Sunday, August 26, 2012

Seeing With Smaller Eyes

I was parking my truck one morning this week, out behind the warehouse where I park it between runs. Someone from one of the big over-the-road companies was parked back there and as soon as I set the air brakes the driver jumped down out of his truck and came over and stood looking up at me waiting for me to open my window.

"How you doin' young man?" he began, in a Southern accent. "They told me I could back in when you pulled out."

He was about my age, or he may have been older. It was hard to tell. He had that pinched up, wrinkled face many working class Southerners of Scotch or English decent seem to have.

I'd just come in from Holbrook, where I meet the truck coming from Phoenix. He's got stuff headed east, I've got stuff headed west. We swap trailers and take the stuff back in the direction we came from. Our company delivers time sensitive freight and we do the bulk hauling part. What I bring back to Albuquerque is immediately sorted out and loaded into vans and delivered around New Mexico.

After we unload my truck, there's still a lot of activity still going on in the warehouse; counting freight, scanning freight, loading freight. I told the over-the-road driver it would be a few more minutes, that our local delivery truck had to load up a few pallets, which meant he'd be needing the dock next.

"It won't take long," I said, "but the people who'll unload you aren't here yet. They've probably already called them in though."

He contemplated for a few seconds, screwing up his mouth in a way that highlighted his wrinkled and pinched up look, a look that may have been exacerbated by a lifetime of smoking, or maybe by being pinched by the caveat emptor Southern culture, in which everyone is responsible fore getting their own needs met, and what the hell if it's at the expense of people less equipped for needs meeting, like he may well have been.

"Do they know you're here?" I asked, They meaning my boss or his assistant.

Those were just about the last words I contributed to the conversation, because he set off on the kind of rambling monologue truck drivers launch into when they've been driving all of a long night with no one to talk to but the radio and are strung out from lack of sleep and are beset with the kind of anxiety that making a delivery at a place you've never been to before can engender.

It soon became clear to me, as he rambled on, that he was new to trucking. The big over-the-road companies have a lot of turnover and hire a lot of new drivers, men or women who are just starting out. Some more experienced drivers work at those companies -- I've gone to work at them when I've needed a job in a hurry -- but it's largely newer drivers, and despite this guy's age it was obvious he was new to truck driving.

The first giveaway was that he had approached me, not waited for me to approach him, and the next was that in the first paragraph of his monologue he told me he'd been driving a long, long time.

"I've been out here 41 years," he'd said at one point. "There's no point in getting upset about waiting."

Newer truck drivers often exaggerate the years they've been driving, even wildly sometimes. Once a guy who couldn't have been 30 told me he'd been driving for 19 years. Seniority doesn't get you much in truck driving, better pay at some companies, but the old pay scales are on their way out, replaced by one low rate for everyone. Seniority gives you a measure of status, but seniority primarily matters as it gives you credibility in the brief, fleeting conversations between truckers when they encounter each other in situations like this one, where everything, including your perceived status, lasts only until you part company.

But the most obvious sign that he hadn't been driving very long came when he told me how he planned to back into the dock. He'd been saying how he had arrived last night and found out he couldn't get unloaded, and how he went to the truck stop and had a meal and came back early this morning, and now he launched into an explanation of how he was going to back into the dock, which was going to be a somewhat difficult maneuver, from where his truck was parked.

"I guess I'll just go out on the street and then back it up and pull in from that way," he said.

In other words, he planned to turn around in the street and approach the dock from the other direction.

This is what was really on his mind. This was what he was concerned about, and he wanted my validation for his idea. An older driver wouldn't have told me how he planned to back in. He'd have simply sized up the situation and backed in, thereby demonstrating that making a difficult maneuver didn't bother him. But this guy was telling me he was going to go out on the street, back up in street past the entrance, then pull back in and back up to the dock.

It really was a pretty ignorant idea, and I didn't have the heart to say so. He hadn't driven very long and I couldn't expect him to do it like I do it, every evening when I load up. It wasn't so much that his way was going to be a big waste of time and effort, either. It was that he planned to back up in the street. He'd be backing up a 70-foot long semi tractor-trailer rig on a pretty busy street, during morning rush hour, when people who are late for work would be careening down on you, swerving around you on whatever side they can get by you, and if you're lucky not running into you. You don't back up a semi any more than you have to, and surely not in a situation like that, and if you've driven for more than a few years you know why, from experience.

I did mention to him that he could drive around the building, the implication being that he could come in again the same way he came in the first time, and avoid having to back up in the street.

That didn't interest him. He'd been giving some thought to backing into the dock and had apparently already considered circling around the building. He'd probably walked to the end of the building to look things over and saw that there'd be be a gamut of parked cars to drive between, and two tight turns to make.

He dismissed my suggestion by again telling me how he was going to do it, and from there he merged back into rapid-fire monologue mode, free associating from topic to topic, the way people do who have the gift of gab and the way other people do when they're keyed up or nervous.

