Friday, August 20, 2010

Is it wrong to exploit the accent?

I’ve survived another trip, and the anxiety levels are decreasing slightly. As the list of things I’m not sure if I can do decreases and I relax a little more (for the most part of the day) everything fits into place better too. Being less exhausted before you start helps of course, and I seem to be getting a bit of my intelligence back now there’s room in my head for things other than blind panic. When the directions on my trip plan didn’t coincide with either the road signs or what Betsy wanted me to do (that voice on the gps has to have a name) what went through my head was “Ah, the directions must be from Southbound, not North and she’s trying to route me on a divided highway” which is a generally more helpful thought than “OMG OMG OMG I’m going to get lost!”

I have now approached and crossed the border at both of our usual crossing points enough times that I have lost the need to panic about diversions, paperwork and traffic. There are five main highway routes in and out of Detroit and I have found each of them from the Bridge without incident, and conversely found the Bridge from each coming the other way. Which means that the inevitable wait in a queue of other trucks to be processed has become a little rest, time to look around and think about the world, instead of time to be thinking “OMG OMG OMG, what have I forgotten?”

There are 7 or 8 commercial lanes usually open at the Windsor-Detroit border. That’s the crossing point that Michael Moore used in Bowling for Columbine, to see why people didn’t shoot each other so much in Canada. Windsor is a sleepy little town with one road leading to the bridge and lots of traffic lights and shopping plazas along the way. Detroit is, well, Detroit, with a tangle of Interstate connections, loads of construction work and diversions through deserted industrial wasteland; and panhandlers on every corner. The contrast is quite striking now that I’ve calmed down enough to look at it. The traffic is fairly manic, which unnerved me at first but I am learning now that the traffic is also used to masses of trucks, so has a pretty good idea of what you are going to need to do and how much space it takes up.

The 7 or 8 commercial lanes are generally full of trucks, lined up, waiting their turn to approach the border guards' booths. Everyone is quizzed. The questions vary but the intent is the same, to make sure you are who you say you are, going where you say you are going and carrying what you say you are carrying. With electronic pre-approval by customs, mostly they know the answers to all the questions they ask. They have on a screen in front of them who you are, what’s in the back and where you are going. But they expect you to tell them anyway. Allegedly, your demeanour while doing so will display suspicious signs if you are up to no good. Every so often the slow progression of trucks through the booths will come to a stop. A green light above a lane turns to red and the body language dance begins at the back of one of the trucks. Someone is being inspected. The trailer will have to be unsealed and opened. The driver must do this, observed by as many guards as can be spared to make sure he knows exactly how much trouble he is in. The uniforms don’t need the aggressive stance, the one person not in uniform may or may not have displayed the wrong sort of demeanour in his cab but is now moving in as passive a manner as he can possibly achieve. The hands still rest on gun holsters though. Just so you know. Sometimes they are sent on their way after a satisfactory search, sometimes they are sent for X-ray, sometimes (and this is what everyone dreads) they are turned back to their country of origin to start the customs paper trail all over again. This means someone’s freight will be very late.

That worry overlays the preparation for questioning every time. I am getting better at the ‘how to be ready’ routine; hat off, sunglasses off, light on in the cab, window down, papers and id card ready, turn off engine, don’t set brakes, make eye contact. And I even managed to remember where I was going and where I’d been the last couple of times, this is significant progress. I have been declaring my apples, but no-one else has wanted to see them. I think they just look for new and silly ways to rattle and annoy you, just so they can object to your demeanour while annoyed. My accent seems to upset some, they demand to know my citizenship. The first time this happened I told the truth…”British and Canadian.” This did not go down well. “You can only have one.” These are Yanks of course, it’s true for them. I go for the easy option now and tell them I am Canadian. This seems to satisfy, although of course my dual citizenship is flagged on my ID card. Go figure, as they say.

This trip went well. I think it has helped with a spot of optimism. I found the place I was looking for in Ohio in record time, was early, got onto the dock relatively untroubled and was loaded and ready to leave in good time to get home before dark. Famous last words. I called dispatch to let them know I was leaving.
“How much room do you have left in the trailer?”
“Lots, they only loaded 7 bins, about 40 feet.”
“We’ll find you something else to load on the way back, call in when you get to Michigan.”
This would be the first time I would have to find somewhere without printing off an emergency Googlemap as a backup for getting lost. I am trusting Betsy a bit more now but belt’nbraces makes me feel better. I dutifully set off, calculating how long my detour could take before I’d be parking in the dark again.

But despatch are good at what they do. My detour was on the way home, a suburb of Detroit. The nerves set in as I programmed Betsy to find it but she was a star and got me right there in record time. I still might make it home in daylight. Then I saw the dock. In a car park. It was a blind side reverse, I never did get any time to learn those with my trainer, she kept saying we’d work on it but then we rushed off somewhere else. And here, dear readers, just in case you still think I’m a bit intrepid, is where I let the side down on a massive scale.

A charming young man overheard my conversation with the shipper. “I love your accent,” he schmoozed. “What are you driving?” He looked at the highway cab which was too big for the carpark. “How’s your blind-side reversing?” I put on my best ‘Mary Poppins meets Maggie Thatcher’ voice, the one that makes everyone swoon over here and simpered disgustingly.
“Not very good I’m afraid, I’m rather new at this.”
“I’ll direct you in and show you how it’s done.”
“How lovely of you, thank you sir, you’re an angel.”
He smiled delightedly, I appeared to have made his day.

Now years ago I would have sent him off with a flea in his ear for daring to imagine that just because I was a woman my blind-side backing might be a bit suspect. Even though it was. But these days, now I’m an old lady, I’m just flattered that anyone would feel good about helping me and relieved that one more assignment worked out ok. I’ll have to reverse blind-side some day on my own, maybe I learned something from his instructions.

By the time I was trying to get back through Detroit I was trusting Betsy enough to take in my surroundings again. She directed me under and around the Breathe-Out Bridge and I knew we were nearly home. This bridge forms part of Interstate 94, which takes you out of Detroit to the west. It is formed from bright blue girders and roughly coincides with the traffic calming down and spreading out a bit. I didn’t realise it was the point at which I had been breathing out until my trainer said to me “I’ve never seen anyone hold their breath for the whole of Detroit before.” That was then though. I’m even breathing better this week.

1 comment:

  1. Capricorn23/8/10 01:56

    We both know it's hard to be told what to do but I find that playing the "L'il ole lady" works for me( and it helps to be blonde like me )
    The helper feels good, we feel good getting the help we need and everybody goes away happy.
    Must remind myself of that next time