I was in my dad’s truck when we got stuck while making a delivery on a narrow cobblestone street in Boston — so stuck the street had to be closed for him to back out. On our way to Boston, as we drove on Interstate 95, he rolled his window down and screamed at a car beside us, “My daughter’s in the car, you XXX…” I will leave what the man was doing up to your imagination. Still, if he had not called it out, I would not have had seen it, leaving me sitting awkwardly with my dad. He’s always been blunt, unfiltered, and slightly attention-seeking.
I was on college break the winter of my sophomore year when I went on that road trip with him. I remember sleeping in the back of the cabin, where there was a twin-size bed with an airplane quality pillow, a comfortably worn blanket, and a small refrigerator. He took pride in his truck: It was meticulously organized, spotless, and decorated as if it were his home, which, essentially, it was.
I noticed a collection of pens in a ziplock bag in the front of the truck. I never knew he had an affinity for pens. As a devoted “journal-er,” I appreciated how certain pens would glide across the paper more easily than others, and apparently, he did too. He wrote mostly in his logbook — a book that tracks the hours you spend on the road, so you aren’t cited when inspected at a weigh station. He told me he always had to fudge the numbers because there were high expectations and sometimes the only way to make it to your location on time was to drive through the night.
In the glove compartment sat a loaded gun: Truckers sleep at truck stops and can be easy targets for robberies, he told me. That, and he often spoke of suicide.
He showered at truck stops, purchased necessities (and gag gifts), and ate meals there. At the beginning of his trucking career (this time around), he had a difficult life with little meaning. Having lost every piece of his former life, I understood why he felt he had little to live for. He had profound resiliency; he eventually rebuilt a life and rekindled his love for his first profession: Being out on the open road…and boy did he have stories. My favorite was when he came across a litter of puppies in a cardboard box in the bed of a pickup truck in a Walmart parking lot. The owner was trying to give them away to whoever would take them. To make sure they found good homes, he took every one of them.
We weren’t particularly close. I suspect he had undiagnosed bipolar disorder. Growing up, he did things I thought I could never forgive. Still, I loved him because, as a sensitive child — and adult — I empathized with the anguish he lived with and when he apologized for his moments of rage that left him unrecognizable to himself. He had a good heart — a really good one — and that’s what my tunnel vision focused on. As he aged, he became estranged from most family and friends: From his earlier days as a successful restauranteur, spending exorbitant amounts of money, having friends in all kinds of high places, taking investments from people that he didn’t pay back for projects that never panned out…he eventually lost everything and resorted to living in a truck — pretty resourceful, really. It was classic riches to rags story…which, ironically, started as rags to riches.
I saw him every few years. He would stop at my apartment for a few hours while passing through Baltimore. As soon as he would sit down on my couch, he would fall asleep; he looked permanently exhausted. We spoke often — I religiously called him at 5 AM every morning when I walked my dog. I could always count on him being awake. Even though he was thousands of miles away, talking to him made me feel safer walking the dark, silent streets at that hour. He was either up or down during those conversations. Most calls were superficial talk, others trying to convince him of reasons to live. He eventually met a woman and had a home to go to on one of his rare days off. When they first met, he asked me to give a flower shop my credit card number so he could send her flowers. I’ll never forget how heartbreaking this was from a man who once had everything and made sure I did too.
His personality was contagious and made him known wherever he landed. He made the best of his job — no matter what he did, he gave 110%. He developed friendships with fellow truck drivers connecting through his CB and Road Dog Trucking, a SiriusXM station. He quickly gained popularity, and because of his witty comments, he was invited to be a guest on the show. His road name was “Hebrew Hammer,” and he told the story of his life — from being a child of Holocaust survivors, immigrating to the U.S. at age 10, and going straight to trucking out of high school before he became wildly successful in the restaurant business — and then his decision to return to trucking to see the country. The truth of whatever he said always fell somewhere in the middle.
Fast forward to the present time. I sat at the light contemplating following the truck into the nursery to thank the driver for his service. My grief was arriving at an unexpected time; I hadn’t thought about him or that trip in years. I sat for enough time to equally go back and forth with it, but in a split second I had when the light turned green, I drove straight. The truck took many turns to get to a back alley where it was delivering, and I felt like a trespasser in a likely prohibited area. I sat in my car for a few minutes, not sure if I should get out or drive away. I watched the driver, and his partner, unlock and swing open the tall, heavy back doors. I couldn’t help but picture my dad opening the same doors and collapsing to the ground. After driving through a snowstorm and arriving on Long Island to deliver produce, he had a heart attack while opening those doors. He died instantly and alone. While tragic, I took solace in it being a peaceful way to end the life that weighed so heavily on him.
I saw employees helping to unload the never-ending stacks of boxes. Ugh…I didn’t expect that; I assumed it would just be the driver who would be present for this private encounter. I stepped out of my car and walked toward the truck. An employee with a concerned look on her face stopped me. “Can I help you?”
“I just wanted to thank the driver for his service.”
She glared at me the way she would look at a mentally ill person screaming down the street. But she didn’t send me away.
There were 2 men inside the trailer. I stood outside the doors and said, “I just wanted to thank you for your service. I saw the tough turn you had to make, and it reminded me of my dad, who was a truck driver. I know how hard you work. He died on the job, and seeing you brought back warm memories.”
One of the men pointed to his colleague who stood next to him and said, “It was all this guy; he’s the driver.” The driver placed his hand on his heart, bowed, and thanked me, looking truly touched. I smiled and hurried back to my car before the suspicious employee returned.
I took a detour to arrive at this piece's message: Truck driving is hard. Really hard. And I don't think the average person knows that. Truckers make our world function by delivering food to grocery stores, clothing to retail stores, our online orders, vehicles to dealerships, building materials for home improvement (and in my encounter plants to nurseries), and much more — often through sleepless nights because of traffic or weather delaying their timeline, and separated from their family for weeks at a time.
My PSA: Next time you see a truck on the road, think about letting them in as they struggle to merge lanes. Imagine how hard that is in an 80-foot vehicle compared to the average car length of 14 feet.
Every time I let a truck in, I think of him.
…And when he died, I got all of the pens.