THE SECRET LIFE OF A NEW YORK TRUCK DRIVER

paul vee
 
 

I. Night



 
 
 
 
 

I graduated from Harvard, where I studied poetry. I had a punk band and a beautiful girlfriend, who would later become my wife. We both ended up on Madison Avenue in a public relations firm at the age of 21. I was a yuppie by day and a punk rocker by night.

 

This was the early 'eighties, and we hung out on the club scene in Lower Manhattan. We got into drugs. It was casual at first, but as things progressed, eventually I had sold all our possessions and lost a couple of jobs. We accumulated a shopping bag's worth of unopened bills and legal notices. I spent half of each day sweating and feeling that my joints and muscles were going to burst from the pain of withdrawal. I spent the rest of my time trying to scrape up money so that I could go to abandoned buildings, cop some dope, then come home, get high, and nod out.
huh

I needed money and answered an ad for a bagel bakery on the Upper West Side. I hadn't worked in over a year. My mother, the only family member who still tried to contact me, sent me an ad from the Times for a night manager position at a bagel bakery; me -- her son, the Harvard grad, the public relations exec. I needed money, but more to pacify her than anything else, I went up to this place, and they gave me a job.
bagel!huh?

That was how I found myself standing under a row of streetlamps behind a beige delivery truck one night on the Upper West Side. After doing nothing but copping dope for a year, working as a helper on a bagel truck almost made me feel like I was part of society again. The driver was named Bonilla, a short, chubby Dominican in his mid-thirties. He had a girlfriend in the city, a wife in Santo Domingo, and kids in Florida. He didn't know too much English, but that was all right. I had prowled the decaying, slummy streets of Lower Manhattan in search of drugs long enough to have picked up the pidgin English spoken in this city.

The two of us piled about 200 bags, each containing five dozen bagels, on the long aluminum shelves that lined the back of the truck. Bonilla then sat for about ten minutes, shuffling the orders, organizing his route. This is the highest art of delivery work. You try to arrange all of your stops in the most efficient way possible:

  • Who needs what first?
  • What are the traffic patterns at this time of day, this time of year?
  • How long will each stop take?
  • Where am I going to eat lunch?
  • Maybe I can swing by 33rd and Lex at 3 a.m. to check out the streetwalkers?
  • We took off at 11 p.m. The radio was blasting Latin cover versions of 'sixties pop hits, like "My Boy Lollipop." The side doors were open, and I stood in the doorway, hung onto the side mirror and stared. Then I went into the back of the truck, and he shouted instructions at me through the partition door: "Give me three dozen plain and a dozen sesame in one bag. I want four dozen raisin in another. I need it fast, man."
    bagel!huh?

    The city slowly shut down as we worked our way through Midtown. We dropped some deliveries in the inner doors of restaurants. We went into the silent lobbies of big office buildings, where there was always a security guard watching TV or staring at the wall. Bonilla seemed to know all of these guys. We pulled into loading docks all over Manhattan. We left some bags in the open, leaning them against the front doors of food shops. I was always amazed that nobody touched them.

    We stopped at a bakery in Hell's Kitchen to pick up some specialty items -- kaiser rolls and a couple of five-foot hero loaves, which had to be treated gently and wrapped in old cardboard boxes like splinted limbs. "Be careful, man, they'll kill us if that shit breaks," Bonilla warned.

    bagel!uh huh

    At about 2 a.m., Bonilla pulled out an alarm clock and told me that he would be awake in an hour. I went out on the street and smoked a joint, then sat behind the wheel and acted like I was the driver. I shuffled the bills and chain-smoked Camels while I waited for him to wake up. The alarm finally went off, and so did we. After a few more stops, we ended up in front of a Times Square strip club called Show World. Bonilla disappeared inside for about fifteen minutes. He had offered me some Show World tokens, but I was happy to sit in the truck at 4 a.m. and check out the action on 8th Avenue -- hustlers, junkies, hookers, pimps, and police. For this, I was making eight dollars an hour, less than a third of what I had made in public relations.
    ...

    Bonilla taught me how to fly through the run as fast as possible so that I could slack off before returning to home base. I became very fast over the next year. I never wasted a step. I became an expert on the timing of traffic lights. I used my hands, elbows and feet to open doors and push elevator buttons. I could eat with both hands while steering the truck with my knees. In short, I became a master of the delivery arts.
    bagel!huh?

    I was a denizen of the second city, of the vampire Manhattan which comes alive after dark. It's a place where everyone knows everyone else, where trucks rule the streets, and where the only thing more powerful than you is a bigger truck. I'd be sitting at a light, when a milk truck would pull up next to me. "Hey man, got any extra bread?" the driver would shout. "Yeah, you got some chocolate milk?" The exchange would be made and we would each be off into the night.

    The night-time traffic is so light that you can ignore the rules of the road. I became a cowboy. I felt as though I was a law unto myself. So long as the bagels got through, I could do whatever I wanted. Eventually, I'd end up back at the ranch, sweeping pounds of poppy and sesame seeds out of the truck. I would turn in my money from the stops that paid cash on delivery, and get on the subway, stinking of onion and garlic, just this side of 8 a.m.
    bagel!...

    I would watch the people who were on their way to work in the morning and feel like I had come from another planet. At home, I would try to sleep through the day. My apartment windows were boarded over, and I would put on music to drown out the sounds of daytime, but it was hard to trick my mind into thinking that it was night. After a restless sleep, brought on by too many drugs or not enough, I would wake up again, often with my clothes and boots still on. I would go for days at a time without shaving or showering. My diet consisted of milk and bagels which I took from the store. I would take sleeping pills, if I had them, and pass out for 24 hours at a time. I was often disoriented, and had to concentrate to remember what day it was or even whether it was night or day. Was the sun about to come up or had it just gone down?

    I credit my wife with first mentioning the word "rehab" to me. She had lost her job by then, and she was watching a lot of TV. I figured that she must have heard about it on some daytime talk show. I was too horrified at the prospect to ask her. On the other hand, I had no place else to go, no people left in my life, and never enough money. It seemed as though I was always avoiding the police and the dealers to whom I owed money. The good guys and the bad guys were both after me. I was so tired. It took all my energy to drive that truck and make deliveries every night. There were never enough drugs to get me straight, let alone to get high. I stopped showing up at the bagel joint. They left a few messages on my machine and then that stopped too. I guess drivers just disappeared from that job on a regular basis. I called them about five months later and it was like I had never left. I worked for two days and disappeared again.