Thursday, September 9, 2010

New friends

After 20 minutes or so the news on the CB changed. It meandered from "the chopper’s landed" via "someone must be still alive” through “chopper’s leaving” to “both southbound lanes are open now, northbound still closed, you’re not going anywhere just yet, driver.” Amid thanks for the updates – well not from me, I just thought them – we gradually started to move. It was 6 o’clock when Betsy informed me I had arrived at my destination, a huge plant on a vast quantity of open land with a clearly marked driveway for shipping and receiving. I risked driving down it a short way. Big places with signs for trucks usually mean you’ll be able to turn around.

Little places in city centres with no apparent entrance apart from a car park, on the other hand, are lairs of impossibility waiting to trap the unwary rookie. I learned this the hard way at a tiny foundry in Windsor, Ontario. All we had to do was deliver an empty pallet on the way to the border. Presumably they normally send them in a smaller van but we were passing the door, almost. It looked cramped and there wasn’t an obvious way in. I was with my trainer at the time and she recommended parking up on the main road, in the turning lane between the two yellow lines, sticking the hazards on and phoning for instructions. This we had done, with mixed success. The receptionist who answered the phone told us all about how to drive round the building, enter the car park from Seneca Street and the dock was on the left; she had clearly missed the bit about us being in an 18-wheeler.

On that occasion I had dutifully driven round the building into Seneca Street and looked doubtfully at the car park and the dock.
“I don’t think I can turn around in there.”
“I’ll direct you” said my trainer, it’s tight but you can do it.”
I'd wiggled into the car park at just the same moment as a little food and coffee wagon entered from the other end. He parked right in front of the dock, where I would be needing to turn and reverse. We sat and waited politely, noting as we did so that the dock was actually just a big door, there was nothing to reverse up to for a forklift to mess about on. As we sat, people began to emerge and shout. Apparently it was time for them to go home and we were in the way. One particularly obnoxious individual demanded that we get out of his way. My trainer, who does a good line in sweetness and light with menacing undertones told him that we would be doing so just as soon as the coffee wagon got out of our way. This wasn’t good enough. She asked him where he thought we should move to. And he told her. Things were getting a little ugly by the time the forklift driver arrived to say “oh, you’re in here, usually tractor-trailers park in the street and we drive out and unload them from there.”

“Why did you drive in?” another member of the, by now, expanding audience enquired.
“The receptionist told us to…” I was embarrassed, my trainer was furious, the guy who wanted to go home was apoplectic and what with one thing and another, I learned a few lessons about driving onto unknown premises. You can’t go far wrong assuming that there be dragons. I went back to the place with the car-park in Windsor a week or so later and was very pleased with myself for remembering where to park. I forgot something else equally vital, but that’s another tale.

And anyway, we’re in Culpeper now. I drove as far as a barrier by a little guard’s hut. The hut was empty. It had a little paper note stuck to the window that had spent too much time out in the rain. Something about finding the guard at the main entrance to the building and using a phone. It was a pleasant evening, I shut off the engine and went walkabout. I found a fancy main entrance to the building with a place for staff to swipe id cards, but no staff. And no guard. An elderly phone sat on the wall though, and a little sign that said ‘To contact security guard’ so I lifted the receiver. There was a recorded message. I put it down. Was there any point in leaving a message? I didn’t know. I picked it up again. And put it down again. But then, if I was going to call dispatch and tell them the place was deserted they’d ask about that sort of thing wouldn’t they? It would sound better to say “I left a message and nobody came” than “it said leave a message and I didn’t”. So I did.

I continued walking. A good reason to appear to be lost and looking for someone is that it gives you a chance to find the docks and scope out how the hell to set up for them without looking too much like you have no idea what you are doing. And since I was lost and looking for someone anyway, a tour round the outside of the building seemed like a good idea.

I found some docks and a warehousey bit round the back. The doors were open and the lights were on. I could hear some activity around machinery way over to the back but nobody buzzed me with a forklift. I found an office that said SHIPPING on the door. The lights were on and the door was open but it was deserted. It had phones though. I could call dispatch from there and sound more intelligent than from outside the front of the building. Maybe I could find a loo first. Now I had a plan. Wander through the plant looking for the ladies, if accosted, tell people I was trying to find the shipper, then return to the deserted office to make that call if there was still nobody to be found.

The lady with the fierce hair found me as I was telling dispatch, from the phone on her desk, that I was here but nobody else was. “You should have come and found me,” she reproached, “I’m the only one here after five, I can’t be everywhere.” She was tiny, had the sort of glasses that are elaborate enough to count as jewellery, wore a sparkly salmon pink top and reminded me of one of my scarier aunts. I grovelled.
“I’m so sorry, I’m new at this and I’ve not been here before, I didn’t know where to look.”
“Didn’t the guard tell you?”
“I couldn’t find the guard, I’m still parked up by the barrier.”
She softened a bit. And walked me back through the building to show me where I should have looked for the guard. When he wasn’t there, and she tried the phone and got the recorded message, she softened a lot more and declared it her mission for the evening to sort this out. 

We made introductions. “I’m Ursula,” she said, although that isn’t how it sounded. What I heard was “I’m Oooors’la”, which is the ugliest way I’ve ever heard anyone pronounce a pretty name, I thought for a fleeting moment she was unwell. Oors’la bustled and I followed on her heels like a puppy, which is hard to do when you are twice someone’s size, until she found the hapless guard. He apologised, he was new too. He’d been told to patrol the building, nobody told him there would be deliveries. Once we’d all made friends, forgiven each other for first impressions and blamed absent jobsworths he raised the barrier, and I drove round to the dock.

By the time I had made a decent job of reversing in, Oors’la was my best friend. It turned out that she literally was the only person in the shipping department after five, since she it was who beetled in and out of my trailer, unloading it with a forklift. Somehow, I expected from her demeanour that I was dealing with an office person, but who am I to judge by appearance? She drove her forklift in fastidious manner, with pinkies raised, exactly as though she were having a polite cup of tea. I didn’t know that was possible.

My new pal told me all about the best way to drive to Roanoke, where the sneaky speed limit changes were and to “be sure to come back and visit again soon”. I left Culpeper, Virginia a lot more sprightly than I intended to and headed south. 

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