Tuesday, September 17, 2013

09.17.2013 Narrating A Life Written On The Road: Federal Way Truck Stop Chase

Federal Way Truck Stop Chase

Despite being capable and competent, I was too petite to be considered a serious truck-driver. Logging thousands of miles didn't seem to matter as I seemed forever younger than my age and looked more like some of the other entrepreneurs that congregated around truck stops.

One evening, after phoning in my whereabouts, I turned from the outdoor phone booth to be confronted by 3 or 4 truckers already under a load, if you get my drift. And they didn't believe my claim to be a truck driver rather than a business lady plying my wares.

A chase ensued. My childhood experience escaping my drunken brother into the darkness outside the house now served me handily as I zigged and zagged between rigs in the parking lot. To head for my own truck would corner me, so I crouched beneath and between the dual axles of a random truck, willing my breathing to quiet. I could hear them talking back and forth as they continued their search, moving away briefly then, to my horror, returning with flashlights.

I froze as the beams swept slowly and methodically under trucks and trailers near me, within inches of my position. I prayed my beating heart didn't give me away.

After an eternity, I calculated their position based on their calls to one another, then executed a swift dash to my Kenworth, unlocked the driver's door by feel and memory with the cached screwdriver that functioned as the key for the missing lock. Scaled the ladder and was inside the cab in two seconds flat, closed the door as quietly and firmly as I could, pushing down the lock button and diving into the sleeper through the rolled-down curtain.

Big rigs don't have auto-on cab lights, like cars do. Small blessings, silent thanks.

I peered cautiously through the curtain while they continued combing the lot for their prey. An hour, then two passed before I felt brave enough to fire up the truck and pull out of there for the last time.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

06.12.2013 Before You Dispense Advice...

That the automobile has practically reached the limit of its development is suggested by the fact that during the present year no improvements of a radical nature have been introduced.” So reads an excerpt from Scientific American in January 1909.

More recently I exchanged several emails with a software engineer turned miracle healer who reversed his mother's incurable lung disease largely through eliminating most carbohydrates, believed responsible for the progression of her illness. I shared my own experience with a low-glycemic natural sugar replacement, along with the rejoinder “The research is never done, is it?” to which he responded, “My research IS done! I've found the answer and I don't need to do more!” Presumably that software engineer is still on dial-up service for his 1976 Macintosh.

Many years back, surgery loomed for my spouse, with one last effort to block the chronic pain in the form of a procedure termed nerve block injection. In principle, the aggravated nerve is numbed so the pain is abated, avoiding the scalpel. Success rates vary, but the numbers were not high. Sometimes more than one application was required. Scrutinizing the brochures, I cast my vote for this last-ditch effort before resigning to the ultimatum of the knife.

It failed. Worse, it was discovered AFTER the surgery that cortisone – the key ingredient in the series of shots – inhibits healing. The damage could not be undone, and the pain would accompany him to the end of his days.

My sense of guilt about encouraging him to undergo a procedure with such a dismal record in the first place was amplified by this news. Although he didn't blame me, I felt responsible for his lifetime of unending agony.

So I don't advise anyone anymore. Ever. I owe it to myself to do the footwork, make educated choices based on the information I have and reap the risks and rewards accordingly.

And the onus is on you to do the same.

Undoubtedly there will be unforeseen events and factors. That's life, after all. No one can imagine or predict all possible scenarios. Making decisions for ourselves is imperative to our freedom, dignity, soul even. Gather the opinions and evidence you feel necessary, weighting each according to your gut instinct or hard science. Courage and faith are required to make mistakes, risk your reputation, gamble on the outcome.

I believe that, like me, most people make the best decisions they can at any given moment. But like Alice, people change sizes frequently, sometimes several times daily. Then the key cannot be reached on the tall, tall table, or the house suddenly closes in, effectively restricting any movement or progress.

