Have you ever thought of what a truck driver goes through to get your Amazon package (etc.) to you?


DRIVER_IN_THE_CAB_OF_A_LARGE_CATTLE_TRUCK_IN_COTTONWOOD_FALLS,_KANSAS,_NEAR_EMPORIA._SUCH_VEHICLES_AND_HORSES_ARE_THE..._-_NARA_-_557044.tifI’d like to share part of a fascinating article (thanks to Drew Cleveland of the Kern Family Foundation for bringing this to my attention) on the special “body knowledge” and skills required of the long-haul truck driver. It’s called “Dignity and the Professionalized Body: Truck Driving in the Age of Instant Gratification” and is by Benjamin H. Snyder. I find it eye-opening, compelling, even moving. It is an excellent specimen of the journalistic species of the “creative nonfiction” genus.

The article sure made me stop and think of the ease with which I hit that “order” button in Amazon.com. I sure don’t think about what the truck driver will quite possibly go through to get that package to me, or indeed the indignities he will suffer as he does so. Here’s a taste of the article, which is from UVA‘s Hedgehog Review. For the whole thing, go here.

3:32 a.m. Over the last hour and a half, we have stopped at three more truck stops and one rest area. They have all been completely full. We pull into another truck stop—a fifth attempt at parking tonight. Yet again, it is full. Alvaro tries to remain optimistic. He turns to me with a wry smile and says, “looks like we’re going to Little Rock, man!” The chances are slim that there will be any parking between here and Little Rock (another 120 miles away). So, Alvaro decides to push on to a bigger city where there will be more parking. Plus, he informs me, by that time spots will begin to open up as other drivers start their shifts.

Alvaro pulls back onto the highway. My head is bobbing up and down as we drive. I can barely keep my eyes open for more than a few minutes at a time. Alvaro keeps complaining that his eyes are burning. “That’s how I know when I’m at my limit. But, we don’t really have a choice [to stop] at this point.” I look over at Alvaro periodically. I never see him doze off, but he eventually positions himself so that his right elbow is resting on the steering wheel, allowing him to prop his head up with his right hand and steer with his left hand. I assume this keeps his head from bobbing up and down. He rolls down the window and lets the cold autumn air stream into the cab. The chill is bracing and forces our eyelids open. Every now and then the truck veers slightly, but Alvaro keeps it going remarkably straight. At some point (I do not record the time in my field notes) Alvaro pulls into a gas station. He gets out and starts walking around the truck. He hops back in after a few minutes and says, “now I’m just working with my body. Sometimes you just gotta get out, take a walk around, breathe some fresh air. You gotta get the blood pumping again.” We drive on.

5:08 a.m. Dawn approaches. We finally pull into a small truck stop on the outskirts of Little Rock. Alvaro does a lap around the lot, and at first, I get the sinking feeling that we are again out of luck. But then we see one spot in the corner of the lot. It is a tiny spot, and Alvaro pauses in front of it. “I don’t know if I can do this right now, man,” he says. He eases the truck into position and starts to back in slowly just inches from the two trucks on either side of us. The angle is a little off, so he pulls out and repositions himself for a second attempt. Success! Despite having just driven 5 hours in the middle of the night on 2 hours of sleep, Alvaro has managed to safely maneuver his 52-foot trailer into the tiniest of spaces without a scratch. He shuts off the engine, crawls into the sleeper berth, and throws on his CPAP. I follow closely behind, climbing into the top bunk. We fall asleep in seconds knowing that, despite the risky drive tonight, we are now well positioned to get this load of frozen chicken to Virginia right on time.

Indignity

My experience with Alvaro showed me in very concrete terms what I had already learned intellectually through dozens of interviews: truck drivers live syncopated lives, rushing in the off beats of everyone else’s daily rhythms in order to deliver goods to American consumers when and where they want them. Our national desire for instant gratification is built on the material substrate of truckers’ bodies. On this particular night—a more extreme instance of similar nights I spent on the road—multiple temporal patterns conspired to create a risky driving scenario that Alvaro was forced to negotiate using his body. By carefully timing his sleep, by skillfully propping his head up while driving, by knowing when to open the window or step out of the truck to “get [his] blood pumping,” Alvaro demonstrated a professional knowledge of his body’s capacity for attention, fatigue, and alertness. Through these manipulations, a late load, held back by the unpredictable hiccups of the logistics system, was converted into an on-time load, thus allowing American consumers to eat chicken, for another day.

Unfortunately, despite providing this essential service to the economy, many drivers I spoke to talked of a pervasive sense that the sacrifices they make each day for the job go mostly unrecognized. Their perception is that most Americans see them not as the “backbone of the economy,” but as “just some dumb trucker” whose job is so simple, so mindless, that anyone could do it. This message comes from a variety of sources but is conveyed most clearly by two parties: the FMCSA and shipping and receiving facilities.

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