Something Gets in Your Blood

Nancy and I were in New York staying at a hotel on 51st Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues. The locale happened to coincide with the loading entrance to the Radio City Music Hall. On the street was a convoy of 18-wheelers, there to unload the Cirque du Soleil's latest extravaganza, Zarkana. Just outside my hotel entrance was one of the rigs, its owner/operator, Terry Martin, sitting at the passenger-side window surfing the internet. One thing led to another. Soon I was sitting ten feet off the ground behind the steering wheel. Terry was next to me and behind us, in a two-bunk space that she told us was smaller than a prison cell was Terry's wife, Gaye, talking to Nancy.

Terry and Gaye had been on 51st Street for five days, waiting to unload. Their rig was just one of 45 look alike monsters come to the cholesterol-clogged arteries of New York to wait along with Terry. What was taking so long? The answer can be given in the form of a joke: How many unions does it take to unload an 18-wheeler?

The power unit was a bright, shiny fire engine red that, just as reliably as Proust's madeleine, took me straight back to my childhood and the toy matchbox semi I got for Christmas. This rig was no toy. It was a 2001 Kenworth W900L that Terry bought used in 2005 when it had 581,000 miles and four previous owners on it. When I sat behind the steering wheel, the odometer would have read north of 1.3 million miles if it could go up that high. The dashboard looked as complicated as a 747. The driver seat was up so high that a normal car in front was invisible beneath the horizon of the hood.

"If you aren't careful, you can run right over top of it," Terry said.

Terry is on the road 300 days out of the year.

"That's a lot of driving for one man," I said.

"Oh, it's not just me," he said flicking his head toward the Studio Sleeper behind him. "Gaye drives, too. We pretty much divvy up."

That blew me away. I was pining to drive an 18-wheeler at least once in my life, if only from my back door to the end of the driveway, and here was a couple who live in a power unit ten months a year.

Terry says he does all the work on the unit himself. The only problem is that he can't stay home long enough to finish it. (Home is Henryetta, Oklahoma.) He just installed a brand new generator but ran out of time to hook it up.

"Why don't you use some of this hurry-up-and-wait time?" I asked.

"Can't," he said. "You have to be ready at the drop of a hat to move on up to the dock when they call you."

"That means you both can't leave the rig together."


It was Gaye who told us the sleeping quarters were smaller than a prison cell. The comparison didn't stop there.

Terry taught himself to drive. It was back before there were schools for such things. He said the best teacher was a Detroit power unit. If you made a mistake, the machine bit you. Truck drivers had a saying, "The best teacher was getting your thumb caught in the door."

When Terry bought the power unit in 2005, he paid $65,000 for it. Back then, at the beginning of the financial meltdown, he said 80,000 owner/operators went out of business. The used truck lots were filled with acres and acres of units like his. Four other guys had bid on his but couldn't follow through. Terry was able to nail it down.

Thirty-five blocks south was the financial district where the meltdown started. Here was a guy who told me he lived from pay check to pay check while a mile away CEO’s were being paid millions for doing a lousy job. As Ecclesiastes says, "The race is not to the swiftest."

Nancy and I have made friends with Terry and Gaye. But it is a new kind of friendship. They are never home long enough for a visit and there's no room for guests in the prison cell behind the wheel. Still, Terry has given me a website I can go to that will track his whereabouts 24 hours a day.

When the Cirque du Soleil comes to Boston, we'll pack a lunch and take it out to him and Gaye. We'll have a picnic while we're waiting for his number to come up.

"This is a tough life," I said to him. "Why do you do it?"

"Something gets in your blood," was his answer.



The company Terry works for is Clark Transfer. They specialize in moving shows around the country; hence, their motto, "Get the Show on the Road." The current owner of the company, Matthew Molitch, is the son of "Whitey" Molitch who, along with Jim Clark, started the company back in the 1920's. Clark was an Irishman; Molitch, a Jew from Odessa. If I read the company bio right, Whitey was born in Odessa in 1904. That was one year after my own mother was born in the same town. It was one year before the pogrom that drove my mother's family (and probably the Molitch's) out of Russia. How can such big trucks function in such a small world?