This post clocks in at around 1,600 words so perhaps you’d like to take a break and come back later to finish. And thank you, as always, for stopping by.
Barely secured, jostled about on a slim stiff seat, a bumpy cold ride as brumal winds whistled through an open door, I was on my way to deliver packages to folk who cared not a whit to our plight. Yes, such as it was, my brief stint as a UPS driver helper during these past holidays.
Luckily my driver Mike was a good-natured sort and during those long hellacious days, he provided much needed laughter. You had to have a sense of humor for this job. That, and be a masochist.
Mike’s route consisted of locations around the Sturfield environs, encompassing a few expensive enclaves as well as hovels and a smattering of businesses along the way.
As we got to know each over the course of three weeks, I told him not to expect any holiday tips from the townsfolk, the wanna-be rich who reside in preposterously over-priced, maxed-out mortgage McMansions, cookie-cutter structures flimsily constructed, replete with immaculate tiny verdant lawns carefully groomed with unnecessary, expensive sit-down mowers. Folk who wish to appear wealthy, who want to believe their town was special, like a Newton, Brookline, or Holden. But it was all an illusion.
The rarefied air was unfounded, the stink of elitism was unwarranted, the kind of town where brown people are hard to come by.
“You don’t think so?” Mike asked, peering at me as we drove at ferocious speeds to our next icy destination.
“I’ll bet you get absolutely nothing. Maybe, just maybe, if you’re lucky, a $10 gift card to Dunkin Donuts. But I doubt it.”
“C’mon, it can’t be that bad.”
“Mike, you will learn that Sturfieldians are, in two words, fake and cheap.”
We bounced along rutted roads, in back the overstuffed van tossing packages indiscriminately. There was no discernable rhyme or reason to the load, packed to the ceiling.
Mike only had this route since September, so he had no idea of the type of people who lived there. He was in for a rude awakening.
There were some townsfolk , I told him, who thought it beneath their status to shop at Walmart, preferring to purchase their skillets and Skittles at Target or, for less bang for your buck, at Crate & Barrel.
I told Mike a story of some people (we used to call them friends) who complained how they had the smallest house in the neighborhood, a desirable enclave of eclectic structures that spoke of old money.
“We walked with them one Halloween,” I began, “and whenever we met their friends or neighbors, they never introduced us. It was evident we were beneath their social status. At the time, we were renting a house, as if the word ‘renter’ was taboo, to be whispered only, hushed like the word ‘cancer’.
Mike looked at me, wondering if I was pulling his leg. But something in his eyes told me he knew I spoke the truth.
“No, Mike. Sorry. No tips for you!” I said in my best Soup Nazi voice.
Fighting bitter winds and miserable snapping curs, my job was to jump out the open door, take packages and sprint up ice encrusted driveways or cut through lawns and deposit parcels on icy stoops. This was the routine—sometimes for nine or ten hours straight.
I had to chortle over this temporary job. It was surreal, a job suited for unstable folk, people who were a bit touched, those who must enjoy the pain and misery of relentless cold. Did I fit the bill? I must, as I was paid a paltry sum to brave these brutish conditions: $11 an hour. Christ, at some of my past modeling gigs I made three times that amount, just for baring all in unbearable frigid rooms, standing in the all together whilst students sat and drew me, a circle of strangers bedecked in fur-lined frocks and woolly scarves. I endured that—for three hour stretches—because I did not mind making $30+ an hour.
Here though, donning an over-sized UPS coat over several layers and wearing flimsy orange work gloves, I dodged frozen dog turds and toys submerged in snow, leaping over guy wires holding up enormous kitschy Christmas balloons, all to deposit packages on doorsteps.
We averaged over 200 stops each day. Since it was December, sunlight was fleeting, disappearing before three in the afternoon. Flashlights were paramount, as who knew what mongrel dog or forest creature lurked on the fringe, awaiting a surprise attack to sample the tenderness of my thigh.