Sometimes my lack of available courage leaves me unable to peek out from under the covers, and that's my best for that moment. But at other times I am Capable Woman, inhaling mightily to inflate that red-white-and-blue leotard 3 sizes larger than Life. Most days, I am the same size all day long, and my capacity to make decisions for myself is relatively stable.

I respect you, as a chronological adult, enough to allow you to make your own decisions. If you want my personal experience or views, you're welcome to them.

Just don't ask my advice.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

05.26.2013 - Too Big To Be Accountable?

Too Big To Be Accountable?

Some time back, I took a state agency to task on why I was paying nearly 3 times the rate of others in my industry. As the answer never satisfied me, I reiterated my complaint every quarter when the bill came due. The account manager assured me they were forwarding my documentation and argument to the appropriate department, as the clock ticked down on the Statute of Limitations for filing a grievance. Following the events of 9-11-2001, public entities cut their workforce by a large percentage, and the agent's workload increased. While I understood, I was watching that window close.

With only weeks left to appeal, that agent abruptly dummied up and professed to know nothing of any complaint whatsoever, offering to send documents to fill out if I wanted to file (again). I was stunned, the truth that she had not acted at all suddenly dawning on me. I was out of time.

I had to close the business at the peak of the season. 40-something people, out of a job, 200-plus contractors set adrift. A thriving business now DOA.

So I started fresh. New biz. New name. New software, equipment, contractors. New workforce, union this time. And guess who wound up in charge of my account again?

6 months in, I was working full time for a client when I got a call from my business bank that this agency had seized my accounts. Then within days, my truck was ransacked. The business and I both became the target of ID theft.

Visiting the local office of this megalithic entity was the only means of resolving the issue, and reversing the seizure. Armed with reams of documentation outlining my years-long petition for relief and justice, we discovered to the astonishment of both of us that the original account manager had falsified documents blending my original business with the new one, submitted an estimated tax-due report, and triggered the seizure.

The person across the table me immediately wanted to reverse the seizure. But couldn't, because ID theft had forced me to close all accounts, business and personal. And while a phone call could return the funds to my account, there seemed no means available to seize from one account and re-deposit to a new one. 

The branch Director couldn't be bothered, didn't care. And said so. For weeks. (Insert gratuitous film clip of Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones in the “I don't care” scene from The Fugitive.) Once more, they were taking my business down.

About the time I was voicing my opinion regarding this egregious treatment, my eye fell upon a notice on the wall: “It is against Washington State law to harass, intimidate or threaten a public employee.” (RCW 9A.76.180)


I flashed back to a scene years before, when I was transported by the Idaho State Patrol to Coeur d'Alene for failure to purchase a trip permit. (Evidently the Idaho public servant found a Western Union Money Order not legal tender for the sale.)

Along the way, the driver would report in his location every 5 minutes, on the nose. So I was curious enough to ask why. The answer froze my blood.

It's a new state law whenever we have female passengers,” he informed me.

It's a cinch that law wasn't created in a vacuum, but in response to a compelling event, a lawsuit. And suddenly I realized I was in Idaho, home of covert and overt White Supremacist clans, survivalist and isolationist factions, and nobody had any idea I was here.

I could vanish.


Washington State's prominent display of their notice, combined with a distinct lack of camera or recording device, meant the State's interpretation of such a perceived danger rested entirely with the agency that had already knocked me down twice. And wiped their collective feet on my carcass.

Baited with the leading “Are you threatening?” I responded with a prophecy, a promise that if my second company folded due to their departmental lack of oversight, responsibility and failure to carry out their duty, I would have nothing but Time on my hands, and invited them to speculate on exactly how and where I planned to spend it. 

Five months later, I sent a courier to retrieve my money from Olympia, and they returned my seized funds in a check labeled, infuriatingly, “Petty Funds.” Three and a half years later, they proffered a paltry percentage of my original claim – as a credit. Although it spoke to their culpability, my business was already circling the drain.


Which raises the question: Why is a State agency too big to take on?

