis, saw the frustrated horror on my face. “It’s ok, if that had been a highway cab you’d have got it first time. Daycabs behave differently” My confidence fell to bits at that point and the rest of the afternoon was a bit of a disaster. Luis was nice about it. “You don’t have to impress me, you’ve already got the job, just drive, you’ll be fine.”

Another day or two beetling around town loom, then a trip or two with a highway trainer to make sure I’ve got the border paperwork down, then I really will get my own truck. Can’t wait. Checking Ebay for CB radios…

Friday, July 9, 2010

Why would anyone want to go trucking?

Well, it looks as though Trucking in English really will be about trucking again very shortly, as I have managed to produce a tolerable test drive and am almost employed again. The paperwork and other bits of admin begin next week, with an eta of the week after that for actually being back in the cab. 13 speed gearboxes and 75 foot trailers seem to be similar to bicycles in that it all comes flooding back. So, it would be timely to finish the tale of the end of my business career, it sort of explains a pressing need to drive off into the sunset for a living.

Mr Hotshot came back into our lives, by way of a bizarre phone call, six months after he was evicted. The caller introduced himself as a lawyer from Las Vegas. His client had been my guest and he would be obliged if I could supply the dates that this family had arrived and left, it would assist with an alibi. My first thought was that the cheeky sod really did think he could sue me so I turned politely awkward. I advised that his client already had all that paperwork to hand, that I had no way of knowing whether I really was speaking with a lawyer and that Canada had laws about this sort of thing and I wouldn’t be able to disclose details of any business dealings to a third party. I was very sorry not to be able to help of course, but my hands were tied by regulations.

He was charmingly understanding, absolutely saw my predicament, explained that his client was unable to access paperwork at this time and enquired ‘how would it be if I subpoenaed you?’ I thought fast. Beginning with ‘Oh shit, this is real.’ Then I realised that a subpoena would give me some information to work with to find out what the hell was going on. So, I agreed that a subpoena would be most helpful in enabling me to comply with his wishes without breaking any Canadian laws; and tried to shake off the feeling that I had walked into one of those episodes of Law and Order. Somebody could be yelling ‘cease and desist!’ at any moment.

The subpoena arrived by email. Everyone who knew us was agog by then. Ben headed off to school with the task of asking his law teacher whether an emailed subpoena from another country was valid (he has had an odd education that boy) and I set about an internet search to try and track down some information. Ably assisted by TTJ (The Terrifying Julia; who markets my scribblings and is completely unafraid of cold calling) we tracked down the right court authority and found their website. We entered the case number and, hey presto, lots of helpful stuff. Our blustery chum was the defendant, so at least nobody was suing me. I also learned that he was incarcerated. Presumably this would be why he had no access to his papers, but what on earth had he done? The court listings didn’t tell me that. Mucky movies and bootleggings were what we had him pegged for, did they really send you to jail for that in Nevada? And what was I supplying an alibi for?

Ben returned from school with the helpful advice that an emailed subpoena was ok for information, the only time they had to chase you down the street and hit you with it was if you had to appear in person. He appeared a tad disappointed, he’d been watching too much Law and Order too. The subpoena demanded ‘all paperwork pertaining to their stay’ so I dutifully printed off another full set of paid invoices, and happily added the eviction notice to the pile. After all, I would have been in breach of the subpoena if I’d kept it back wouldn’t I? I hoped that whatever defence was supposedly being propped up by my input would be well and truly stuffed by the character implications of the eviction.

We all remained curious though. On a whim one day when Theresa (unterrifying unless you upset her) was over for coffee we Googled local newspapers in the Las Vegas area. Finding a suitable periodical, we typed his name into their archive. Ben walked into the kitchen as we began to read and watched our faces turn white.

She had divorced him. He had broken into her new home and, finding her with a new boyfriend, had taken a kitchen knife to the pair of them; killing him and putting her in hospital. He was awaiting trial on charges including first degree and attempted murder.

Now this will sound silly, but that is when my nightmares began. We were perfectly safe but I had flashbacks to that confrontation in my kitchen. To my deliberate provocation of a furious bully who had the capacity to take kitchen knives to people. (Allegedly.) It finally hit me…the level of trust I was putting in my ability to judge people when I allowed strangers into our home for money. An ability that was clearly flawed. I’d harboured a guy for six months who was now serving two life sentences in Vegas. And I still didn’t know what I’d supplied an alibi for.

We laughed about it of course. And we revisited all those wise motherly lectures about bullies. ‘Son, remember your Mum telling you it’s always better to stand up to people? Well, sometimes she’s just totally bloody wrong you know.’ But my B&B days were over. I had to sell to recover, thankfully not to Fay. It was two years before I could bear to have any guests in my new home. There will be a houseparty of visitors from England this Christmas and I think that means I am ok again, but when asked why I want to drive trucks for a living, I generally reply ‘I’m sick of people’.