I let him go. I let him have his backing up scheme and his 41 years of driving trucks and whatever else he put forth to get his emotional, social needs met, or for whatever reason he put it forth, and maybe he kept talking because he just couldn't stop, couldn't go back and sit in his truck and wait patiently.

With those big companies, you're always under pressure to get unloaded. If you're not unloaded when they want you to be, they start harassing you, sending you messages wanting to know why not. And then when you do get unloaded, they might not even have another load for you. The way the system works, that all the big companies use, it isn't told to you what you'll be doing next. They just want you to get unloaded and be ready for the next load.

It results in a situation where you're always on call, 24/7, and unless you can figure out how to game that system a little, you have to be ready all the time, so that when they get around to finding you a load, you're ready to go pick it up and deliver it, and they expect you to have gotten enough rest to do it.

Truck driving's not a warm, cuddly environment. He'd already found out that there weren't too many people in the society of truck driving, either at the companies or among the other drivers out on the road, who warmly welcomed you into the fraternity. There are plenty of ornery sons of bitches out there who are tired and ornery and sons of bitches, and who know that after the brief encounter they have with you they'll very likely never see you again.

When I meet up with someone like this guy, I wonder how somebody like him ended up in truck driving, at his age. People generally get into truck driving when they're young. Most don't stay with it, and there is a constant influx of new, mostly younger drivers. Staying in is trucking is one thing, but it's not difficult to get into it.

He could be one of those people who move from job to job, and with jobs now scarce he ended up a truck driver. Either way, it's likely that he's one of that shrinking so-called middle class you hear about, the one that's going away. His factory was closed down, his job eliminated. No jobs to be had, but trucking.

There have been a number of stories this week in the media about a new Pew Research study that shows how the standard of living of the American working class, which includes the so-called middle class, is in decline. I'd just heard one that morning, about an hour before I met him.

All the stories highlight what the Pew outfit calls a "lost decade," referring to the fact that over the past ten years the wealth of the average middle income American has declined.

The stories, and, to be fair, the narrative of Pew's press release accompanying the study, link this decline to the recession, and also to the decline in house prices after the "housing bubble" burst, since middle income peoples' homes usually account for the biggest share of their wealth.

But buried in at least some of the stories was the fact that the decline began before the recession, and before the housing bubble burst. The decline certainly has been exacerbated by those two things, but it wasn't caused by them.

It's been caused by Neoliberalism. By trickle down, Reaganoics. It's caused by the massive redistribution of wealth upward, by, in a time of increasing profits, the profits going to the rich and not the working class. It, wealth, is being redistributed by way of pay scales that don't go up with seniority, for example, and by lower starting salaries, and by fewer raises and by more cuts in benefits.

But it's more than that. The redistribution is being accomplished by wealth the working class already owned being redistributed upward, through tax policies mainly, but also through things like foreclosures, by homes and small businesses being seized.

People may eventually catch on to what's been done ot them, and there may be an outbreak of a huge revolutionary moment, something that has occurred at times like this before, and which happens spontaneously, but don't count on the news media to help the people catch on. The story I'd heard that morning came from our illustrious National Public Radio. As I write this, two days later, the story has already disappeared from their web site, although other important stories remain, like one about wine tasting. Another story about the Pew study is on the NPR web site, but on a blog entry, not on the main web site.

Stories about a shrinking Middle Class don't fit with the NPR narrative, which is, 'I'm doing great, but did ya hear what happened to those other people?' Stories don't fit in with the NPR narrative that don't serve the interests of the people who provide NPR's funding, which is government and big business, and the few wage earners who still have disposable income.

But on some level of consciousness, people have caught on. Barak Obama, a young Black man with little experience at anything but self promotion, who, because he's very good at playing to the anxieties of a majority of Americans, because he can conjure up images and feelings that seem like a way out or at least offer a respite from their anxieties, was elected US president once, by a large margin, and will be elected again, probably by a wide margin again.

The truck driver I met the other morning, as part of his rambling monologue, had included what is a fairly common trope you hear from truck drivers, a favorable characterization of the company he works for, which is Knight, of Phoenix. If you drive much you'll see their red tractors pulling trailers with the name Knight in big red letters.

"They treat me good," he'd said, nodding toward his rig. "They get me plenty of miles."

Saying that a Capitalist corporation treats you good, an organization that exists solely to extract as much of the wealth that your labor creates as it can, is a truck driver thing but first it's a Southern thing. Southerners are taught from birth to think of their employer as their benefactor, and the truck driving milleau, the society of truck drivers, the ideas about what you should do to be a real truck driver, is heavily influenced by the Southern world view, because an overweighted share of truck drivers and most trucking companies are still based in the South. For much of the 20th century, for vast segments of the population in the South, the best paying job one could hope to get was in trucking.