Surely I'm not the sole casualty of that account manager's outright cover-up. Short of being a disgruntled former employee of mine, I can find no reason to single out my company. Twice. So I can only surmise this happened to many businesses under her purview.

And why can I readily find legal advisers of every stripe to take on the IRS, insurance lawsuits, and myriad other complex cases yet balking at any dealing with an agency that has outgrown it's boundaries?

Retaliation is reserved for those inside the safe confines of this outsized department, forbidden by decree to you and me.

I recognize a bully.

One fellow lost his family, home, job and any future he might have realized, attempting to force them to be responsible, responsive, to the people they profess to serve. He painstakingly vetted each decision he made, every step he took, as he sought to bring his case to the attention of a cowardly press and a disinterested justice department. This was no maladjusted, hypersensitive sort, but an educated man who was wronged. He wasn't in it for the money. He wanted the agency to operate within their own rules.

No legal adviser would take his case. Not one publication or media source would investigate his tale. Nor mine. And we are not alone.

Something is broken in Washington State. Will anyone heed the call?

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

04.09.2013 - Pink Potato Salad

Pink Potato Salad

Potato salad is a staple of every summertime gathering, traditional recipes and creative variations competing for attention. I didn't learn to cook until I left the house, relying on a single volume of Betty Crocker to instruct me in the culinary arts.

I tiptoed cautiously through one item at a time, working a recipe over several times to calibrate cooking times, methods and temperatures, ingredients, adaptability to crock-pots, ambient humidity, etc.

Can you tell my dad was an engineer?

Remember Photo-mats? And film? Years passed before I grasped that most finished glossies emerged from an exponential number of outtakes, pictures that never made the cut. Good cooking, too, results from trial and error. I wanted to get to the prizewinning dish via the shortest route so I grabbed my behemoth comprehensive cookbook that every kitchen has like a dictionary or reference book, looked up all the potato salad recipes, reduced the ingredients to common denominators and went to the pantry.

Potatoes. Mayo. Vinegar. Salt. Pepper. Seasonings. These formed the foundation with myriad add-ins and regional preferences. So I went to work. Large potatoes would take an hour to bake, longer to cool, so I sped up the process by boiling cubed spuds, then cooling 15 minutes in the fridge. Hard-boiled eggs at the ready, radishes, celery, onion. For the dressing, 2 tablespoons of prepared relish and mustard added to great scoops of mayo. Vinegar: apple cider seemed appropriate, and I could economically dispose of the tiny bit of plum vinegar left by my Japanese friend at the last potluck. Excavate the large stainless bread bowl and stir.

Something wasn't gelling. Seeking a gourmand's opinion and mouthing my disclaimer about still-warm potatoes melting the mayo while a mere teaspoon or less of plum vinegar tinted the results, I presented the dish to my critic who gazed stunned into the pink liquefied vortex that was the culmination of the afternoon's efforts.

A story I once heard best described my hypersensitivity about cooking – all my endeavors, really. In the days when cooking was the crucial fabric that bound families together at the dinner table, a new bride prepared a simple sheet of cookies for her husband. Burnt. New home, unfamiliar appliance, factors outside her experience. Placating his tearful young wife, the spouse uttered those fateful words: “Oh, don't cry, honey. I like them that way.” Instinctively I recognized the far-reaching implications, for not only was this man now doomed to forever eat burnt cookies, he could never be seen eating unburned ones.

My critic knew this story, and understood his next words could establish a lifetime of generous capitulation or abstention from one of life's simple pleasures. Several seconds stretched into long moments before he spoke. Finally he said, “I've never seen anything like it!”

We collapsed into laughter, delicate feelings assuaged. Actually, the flavor was wonderful but I was the only taster. When I discovered purple potatoes some years later, I prepared those for dinner one evening and he got the first fork-full right up to his open mouth but could go no further.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

03.19.2013 - Narrating A Life Written On The Road – Longshoring

Coming of age in the 70's, I grew up overlooking the shipping lanes in Puget Sound. This view afforded me a working understanding of transportation and international commerce when Japanese technology was surpassing the United States in quality, price and sheer volume. Trade was high.