It was godawful. I had to laugh to myself, though, at the sheer absurdity of it all. (Camus was correct.) But during these darkled forays onto strangers’ lands, balancing ponderous parcels on my shoulders, Mike managed to keep me in stitches, allowing my cold tired soul to realize the rather risible nature of such employ. I marveled at how he was still doing this after 17 years. Yes, my driver, like me, was a true masochist.
December 22nd arrived, and I yearned for days end. I called Mike “Eeyore” as every day, especially this last day, he assured me that we ‘were screwed!’, that we wouldn’t finish until 10:30, maybe 11pm. I assured him, like every day before, we’d be done by 7:30, eight at the latest. And we did. We cranked it out, mainly because I wanted to be at home with my lovely wife and two boys, sitting before the woodstove and indulging in a questionable libation. It was certainly better than caromed about in a frigid van, with winter winds seeking passage between collar and sleeve alike.
The day merciful ended, and I bid Mike a splendid holiday. My stint as a driver helper was complete. I could now return to my frozen RAV4, stuck amongst the snow in the far reaches of a strip mall.
Sitting in my vehicle, waiting for a hint of heat to thaw my pre-hypothermia state, I was quite sure I’d be stopping at the local Packie, to purchase with my meager earnings a soporific that would both relax and induce a semblance of sleep.
Forward a week later (still having not received my last check) I found myself traveling eastward to—you guessed it—the UPS hub, where I was to be interviewed for a package handler position. Did I mention to you that perhaps I might be a masochist?
But let’s face it. I needed a job. Working briefly as a driver helper did not constitute a real job. Especially at an embarrassing eleven dollars per hour.
So there I was sitting in a room, with others who dreamed of becoming package handlers. (Could that really be possible?)
I sat and perused the papers before me, information about the job, what to expect and the hourly rate. And there it was, in black and white: $11 an hour. Fancy that. ‘You must be joshing me,’ I muttered, oblivious to the banter and joking of others who seemed eager—eager!—to readily submit their bodies and minds to such meager and menial labor.
The perky young assistant, Melissa, guided us through the paperwork and then took us in a rag-tag fashion to “The Hub”, where all the action took place.
I was horrified. It reminded me of a mechanical nightmare, as though immersed in a ghastly scene straight out of a Bosch canvas.
The interior was dim, with whirring conveyor belts slowly moving packages along, some parcels dropping to the floor with a bang.
Melissa showed us several stations: loading or unloading trucks, sorting a mountain of goods, all at an astounding rate best suited for a cyborg.
Sheer and utter madness. Insanity within dim, cavernous walls. I saw workers in semis, unloading parcels with light dimmer than candles, the constant whining and clattering echoing along endless corridors as though we somehow entered a three-dimensional Rube Goldberg device.
Did I mention I was shocked? But the kicker though, despite the minuscule money offered, was that you were only guaranteed 3.5 hours a day. And maybe, if you were very lucky, five hours a day.
We fled the clanking, darkened interior and wended our way across the bitter cold tarmac. My subsequent interview was brief: “Not for me,” I said to a still smiling, still perky Melissa. “The hours and pay and working conditions are atrocious.”
Still, she tried to reassure me that after twelve months of slave labor for pittance pay, I was ‘guaranteed’ a fifty-cent raise. I suppose she was less than ecstatic by my gaze. Deep down, she must have realized how incredibly absurd and laughable it all was. I bid her goodbye.
Buffeted by arctic blasts, I crossed the immense parking lot to my car and cranked the heat. No, the job was not for me. And this certainly is not a knock against UPS, not at all. I know, first-hand, how hard the drivers work, through all kinds of hellish weather and conditions. My brief stint with Mike was enough to make me realize I was not destined to drive one of those rollicking ‘Brownies”, as the vans are called.
Mike, here’s to you and all your fellow drivers. I salute you in your tenacity, your perseverance and, most of all, your camaraderie during our month of hell.
A few days after it was all over, after the holidays, I gave Mike a call, inquiring about all the tips he made.
“Yeah, Paul, you were right,” he said with a sigh. And then added, “Although I did get a $5 gift card to Dunkin Donuts!”
‘Ah, Sturfieldians at their finest,’ I thought.
Copyright, Paul Grignon, 2018, All Rights Reserved.