Trucking is changing, in the meantime, with more minorities in the mix, and more punkish young men wearing earrings, and short pants, who have tattoes and shave their heads to make themselves look like pirates. There are more and more Sikhs in trucking. They don't work for the big companies. They buy their own trucks. Since 9/11, they go about their business avoiding eye contact with other truckers. They aren't unfriendly, but they're not friendly. They just try to stay out of the way of angry rednecks who on the CB radio, under cover of anonymity, refer to them as towel heads.

Trucking is changing, but not for the better, because at the same time, the mood of the country is changing. Trucking society is more contentious and hostile and more fractured than ever, what with the overall situation in the country, the polarization and the decline.

The fraternal aspects of trucking, such as flashing your headlights off and back on to signal to another truck when it has passed you, and him flashing his marker lights as a thank you, have nearly disappeared. Many drivers, when you're passing them, now wait until you look into your rear view mirror and flash their high beam headlights in your eyes, as if to say, 'Take that.' The thank you flash, if it's given at all, is minimal, often just one little blink. 'Sorry, it's all I can spare.'

Good will, and the self esteem that makes acts of generosity possible, are declining along with wages, wealth and home values. There are the acts one performs out of principle, but how long will such principles hold up under the onslaught of the principles of conservatism, of selfishness and greed and ever more pervasive hostility?

As living standards continue to decline, there has to be an effect, and we're seeing it now. People simply don't have as much to spare, in good will or material goods, with wealth and wages headed downward. It couldn't be otherwise, in a society where the drive to fulfillment is directed into obtaining material possessions, and where people's sense of status is relative to what they perceive others posses.

Like the 41 years of being on the road the other driver thinks I think he has.

I let him have his 41 years. I let him have his good Capitalist corporation and his solution for backing up. People want to belong to the fraternity of truck drivers, even if truck driving is only an idea they carry in their head, some lines from a country song or scenes from a movie, some ideas they conjured up when a bright red truck barreled through their small town and disappeared into the unknown, some ridiculous notion that they brought with them when they hired on.

It was a generous act, perhaps, to let him go on and on about himself, but it's not what I could have done, what I have done, in the past, and I was very aware of having to resist the impulse to tell him how he'd back up to the dock if he really did have some experience and knew the hell how to do it, and how sick I am of the bullshit and the lies people like him tell me to my face all the time, every day, all day long.

As for the disappearing so called middle class that the Pew study talks about, the Wall Street Journal account of that is short and to the point.

"The American middle class continued to shrink last year while also falling behind in its share of the nation's wealth as more affluent citizens take an ever larger piece of the economic pie, according to a report released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center.

In 2011, the middle income tier -- those making $39,000 to $119,000 a year -- comprised just 51% of all adults, down from 61% in 1971. Over the same period, the upper tier rose to 20% of adults from 14% while the poor are now 29% as opposed to 25%.

And, over the last 40 years, only the rich increased their share of the wealth, now taking in 46%, up from 29%, with the middle tier getting 45%, down from 62%.

"The middle class has shrunk in size, fallen backward in income and wealth, and shed some -- but by no means all -- of its characteristic faith in the future," Pew said in announcing the results of its study." 

The newspaper of Wall Street, whose editorial pages have for 30 years preached the economic scheme that caused the decline they are describing, doesn't even fear telling the truth about it.

The only two political parties allowed to participate in the US are on board with this scheme, and the two candidates for president won't do a thing to change it, and they say as much. Democrats may now feel the need to preach a little class politics, which to them means raising taxes on the rich, but that will do absolutely nothing to alter the structures, that remain in place, that allowed the rich to skew things so much in their favor.

Recall that at the beginning of the Reagan Era the income tax rate on the super rich was 91 percent. That made them shift income from consumption to productive uses, such as investing in their factories and in pay and benefits, but they still owned the media and the politicians, and more importantly they owned all the factories and vast amounts of the land, all of the most valuable land, and in 30 short years they returned America to where it was in the 1920s and to the huge disparities in wealth and income we see now.

The Democrats are not your salvation. They are part of the problem and the problem is Capitalism. We can tell ourselves that we're doing alright as we build ourselves up in our minds' eye over our sisters and brothers, we can look at the positive, as we accumulate unto ourselves the few remaining scraps of material wealth our class is permitted to possess, or we can put an end to it.


Here are several stories about the Pew Research study, and the study itself

Wall Street Journal

NPR Blog

CNN Money

Pew Research Study


(note: New Socialist Kitchen Tips added:

Chicken Lizard Soup
Bonus Tip, pourable jars

see Pages in the right-hand column)



  1. Agreed about capitalism being the problem, but I fear it all has to collapse first.

    1. Thank you for your comment. You might be right.

  2. For your possible amusement: "This ex-trucker has some questions about the Tesla Semi"
    (with an entire year and 'over 90,000 miles' of experience)