College was never an option for me. I dropped out of high school before I finished 10th grade with above-average intelligence and below-average grades because, according to my report cards, I never “applied” myself. I just didn't believe in the school system. Even a high school diploma wouldn't assure me anything more than minimum wage, so I saw no reason to hack away for 3 more years. By the time I was 18 years old, with the Women's Movement gaining ground, I recognized that men would not work so cheaply and the answer to my future lay in blue-collar.

My very first 40-hour-a-week job was a summer position acquired through the state employment office at the tender age of 16 years old. Building on that foundation, I analyzed and imitated the traits necessary to work in the trades – rising early, taking breakfast at 4 AM at a local roadhouse frequented by drivers, longshoremen and operating engineers – crane operators. Flannel shirts and Levi button-fronts, tiny leather-palm work gloves and black lace-up boots in boys size 4 topped off with a signature hickory-stripe railroad cap completed my ensemble.

Although I got my first blue-collar job when I hit 18, I didn't longshore until I was fired from my job at 21 years old. I returned once again to the state unemployment office where I discovered an interesting phenomenon. Hours before the office opened, men would pull up, get out and set a hard hat down in a line next to the door beneath the awning, and return about an hour-and-a-half before scheduled hours. Another man would emerge in shirt sleeves from the nearly dark office, and all the hard hat owners would line up expectantly to accept job slips, retrieve their hard hats and drive off into the predawn dark. I learned that they were “extras,” taking day jobs from the local longshoreman’s hall.

So I got a hard hat.

Follow along as my adventure unfolds.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

03.14.2013 Narrating A Life Written On The Road: Hauling Ore

One of the most wretched jobs I ever had involved a broker based out of Westboro, MA. He had a truck or two, and a contract to haul huge bags of iron-rich ore in giant poly bags in dry vans from East St. Louis to Groton, CT where a big name in vitamins would extract the mineral from the sediment. Typically, each morning I was scheduled to pick up in Illinois or deliver in Connecticut, a trip of around 1,100 miles or so. Interspersed were longer trips to points to the West Coast, those 3-day ultra-marathons which rendered solo drivers comatose for 24 hours following.

The grueling pace was but one factor in making this possibly the worst job ever. Besides the 62-MPH top-out speed and lack of any radio, I found cardboard lined the interior, stuffed along the back wall of the sleeper, the front and door kick panels on both the passenger and driver sides. Removing all the paper revealed the original reason for its existence: frigid winter air whistled through the gaps in the aging cab, twisted and no longer airtight. Raising and lowering the cabover confirmed it didn't settle into the saddles without leverage. An underpowered 2-stroke 6-V Silver 92 Detroit combined with a heater that was no match for a winter in the Midwest and Northeast. That the truck topped out at 62 miles an hour guaranteed I would never make good enough time to grab more than 4-5 hours sleep. The rubber was a medley of rags and radials of varying outside diameters, featuring the spectrum of brands available for split-rims and most near their legal wear limit which cost me the precious little sleep available as I was blowing tires and caps regularly.

Since my first truck had taught me that axles out of alignment quickly ruined tires, I was up on rubber specs. Around the fourth or fifth tire I reported blown, I got a frustrated complaint about “the new set of matched tires” and the suspicion that I was trying to pull a fast one on the boss. That was my second clue something was amiss. First was a dispatcher turning the truck around within 12 miles of the office, preventing me from picking up a paycheck.

On a long trip from Los Angeles to Wyoming, empty per dispatch, the Jimmy failed to work hard enough in the -40 degree weather conditions throughout the Rockies to generate enough heat to keep frost from forming inside, compelling me to scrape the inside of the windshield frequently. Windchill factors plummeted to around -70, cars grew scarce and truckers gelled at the pump as they fueled. Running a 50/50 mix of antifreeze to water, tripling the usual dose of Power Service and adding it prior to fueling kept me on the road long after even the State Patrol in Idaho disappeared.