It is only partly a joke.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Mr Hollywood Hotshot

Ok, back to the B&B for a while, and part one of the tale of Mornington Cresent's ultimate nemesis...

They arrived one Sunday afternoon in the depths of a miserable and empty winter. They checked out our pet-friendly room, with a view to an extended stay of about six weeks. She was quiet, with a friendly smile. He was large, loud, and faintly objectionable. But the dollar signs in my eyes overcame the warning signs in my belly and I chose to overlook the fact that the dog, a scruffily nice black Lab called Brodie, tended to flinch if you raised your hand to pat his nose. I quoted a slightly inflated price by way of compensation for putting up with them. They agreed instantly and asked to move in right away. This was odd, we joked among ourselves that he was probably on the run. Maybe he’d pissed off the Mafia, they were moving from Guelph in a big hurry after all. Bit of a ‘family’ town is Guelph. Speculation led to the pooling of twoonies.

He was allegedly big in movies. He had pals in Hollywood don’t you know, and he made marketing DVDs for blockbuster films. We smiled politely and made those impressed noises that you produce when you are trying to stifle a giggle. Typical movie mogul behaviour, hiding out in a B&B, paying cash and driving a rental car. We inferred for ourselves that he probably did make DVDs but that they might be less than blockbusters. Probably less than tasteful, possibly less than legal.

Six weeks extended into six months and they showed no signs of leaving. He was unpleasant company. Accusing Pinky of theft went down like a lead balloon as far as I was concerned, especially since the missing wallet was usually to be found in the pool filters. Quite why he insisted on carrying cash while swimming I never did find out, but I spent more time than is amusing defending Pinky’s honour with my hands up chlorinated workings rescuing a hundred dollar bill covered in bits of goo. He also had an irritating habit of emerging from the pool, wrapping his ample nether regions in a towel, dropping the dripping drawers and leaving them outside the kitchen door. We didn’t quite see why we should pick up his soggy smalls but the alternative was to leave them there all day for the appreciation of other guests. While we’d been empty he’d been just about manageable but as we filled up with families and kids his attitude began to affect business. Their marital arguments spilled over to the breakfast table and he was refusing to pick up after the dog.

I was actively looking for an excuse to evict them when he played into my hands by running out of money. Our agreement had been that he’d pay weekly in advance. When he came up short I hid the grin as well as I could while explaining politely that he had breached our contract, so we would call the four days he’d paid for their notice period.

His rage was instant. Red in the face, yelling and blustering, he told me that he would pay what he damned well liked, when he liked and would leave in his own good time. I couldn’t make him go and he’d like to see me try. We were in my kitchen, nose to nose. Well, he was taller than me, so more nose to medallion maybe. I backed into the corner by the telephone (and the door) and lifted the receiver. Using my best ‘control a 2-year-old tantrum’ voice I explained that the situation could go one of two ways. He could go quietly to his room, whereupon he and his family would have four days to find somewhere else to live; or he could remain abusive, in which case I would call the police and have him forcibly removed on the spot. Of course, to an American, the English accent sounds patronising at the best of times, now I really was being patronising he was beside himself with fury, but his wife got the point and managed to remove him from my nasal region.

I double checked my legal rights, wrote a formal notice of eviction and waited the four days. I probably could have removed them immediately but I really did want to give them time to find new accommodation, his wife hadn’t upset me. And I liked the dog. It was hell. He did his big production numbers at breakfast time, in front of our other guests… he would see me in court, I had no idea who I was dealing with, I couldn’t afford to fight his lawyers, he would bankrupt me. He peppered his rants with little quotes from Law and Order, dramatic lines like ‘cease and desist!’ That was quite funny but it was wiser not to snigger. I stood my ground and as each day passed his threats became a little tamer. Ben, whose job it was to check each law he invented, just in case any of them were real, kept a running tally of the threats. ‘It’s like watching a balloon deflate’ he said. ‘Yesterday we were going to be bankrupted, today he’s suing for moving expenses.’

On the day of their removal, when it appeared that I wasn’t going to be changing my mind, he switched to emotional blackmail. How could I throw them out on the streets with nowhere to go, and the dog limping and all? I pointed out that he had had four days to organise new accommodation, that I couldn’t be held responsible for his failure to bother to do that…and that it was him who had kicked the dog. I printed off a copy of every paid invoice, added a copy of the eviction notice (advising that here was the evidence he needed to sue me) and told him when the door would be locked. I had taken the precaution of inviting a couple of friends over to ‘hang out round the pool’. They brought their (large) husbands with them, just in case. Having finally realised that he didn’t know who he was dealing with, my least favourite guest finally left.

When I apologised to Ben for bringing such unpleasantness into his home he said, ‘it’s ok Mum, it’s been very interesting. We get told at school that if you stand up to a bully they back down but I’ve never seen it done before.’ We had some wise chats about dealing with angry people and he treated me like some sort of heroine. Although I was appalled inside, and beginning to dislike the person I was becoming, we thought it was over.