Buttoning up the winter-front didn't keep the radiator from overheating, the contents a green Slurpee consistency surrounding the clutch fan silhouette. Limping into an indie shop outside Pocatello, I luxuriated in the warmth of the tiny office while the radiator thawed and the truck dropped filthy icicles onto the garage floor. I left the owner/mechanic behind his closed door to break the news to my boss and get authorization for repairs. Within a few minutes, the mechanic was gesturing for me to return, holding a finger to his lips as he quietly opened the door for me, indicating I should listen to the call on speakerphone. He re-framed his question: “Do you mean, is this overheating due to driver neglect?” he asked aloud.

That's what I asked,” replied the disembodied voice, 2300 miles distant.

Listen,” replied the mechanic, looking right into my eyes and shaking his head, “It's 40-below out here, the windchill puts it around 70-below. Even fire trucks and ambulances aren't running. Nothing has moved for hours. The driver didn't do anything wrong. Frankly I'm amazed your driver got this far in these conditions. It's just freezing!”

To which the far-away voice pleaded:”Can't you pin it on the driver somehow?”

The rest of that conversation was moot. The mechanic ventured his opinion. “It's none of my business,” he exclaimed, “but you need a new boss!”

I holed up in a tiny ancient motel, turned the heat up, drained the hot water tank in the shower and caught up on some badly needed sleep.

Back on the road, I consulted my fellow truck drivers via CB radio for my best case scenario to escape this job without stranding myself in the wilderness – in other words, how to drive to my next job. One recommended I hold onto whatever paperwork I still retained in exchange for my over-due pay.

No dice. Either the previous driver was creative enough to sell his matched set of new tires and wheels (as if anyone would spend good money on that wreck of a truck) to recoup some of his losses, or they never existed. The truck died in Fort Smith Arkansas a day or so following my ultimatum to pay up or else, saving me headache over the broker calling the authorities on me as a truck thief.

They probably hadn't paid a driver in eons.  

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

03.13.2013 Narrating A Life Written On The Road: Jigsaw Puzzler

Why Aren't You Writing?
03.13.2013 Narrating A Life Written On The Road: Jigsaw Puzzler

Having never been further than a few hundred miles from home before I took up truck-driving, my experience with cultural and social mores outside of my narrow world was abbreviated, to say the least. Like many of my colleagues, I was a sexual intellectual – a f***ing know-it-all. Despite my ninth-grade education I read voraciously, quickly picked up skills as needed, evidence of my brilliant mind. From my lofty pinnacle of wisdom I looked down on lesser mortals with all the arrogance of the truly ignorant.

Although the dawning awareness that wisdom was not confined to books developed slowly, there were incidents in my life that completely flummoxed me. One in particular remains vivid in my memory. And all these years later, I'm uncertain whether these folks actually knew better and were having a good laugh at my expense, or really believed what they told me.

I was invited to a family gathering, either a holiday, birthday or some such get-together at a homestead somewhere in the Midwest. The dining room table was covered in homemade foods, a rare treat. Various relatives were introduced, whose faces, names and relationships I promptly forgot, as I noshed on delicacies handed down through generations of European immigrants. Furnishings that probably arrived by Conestoga wagons – the original ones – filled the house, which was also several generations old. China, silver, quilts, doilies, a treasure trove of heirlooms.

Few modern pieces intruded on the museum quality of the place, and a small folding table erected in a corner caught my eye. Smaller than a card table, larger than a TV tray table, it held jigsaw puzzle pieces. A partial outline of 2 sides had been started, lots of loose pieces in the center with the box upright against the wall to display the resulting picture. Anyone was welcome to contribute to the 500-piece project.

Except that there were nowhere near 500 pieces on that tiny table.

When I asked where the rest of the pieces were, the answer left me speechless:

Oh, we didn't have room for all of them, so we only put out half at a time.”